There are three main types of drug, classified according to the effect the drug has on the central nervous system: depressant, stimulant and hallucinogen.
Depressant drugs don’t necessarily make a person feel depressed. They slow down the functions of the central nervous system. In small quantities they can cause the person to feel more relaxed and less inhibited. In larger quantities they may cause unconsciousness, vomiting and, in some cases, death. Depressants affect a person’s concentration and co-ordination.
They slow down a person’s ability to respond to unexpected situations. Depressant drugs include:
- Alcohol, or ‘booze’, ‘grog’
- Barbiturates, including Seconal, Tuinal and Amytal
- Benzodiazepines (minor tranquillisers), or ‘benzos’,’tranx’, with brand names such as Rohypnol, Valium, Serepax, Mogadon, Normison and Euhypnos
- Cannabis, or ‘pot’, ‘mull’, ‘dope’
- GHB (Gamma-hydroxybutyrate), or ‘GBH’, ‘fantasy’
- Opiates and opioids, including heroin, or ‘H’, ‘smack’, and morphine, codeine, methadone and pethidine
- Some solvents and inhalants, or glue, ‘chroming’. Many inhalants are common household products.
Stimulants act on the central nervous system to speed up the messages going to and from the brain. Stimulants can make a person feel more awake, alert or confident. Stimulants increase the heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. Other physical effects include reduced appetite, dilated pupils, talkativeness, agitation and sleep disturbance.
Large quantities of stimulants can ‘over-stimulate’ the user, causing anxiety, panic, seizures, headaches, stomach cramps, aggression and paranoia.
Prolonged or sustained use of strong stimulants can also cause these effects. Strong stimulants can mask some of the effects of depressant drugs, such as alcohol, making it difficult for a person to judge exactly what effects the drugs are having on him or her.
Mild stimulants include:
- Caffeine in coffee, tea and cola drinks
- Ephedrine used in medicines for bronchitis, hay fever and asthma
- Nicotine in tobacco is also a stimulant, despite many smokers using it to relax.
Stronger stimulants include:
- Amphetamines, including illegal amphetamines, or ‘speed’, ‘crystal meth’, ‘ice’, ‘shabu’
- Cocaine, or ‘coke’, ‘crack’
- Ecstasy, or ‘E’, ‘XTC’
- Slimming tablets such as Duromine, Tenuate Dospan.
Hallucinogens affect a person’s perception. Someone taking them may see or hear things that aren’t really there, or what he or she sees may be distorted in some way. The effects of hallucinogens vary greatly. It is impossible to predict how they will affect a particular person at a particular time.
Other effects of hallucinogenic drugs include dilation of pupils, loss of appetite, increased activity, talking or laughing, a sense of emotional and psychological euphoria and wellbeing, jaw clenching, sweating, panic, paranoia, loss of contact with reality, irrational or bizarre behaviour, stomach cramps and nausea.
- Ketamine, or ‘K’ , ‘Special K’
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), or ‘trips’, ‘acid’, ‘microdots’
- Magic mushrooms (psilocybin), or ‘gold tops’, ‘mushies’
- Mescaline (peyote cactus)
- PCP, or ‘angel dust’ (phencyclidine).
Cannabis is a depressant as well as a hallucinogen.
Ecstasy can also have hallucinogenic qualities.
As well as the effect the drug has on the central nervous system (depressant, stimulant, hallucinogen), there are a number of factors that will determine how a particular drug will affect an individual, including:
How much of the drug is used
Generally, if a large amount of a drug is used, there will be strong effects. A lesser amount taken will cause weaker effects. Overdose occurs when too much of the drug is taken and the user’s body cannot cope.
How the drug is used or administered
Generally, drugs that are injected or inhaled act very quickly and the effects are intense. Snorting through the nose is the next fastest-acting method of administration, while the effects of drugs eaten or swallowed take longer to occur.
The height, weight and sex of the user also influence drug effects. The proportion of body fat, rate of metabolism, and the menstrual cycle can all affect the intensity and duration of drug effects.
Mood and environment
How a person is feeling can have a significant impact on the effects of drugs, as can the social setting of drug use. For example, a person is more likely to have a negative experience if he or she uses a drug in a threatening environment.
Tolerance to the substance
The first time a person uses a drug, he or she will have a very low tolerance to it and usually will feel the effects very strongly. The more often the drug is used, generally the less intense the effects will be. This results in a user needing to take larger amounts in order to obtain the desired effect.
Polydrug use (using more than one drug)
Often people who use drugs have one preferred drug, but they may use other drugs to increase or reduce the effects of their preferred one. They may also substitute other drugs. However, combining drugs can increase or alter the usual effects, often in unpredictable ways.
What concerns the community most about the harm caused by drugs is the death toll.
Drug use is a factor in about one in five of all deaths in Australia.
A common concern is that if a person uses drugs he or she will become dependent on them and become a ‘drug addict’.
People often hear alarming stories that give the impression that illegal drugs are instantly addictive and are the drugs that cause the most harm.
While many deaths are caused by illicit drugs, in Australian society most drug-related deaths are caused by alcohol and tobacco.
