DrugDrive - Is It OK To Take Drugs?

What are Drugs and what does DrugDrive cover?
Drugs are substances which cause changes in the body’s functions, either psychologically and/or physically when consumed. Legal drugs include tobacco, caffeine and alcohol, while illegal ones include heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. Prescription drugs including opiates, sleeping pills and benzodiazepines, are known to be as addictive as illicit drugs.

In DrugDrive we consider drugs other than alcohol, which is covered in DrinkDrive, and tobacco, which is covered in SmokeDrive.

The drugs abused by people for a variety of reasons are typically psychoactive drugs, which means they alter one’s behaviour, thought process and mood, due to their effects on the central nervous system. These drugs are often classified as hallucinogens, stimulants, or depressants. Legal highs (which are no longer legal) also fall into one of these categories.

Illegal drugs (including former legal highs) are classified legally as category A, B or C with class A being viewed as most serious, and are dangerous and unpredictable as they affect different people in different ways.  Click the buttons below to see how illegal drugs are seen in law and also what can happen depending on different drug classes.

Drug addiction can be physical or psychological – we have classed DrugDrive as Physical Health but you should also consider MindDrive and ChangeDrive to understand the mental implications of addiction.

Drug Facts


in 2017 due to drug poisonings including legal medical drugs in England and Wales (ONS)

1 %

reported they have taken drugs in 2016 (up from 15% in 2014) in England (National Statistics on Drug Misuse)


due to cocaine use in 2017 up from 371 in 2016 in England and Wales (ONS)

£ 1

was the Home Office estimate for the cost of illicit drug use in the UK in 2010/11 (Public Health England)

Spotting a drugs problem

Drug Abuse or Addiction?

Drug abuse is different to drug addiction: you can abuse drugs without being addicted to them. Drug abuse is when you take a drug where you can harm yourself or other people – but this isn’t necessarily the compulsive, repeated drug taking which indicates addiction.

Drug abuse can be a one-off event–you may abuse a given drug and never take it again, or even take it repeatedly – without getting addicted.  However, the more often you abuse a drug, the more likely it is that you will become addicted.

Different Types of Addiction

You can be either physically addicted, psychologically addicted, or both, depending on what drug you take (only some drugs are physically addictive).  The response of your body and mind to the  drug (and its absence when you stop taking it) will vary accordingly.

If you are both psychologically and physically addicted, you will crave your drug of choice, and getting it and taking it will become a key part of your routine, your thought processes, and eventually your entire life. This can be at terrible cost to your prospects and overall life, your relationships,your self-esteem, and your physical and mental health.

Stopping taking the drug also causes problems (withdrawal) – mentally because of the way the brain’s reward system works, and for physical addiction, in terms of how your body responds to the absence of the drug.

Another way of describing the types of addiction is as substance addiction and behavioural addiction.

Substance addiction involves addiction to physical, especially psychoactive substances, like alcohol and opiates, and even prescription medications. These psychoactive substances can cause temporary chemical changes to the brain, leading to tolerance, dependency, and then addiction.

Behavioural addiction includes gambling and sex addiction. Most other types  are now classified as “disorders”.

What causes addiction?

Anyone can become addicted, but there are some factors that may contribute:

  • Genetics – genetic factors seem to account for half the risk factors for addiction, but the specific genes have not been identified
  • Environment – such as childhood abuse, dysfunctional family, poverty and peer group abuse are risk factors
  • Repeated consumption – irrespective of anything else!

Do you have a drugs problem?

You may have a problem, even though you believe that you can quit any time you like. Many people are unaware they have crossed the line from habitual use to addiction .  It’s only when you try to cut down or quit that you find you are unable to.

Many drugs are very addictive, including heroin, cocaine and crystal meth, but so are many prescription medications.  You can develop an addiction even if you have been prescribed a  medication by a doctor. 

If you are worried about your drug use, you should consider your drug-taking  carefully and watch for the signs of drug abuse and addiction. Think about how often you take drugs and whether you’re taking more than you used to get the same effect.

Check if you’re neglecting other responsibilities in favour of taking drugs. Are your family and friends commenting about your behaviour?  Are you continuing to take drugs even though it’s causing people you love real problems? If so, maybe you have a problem that needs to be addressed.

