Risks and harm reduction

What are the risks?

There are many risks specific to individual substances, which you can find out about on Frank, but it’s important as a parent or carer to have a general understanding of the careless, random and unknowable nature of drugs that are manufactured and supplied through a criminal process. Each pair of hands illegal drugs pass through will tamper with them in some way or other in order to maximise their profit, and minimal care or responsibility is taken for the effect on the user at the end of the process, other than for repeat business. By the time illegal drugs reach the average teenager, it’s impossible to know their exact contents – whether their strength or purity – without professional drug testing. This VICE video, High Society: the truth about ecstasy, is a good demonstration of the carelessness of this process (watch from 5m28s to 9m05s):


What can we learn about the risks from drug testing?

Over the last few summers, not-for-profit organisation The Loop has been offering a drug testing service at an increasing number of festivals, and in summer 2018 in a city centre for the first time. Always to some degree controversial, because seen by some as ‘normalising’ drug testing and giving a message this is something that can be made safe, The Loop is careful always to emphasise the fact that the only way to reduce the risk of drugs to zero is not to take them at all. The results of testing reveal a wide range of variations in both strength, purity and contaminants. Read more here.


Risk factors and variables

There are lots of variable factors that can affect the risk of any substance to an individual. It’s important for you and your child to be aware of these. They come in three dimensions of risk.


The drug

  • What substance has been taken?
  • Has the user mixed with other drugs, including alcohol or medication?
  • How pure or strong is the drug? Are other substances mixed with it?
  • How has the drug been taken? – swallowed, smoked, injected?

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?

Drugs, alcohol and the law 

The law in relation to drugs and alcohol can get complicated. Read our information about drugs, alcohol and the law here

The following are some areas of risk specific to parents:

  • If you provide alcohol to under 18s at a party in your home, or at a party for which you are responsible, you must get the permission of the guests’ parents, or you could be held responsible for any consequences under the legal principle of Vicarious Liability.
  • If you take drugs from your child, you must either destroy them or hand them to the police as soon as possible. By having the drugs in your possession you may be committing an offence.
  • If you allow the smoking of cannabis, or the use of any other illegal drug in your home, this is also an offence.
  • As a parent you risk breaking the law by turning a blind eye to drug use.

Not a lot of young people know that…

  • Supply: simply giving an illegal drug to another person is classed as supply, whether money passes hands or not. Have a look at this BBC3 documentary mini series, One Night of Ecstasy, which tells the story of teenager Christian Pay. Chris died from ecstasy at Kendall Calling festival in summer 2015, and his friend Simon, the one in the group who just collected everyone’s money in and went off and bought the drugs, ended up serving six months of a custodial sentence for supply.
  • Possession: looking after or ‘holding’ drugs for someone else is classed as possession, even if they don’t belong to you, as does having them in your bedroom at home, not necessarily on your person. 
  • Getting caught: there can be implications for anyone who gains a criminal record for a drugs offence, of which many young people are unaware. They would have to declare it on a UCAS form if they are applying for university. They would be unable to access many jobs – anything that requires a DBS check, or the police, medical or legal professions. They would also be unable to travel to many parts of the world, including America and Canada. This is the case even with just a warning.
  • Drugs abroad: anyone caught with illegal drugs abroad, for example on a holiday with friends, can find not only that there are very severe penalties in many countries (27 countries have a mandatory death sentence for drug offences), but they will also have their passport confiscated on their return to the UK because of having been arrested in another country, and will be unable to have it back for two years.
  • Drink driving: although most young people are aware that there are blood-alcohol limits for driving, most are unclear that it’s very difficult to gauge exactly how much and what this would allow any individual to consume and when.
  • Drug driving: since March 2015 drug driving is also now an offence – and unlike with alcohol there is no upper limit to consumption. Any amount of any one of eight listed drugs found in a person’s system prohibits them from driving. Passive smoking of cannabis by the driver of a car whose friend is smoking weed in the back seat can produce a positive test result, because this can impair their judgement and ability to drive safely.

You can find out more about drugs and the law on the Drugwise website.


Reducing the risk…

Giving harm reduction advice to your child can be a very uncomfortable thing for parents to do. It can feel like telling them how to do drugs safely – which is isn’t – and it’s always important to emphasise the fact that the only way to reduce the risk of drugs to zero is not to take them at all.

However, for teens who are around drugs and alcohol socially, and especially if you’re aware your child may be experimenting, or their friends are, it’s very important they have some understanding of how they can reduce the risks, to arm them should they find themselves saying yes to something.

How you do this depends very much on your child and your relationship with them. A good way to approach it though can be in terms of them helping their friend to stay safe if they take anything, rather than your child themselves. They have the same advice but not directed at their own potential – or actual – use, which can create a more open response.

This is simplified advice from the Global Drug Survey 2018.


If you’re with a friend who is taking drugs:

  • Know stuff – make sure they know lots about anything they’re taking. There are links to useful websites on the Info and support for parents page, and on our Info and support for young people page.
  • Stay together – you are the best harm reduction your friend has, so stick with them. Anyone taking substances needs to have a clear-headed and responsible friend to look out for them.
  • Check in with them – look for physical signs and check in with them regularly in case they’re not feeling right.
  • Don’t mix – anything! Mixing substances, including with alcohol, changes the effect and makes managing risk much more complex.
  • Start low, go slow… anyone taking the risk of taking illegal substances is basically testing it on themselves unless they can get them professionally tested – they can’t know the strength, or what contaminants might be in it – so, the best advice, if going ahead, is not to have a whole pill or bag of powder, but to take a little, wait, and see what the effect is.
  • Remember the law – legal consequences can have a lifelong impact and limit options significantly.
  • Fed and watered – advice relating to different substances around food and water is different depending on what it is, and specific harm reduction advice for the substance being taken is important.
  • Be in a good space, inside and out – most drugs lead your brain in the direction it was pointing before a drug is taken.
  • Don’t be afraid to call 999 – this is very important to emphasise to your children. Many young people worry about getting in trouble, or getting their friend in trouble, or panic generally – but they could literally save someone’s life by getting help fast. For drug and alcohol first aid advice see Staying safe.

For detailed harm reduction advice about individual substances see drugsand.me or watch VICE/The Loop #safesesh videos.