Regardless of the drug used, there are many problems related to drug use such as:
Drug use may lead to conflict with a user’s family or friends. The people closest to him or her may be very frustrated and concerned when they are manipulated or pressured for money or possessions. Conflict also arises when someone using drugs can’t or won’t see that his or her drug use is causing problems.
A person who takes drugs may need to take more sick days and be unable to work properly.
Drug use may affect a person’s ability to respond appropriately
to a given situation, or affect his or her ability to think clearly and to maintain attention. Their drug use may cause physical symptoms such as blurred vision, cramps, and nausea. Such effects can increase the risks of car accidents or drownings, and reduce their ability to cross roads safely.
Each state and territory has laws governing the manufacture, possession, distribution and use of drugs. The four main types of offence related to illegal drugs are: use, possession, cultivation and trafficking of drugs.
The cost of ongoing drug use may mean that the user does not have enough money left to pay for other necessary things. This may include regular bills, food and clothing, and things that may increase his or her quality of life, such as entertainment and leisure activities.
Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs can all have serious health effects. Lifestyle changes such as poor eating habits and inadequate sleep can increase the chances of the user experiencing a variety of health complications. If someone injects drugs, he or she is at risk of contracting Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS).
Certain types of drugs may lead a person to feel sexually aroused, but can actually reduce their ability to perform sexually.
There are degrees of dependency, from mild dependency to compulsive drug use (often referred to as addiction). It is impossible to say how long or how often a person must use a drug before he or she becomes dependent on it.
Dependence can be psychological, physical, or both.
If a person is psychologically dependent on a drug then in different situations he or she feels has a need to use that drug in order to function effectively or to achieve emotional wellbeing.
Physical dependence is when a person’s body adapts to a drug and becomes used to functioning with the drug present.
If a person is physically and/or psychologically dependent on drugs and suddenly stops taking them, he or she may experience withdrawal symptoms as their body readjusts to functioning without the drug. Withdrawal symptoms are different for different types of drugs and for each person. Withdrawal symptoms
include depression, irritability, cramps, nausea, sweating and sleeping problems.
If someone is physically dependent on a drug, he or she usually develops a tolerance to it. This means that he or she needs to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect.
A number of treatment options are available in Australia. Some aim solely for the person to achieve a drug-free lifestyle, while others acknowledge abstinence as one option in an overall aim of reducing the harms and risks related to the person’s drug use. Treatment options include individual counselling, group therapy, withdrawal (detoxification) and medication (pharmacotherapy). Residential and supervised/home-based programs are available. Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person’s specific circumstances, and usually involves a combination of methods.
An increasing number of road crashes involve drivers who are under the influence of drugs. In fact, drugs are found to contribute to driver fatalities as often as alcohol. Both medicines and illegal drugs can impair driving and increase crash risk. This situation is of considerable concern to employers seeking to protect staff from injury in the workplace and beyond.
Like alcohol, drugs reduce a person’s ability to operate any piece of machinery safely, particularly if more than one drug is used, or if other drugs are mixed with alcohol.
Many prescribed medicines carry labels warning of possible drowsiness and advising the user not to drive or operate machinery if they are affected.
Illegal drugs come with no such warning. However, it is always unsafe to drive after using any illegal drug because of the effects they have on mental and physical capacities.
Impairing drugs are detected in more than 30 per cent of drivers killed per year. However, drugs can also reduce a person’s ability to act safely as a pedestrian. Research data shows that almost 30 per cent of pedestrians killed are affected by drugs.
Drugs (whether medicinal or illicit) can decrease a driver’s:
- Mental alertness
- Vigilance and concentration
- Physical co-ordination
- Ability to react quickly and appropriately to what’s happening on the road.
Driving and medicines
Both prescription and over-the-counter medicines (i.e. medicines a person can buy from the pharmacist without a prescription) can impair driving ability. This includes medicines used to treat common conditions like allergies, arthritis, diabetes, blood pressure, stress, and strong painkillers (particularly those containing codeine).
To help protect those taking them, medicines which cause drowsiness must display one of the following warning labels: ‘This medicine may cause drowsiness and may increase the effects of alcohol. If affected, do not drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery’, or ‘This medicine may affect mental alertness and/or co-ordination. If affected, do not drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery’.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist how any current medicines can affect your ability to drive
- If you start taking a new medicine ask the doctor or pharmacist if it can affect your driving
- Always read and take notice of the warning labels on medicines, whether the medicine has been prescribed by your doctor or bought over the counter
- Ask your pharmacist if a Consumer Medical Information Sheet is available for the medicine you are taking.
DO NOT DRIVE if you feel:
- drowsy or tired
- dizzy, light-headed or faint
- vague, not thinking clearly
- shaky or unsteady
- angry or aggressive
- or have blurred or double vision, or any problem with their eyesight.
- If your job involves driving a car or operating machinery, you should let your employer know if you are taking any prescribed medicines that may reduce your ability to carry out these activities safely
- If you think your medicine may be affecting your driving, stop driving but do NOT stop taking your medication, and consult your doctor
- Do not drive if you are affected by any illegal drug
- Plan ahead to avoid driving: take a taxi or public transport, stay the night or arrange to be picked up.
DO NOT DRIVE If:
- your mind is foggy
- you are feeling drowsy, edgy or sick
- you have blurred vision or trouble focusing.