Drugs and alcohol

Get the facts

  • 22% of 11-15 year olds have taken illegal substances in their lifetime. (Information Centre's annual report 2008)
  • Every year nearly 5,000 young people in England are admitted to hospital because of alcohol. (Source - Drinkaware)
  • It is illegal to buy or be sold alcohol if you are under 18 years
Drugs and alcohol

What exactly are drugs?

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.
  • Illegal psychoactive drugs. These are also commonly known as "legal highs" - which makes some people think they are safe. The fact that a substance has not been banned yet does not make it safe. For example, Mephedrone, synthetic cannabinoids (or "spice") and 1-Benzylpiperazine (BZP) were all banned recently. Many of these drugs are developed quite quickly and sold on the internet 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' once banned became class B drugs. Ketamine is a class C drug.

If you have any doubts as to what a substance is, seek advice first from a medical person.

What types of illegal drugs are there?

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

  • Class A drugs are the most addictive and harmful and include things like heroin and cocaine. Just having a class A drug in your pocket can get you up to seven years in prison. If you 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.

    Other class A drugs include: Crystal Meth, 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 expect up to fourteen years in prison.

    Other class B drugs include: Amphetamines, Ritalin, Pholcodine.
  • Class C drugs include tranquilisers and steroids. You can get up to two years in prison for possession and up to fourteen years for dealing.

What happens when you get addicted to drugs?

An addiction happens when a person finds it difficult to go about their lives without a regular “hit” of the product that they are addicted to. Drugs such as heroin are highly addictive.

Apart from the damage to your health, drug addiction can lead to a cycle of problems that only get progressively worse until you either get help or end up in prison or hospital. In the worst cases, drug addiction can be a direct cause of someone's death. A typical cycle of problems could look something like this:

  • getting high
  • missing school or work as a result
  • coming down
  • feeling a strong need for more of the drug which can become more important than anything else (including family and friends)

Drugs can be expensive so the following might happen:

  • the need for the drug becomes a need for money
  • addicts often resort to theft to pay for their drugs
  • the need for drugs gets stronger with bigger doses taken
  • more money is needed
  • bigger and more serious crimes are committed to get more money
Drugs and alcohol

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

Also remember that since 2007 it has been illegal to smoke inside places that are open to the public such as pubs, restaurants and anywhere where people work.

If drugs and alcohol are a problem in your life, you can take steps to help yourself and there are other people who can help and offer support too.