This page contains the same harm reduction information and advice found in our Drugs and Young People booklet, which you can buy in our substance misuse resources shop


Growing up can be tough - always under pressure from your friends and family to do the right thing - look right, sound right and behave right.

But, as a young person, what is the 'right' when it comes to drugs and alcohol - should you take that MDMA powder or neck that ecstasy pill. What's in it, how will it make you feel, what are the risks?

This page provides you with clear, non-judgemental information about some of the most commonly used legal and illegal substances, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamine
  • Cannabis
  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy
  • Ketamine
  • Legal Highs
  • Mephedrone
  • Solvents

The final section is called 'staying safe.' It includes information about mixing drugs and alcohol, feeling unwell, and looking after yourselves and your mates.

Remember, new substances are coming out all the time, make sure you do your research before you make a decision. There are numerous websites and forums out there - some bad, some good. Keep up-to-date, stay informed and stay safe.

You can buy printed versions of this information in the Substance shop

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Alcohol is a chemical called Ethanol. It is produced by brewing grains or fruits containing sugar, with water and yeast. It comes in various forms such as lager, wine, cider or vodka.

The amount of alcohol in a drink is measured in units. Different drinks have a different number of units. The number of units in a bottle or can of alcohol is printed on the label or packaging.

The effects of alcohol

  • Can slow down your brain which, in small amounts, can make you feel relaxed and sociable.
  • Can cause slurred speech, blurred vision, confusion, loss of coordination, and heightened emotions, the more you drink.

The problems with alcohol

  • Can damage your liver, stomach, kidneys, brain, muscles, skin and bones and causes cancer.
  • Can cause impotence (brewer's droop), infertility (shooting blanks), shrink the testicles, and grow breasts, in men.
  • May cause loss of periods, infertility (can't have a baby), and fat redistribution, in women.
  • Can cause addiction.
  • Can result in unconsciousness and sometimes death, if you drink a lot very quickly.

Young people, under 16, should not drink alcohol at all as this can damage developing organs. The best advice is not to drink alcohol until you're 18.

When over 18, men & women should drink no more than 14 units a week, spread evenly across a few days with a couple of alcohol-free days.

Alcohol and the law

If you are under 18 it is against the law for you:

  • To sell you alcohol or for an adult to try and buy it on your behalf.
  • To buy alcohol, attempt to buy alcohol, or to be sold alcohol.
  • To drink alcohol in licensed premises, with one exception - 16 and 17 year-olds accompanied by an adult can drink (but not buy) beer, wine, and cider with a table meal in a pub or restaurant.


Amphetamine sulphate is a stimulant, commonly known as 'speed', which normally comes as a grey, dirty-white or pinkish powder.

The effects of amphetamines

Can cause feelings of energy and alertness, suppressing hunger and reducing the need to sleep.
  • Can speed up your heartbeat and breathing.
  • Can also cause anxiety, paranoia, irritability, twitchiness and insomnia.

The problems with amphetamines

  • Can lead to tolerance, meaning you have to take more to get the same effect.
  • Excessive use can lead to psychosis (loss of contact with reality), chest pain, heart problems and high blood pressure.
  • Can cause something called formication, which is the excessive itching and scratching of the skin, leading to skin infections.
  • The purity of some amphetamines can be as low as 5%.

Amphetamines and the law

  • Amphetamines are illegal, Class B drugs. 
  • Possession of Class B drugs carries a maximum sentence of 5 years' imprisonment and a fine. 
  • Supplying (selling or giving away) carries a maximum sentence of 14 years' imprisonment and a fine.


Cannabis comes from a plant called Cannabis Sativa.
Cannabis normally comes in a solid brown lump called hash (the resin scraped from the plant), or the dried flowers of the plant, known as grass, weed or Skunk.

The main chemical in cannabis is called THC (Tetra-Hydro-Cannabinol), which is the bit that makes you feel trippy. Different types of cannabis have different levels of THC.
It is normally smoked, rolled with tobacco in cigarette papers, or in a pipe or bong, but it can also be eaten.

