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Recreational drugs

Recreational drugs are chemical substances taken for enjoyment rather than for medical reasons. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine can be classed as recreational drugs but are not covered in this leaflet. Recreational drugs are usually started to provide pleasure, or improve life in some way. However, they can lead to addiction, to health and social problems and to crime. Most are illegal, so their use comes with all the consequences of breaking the law. If you, or someone you know, have a problem with drugs, there are lots of ways to obtain help.

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What are recreational drugs and why are they used?

Recreational drugs are chemical substances which are used for pleasure. There are many reasons people try recreational drugs, particularly young people and young adults. These include:

  • Their friends are doing it, and they don't want to feel left out, or not cool.

  • They get pressurised into trying it.

  • They are interested in experimenting with the effects, and seeing what happens when they take drugs.

  • They may feel drugs give them new experiences or perspectives.

  • They make them feel more relaxed, or more confident when relating to others.

  • They may feel drugs help them forget their worries or problems.

  • They may feel drugs make them feel happier.

  • They want to be rebellious.

  • They enjoy the effects.

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What are the problems with the use of recreational drugs?

All drugs can have dangerous effects. Many can be unpredictable and variable. There are numerous problems which the use of drugs can cause. These include:

  • Infections. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and certain types of hepatitis can be passed to others by blood on needles. This can happen through sharing needles, or from needlestick injuries.

  • Addiction. Most recreational drugs can become addictive, and the person can be dependent on having them regularly and in the long-term.

  • Cost. A regular recreational drug habit is expensive; obtaining the money for it can lead to crime, especially when the person is addicted and cannot stop.

  • Social problems. People regularly using recreational drugs may behave in different ways. This may cause problems with their relationships or they may lose their job. Children of people who use drugs can be affected.

  • Mental health. Recreational drugs can cause people to develop unusual behaviour and can sometimes contribute to diagnoses such as schizophrenia. There are thousands of admissions to hospital each year for drug-related behavioural and mental problems. Drugs can cause people to develop depression or anxiety.

  • Overdose. People can become very ill or die from drug overdose.

  • Illegal drugs are often not pure, and people don't always know what they are taking.

  • Accidents and fights are more likely after taking drugs.

  • Unwanted sexual intercourse is more likely under the influence of drugs, which may lead to sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancy.

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How many people use recreational drugs?

The government obtains reports on recreational drug use in the UK every year. These are published regularly. The latest statistics at the time of writing this leaflet are from the year ending March 2020; therefore the statistics are minimally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reporting period is mainly prior to lockdown.

  • An estimated 9.4% of adults aged 16-59 had taken a drug in the last year (3.2 million people).

  • This rises to 21% when considering the age group 16-24, and falls to 1% when considering the age group 60-74.

  • 2.1% of adults aged 16-59 and 4.3% of adults aged 16-24 use drugs frequently (more than once a month)

  • When considering only class A drugs, the numbers fall to 3.4% of those aged 16 - 59 and 7.4% of those aged 16-24.

Drug use was largely similar to the year before.

Which are the most common recreational drugs used?

In the UK, cannabis is the most commonly used recreational drug. Cocaine is the second most used.

Some of the more common recreational drugs are listed below, along with their nicknames.However, for a complete list, visit the Frank website (see below).

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Other names:
Speed, whizz, sulph, dexies.

How are they taken?
Amfetamines are usually sold in powder form. This can be snorted up the nose, wrapped in cigarette paper and swallowed ('speedbomb'), rubbed into the gums, mixed with drinks, or injected.

What do they do?
An amfetamine is a stimulant, so it gives you more energy. You can keep partying, dancing, working for longer without getting tired. It makes you feel excited and upbeat.

What are the harmful effects?
They can make you overactive, jittery or anxious. Occasionally they cause a severe mental condition where people lose contact with reality and see or hear things that are not really there (psychosis).

Amyl nitrates

Other names:
Poppers, TNT, amyls, kix, liquid gold.

How are they taken?
They usually come in a bottle of liquid which is sniffed. They can also be inhaled through a cigarette dipped in the bottle.

What do they do?
They give you a 'high'. The effects come and go very quickly. Some people think they make sex better.

What are the harmful effects?
They can cause chemical burns around the mouth or nose. The liquid is very flammable so can cause fires if used carelessly. They can make you feel sick or weak. They can cause death if swallowed by accident.


Other names:
Hash, hashish, weed, pot, marijuana, ganja, dope, skunk, grass, puff.

