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Young People

What exactly are drugs?

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You can describe drugs using four broad categories

Over the counter drugs. For example aspirin or ibuprofen to treat general pain. These drugs can be bought without a doctor's prescription from a pharmacist or some shops. Misusing these drugs can have harmful side effects. The instructions on how and when to use these drugs must be followed.

Prescription drugs. These drugs are controlled because they could be dangerous or addictive, so they must be used under professional guidance. You need a prescription to buy them - if you don't these drugs are illegal. Only a pharmacist can sell them to you and only if you have a prescription from a doctor. If you take these drugs without a prescription your health could be in danger - some prescription drugs have caused death when taken without guidance.

Novelpsychoactive drugs. These are also commonly known as "legal highs" Government recently suggested the phrase chemical highs as ‘legal’ is often an inaccurate name which makes some people think they are safe. The fact that a substance may not have been banned yet does not make it safe. New chemicals are being made and sold all the time and it takes time to identify and test these chemicals. For example, Mephedrone, synthetic cannabinoids (or "spice") and 1-Benzylpiperazine (BZP) were all banned recently, Benzofuran and NBome are temporarily controlled until they can be banned permanently. Many of these drugs are developed quite quickly and sold on the internet or in premises selling other chemicals and equipment, before they can be banned.

Illegal, classified drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or cannabis. These drugs are classified as A, B or C depending on the harm they cause. For example Crack Cocaine is a Class A drug, 'Spice' and 'Mephedrone', cannabis and a large number of synthetic cannabinoids are class B drugs. Ketamine is a currently a class C drug.

If you have any doubts as to what a substance is, seek advice first from a healthcare professional

What types of illegal drugs are there?

Illegal drugs are put into different classes according to how dangerous or addictive they are

Illegal, classified drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or cannabis. These drugs are classified as A, B or C depending on the harm they cause.

Class A drugs are the most addictive and harmful and include things like heroin and cocaine. Just having a class A drug knowingly in your pocket can get you charged an the maximum sentence upon conviction is seven years in prison. If you pass or sell a class A drug you will be classed as a dealer. Someone who is caught dealing drugs could get sentenced to life in prison upon conviction. Being arrested, charged or cautioned could have a negative impact on you if you wish to travel to certain countries. It may stop you being allowed to enter the US for instance.

Other class A drugs include: Methamphetamine, Methadone, Ecstasy and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD).

Class B drugs are very harmful and addictive - this group includes cannabis and the more potent variety ‘skunk’. If you are found with cannabis in your pocket you can get up to five years in prison. Dealers can receive a maximum up to fourteen years in prison.

Other class B drugs include: Amphetamines, Ritalin, Pholcodine.

Class C drugs include ketamine, tranquilisers and steroids. Upon conviction You can get up to two years in prison for possession as a maximum sentence and up to fourteen years for dealing

What about alcohol?

Alcohol is also a potentially harmful substance. For adults, drinking in small quantities is fine but it is illegal for people under 18 to buy alcohol or drink it in public.

Excessive drinking of alcohol can have lasting effects like:

  • making you vomit or urinate without control
  • putting you in danger by taking unnecessary risks
  • causing you to behave violently or get into fights
  • damaging your brain
  • damaging your liver
  • damaging your stomach and digestive system

Drinking alcohol can sometimes lead to addiction, which can have devastating effects. Liver damage, for example, can be permanent and fatal.

Take a look at the Drink Aware website for facts about drinking and the related health risks. The NHS also runs a website with information about safe drinking.


Like alcohol, cigarettes can also be highly addictive. Everyone knows that cigarettes are really unhealthy, but lots of people choose to smoke anyway.

According to Cancer Research UK by the age of 11 one third of children have experimented with smoking and by the time they are 15 around one in four teenagers are regular smokers.

Young people might start smoking because they feel pressured to do it by friends or people at school. Sometimes they just see other people around them doing it and it seems okay. If you smoke or are thinking of smoking remember that cigarettes:

  • can make you very ill - including causing cancer, heart attacks and strokes
  • make your clothes smell horrible and mouth taste disgusting
  • cost a lot of money
  • are addictive
  • are illegal for people under 18
  • will not make you look cool to most people you know