The effects of cannabis

  • Cannabis can make you feel relaxed, trippy, talkative and giggly.
  • It can make you feel tired, lazy and sleepy.
  • Can make colours, music and taste seem more intense.

The problems with Cannabis

  • Cannabis can cause paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks.
  • In some people, cannabis can bring on mental health problems.
  • The earlier you start smoking cannabis, the more likely you are to have problems with it.
  • Can cause lung damage if smoked.
  • Cannabis become a habit and lead to a lack of motivation and problems concentrating at school or work.

Cannabis and the law

  • Cannabis is an illegal, Class B drug.
  • It is illegal to have, sell, grow or give away.
  • If you are under-18 and caught with cannabis your parents or guardian will be contacted, you could get a reprimand and possibly a referral to a Youth Offending Team.
  • If you are over-18, a first-time offence will usually get you a 'cannabis warning,' a second offence will get you an on-the-spot fine, and a third offence will result in prosecution and a criminal record.

There are products which claim to have the same effects as cannabis (Spice, Black Mamba, etc.), but these can also be harmful and are illegal under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.


Cocaine is a substance obtained from the leaves of the coca plant.
It normally comes in a white powder form. The purity of cocaine can vary greatly throughout the UK, from between 15-55%.

The effects of cocaine

  • Can cause an energy rush, and feelings of exhilaration, confidence and wellbeing.
  • Can also cause effects like edginess, paranoia, anxiety and shaking.

The problems with cocaine

  • Cocaine is normally snorted through a rolled-up note or straw. The cocaine and the chemicals it is mixed with are acid and can burn or damage your nose.
  • The note or straw you use may have been up others peoples' noses and can be covered in snot, viruses and germs.
  • The initial effects of cocaine only last between 15 and 30 minutes. Using again and again to achieve the same effect can lead to tolerance, where you have to use more and more to get the same buzz further down the line, addiction.
  • Cocaine increase blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.
  • Using cocaine increases the risk of stroke or a heart attack.

Cocaine and the law

  • Cocaine is an illegal, Class A drug.
  • Possession of Class A drugs carries a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment and/a fine.
  • Supplying (selling or giving away) carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine.



The active chemical in Ecstasy is MDMA, or to give it its full chemical name, 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine.

MDMA usually comes in tablet form, known as 'ecstasy', or powder, known as 'MDMA powder.'

Tablets come in various shapes and colours. MDMA powder usually comes in white or off-white crystals or powder.

Remember, not all tablets claiming to be ecstasy or powder claiming to be MDMA, actually contain any real MDMA.

The effects of ecstasy

  • Can cause an initial rush, jaw clenching, nausea, and nervousness.
  • Can increase energy levels and give a warm 'loved-up' huggy feeling.
  • Can cause sounds, colours, and feelings to be more intense.

The problems with ecstasy

  • Ecstasy can cause you to overheat, particularly if you are jumping up and down (sometimes called dancing!) in a nightclub and don't drink enough liquid, take a break, or get some fresh air.
  • Ecstasy causes your body to retain water (you can't pee!) which alters your body's chemical balance.
  • If you also drink a lot of water, this can cause your brain to swell.
  • Deaths from ecstasy have often been caused by drinking either not enough or too much water.
  • Your body needs about a pint of fluid - water, isotonic drink or fruit juice - an hour, to function properly in a hot environment.
  • Ecstasy normally takes half an hour to an hour to start working but can take longer. Being impatient and taking more can increase the dangers.
    The comedown from ecstasy can leave you feeling tired and depressed for a few days afterwards.

Ecstasy and the law

  • Ecstasy is an illegal, class A drug.
  • Possession of Class A drugs carries a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment and/or a fine.
  • Supplying (selling or giving away) carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a fine.


Ketamine is an anaesthetic that comes in the form of a clear liquid, tablets, or powder ranging in colour from off-white to light brown.

