What exactly is a Drug?


A drug is something which changes the way you think, feel, or act. Many drugs are developed for medical purposes but are misused by individuals for their own purposes – to ‘get high’ or to blot out emotional pain – or to feel ‘weird’ (as happens with hallucinogenic drugs like cannabis or LSD). Most  drugs used by misusers act on the mind – what is called ‘psychoactive’ whilst some others act on the body, or both – (such as ‘performance-enhancing drugs’). Relatively few of the drugs of misuse are legal – for example alcohol, tobacco, over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol.


Definition of ‘Drug Misuse’? – The use, in order to get high, of any illegal substance, or the inappropriate use of any legal substance.


If you want a simplified set of reasons as to why people misuse drugs, try this one group:


Curiosity     Boredom     Peer Pressure     Escape     and, of course,     Pleasure.


Curiosity and boredom are easy enough to understand as reasons for trying drugs, and you can also understand pressure from friends pushing someone into trying a drug. But escape and pleasure need thinking about … if you aren’t enjoying life, or you are worried about what the future holds, you may find that drugs help you escape for a while – or it may simply be that you find drugs give you a boost of pleasure. (What this shows you is that the reason you start using drugs is not necessarily the reason why you carry on using them).


Whether escape or pleasure is driving you, the tendency is to repeat the use, and with that you are heading down the road towards addiction. And you should be aware that if you come from a family which in the past has had relatives who have had alcohol or other drug problems, your chances of developing problems yourself are that much higher than in families where this is not the case.


Can you give me some examples?


Most people, when asked to name a drug of misuse, will say ‘heroin’ or ‘cocaine’ or ‘cannabis’. They don’t usually start by saying ‘alcohol’ or ‘tobacco’ – even though these are just as much drugs as the other ones, and are in fact the most-used drugs of all.


It used to be the case that you could count on one hand the drugs that people misuse … probably the five drugs mentioned in the above paragraph. But these days the list is endless, and growing all the time. For example, in the Sunday Times for 17 August 2014, there were three major articles. One described the growth of ‘legal highs’ … for example ‘meow meow’, ‘AMT’ AAND ‘Burst’ … which the Times predict are ‘set to kill more than heroin’. Another article told of a promising young cello soloist who had found she needed to use alcohol, Valium and beta-blockers to be calm enough to perform adequately, whilst the third article mourned the death of actor/comedian Robin Williams, a long-term misuser of a whole variety of drugs, with alcohol and cocaine on the top of his ‘chemical’ list – but which also strongly featured cyber gaming as another compulsive behaviour, which you can see has some similarities with drugs.


It seems as if the drug sellers and the buyers have changed their attitude … they care less about what the drug is than what it does, and today’s choice of drug is whatever is available … they are becoming ‘poly-users’. In addition, if someone has discovered a new drug that does good things for them, they are likely to write about it on the Web, spreading the word of their pleasure to thousands of others … so it is that novice users will be encouraged to try ‘something new’ … perhaps with damaging or even fatal consequences.


Can you give me a list of common drugs?


As we said earlier, the list is growing day-by-day, but this list should be a useful start for you:



Alcohol.               This is the drug used by most adolescents, but usually in a different way to most adults. Alcohol has a property different to all the other drugs in this list – that is, you can either consume a little as a beverage (on its own or with a meal, for example) or you can consume a lot, using it as a drug. You are unlikely to get much psychoactive effect if you are having just one glass (although some people are more sensitive to this) – but that is not the objective of the majority of young drinkers; the whole idea is to get ‘wasted’ … ‘blotto’ … drunk. Alcohol is of course a major industry, but is also a major source of deaths – around 40,000 people a year die, meanwhile industry suffers losses around £2 billion a year.


