Cambridge Independent Neuroscience and Psychiatry Services
Drugs & Alcohol

Understanding more about drugs?

The most important thing to know is that there are no safe drugs.  All drugs can have very serious psychiatric and medical effects and can lead to death, either by direct (such as cardiac or respiratory arrest) or indirect (such as confusion leading to accidents) cause.

Drugs may also not be pure, but may be mixed with more powerful or dangerous drugs or substances.  Combinations of drugs can be very dangerous in itself. 

Sometimes the dose or strength is much higher or stronger than anticipated, which can be fatal instantly.

Using needles and 'equipment' can lead to HIV and Hepatitis (Hepatitis B and C can be just as fatal as HIV).

Overdoses (often accidental) and premature death is extremely common in young people who use drugs.

Why do people use drugs?

This is a difficult question to answer.  Some people use drugs to medicate themselves.  They cope with anxiety, anger, depression or hearing voices (psychosis) by taking drugs.  This often has a snow ball effect; it may help in the short term, but in the long term the problem usually gets much worse, because most drugs are linked to serious mental illness.

Children also often use drugs to escape life; some children with traumatic life stories cannot tolerate being 'awake' in their lives and use drugs to detach and escape from reality and their emotions.  Some children and young people are introduced to drugs by their family or parents.

There are many reasons why young people use drugs.  It is important not to stereotype or give up on young people who use drugs; they often present with significant distress and impairment and they have often experienced more trauma in their short lives than most adults.  They are often extremely vulnerable and in significant need of support and help.

When to suspect drug/alcohol use?

Unexplained behaviour
Behaviour that is 'out of character'
Bizarre behaviour
Aggressive/defiant behaviour
Unexplained loss of money or possessions
Unexplained increase in money/possessions
Mood changes
Anxiety, irritable, moody, 'on edge'
Very relaxed, sleepy, 'in a zone'
Paranoia and abnormal beliefs
Abnormal sensations
Sleep changes
Appetite changes
Weight loss
Unusual smells, powders, empty bags
Keeping secrets and not telling the truth
Red eyes, shakiness
Puncture marks and bruises on arms, neck, legs, feet or stomach
Nose bleeds and frequent sniffing
Deteriorating health and infections
New and often older friends
Functional impairment
Poor self care
Deterioration in work/school work
Loss of interests in favourite activities or hobbies and friendships

What to do when you suspect drug/alcohol use?

This is often the beginning of a very difficult path.  The most important thing is to be firm and to refuse to give up on the person you are concerned about.  It is important to know that when you speak to someone with an alcohol or drug use problem, that you are not speaking to the person, but that you are speaking to the substance, so reasoning may be unhelpful and confronting someone who is intoxicated is most certainly often unhelpful and dangerous. 

Safety should always come first, not just the safety of the patient, but also the safety of his or her loved ones, family and carers.  Do not tolerate abuse and get professional help (from Mental Health teams, your GP, the local Emergency Department or the Police) immediately if you feel there are safety issues present for you and your family.

People who suffer with drug or alcohol abuse should have and need to take an active role in their treatment, but safety and capacity to make decisions are key components to consider.  Speak to a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist regarding these issues. 

As a parent, you have the right and obligation to make decisions regarding your child's health (when they are of a certain age).

Inform yourself as best you can.

Do not turn a blind eye, because it is easier.  Denial cannot help your child.

Talk to your child and take the time to listen before acting.  Don't debate or argue with someone who is addicted.

No two children, young people or adults are the same and no two people using drugs or alcohol to cope are the same; it is important to keep an open mind and to evaluate each case and associated risk on an individual basis.

Talk to your GP, they can give you advice on local support and treatment facilities.  Some CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) teams offer specialist treatment for children who present with drug and alcohol problems.

If a person is at immediate high risk to themselves or others, e.g. running in front of cars or appears to be convulsing -
please phone 999 immediately, so that the Police or medical staff / Ambulance can offer support.  If mental health problems are suspected (likely) then the person will be taken to a place of safety for a medical and mental health assessment.

See Helpful Links for more support. 

Factors indicating very high risk?

Young age
Taking drugs with older peers
Taking drugs with more experienced peers
Sexual exploitation (can be very common)
Risky sexual behaviour
Offending behaviour
Mental health problems
Physical problems
Breast feeding
Caring for babies or children
Behaviour around roads/railways
Amount and frequency of use
Direct inhalation
Poly-substance use (using more than one)
Administration by other people
Suicidal thoughts (ideas), intent or plans
Previous self harm or suicidal ideas or act

It is important to note that all young people using drugs are at very high risk.