How is it taken?
It is usually smoked. It can be mixed with tobacco and rolled up. This is called a spliff or a joint. It can also be mixed in with food or drinks.

What does it do?
It can make you feel happy and relaxed. It can also change the way you see or hear things.

What are the harmful effects?
It can make you feel very anxious or excessively worried or make you panic. It can also make you feel very suspicious of everybody (paranoid). It makes you more likely to develop a mental illness such as schizophrenia. Driving under the influence of cannabis makes you more likely to have an accident. It can make your brain work less well, so you don't concentrate or remember things as well. It can be especially harmful for people with heart disease. It can make you less fertile if you are trying to have a baby.


Other names:
Crack, coke, white, toot, pebbles, freebase, sniff, blow, beak

How is it taken?
Cocaine comes as powder, freebase or crack cocaine. The powder is called coke and is usually sniffed up the nose. Freebase and crack cocaine are usually smoked through a pipe or tube. All forms can be turned into a liquid and injected.

What does it do?
It makes people feel super-confident, and alert. It reduces hunger pangs. After a big high, there follows a 'come-down', or low.

What are the harmful effects?
People can do dangerous things when they feel more confident than they should. It can damage the inside of your nose. It makes the heart beat faster and it can sometimes cause very high blood pressure or heart attacks. It can cause mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and panic disorder. There are risks from infected needles. Cocaine can become very addictive, and people who use it regularly crave more. It can cause death in overdose.

MDMA (ecstasy)

Other names:
E, crystal, dolphins, superman, pills, pingers, mitsubishis, mandy, brownies, teslas, eccies.

How is it taken?
Ecstasy is usually swallowed as a pill.

What does it do?
It makes you feel high and happy and full of energy. It can make colours and sounds more intense. It can give you feelings of love and affection towards people around you for a short time. It is often used by people who go clubbing, so they have the energy to carry on late into the night. The effects last for several hours.

What are the harmful effects?
Ecstasy pills are often not pure, so the effects can be unpredictable, depending on what they are mixed with. The after effect, or 'comedown', can make you feel very low. It can cause depression, anxiety and memory problems. Sometimes it can cause problems with your immune system, heart, kidneys or liver. It can cause death.


Other names:
H, smack, skag, gear, brown.

How is it taken?
Heroin is usually dissolved into a liquid and then injected. It can also be smoked or snorted.

What does it do?
Heroin is made from the opium poppy. In its form for medical use, it is called diamorphine and is used as a very strong painkiller. It makes you feel calm, happy and relaxed.

What are the harmful effects?
Heroin is extremely addictive; once people are hooked it is very difficult to stop using it. When people overdose on it, they can stop breathing and lose consciousness or die. Using infected needles to inject heroin can cause the spread of hepatitis or HIV. It can damage the blood vessels.


Other names
K, vitamin K, super K, special K, green, donkey dust, ket.

How is it taken?
It can be swallowed, snorted or injected.

What does it do?
It can make you feel very relaxed. It is a very strong painkiller. It can make you feel as though you are somewhere else rather than in your body. It can give you hallucinations, and affect the way you see time and space. This effect is called a 'trip'. A trip can be a good or a bad one.

What are the harmful effects?
It can affect your heart or blood pressure. It can make you confused and frightened. It can make you feel sick. It can affect your memory. It can damage your bladder and make you feel like you need to pee more often and urgently. This is called 'ketamine bladder syndrome'. You can also injure yourself because you don't feel pain. It can damage your veins, and sharing infected needles puts you at higher risk of hepatitis and HIV.


Other names:
LSD stands for its chemical name, lysergic acid diethylamide. It is also commonly called acid. Other terms include blotter, tripper, flash, stars, rainbows, paper mushrooms, acid.

How is it taken?
It is swallowed as a tablet or drops of liquid.

What does it do?
Like ketamine, LSD causes good or bad trips. A good trip can make you feel relaxed and happy. A bad trip can make you feel frightened and make you panic. It can make you see things that aren't there (hallucinate) and these can be good things or bad things.

What are the harmful effects?
It can make you frightened and confused. Sometimes you can have 'flashbacks' when you relive the same experience again. People can be more likely to self-harm when they have a bad trip.

Magic mushrooms

Other names:
Shrooms, mushies, magics, philosopher's stone.

How are they taken?
Magic mushrooms grow wild in the UK. The two types are liberty caps and fly agaric. They are eaten raw, or dried and used in drinks.