Some more detailed statistics can be obtained from America:


“There are approximately 88,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States. This makes excessive alcohol use the 3rd leading lifestyle-related cause of death for the nation. Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) annually, or an average of about 30 years of potential life lost for each death. In 2006, there were more than 1.2 million emergency room visits and 2.7 million physician office visits due to excessive drinking. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2006 were estimated at $223.5 billion”.


Tobacco.             Many people excuse their smoking by saying ‘This isn’t a drug, and I’m not addicted’ – but the truth is, simply, yes it is a drug, and yes, you are probably addicted. Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs, and though people may claim that they just smoke for pleasure, it can be seen that what they are experiencing when they light up another one is not positive pleasure, it is relief from the discomfort they get when they are not smoking. This is the classic progression from casual use into addicted use, as with all drugs. A serious fact overlooked by most people is that tobacco smokers are more likely to use illegal drugs than are non-smokers. Having been around in our society for hundreds of years, tobacco was accepted by smokers and non-smokers alike as just part of everyday life, and information on health damage was either ignored by smokers (‘It’ll be someone else, not me’) or by non-smokers (That’s their decision, their look-out).


The big change came when research revealed that non-smokers were breathing in the smokers fumes (passive smoking), and as a result were developing cancer themselves. Overnight, the attitude to smoking changed; offices and public buildings banned smoking, smokers were to be seen huddling pathetically in building doorways, regulations were drafted to punish smokers, and the media started publishing negative news about tobacco. Tobacco wasn’t so cool any more, and the number of smokers dropped significantly.


Cannabis.            Some estimate cannabis users in UK at around 3 million – it sounds a lot, but this also means that some 55 million in the UK are not cannabis users. This drug gets more media coverage than any other drug, and for years now there has been a heavily-financed campaign (with billionaires of the calibre of George Soros) to legalise it. (This campaign is currently having some success in a few states in America, but the reality of making cannabis more freely available is only just starting to wake people up, and some backlash looks likely).


The whole argument around legalising cannabis covers acres of paper and hours of screen time … perhaps the simplest information for a parent to take on board is that cannabis is a drug, you can get hooked on using it, it can make you more likely to use harder drugs, and it can seriously damage your health. Of course, the more recent development of stronger grades (such as ‘skunk’) means that damage will be more severe. What benefits of use are there?  – Try reading the top paragraph of these notes, and the five reasons why people use any drug … that should help you put the incentives to use in perspective. (And if you want to dig deeper into this jungle of argument, you can look into our ‘professionals website’ entitled www.drugprevent.org.uk – in particular the sections entitled ‘Cannabis Info’, ‘Research’, and ‘Global Drug Legalisation Efforts’).


Amphetamines.                Commonly known as ‘speed’. This used to be much more common, but as other drugs such as Ecstasy and Ketamine came onto the market, use of speed diminished. Paranoia is a common effect from amphetamine use.


LSD (Acid).                        Extremely powerful, and can bite you more than once – in an effect known as ‘flashback’ you can suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself stoned again, days later. This fearsome effect has been known to provoke suicides. There are no known recorded deaths from LSD, but it has been known to make latent schizophrenia tip into the full-blown illness.


Ecstasy.               The drug that is synonymous with the dance club scene. It has similar negative effects to amphetamine.


Heroin.                The classic ‘naughty’ drug. The medical profession puts large resources into treating it, but not always with ‘recovery’ in mind – which has prompted some severe criticism. The core of the dispute has been the tendency to give heroin addicts a substitute drug called ‘methadone’ – but this drug is also an ‘opiate’ – in some years it has killed more people than heroin, and it is not curing anything ,it just maintains the addicted condition. Recent years have seen fierce debate on this, and a good portion of the field has now switched to a ‘recovery-’focused’ approach.


Cocaine.               This used to be regarded as the ‘rich man’s drug’ – which it is, but the market came up with something called ‘crack’ which has brought the cocaine feeling within the reach of many. Unfortunately, crack produces a rapid high followed by a rapid and deep low, which tends to prompt second and further use, with addiction close behind.