The effects of Ketamine

  • The effects of Ketamine vary depending on your environment. In small doses it normally acts as a stimulant, boosting your energy levels, and making you feel high and trippy.
  • Larger doses can cause a strange 'out-of-body' effect, with hallucinations, feelings of calm and serenity, distorted reality, panic attacks, unpleasant feelings and fear.
  • These feelings can last up to 90 minutes.
  • The out-of-body experience is known as being in a 'K hole'.
    Physical effects can include loss of control over your body, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, moving, hearing and seeing (delirium), numbness and nausea. 

The problems with Ketamine

Obviously, if you are having an out-of-body experience and can't move your arms and legs, then you're particularly at risk, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.

Because Ketamine is an anaesthetic and numbs your body, you can't feel pain as much as you would normally, so you can injure yourself without realising.

  • Regularly using a lot of Ketamine can cause serious bladder problems, with severe pain and difficulty peeing.
  • Too much Ketamine can affect your breathing, leading to unconsciousness or heart failure.
  • Ketamine can be addictive.

Ketamine and the law

  • Ketamine is an illegal, Class C drug.
  • Possession of Class C drugs carries a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment and/or fine.
  • Supplying (selling or giving away) carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment and a fine.


Mephedrone (4-Methylmethcathinone) also known as Meph, Meow Meow, M-Cat, is a synthetic chemical, similar to amphetamines.

Usually an off-white powder. Normally found in tablets or capsules. It can have a sharp chemical or fishy/bleachy smell.

Effects of Mephedrone

  • Feelings of wellbeing,
  • alertness,
  • increased confidence and becoming more talkative.

Adverse effects of Mephedrone

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Palpitations, heavy sweating.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Hot flushes.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Nausea, and muscle tension, especially in the face and jaw.

The main after-effects are tiredness, feeling dizzy and feeling low.

The problem with Mephedrone

  • Can be mixed with unknown substances.
  • Damage to the nose through snorting.
  • Anxiety, panic attacks and agitation.
  • Raised blood pressure, which can lead to heart problems and strokes.

Stimulants can cause you to overheat, especially if you are bouncing around in a nightclub.

There isn't enough information around at the moment to predict if Mephedrone is addictive or will cause long-term damage to your health.

Mephedrone and the law

  • Mephedrone and other cathinone-based substances are illegal to possess, supply or produce.
  • It is a class B drug.
  • Possession could get you up to 5 years in jail and a fine.
  • Supplying (even giving it away) gets up to 14 years in jail and a fine.

New psychoactive substances (NPS)

New psychoactive substances (NPS) - formely know as legal highs

In 2016 the Government brought in a new law, the Psychoactive Substances Act, which made all drugs formerly known as 'legal highs' illegal to produce, import or supply. Legal highs used to be sold in head shops or from websites and were packaged in shiny colourful bags.

They had names like Spice, Mexxy, Benzo etc. They claimed to be 'legal' things like bath salts, research chemicals or plant food and were claimed to have the same effects of illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

NPS and the law

It is not illegal to possess a psychoactive substance unless you are in custody, a prison or a young offender institution. It is illegal to possess a psychoactive substance if you intend to supply it to others, or if the substance is covered under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

For possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution, the maximum sentence is 2 years. For other offences, such as production and possession with intent to supply, the maximum sentence is 7 years.

Remember, supply can mean giving them to a mate, and importing can mean ordering them from the internet.

Some drugs that started out as legal highs, like Spice, are now illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Spice is a Class B drug, so having it in your possession will get you into trouble. Although maximum sentences are rarely used, possessing Spice can lead to a maximum sentence of five years. If you are convicted of possession with intent to supply, you could add another 9 years on top of that.

The bottom line is - most drugs that are intended to get you high can also get you into bother with the law.


Solvents come in many forms, such as household products like glues, lighter fluid and aerosol sprays, and are normally inhaled.

The effects of solvents

  • Can cause intoxication (feeling very drunk), dizziness and drowsiness.
  • Can cause sickness and vomiting.
  • Can lead to aggressive and risky behaviour.

