Effects and risks of drugs

What are drugs?

Drugs are substances that make changes to the normal functioning of the brain and body. Psychoactive substances alter the function of the nervous system. This affects the way people feel physically and emotionally, the way they see and experience things, and their thought processes and/or behaviour.


All drugs have risk

It’s important to remember that all drugs have risk, whether that’s the Calpol you had when you were a baby, or the heroin someone with long term, problematic experience of drugs might be using. The risks of medicines – contents, overdose, side effects, interactions with other drugs or alcohol – are managed very carefully for us by the government and the medical profession. The Covid-19 crisis has showed us how complicated and rigorous the measures have to be to make sure vaccines and medicines don’t cause more harm than their potential for good, because there will always be risk of harm involved with drugs.

Illegal drugs – what are the risks?

With illegal drugs it’s always important to remember you have an unknown quantity, because the safety measures of medicines aren’t there. There isn’t a standard list of ingredients and quantities to be followed, and even if there was, there aren’t safety measures in place to check what the contents are before they reach the person who uses them. They are produced by people without the qualifications and skills pharmacists would have.


The process supplying drugs is a long one, and it’s carried out by criminals whose primary purpose is profit. Drugs pass through many pairs of hands, and each time this happens the contents are likely to be altered in some way in order to stretch them out and increase the profit, by adding other, generally cheaper ingredients.


Sometimes these are harmless, but they can also be incredibly risky, sometimes very strong, and sometimes complicating the effect and risk of the main drug itself. Without professional testing, it’s not possible to know in sufficient detail what the precise contents and their quantities are, as the work of The Loop has shown us in recent years.


There has also been an increasing risk in recent years from incredibly strong and pure drugs, especially MDMA / ecstasy and cocaine. This has caused damage to people’s physical and mental health in the short and longer term and a number of fatalities.


All the best harm reduction advice begins and ends with the message that the only way to make the risk of using drugs zero is not to take them!


Risk is complicated!

There are lots of variable factors that can affect the risk of any substance to an individual. It’s important for anyone considering taking a substance, or around people who are, to be aware of these. They come in three dimensions of risk.


The drug

  • What substance has been taken? To find out more information about the effects of different drugs see the more information page
  • Has the person using them mixed with them with other drugs, including alcohol or medication?
  • How pure or strong is the drug? Are other substances mixed with it? How can you know?
  • How has the drug been taken? – swallowed, smoked, injected? This can change the amount of time it takes for a substance to take effect and the length of time it lasts.

The person

  • How are they physically?
  • Any ill health or allergic reactions?
  • Any medical conditions?
  • How are they feeling at the time (excited, anxious, angry)?
  • What are their expectations of the drug?

The place

  • Who are they with?
  • What is the place they are in like? Hot, cold, crowded, lonely?
  • What are the people around them like? What are they doing?
  • Are they at risk of having an accident, or of putting themselves at risk of other potential harms?

If you have concerns about your own drug use or that of someone else you can find a local treatment provider here (see Frank).