Are you worried someone you know has a problem?

People often start to experiment with drug use. If they like the way the drugs make them feel, they will be tempted to use again. This increases the body’s tolerance to the drugs meaning they will need to take more drugs to get the same effect. This is when addiction becomes a problem.

It’s hard to spot the earliest signs of drug abuse in someone – often people only notice when the addiction has taken hold.  People with drug addiction tend to spend quite a lot of time by themselves so that other people won’t recognise the situation. 

If you are worried about someone, it’s important to look out for the obvious signs. 

Although the signs of drug abuse vary depending on the drug being abused, there are some common symptoms that indicate a problem may exist. These can include:

  • Severe mood swings -depressed one minute and then  happy and carefree
  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn and spending more and more time alone
  • Suddenly finding a new group of friends
  • Neglecting personal and oral hygiene and grooming
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies they previously enjoyed
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping more 
  • Glassy or watery eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of appetite or suddenly ravenous

What can be done?

It’s easy to say ‘stop taking the drugs’ to someone with a drug addiction,but it’s not that simple, as they might have no control over their behaviour. They will take drugs whether they want to or not. The urge to take drugs takes over and nothing else matters. Promises to loved ones don’t matter, even if they were genuine when they were made. They  have lost control over their ability to make proper judgements.

Addiction is a progressive illness, and will not go away without professional treatment,  People affected by addiction need to get the help they need as soon as possible if they want to regain a full and healthy life. If you are worried then watch for the signs of drug abuse as early intervention offers the best chance for a  recovery.

Stopping isn’t easy – download the paper below on symptoms during withdrawal for different drugs.

UK Addiction Treatment Centres Infographic

Drugs in Use

Most Common Drugs

Our most used drug is caffeine, in tea, coffee, colas, and some confectionery.  Excluding medicines, the next is alcohol, followed by nicotine from cigarettes.  The most common illegal drug is cannabis, followed by cocaine and ecstasy (MDMA).

Types of Drug

Stimulants affect the central nervous system and cause feelings of extreme well-being, increased mental and motor activity. Examples include cocaine, crack cocaine, amphetamines (speed) and ecstasy (which is also a hallucinogen).

Depressants are chemicals that slow down the central nervous system and suppress brain activity causing relief from anxiety. The most common depressants are alcohol and cannabis. Others include barbiturates and benzodiazepines (e.g. valium, xanax, temazepam).

Opiates & Opioids
Opiate and opioid drugs provide pain relief, euphoria, sedation and in increasing doses induce coma. Examples include heroin, morphine, opium, methadone, dipipanone and pethidine. 

Hallucinogens affect a person’s perception of reality. These include cannabis, LSD, ecstasy and psilocybin (magic mushrooms).

New psychoactive substances (illegal highs)
These are synthetic substances created to try to mimic the effects of existing drugs in the categories above, to get around the law. They used to be called ‘legal highs’ but all such substances have been deemed illegal since May 2016 and the Psychoactive Substances Act.

Most have unknown effects in addition to their intended effect, and trying them is therefore extremely hazardous.

Drug Usage UK

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) produce regular reports, and this chart from the UK Country Drug Report 2018 shows the use by young people in England and Wales in 2017.

drug use amongst young adults

More information on different drugs

If you want to see the possible health effects (short term and long term) of a variety of drugs, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse website has a good list – click the link above or the Castle Craig Hospital has a good list

Drugs in the UK

There are reports on drug usage published by NHS Digital based on work by the Office of National Statistics – you can download these below.  This chart is from this report and shows the position with drugs in the UK in 2017.

drug problem in uk infographic


This report states that overall drug use in the United Kingdom although stable for the last three years is less than the level of 10 years ago.  In general, MDMA / ecstasy users are younger than cocaine and amphetamines users.

Drug Use in Europe

The EMCDDA European Drug Report 2018 (available for download below) gives Europe’s view on its drug problems, looks at the supply and market, then looks at drug use, the harm it does and the response. It contains national and pan-European statistics.

