Introduction to Drugs

The easiest way to begin learning about drugs of abuse and addiction is to separate them into categories. The drugs are placed into categories according to their chemical makeup and the effects they have on the body. You may recognize many of these drugs as ones that are commonly prescribed by physicians. This is not meant to be alarming.

Many drugs with the potential for addiction are quite safe in doses prescribed by a physician and taken for specific medical conditions. Take the opiate category, for instance. This category contains almost all prescription pain medications. No one would think of going through a major surgical procedure with the subsequent pain without having these medications available to provide relief.

If a person understands the general characteristics of drugs in particular categories, it will be much easier to talk with professionals or other interested individuals about one's concerns.

Street names are part of a language used in the culture of substance addiction. For the uninitiated, this language is a way of communicating hidden messages related to drug use. The use of slang is especially attractive to young people, and parents need to be knowledgeable in order to monitor their children. See Appendix B for a sample list of common street names and slang related to substance addiction.

What are designer drugs?

Designer drugs are synthetic or man-made drugs. Amateur chemists change the chemical structure of existing drugs to produce different effects for the user. There are three drugs that are most commonly used as the basis for designer drugs: methamphetamine, fentanyl, and PCP. Designer drugs are very potent and extremely dangerous.


The category of depressants should not be confused with antidepressant medications. They are two completely different classes of drugs. Depressants act to slow down the central nervous system. In general, depressants reduce feelings of anxiety, lower inhibitions, cause drowsiness, decrease body temperature, slow down a person's pulse and breathing, and lower blood pressure.

Depressants also cause confusion, problems with memory and judgment, and fatigue. They interfere with a person's ability to concentrate and exercise sound judgment. Depressants can also have serious effects on the respiratory system. It is possible for a person to experience respiratory arrest and death if that person is sensitive to the drug or if the drug is administered in high doses.

Withdrawal from depressants can be very problematic. An individual may experience high levels of anxiety, insomnia, and mood swings. A small percentage of individuals may experience temporary psychosis with hallucinations and delusions. Some brand names of depressants include Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, Phenobarbital, Ativan, Halcion, Librium, Valium, Xanax, Rohypnol, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate), and Quaalude.


Marijuana and hashish are the two primary substances in this category. In general, a person using drugs from the cannabinoid category might experience euphoria as well as confusion. These drugs enhance the senses and stimulate a person's appetite.


Individuals who smoke marijuana are at risk for developing “amotivational syndrome.” Characteristics of this syndrome include lethargy and self-defeating behavior. Individuals tend to lose interest in normal activities and have been known to abandon long-term goals they were previously eager to achieve. A drop in cerebral blood flow after marijuana use seems to be the cause of amotivational syndrome.

Although someone using cannabinoids will likely feel relaxed and peaceful, the negative effects include problems with balance, coordination, memory, and learning. Lung and respiratory problems are common, including coughs and infections. Anxiety, increased heart rate, and panic attacks have also been known to occur. Many have argued that cannabinoids are not that harmful in terms of drug use. However, it is now known that cannabinoids can also lead to the development of tolerance and addiction.


Hallucinogens are also known as dissociative drugs. This is due to their ability to alter mental perceptions and thought processes. All five of the human senses can be affected by hallucinogens. A person can see things that don't exist, hear things that others don't and so forth. This has led some to believe that hallucinogens can accentuate creativity.

While hallucinogens can induce pleasurable sensations, there are also many negative effects produced by hallucinogens. For example, hallucinogens can increase a person's body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure as well as cause nausea and vomiting. Memory loss, impaired motor function, loss of appetite, insomnia, and feelings of weakness may also occur.

It is important to know that this category of drugs can lead to mental health problems, including flashbacks, feelings of paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions. Some of these symptoms may last a lifetime. At times, a person may experience severe reactions to this class of drug with complete disorientation and terrifying mental images. Common hallucinogens include LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), mescaline, PCP (phencyclidine), psilocybin (mushrooms), ketamine, and MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), otherwise known as Ecstasy.

Opiates and Morphine Derivatives

Drugs in this category may sound more familiar. Brand names of substances you may have heard before include methadone, Empirin with Codeine, Fiorinal with Codeine, Tylenol with Codeine, Durage-sic, Duramorph, OxyContin, and Vicodin. Heroin and opium are also included in this category.

Characteristics of these drugs are pain relief, feelings of euphoria, and sedation. They often cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation, depression, and confusion. A dangerous quality of drugs in this category is the ability to cause respiratory depression, which can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and death. An individual can definitely develop tolerance and addictions to these drugs.


Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants, but have different chemical mechanisms than other drugs in this category. An individual who uses nicotine or caffeine is not at risk for dangerous results of overdose or the psychotic symptoms that may be seen with other stimulants.


Stimulants do exactly what the name implies — they stimulate one's body in multiple ways. Heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and metabolism are all increased. In fact, the heart may begin beating irregularly and heart failure may even occur.

An individual affected by a stimulant will feel exhilarated and have lots of energy and perceived mental alertness. Nervousness, insomnia, reduced appetite with weight loss, paranoia, irritability, and rapid speech are all commonly experienced with drugs in this category. Amphetamines, cocaine, MDMA (3,4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine) or Ecstasy, methamphetamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), caffeine, and nicotine are all drugs having stimulant effects.


A different category of substances is that of anabolic steroids. The classic criteria for addiction applies to steroids. A person may continue to use them in spite of negative physical and social consequences. Withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, depression, problems sleeping, reduced sex drive, and the craving for more of the drug occur when use of the drug is stopped.

Steroids do not induce intoxication and are not taken for the thrill of the “high.” They are primarily used to enhance athletic performance. However, the side effects of steroid abuse are quite serious. High blood pressure, blood clot formation, changes in cholesterol levels, liver disease, kidney and prostate cancer, hostility and aggression, and acne only begin the list of the harmful effects of steroids.

In adolescents, steroids prematurely stop physical growth of the body. Men may experience reduced sperm production, shrunken testicles, and breast enlargement. Women may develop facial hair, a deep voice, menstrual irregularities, and male-pattern baldness. The cultural and social pressures for enhanced athletic performance are very costly indeed.

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