Solvents.              Otherwise known as ‘glue sniffing’. Not as common as it used to be, but it still causes deaths, some of them called ‘SSDs – Sudden Sniffing Deaths’ – which shows how shockingly quick they can be. Death is not the only consequence; long term use can bring on brain damage. Substances other than glue are sniffed, most notably butane. A further group of inhalants are known as ‘poppers’. Another sniffable substance which has become fashionable this year is what used to be called ‘Laughing Gas’ – otherwise known as nitrous oxide.


What are some less common drugs?


There are so many drugs on the scene that we could fill up several pages with the answer to this question, but here are just a few examples:


Methaqualone (Mandrax, Quaaludes) are described as a ‘sedative-hypnotic’ drug; such drugs settle you down – sometimes too far down. ‘Roofies’ (Rohypnol) and GHB are both known as ‘rape drugs, used to intoxicate rape victims. Ketamine, originally a horse tranquilliser, has become a common drug in the dance club scene. ‘Ice’ is a crystalline, smokeable form of metamphetamine. Barbiturates are not seen so much these days, perhaps because they are very risky to use – the overdose level is only slightly above the medical dose level.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs are used to make you feel like training harder – one example is steroids … side-effects of using them include ‘roid rage’, uncontrolled outbursts of anger and perhaps violence. And as a final indicator of just how whacky drug misuse can be, we offer ‘Toad licking’; this involves ‘Colorado River toads’ in America, or ‘Cane Toads’ in Australia, which exude toxic fluids when they are frightened … the dedicated toad licker will pick up a toad and stroke it under the chin until the fluid emerges; they can lick it and get high from it.


Keep reading your daily newspapers and you will soon outstrip this indicative list of ‘stuff to get you high’ – happy reading, perhaps!


What is addiction?


Not everybody becomes addicted to the drugs they use … perhaps they only use occasionally, or perhaps they are fortunate in being more resistant to addiction (no family precedents, for example). But addiction is a serious matter, once developed, and is extremely difficult to shake off. Summarising a simple description of addiction, it goes something like this:


  1. Discover a drug.
  2. Use it a bit and enjoy the ‘high’ it gives you.
  3. Find that the drug blocks out life problems.
  4. Use it more frequently.
  5. Feel a bit ‘down’ when not using it.
  6. Use it more often to feel ‘normal’.
  7. Rely on it to block out ‘lows’.


There are more complicated ways of becoming addicted, but the above sequence is near enough.


If Prevention is Better than Cure, how do you ‘do’ it?


It is true that Prevention is the ‘Cinderella’ member of drug services, and is relatively little understood. Many people suggest that education is all you need … give kids the facts and they’ll stop, just like that. If that sounds silly, it is because it is. Information and education is definitely an important part of prevention, but a lot more needs to be done. Look at our description of how tobacco use has been shrunk in England (see section headed ‘Tobacco above) and you begin to see how wide-ranging prevention has to be.


It involves getting the information out to readers and viewers in a way that wakes them up and motivates them to do something about it; then specialists have to make their influential statements; laws and regulations have to make using a substance uncomfortable or even illegal; attitudes have to be changed – a slow process, and behaviour has to be addressed – not just ‘bad’ behaviour but ‘good’ behaviour too  – schemes have to be set up which reward people who are complying with the new desired behavioural norms. More than this, the whole strategy has to meld into changing the culture around the behaviour, so that it is no longer ‘cool’ to behave in this way. You can see all this in the ‘tobacco story’ in recent years.


What can be done about reacting to drug use?


You could consider this under two broad headings:

  1. What can professionals and other specialists do about drugs? And
  2. What can ‘ordinary’ people – including parents – do about drugs?


  1. Professionals and specialists:


First, be aware and understand. Study the literature and media, and repeat regularly, as the situation is always changing. Second, get into contact with the users, establish a bond, listen to them, and establish their needs. Third, discuss what users might do to help themselves. Fourthly discuss what you might do to help them. Not all users are addicts; many will be only part way along that road, so the action they and you should be tailored to their particular reality.


