Drugs at a Glance

1. Alcohol

Alcohol consumption causes a number of marked changes in behavior. Even low doses significantly impair the judgment and coordination required to drive a car safely. Low to moderate doses also increase the incidence of a variety of aggressive acts. Moderate to high doses of alcohol cause marked impairments in higher mental function, severely altering a person’s ability to learn and remember information. Very high doses cause respiratory depression and death. If combined with other depressants of the central nervous system, much lower doses of alcohol will produce the effects just described. Repeated use of alcohol can lead to dependence. Sudden cessation of alcohol intake is likely to produce withdrawal symptoms, including severe anxiety, tremors, hallucinations and convulsions. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Long-term consumption of large quantities of alcohol, particularly when combined with poor nutrition, can also lead to permanent damage to vital organs such as the brain and the liver.

Mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may give birth to infants with fetal alcohol syndrome. These infants have irreversible physical abnormalities and mental retardation. In addition, research indicates that children of alcoholic parents are at greater risk than others of becoming alcoholics.

2. Cannabis

Use of cannabis is often accompanied by sleepiness, wandering mind, craving for sweets, increased appetite, and time and space distortion. Sometimes a panic attack or paranoia occurs. It may impair short-term memory and comprehension. It also reduces ability to perform tasks requiring coordination and concentration such as driving a car. It is very irritating to the lungs and contains more cancer-causing agents than tobacco. Use during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight and damage to fetus.

Long-term users may develop an addiction to marijuana and require more of the drug to get high. In the case of heavy users, it becomes the center of their lives.

3. Inhalants

The immediate negative effects of inhalants include nausea, sneezing, coughing, nosebleeds, fatigue, lack of coordination, and loss of appetite. Solvents and aerosol sprays also decrease the heart and respiratory rates and impair judgment. Amyl and Butyl nitrate cause rapid pulse, headaches, and involuntary passing of urine and feces. Long-term use may result in hepatitis or brain damage.

Deeply inhaling the vapors, or using large amounts over a short time, may result in disorientation, violent behavior, unconsciousness, or death. High concentrations of inhalants can cause suffocation by displacing the oxygen in the lungs or by depressing the central nervous system to the point that breathing stops.

Long-term use causes weight loss, fatigue, electrolyte imbalance, and muscle fatigue. Repeated sniffing of concentrated vapors over time can permanently damage the nervous system.

4. Cocaine

Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system. Its immediate effects include dilated pupils and elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. Occasional use can cause a stuffy or runny nose. Chronic use can ulcerate the mucous membrane of the nose. Injecting cocaine with contaminated equipment can cause AIDS, hepatitis, and other diseases. Cocaine can produce psychological and physical dependency, a feeling that the user cannot function without the drug. This often happens rapidly. Crack or free base rock is extremely addictive, and its effects are felt within 10 seconds. Physical effects include: dilated pupils, increased pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, loss of appetite, tactile hallucination, paranoia and seizures. The use of cocaine can cause death by cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.

5. Other Stimulants

Stimulants can cause increased heart and respiratory rates, elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils, and decreased appetite. In addition, users may experience sweating, headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Extremely high doses can cause a rapid or irregular heartbeat, tremors, loss of coordination, and even physical collapse. Users report feelings of restlessness, anxiety and mood swings. Persons who use large amounts of amphetamines over a long period of time can develop an amphetamine psychosis that includes hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. These symptoms usually disappear when drug use ceases.

6. Depressants

The effects are similar to alcohol. Small amounts can produce calmness and relaxed muscles, but larger doses can cause slurred speech, staggering gait and altered perception. Very large doses cause respiratory depression, coma and death. The combination of depressants and alcohol can multiply the effects of the drugs, thereby multiplying the risks. The use of depressants can cause both physical and psychological dependence. Regular use over time may result in a tolerance to the drug, leading the user to increase the quantity consumed. When regular users suddenly stop taking large doses, they may develop withdrawal symptoms ranging from restlessness, insomnia, and anxiety to convulsions and death. Babies born to mothers who abuse depressants during pregnancy may be physically dependent on the drugs and show withdrawal symptoms shortly after they are born. Birth defects and behavioral problems also may result.

7. Hallucinogens

Phencyclidine (PCP) interrupts the functions of the neocortex, the section of the brain that controls the intellect and keeps instinct in check. Because the drug blocks pain receptions, violent PCP episodes may result in self-inflicted injuries. The effects of PCP vary, but users frequently report a sense of distance and estrangement. Time and body movement are slowed down. Muscular coordination worsens and senses are dulled. Speech is blocked and incoherent. Chronic users of PCP report persistent memory problems and speech difficulties. Some of these effects may last 6 months to a year following prolonged daily use. Mood disorders—depression, anxiety and violent behavior—also occur. In later stages of chronic use, users often exhibit paranoid and violent behavior and experience hallucinations. Large doses may produce convulsions and coma, as well as heart and lung failure.

Lysergic acid (LSD), mescaline and psilocybin cause illusions and hallucinations. The physical effects may include dilated pupils, elevated body temperature, increased heart rate and blood pressure, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and tremors. Sensations and feelings may change rapidly. It is common to have a bad psychological reaction to LSD, mescaline and psilocybin.

The user may experience panic, confusion, suspicion, anxiety and loss of control. Delayed effects or flashbacks can occur even after use has ceased.

Some depressants that produce amnesia, such as Rohypnol or GHB, may be involved in rape cases.

8. Narcotics

Narcotics initially produce a feeling of euphoria that often is followed by drowsiness, nausea and vomiting. Users also may experience constricted pupils, watery eyes, and itching. An overdose may produce slow and shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions, coma, and possible death. Tolerance to narcotics develops rapidly and dependence is likely. The use of contaminated syringes may result in diseases such as AIDS, endocarditis, and hepatitis. Addiction in pregnant women can lead to premature, stillborn or addicted infants who experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

9. Designer Drugs

Illegal drugs are defined in terms of their chemical formulas. To circumvent these legal restrictions, underground chemists modify the molecular structure of certain illegal drugs to produce analogues known as designer drugs. These drugs can be several hundred times stronger than the drugs they are designed to imitate.

Many of the so-called designer drugs are related to amphetamines and have mild stimulant properties but are mostly euphoriant. They can produce severe neurochemical damage to the brain.

The narcotic analogues can cause symptoms such as those seen in Parkinson’s disease; uncontrollable tremors, drooling, impaired speech, paralysis and irreversible brain damage. Analogues of amphetamines and methamphetamine cause nausea, blurred vision, chills or sweating, and faintness. Psychological effects include anxiety, depression and paranoia. As little as one dose can cause brain damage. The analogues of phencyclidine cause illusions, hallucinations and impaired perception.