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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Factfile on drugs

An overview

People have taken drugs for centuries, both as medicines or remedies, and as recreational stimulants.

Drugs have different effects on different people - and many of the alleged side-effects, especially links with mental illnesses, are still in dispute.

Some drugs, like cannabis, are categorised as illegal drugs in some cultures, while forming part of a traditional diet in others.

As it becomes easier to buy drugs from different parts of the world, mainstream recreational drugs have become more widely available.

Click on one of the links below to find out more about a particular drug.

MDMA or ecstasy I Cocaine I Heroin I Amphetamines or speed I LSD and magic mushrooms I Cannabis

CLASS A: MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine)
CLASS A: Ecstasy or MDMA (methylene- dioxymethamphetamine)
MDMA or Ecstasy

Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a hallucinogenic amphetamine derivative that increases brain activity.

Users report that it causes a sense of euphoria, followed by a feeling of calm. They claim it makes them feel more sociable and increases their awareness of their surroundings.

However, like many drugs, ecstasy is reported to exaggerate a person's existing mood.

Ecstasy affects body temperature. When combined with dancing for long periods in a hot place, users can risk dehydration, which may be fatal.

Large doses of the drug can cause anxiety, panic and confusion.

Ecstasy is not thought to lead to addiction and there are no specific withdrawal symptoms.

However, immediate side effects can include nausea, a dry mouth, raised blood pressure and depression.

Research on long-time users suggests it may cause brain damage and mental illness as well as liver and kidney problems in later life.

People with problems such as epilepsy, high blood pressure and depression are thought to be more likely to suffer side effects from ecstasy use.

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CLASS A: Cocaine

Cocaine is a stimulant that causes a feeling of exhilaration and decreases appetite.

Users may experience indifference to pain and tiredness.

When it is snorted, its effects wear off within 15 minutes to half an hour so it has to be taken every 20 minutes to maintain its effect.

Many users believe they perform better on cocaine, but research shows that this is probably just their perception rather than reality.

Cocaine can make the heart beat irregularly and increases body temperature.

Large or frequent doses can reduce libido and lead to restlessness and paranoia.

Very large doses can cause death through heart or respiratory failure.

Common side effects after coming down from the drug include depression and tiredness.

Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness and severe anxiety.

Some people are very sensitive to the drug and may die after their first dose.

Regular snorting of the drug can cause damage to the membranes of the nose and injecting the drug through dirty or shared needles carries the risk of infection.

Cocaine use during pregnancy can lead to birth defects and low birthweight babies and babies may be born addicted to the drug.

People who smoke crack cocaine are more likely to become dependent and to suffer from side effects.

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CLASS A: Heroin (diamorphine)

First time use of heroin can cause nausea, vomiting and severe headaches.

Generally, however, the drug creates a high a few minutes after it has been smoked or injected. Injection leads to a quicker, more powerful high, but sharing needles can increase the risk of infection.

Users often experience a feeling of well-being, contentment and detachment from daily worries.

Tolerance builds up with use so greater amounts of the drug are needed to create the high. This can eventually lead to addiction.

It also increases the risk of overdosing. Research shows that overdose often occurs after users have tried to come off the drug.

When they start taking it again, they often resort to the dose they were on when they stopped, although their tolerance is not as high.

The fact that heroin is often adulterated with other substances can also cause overdose.

Symptoms of an overdose include rapid heartbeat, heart failure, shortness of breath, unconsciousness and coma.

When unconscious, the user is at risk of choking on their own vomit.

Heroin can also cause unexplained sudden death due to the user having a particular reaction to the drug, to injecting heroin and to impurities present in the drug.

Long-term effects of injecting heroin include collapsed veins, loss of appetite and severe constipation.

Heroin use is also associated with crime as the drug is expensive to obtain.

Pregnant women who use heroin risk giving birth to small babies who may be addicted to heroin and suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal usually lasts several weeks and symptoms include aches, tremors, sweating and spasms.

These usually fade after a week, but it may take months to regain a sense of natural well-being.

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CLASS B: Amphetamines (various), dexamphetamine
Amphetamines or speed

Amphetamines stimulate the heart beat and may increase blood pressure.

Users say they experience feelings of increased confidence, sociability and energy.

The effects usually kick in about half an hour after taking the drug and last for several hours.

As the effects wear off, users may feel irritable, restless, dizzy and anxious.

Insomnia is very common, as is depression.

Increased blood pressure can cause burst blood vessels and may, in rare cases, lead to paralysis and coma.

Some people suffer a bad or toxic reaction to even low doses of amphetamines.

Tolerance builds up with regular use so more of the drug has to be taken to get the same effect.

This can lead to dependence.

Withdrawal symptoms include depression, lethargy, heart palpitations, chills and headaches.

Excessive sweating and dehydration are common.

High doses or particular reactions to the drug can be fatal due to the increased risk of convulsions, coma and brain haemorrhage.

Regular, heavy use of amphetamines can cause hallucinations, paranoia, brain damage and mental illness.

Pregnant women who regularly use amphetamines may suffer premature birth and the drug can be passed onto babies through breast milk.

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CLASS A: Panaeolus and Psilocybe fungi; LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide)
LSD and magic mushrooms

LSD is a hallucinogenic drug which distorts the way the mind perceives things.

Its effects are usually felt within half an hour of use and last for up to 12 hours.

Experiences vary according to the individual so are difficult to typify.

Users report that objects appear much brighter and may seem to be moving or distorted. Hearing may also be intensified and the user's feeling of time and place may be distorted.

Once a 'trip' has begun, it is impossible to stop or control it.

The drug tends to exaggerate the mood a person is feeling when they take it.

Users do not become physically dependent on LSD, but some may experience a psychological dependence.

Some develop a tolerance of the drug and need to take higher and higher doses, but deaths and overdose are rare.

LSD users sometimes experience flashbacks which may distress them. It has also been linked with long-term psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Magic mushrooms also have a hallucinogenic effect which is generally milder than that associated with LSD.

However, the physical effects are generally more pronounced, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure.

Side effects include nausea, vomiting and stomach pains. Long-term effects may include flashbacks, but little research has been done in this area.

There are reported to be no withdrawal symptoms and no risk of physical addiction.

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CLASS B: Cannabis, cannabis resin

Cannabis has a mildly sedative effect, which leads to decreased blood pressure, increased appetite, feelings of relaxation, mild intoxication and increased sociability.

People who smoke the drug usually feel its effects within minutes and they may last up to three hours.

The effect is delayed when eating or drinking the drug so that it lasts longer and may be more difficult to control.

Cannabis may impair short-term memory and affects body coordination.

First-time users may feel confused and distressed and anxiety, panic and suspicion are not uncommon side effects.

High doses can cause coma, but there are no records of fatal overdose.

Heavy use can lead to confusion, aggravate existing mental disorders and sap energy.

Some people believe cannabis can lead to hard drug use, such as heroin, but the majority of users do not go on to take heroin.

Long-term use of cannabis can cause lung cancer, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders associated with smoking.

It is unclear if there is more risk of these disorders than with tobacco. However, cannabis users tend to inhale more deeply and the drug does contain higher doses of tar.

People may become both physically and psychogically dependent on cannabis.

Studies also show that regular, heavy use of the drug may cause nerve damage and affect learning.

But there is evidence that cannabis can relieve the symptoms of some chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis.

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