The first stage of recovery, once the user has committed to this path, is to get the user into rational assessment of their situation, and explore how they might deal with this. This may involve sessions with professionals, counsellors and medics … sometimes this can be all that a user needs to straighten themselves out – the recognition that someone else does care about them. Beyond this, there may be a need for physiological and psychiatric professionals to get involved. This may either as ‘out patients’ or in a residential treatment unit. Sometimes these may require attention to psychiatric and physical health issues at the same time – what is known as ‘dual diagnosis treatment’.


After this (or instead of it) there is the possibility of residential ‘rehabilitation’ units – many of these are run by lay communities who have to raise their own funds. As well as residential units, there are many non-residential ‘self-help’ units, such as AA – Alcoholics Anonymous or NA – Narcotics Anonymous for the user, and NA – Narcotics Anonymous for relatives of the user, and other interested persons around the user.


  1. Parents and other ‘ordinary’ people:


Parents are not ‘ordinary’ – they are extraordinary, and even the professionals acknowledge that parents probably exert more influence than anybody else on the behaviour of young people. But most parents are overawed by the subject of drugs, and they are almost glad to leave this difficult subject to someone else … anyone else, in fact.


What are parents best at? One could be forgiven for thinking we are about to be overwhelmed by this flood of drugs, but we suggest you keep your mind on the central issues. The variety of drugs is less important for you as a parent than the fact that your child may (or may not) be using something – leave the fine detail of different drugs to the medics, and concentrate on your child’s behaviour … what behaviour, and why.


Knowledge is power, of course, so it makes sense for you the parent to bone up on the subject – just don’t be obsessive about it, just take on board enough to make informed judgements. And one aspect requires you to keep alert – that is, there are any number of interest and lobby groups who, for whatever reason, want to make access to drugs easier and less punishable … in this jungle you the parent need to be alert and alive to ‘elephant traps’ that inappropriate groups have dug in your way.


As a pattern of how to parent effectively on this subject, the following is a useful model, developed by Bill Oliver, a parent who tackled the whole problem head on, to save his daughter:


P –         Put yourself in the way; don’t leave your kids to make their own decisions.

A –         Awareness is your best friend; wake up and watch/listen.

R –         Remember, teens are not children or adults, they need specific attention.

E –          Expect good behaviour, help it happen, and reward it.

N –         Notice feelings (theirs and yours); address them, don’t ignore them.

T –          Take care of yourself, so you are better ready to help your family.


And here are a few more ‘golden nuggets’ which parents over the years have developed:


  • Too strict or too lax parenting tends to bring out the worst
  • Have clear boundaries of behaviour, and clear consequences – in advance.
  • Make any consequence relate to the behaviour – more is learnt this way.
  • Share your feelings and beliefs with your kids – explain why you have these.
  • If a real talk is needed, plan it. Don’t stand and lecture – sit and talk.
  • When in a talk, listen 75% and talk 25%.
  • Use newspaper and TV stories as a ‘prop’ for you talk.
  • Always say ‘We love you, but not your behaviour. Never punish by saying ‘I don’t like you’
  • Always give them a route to better behaviour, and reward it when they improve.
  • Attitude (dress, décor, music, language is a solid indicator of future behaviour – be alive to it.
  • You do not need to be an expert in a subject to have a sound opinion about it.
  • Teach yourself and your kids how to communicate, how to plan actions, and how to cope with others’ actions
  • Support any positive projects your kids initiate – even though you’re busy. Motivate and validate their ideas.


It is no surprise to hear that the majority of parents, all over the world, want the best for their children. They want them to grow up healthy and happy. They want them to achieve their best potential. They want them to become contributive, well-adjusted and responsible members of society – and in due course to become nurturing parents of their own children. One of the best means of achieving all this is that they avoid drug misuse.