What do they do?
Magic mushrooms can also give you good or bad trips. A good trip makes you feel happy, chilled out and confident. A bad trip can be frightening. Some people find magic mushrooms make them more imaginative or creative or sensitive, or they have a feeling of spiritual enlightenment.

What are the harmful effects?
They can make you feel sick or give you tummy ache or diarrhoea. You can feel very frightened or disorientated. You can have flashbacks later. You might put yourself in danger when you feel disconnected from reality.


Other names
Meow meow, miaow, m smack, m cat, drone, bubble, white, mc, charge.

How is it taken?
It can be snorted, or wrapped in paper and then swallowed ('bombed').

What does it do?
It is a stimulant with similar effects to amfetamines. It makes you feel euphoric and confident and talkative. You may develop a short-lived love for those around you.

What are the harmful effects?
It can make you feel sick or dizzy or give you headaches. It can make you suspicious or anxious. It can cause your heart to race. Occasionally it causes fits. It can damage your nose, mouth or throat. It can stop you sleeping.


Other names:
Yaba, glass, meth, crank. The crystal form is called crystal meth or ice. Methamfetamines are a stronger form of amfetamine. 4-methylamfetamine is another strong form of amfetamine, also called ket phet or phet ket.

How are they taken?
Methamfetamines can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked. The crystal form is the strongest and most addictive.

What do they do?
They cause a strong 'high', which lasts for 4-12 hours (longer than crack cocaine) followed by a severe 'comedown'. They may make you feel full of energy and awake. They may make you feel more aroused. They may make you less hungry.

What are the harmful effects?
They can make you feel agitated, jittery, anxious, suspicious or aggressive. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, and make you more likely to have a heart attack. They reduce your inhibitions and they make you more likely to take risks you would not usually take - for example, having sex with strangers. They can cause severe psychiatric illness, or psychosis. The effect of this can be homicidal or suicidal thoughts or behaviour. Overdose can result in death. They are very addictive.

Volatile substances - gases, glues and aerosols

What substances are abused?
Aerosols (such as deodorants, air freshener, hairspray), nail polish or nail polish remover, glue, paint remover, shoe polish, petrol, cigarette lighter fluid. It can be called sniffing, tooting, huffing, dusting, or buzzing gas.

How are they taken?
The substance is breathed in or, if in a spray form, can be sprayed to the back of the mouth.

What do they do?
They may make you feel happy and excited. You may feel giggly and high. It is a very short-lived effect.

What are the harmful effects?
They can cause dizziness, being sick (vomiting) or blackouts. They can cause hallucinations. You may become sore around the mouth or nose. They can give you headaches. They can give you problems sleeping and make you feel tired. These substances can be very dangerous. Sometimes people die instantly when they use them. They can make your heart stop. Sometimes the gas at the back of your throat can make it swell up so you can't breathe.

Recreational drugs and the law

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

The Misuse of Drugs Act was a law passed in 1971 in the UK to try to prevent the use of harmful recreational drugs. It divides drugs into three categories - A, B or C, depending on how dangerous they are thought to be. Each of the categories then has different penalties for those convicted of use or supply.

Offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act include:

  • Possession of drugs.

  • Supply of drugs.

  • Possession with intent to supply another person.

  • Offering to supply another person with drugs.

  • Manufacture of drugs.

  • Export or import of drugs.

  • Allowing your property to be used for the use, supply or production of drugs.

Class A drugs are the most harmful. They include crack cocaine, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD, methadone, methamfetamine and magic mushrooms. The maximum penalty is seven years in prison plus a fine for possession, and life imprisonment plus a fine for supply.

Class B drugs include amphetamines (other than injectable types), cannabis, mephedrone, codeine, ketamine, methylphenidate and barbiturates. The maximum penalty is five years in prison plus an unlimited fine for possession, and 14 years in prison plus an unlimited fine for supply.

Class C drugs include anabolic steroids, gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and minor tranquillisers. The maximum penalty is two years in prison plus an unlimited fine for possession, and 14 years in prison plus an unlimited fine for supply. The exception is for anabolic steroids - it is not illegal to possess them for personal use.

Many drugs have medical or scientific uses, so they are placed into one of five schedules by the Misuse of Drugs Regulations of 2001. These allow some drugs to be legally used in certain situations.

