Common Substances of Abuse

While categorizing substances of abuse is helpful for understanding and discussion, it is also true that individual substances within each category will have their own unique peculiarities. Although it is beyond the scope of this book to delve into the details of each potentially addictive substance, a closer look at two commonly known drugs would be interesting.


Methamphetamines are very potent stimulants. These are man-made drugs rather than naturally occurring substances. Methamphetamines can be taken orally, nasally, by smoking, or by injection. They come in either a powder form or a rock form. The rock form of methamphetamines is often referred to as “crystal meth.”

What are “club drugs?”

There are a number of drugs that make up the category of “club drugs.” These drugs are popular with young people and are typically used in nightclubs, at parties, and at raves, which are all-night dance parties. Many drugs in this category have psychoactive, stimulant effects. Examples include MDMA (Ecstasy), ketamine, and two drugs often called “date-rape” drugs, flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate).

The powerful stimulant effects of methamphetamine are due to its ability to increase the amount of dopamine available to the brain. This happens in two ways. First, methamphetamine causes the brain to release more dopamine into the space between neurons in the brain, the synaptic gap. Ordinarily, once dopamine has been used by the brain, it is reabsorbed from the synaptic gap back into the neurons, or “recycled.”

Second, methamphetamines increase dopamine in the brain by preventing this reabsorption, leaving excessive amounts of dopamine in the synaptic gap. In fact, methamphetamines cause a 1,500 percent increase in the brain's dopamine levels.

Initially, a person will experience a rush of energy and euphoria accompanied by compulsive behaviors, heightened senses, and a decrease in appetite. Injected or snorted methamphetamines take effect more readily than those taken orally, two to 10 minutes versus 20 to 40 minutes. A person may feel the effects of methamphetamines for up to 12 hours.


Methamphetamines are also legitimately used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. When used for medical purposes, methamphetamines are produced in well-supervised laboratories and dispensed by physicians. Unfortunately, however, sometimes legitimately made methamphetamines are sold illegally on the streets to individuals not under a physician's care.

Chronic use of methamphetamines can lead to the psychotic symptoms of auditory and visual hallucinations and/or delusions. These symptoms can last for months or even years after initial use of the drug. Paranoia and extreme rages leading to violence are especially dangerous side effects of methamphetamines. Hyperthermia (extremely high body temperature), convulsions, and even death are possible with methamphetamine use.

Equally as dangerous as the side effects is the possibility of injury from the home manufacture of methamphetamines. The chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamines are flammable, explosive, and toxic to humans.

MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine)

The commonly known name for MDMA is Ecstasy. This is a man-made or synthetic drug that contains both the stimulant qualities of methamphetamines and the hallucinogenic qualities of mescaline. This is a dangerous drug with potentially very long-term effects. MDMA has been shown to damage neurons leading to a depletion of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Evidence of damage to serotonin nerve terminals has been found even up to seven years after use of the drug.


Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) are two more substances that are popular with young people at parties. Both of these substances are tasteless and odorless. They have the ability to cause sedation and intoxication as well. The combination of these characteristics has led to their use in committing sexual assaults and has earned them the title of “date-rape” drugs.

MDMA has also been found to cause deterioration at the synaptic gap of neurons involved in the dopaminergic system. As expected with interference of neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of moods, MDMA causes mood, appetite, and sleep disturbances. Psychological effects of MDMA include confusion, depression, and severe anxiety.

Even more seriously, MDMA can cause hyperthermia resulting in liver, kidney, and cardiovascular system failure. Death is possible with the use of this drug. MDMA is a popular “party drug” because of its production of euphoria lasting four to six hours and relatively low financial cost.

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