The problems with solvents

  • Can cause your heart to beat irregularly or stop, even on first-time use. This can happen whether they are sniffed from a bag, an aerosol or sprayed into your mouth.
  • Can cause loss of consciousness. If you use solvents in a dangerous location or place your head inside a bag, there is the added danger of having an accident or suffocating.
  • Can cause burning or a rash around your mouth and nose.

Solvents and the law

  • It is illegal to supply solvents to persons under the age of 18 if the supplier knows or suspects the product will be sniffed.

Staying safe

The best way to stay safe and avoid the risks of using drugs and alcohol is not to use them at all, but if you intend to, then the information on this page will help you and your friends have as safe a night out as possible.


A few drinks with your mate to loosen up as you get ready to go out can turn into a session. You are two and a half times more likely to get into a fight or have an accident than people who only start drinking when they go out.

Mixing drugs and alcohol

Using drugs is risky in itself, but mixing them with alcohol can make the effects of both very unpredictable and dangerous. Alcohol dehydrates you so mixing it with other drugs that do the same, like cocaine, ecstasy or Mephedrone, or some of the legal highs can be very risky.

Pace yourself

It can be tempting, on a night out, to get as hammered as possible, as quickly as possible. This is going to ruin your night! Try to pace yourself. Don't drink on an empty stomach. Have a soft drink or water. You don't have to have an alcoholic drink at every round. Drink lower alcoholic drinks, or drink slower. Sip your drink and then put it down somewhere you can keep an eye on it, holding your drink will mean you drink faster.

Don't take more drugs because you think the ones you have taken are not working. The effects of drugs can vary for lots of reasons, such as the way you feel, where you are, how much you have taken.

Or there may be different amounts of the drug in the substance you have taken. It may even be a completely different substance. Taking more could mean you overdose. Be patient, pace yourself!


Alcohol and drugs reduce our ability to think straight. If you are someone who loses their temper easily, alcohol and drugs can make things worse. If you are on the receiving end of someone giving you grief, walk away. It can be hard to lose face in front of other people, but it has got to be better than being the victim of a serious assault or being locked up for giving someone else a hiding.


Alcohol and drugs increase your self-confidence and make it easier to approach someone you fancy, but if you've been using drugs or alcohol, you can end up going further than you intended.

If you intend to have sex, use a condom. Having sex without a condom can leave you open to sexually transmitted infections (STI's) and unplanned pregnancies. If you are worried, you might have an STI, visit your GP, walk-in centre or visit the GUM clinic at your local hospital

Women can get oral emergency contraception from their GP, Walk-in-centre and most pharmacies. This can be taken 72 hours after unprotected sex and is available to anyone over 16 years of age.

Don't flash your valuables

Don't flash your expensive phone around; it could end up stolen. Buy a cheap phone to use when you are going out. Make sure it has credit and is fully charged.

If you are drawing cash from a machine, be aware of who is around and don't let anyone distract you, shield your pin and put your money away quickly. Use a machine in a well-lit public area.

Keep an eye on your drink

Never accept drinks from a stranger or someone you don't trust. These could be spiked.

Looking after yourself and your mates

If you are going to leave the club or pub with someone you have just met, make sure your friends know what you are doing and where you are going, maybe you could take a pic of your new friend and text it to your friends. If a friend is telling you where they are going and who with, listen to what they are saying.

Feeling unwell

If someone goes too far and starts to feel unwell, take them somewhere quiet and cool. Keep them sitting up and awake, give them water if they're able to drink. If you are unable to wake them and their breathing is erratic, lie them on their side in the recovery position and get medical help.

Getting home safely

Have a plan of how you are going to get home after a night out.

Try to pre-book and pay for a taxi to take you home from a pre-arranged location. Use this location as a meeting point if you get split up from your friends.

If you do end up walking home alone, be aware of your surroundings, stay on well-lit public roads, don't be tempted to take the short-cut across the dark, deserted park because you can't wait to crash into bed.

More drugs information

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    Advice, tips and tools to help you make the best choices about your health and wellbeing.

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