Schedule 1 drugs are those which have no legitimate medical purpose. These are strictly controlled and can only be used (for example, for research) with a special Home Office licence. This category includes cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and raw opium.

Schedule 2 drugs can be prescribed by doctors and they are legal to possess if they have been prescribed. They include amfetamines, cocaine, dihydrocodeine, heroin, methadone, morphine, opium in medicinal form, pethidine and methylphenidate hydrochloride (Ritalin®). These have to be looked after in a specific way by pharmacies.

Schedule 3 drugs can also be prescribed legally. They include groups of medicines called barbiturates and benzodiazepines, which make you sleepy. There are special rules guiding prescriptions.

Schedule 4 drugs include most minor tranquillisers, and anabolic steroids. They are legal if you have a prescription for them. However, it is illegal to supply them to other people.

Schedule 5 drugs are those which are unlikely to be abused. They do not necessarily need a prescription and can be bought over the counter. They are legal to possess but illegal to supply to another person. This includes certain cough medicines and mild painkillers.

'Drug driving' - the new offence

This refers to driving, trying to drive or being in charge of a vehicle while having a specified controlled drug in your body, above a specified limit. This came into effect in March 2015. The drugs covered by this offence include cannabis, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, ketamine, heroin and methylamfetamine.

Roadside drug screening devices use spit (saliva) to identify if the person driving or in control of the vehicle has taken a drug as listed above. Following a positive result using saliva, you can then be asked to provide a blood sample for evidential purposes, to allow prosecution for the new offence (if you are above the specified limit).

How can I tell if my child or my friend is using recreational drugs?

Some signs which MAY indicate somebody is using recreational drugs include:

  • They may become more moody or have mood swings (but remember, teenagers can be moody for lots of reasons!).

  • They may start staying out later, or socialising with new friends.

  • They may seem more tired and have difficulty concentrating, or lose interest in the things they normally enjoy. Schoolchildren may start doing less well at school, or stop doing their normal hobbies. Adults may neglect their usual responsibilities.

  • Sores around the mouth or nose.

  • Losing their appetite.

  • Odd things around the house, such as torn cigarette packets, small sealable plastic bags, silver foil, needle covers, empty aerosol cans.

  • Needing more money, yet nothing to show for it. Money in the house going missing.

  • Regularly getting into trouble.

  • Being more anxious or worried than normal.

  • Bloodshot eyes; pupils bigger or smaller than usual.

  • Unusual body smells.

  • Shaking, poor co-ordination.

How can I obtain help if I have a problem with recreational drugs?

You are not on your own. Lots of people have tried taking recreational drugs and have needed help to stop. If you find you are using a drug more and more often, this may be the start of becoming dependent on it. If you keep wishing you hadn't afterwards, or find you are running into trouble in other areas of your life, there are lots of ways to obtain help. Think about why you are using the drugs and see if that helps you work out how to stop. For example:

  • Is it because of pressure from other people? If so, you might be able to consider hanging out with other friends.

  • Is it because it makes you feel better about problems in your life? If so, you might be able to obtain help by talking about those problems with somebody.

  • Is it because you are bored? If so, you could look for a new hobby or skill to take up that would be healthier and enjoyable.

  • Is it because you can't stop because you crave more? If so, you might need help from one of the many organisations who help people quit.

There are lots of different ways of seeking help; it depends on you which might suit you the best. Sometimes it is helpful to talk to the people who care about you - your parents, your friends, your teacher, your GP, for example. There are several organisations that help people wanting to stop taking drugs. You can choose to contact them in various ways - online for live chat, or by email, or by phone, or by visiting in person. Or you can just read the information on their websites. Some of these, such as 'Frank', 'Turning Point', or 'Know the Score', are listed below. Alternatively, your GP would be able to suggest the right place to go for help.

Don't be scared of telling people about your drug problem. They are likely to be relieved you want to do something to stop.

How can I help another person who has a problem with recreational drugs?

Talk to them first. Be honest about your concerns and discuss the risks of drug taking and the worries you have. Try to understand why they are taking recreational drugs. Try not to be critical. If you understand why it is happening, you are more likely to be able to help them stop.

Either on your own, or with the person you are worried about, you can go and speak to your GP and ask advice. Or, you can contact one of the many organisations that help people who are misusing drugs. Several of these are listed below. They can give you advice and support. School nurses, teachers, or social workers may also be able to help and advise. It is not an uncommon problem, so you are not alone. There are professionals with lots of experience in helping other people in the same boat.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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