If you are worried about
a child, young person or individual,
-thinking about harming themselves,
-harming themselves,
-thinking about ending their life,
-planning to end their life,
-planning to harm someone else,
-doing poorly; feeling very sad, angry, anxious or confused
-struggling to function, with significant distress
-with worrying medical symptoms or problems,
please contact your GP or speak to a doctor at the Emergency Department/
Accident and Emergency at your local hospital immediately

As mentioned earlier, if a person is at immediate high risk to themselves or others, e.g. running in front of cars or appears to be convulsing - 
please phone 999 immediately, so that the Police or medical staff / Ambulance can offer support.  If mental health problems are suspected (likely) then the person will be taken to a place of safety for a medical and mental health assessment.


Also called:
Speed, uppers, amph, whizz,
crystal meth (methamphetamine, which is stronger)

Powder (orange, yellow, dirty white)

Swallowed, drunk, sniffed, smoked or injected

Some Effects:
Anxiety and panic
Irritation and agitation
Psychosis (see Psychotic Disorders)
High energy and a 'high' (elated)
Dangerous cardiac (heart) and other physical side-effects that can lead to death

Ecstasy (MDMA)

Also called:
E, brownies, burgers, disco biscuits, hug drug, pills, Adam, Mitsubishis, Doves, Rolex's, Dolphins, XTC)

Tablets with different colours and shapes

Some Effects:
Anxiety and panic
Happy, lively, friendly
Psychosis (see Psychosis Disorders)
Dangerous physical effects, such as dehydration, which can lead to death


Also called:
Snow, coke, Charlie, C
Crack cocaine is called rock, stone, wash (more addictive and stronger)

White powder
Crack cocaine - crystals (rocks) the size of a coffee bean

Sniffed, snorted and injected
Chewing leaves
Crack cocaine - smoked

Some Effects:
Crack cocaine's effects are more rapid and intense and can wear off quickly.
Anxiety and paranoia
Lively and confident
Psychosis (see Psychotic Disorders)
Dangerous physical effects, such as stroke, heart attack, heart failure and death


Also called:
Acid, trips, microdots, stamps, tabs

Small pieces of paper/squares with pictures

Eaten or sucked

Some Effects:
Psychosis (see Psychotic Disorders)
Seeing odd shapes and colours
Pleasant or terrifying 'trips'
'Trip' can last several hours
Flashbacks of trip several months later
Dangerous physical complications which can lead to death

PCP (Phencyclidine)

Also called:
Angel dust

Smoke, snort and injected

Some Effects:
Psychosis (see Psychotic Disorders)
Euphoria ('high')
Life threatening physical complications


Also called:
Grass, skunk, dope, weed

Skunk is a stronger type of Cannabis.  There are more or less 100 varieties.  It is named after the pungent smell it gives off during growing.  Traditional Cannabis and Skunk come in a wide variety of strengths; which means it is often not possible to judge exactly what is used.

Looks like a gravy browning cube, dried seeds or herbs

Smoked or baked in cakes

Some Effects:
Psychosis (See Psychotic Disorders)
Anxiety, panic
Relaxed, laughing, talkative
Dangerous physical complications that can lead to death

Research indicates that people who use Cannabis have a significantly higher risk of developing Psychotic Disorders or Schizophrenia.  If you start smoking before age 15, you may be 4 times more likely to develop a psychotic disorder by the time you are 26.


Also called:
Smack, H, skag, horse, junk, brown

Brown-white powder

Smoked, sniffed, injected

Some Effects:
Cut off from the world ('gouching out')
Relaxed and content
Dangerous physical complications such as respiratory arrest, which can lead to death

Solvents, such as butane gas, glue and aerosols, tranquillisers, such as Benzodiazepines for instance Valium (moggies, mazzies, tranx, fellies) and anabolic steroids are also used as drugs and can lead to serious mental illness and medical complications; the effects can be fatal.  

New drugs often come onto the market and drugs often change or get additional names. 
Please seek advice from your GP, the Emergency Department or specialist Drugs and Alcohol team if any concerns or questions.  

Helpful Links may offer further information and support. 

The content of these pages is intended for general information purposes only.  These pages do not constitute any form of consultative or diagnostic tool or process.  The assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health difficulties, particularly in children, is a complex and specialised process and should only be undertaken by individuals with appropriate training and sufficient experience, such as qualified mental health professionals.  If you are concerned about the mental health of a young person, please seek appropriate advice from your General Practitioner, local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service or Social Care.  Research findings and conclusions can vary between sources, and can change over time. 


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