Interestingly, Europe is a major producer for some synthetic drugs like MDMA, and for cannabis European production has to some extent displaced importation.  Cocaine production remains in Latin America and this is increasing, and for heroin production remains in Asian countries predominantly Afghanistan.  Synthetic opioids and cannbinoids have appeared and are linked to a number of deaths and acute intoxications. 

Drug overdose deaths remain high, with opioids involved in the majority of cases – increasing with the emergence of fentanyl derivatives and calling for an increase in availability of naloxone, which helps people overdosing.

The chart below shows the number of heroin users entering treatment – who they are, what they use and shows trends for new users in treatment.

heroin users entering treatment infographic

Possible Effects

Increasing risk of:

  • Organ damage
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Developing certain types of cancer
  • Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, and other blood-borne diseases
  • Diminished performance at work
  • Job loss and chronic unemployment
  • Unsatisfactory performance in school
  • Academic failure and potential expulsion
  • Family discord
  • Separation, divorce, and possible loss of child custody
  • Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Financial devastation
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Development of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Exacerbation of existing co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Social isolation
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Attempted suicide

BBC video on a drug user

This video from the BBC shows the police pursuing a habitual drug user and burgler.

“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgement.”
philip k dick
Philip Dick

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See what other things can help

How can you get help?

There are a number of organisations you can contact if you think you need help.  Here we list some with their contact details.

  • The NHS – if you have a drugs addiction you have rights under the NHS – click to see their website 
  • FRANK provide details of local and national services which can help you – call 0300 1236600 or see details via link above
  • Narcotics Anonymous is a non-profit society of recovering drugs users who will support anyone who wants to stop using drugs – you can call them on 0300 999 1212 or click link above for details 
  • Drugs and me is a social enterprise that focusses on reducing the damage that drugs can do. Their website provides guides to help reduce the harm drugs do. 
  • Drugwise, formed in 2016, used to be DrugScope and provides information and communications on drugs in the UK – click the link above to go to their site
  • Release focus on treating people who use drugs as people with rights and dignity, rather than looking at it simply through the criminal justice system, and they have useful information on drug laws.  Call them on 020 7324 2989 or click the link above for more information.
  • If you’re affected by someone else’s drug abuse or addiction, then you can contact DrugFam, who provide support for those affected.  Call on 0300 888 3853 or click the link above

How can addiction be treated?

If you know you are addicted, then you need treatment.  Although addiction is treatable, no single treatment works for everyone.   The cycle has to be broken, and that means stopping taking the drugs (detox).  You can do this yourself, but it’s very hard, as you have an illness. 

Detox needs to be followed by rehab, ideally done as part of the same treatment, which can involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, 12 step work  and counselling (group or one-to-one), especially with people who have experienced similar problems. 

AddictionHelper can provide advice on NHS and private ways of overcoming addiction – call on 0800 138 7177 or click the link above for details.

Also UKRehab provide free advice on NHS and private treatment – call 0203 811 5610 or click above

Recovery also provide advice and rehab options – call 0203 5530324 or click above

More information

Understand the mental health effects of drug  / alcohol misuse – Mind, the mental health charity

The National Crime Agency has information about the threats posed by illegal drugs

Drugs can affect your mental health.  Rethink have information on this and what you can do about it.

The Mental Health Foundation have a section on how different drugs affect your mental health

Download the National Institute on Drug Abuse one page paper setting out the withdrawal symptoms for many common drugs

Downlaod the slide show ‘Addiction and Substance misuse pathways by Gordon Morse, Chief Medical Officer of Turning Point, a health and social care organisation, which describes the cost to health services of drug (and alcohol) abuse and the options for treatment in an easy to read set of slides.

The report Highways and buyways is a snapshot of the UK drug scene in 2016 by DrugWise.  It is a very hard-hitting story describing what happened on the streets at that time.  Don’t download unless you are prepared for the full story – warts and all.

If you want to see the impact of drugs on people and society, you can download the House of Commons Debate pack paper from November 2017 

The Home Office produced the paper Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2017/18 Crime Survey for England and Wales – download it here

Health and Social Care Information Centre published a paper on the Statistics on Drug Misuse in July 2016 – download it here

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction produce the European Drug Report 2021 – download it here

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