Learning Objectives

  • Compare the effects of prescription and illegal drug use and abuse on the body


Marijuana is a green, brown, or gray mix of dried, crumbled leaves from the marijuana plant. It can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette (called a joint) or a cigar (called a blunt). Marijuana can also be smoked in a pipe. Sometimes people mix it in food and eat it.

Marijuana can make you feel silly, relaxed, sleepy, and happy—or nervous and scared. It may change your senses of sight, hearing, and touch. It can also make it hard to think clearly.

Effects of Marijuana on the Body and Brain

These are just some of the problems marijuana can cause:

  • Memory problems: Marijuana makes it hard to remember things that just happened a few minutes ago. That makes it hard to learn in school or to pay attention to your job. A recent study showed that if you begin regular marijuana use as a teen, you can lose an average of 8 IQ points, and do not get them back, even if you stop using the drug.
  • Heart problems: Using marijuana makes the heart beat fast and raises your risk of having a heart attack.
  • Coughing and breathing problems: Marijuana smokers can get some of the same coughing and breathing problems as cigarette smokers. Marijuana smoke can hurt your lungs.
  • Drugged driving: Driving when you’re high on marijuana is dangerous, just like driving drunk. Your reactions to traffic signs and sounds are slow. It’s hard to pay attention to the road. And it’s even worse when you’re high on marijuana and alcohol at the same time.
  • You stop caring: Over time, marijuana users can get “burnt out.” They don’t think about much or do much. They can’t concentrate. They don’t seem to care about anything.
  • Addiction: Although some people don’t know it, you can get addicted to marijuana after using it for a while. This is more likely to happen to people who use marijuana every day, or who started using it when they were teenagers.

Cocaine (Coke, Crack)

Cocaine is a white powder. It can be snorted up the nose or mixed with water and injected with a needle. Cocaine can also be made into small white rocks, called crack. It’s called crack because when the rocks are heated, they make a cracking sound. Crack is smoked in a small glass pipe.

Cocaine can make a person feel full of energy, but also restless, scared, or angry.

Effects of Cocaine on the Body and Brain

These are just some of the problems cocaine can cause:

  • You feel sick: Cocaine can cause stomach pain and headaches. It can make you shake, throw up, or pass out.
  • No appetite: Cocaine can make you not want to eat. Over time, you might lose a lot of weight and get sick.
  • Heart attack and stroke: Cocaine raises your blood pressure and makes your heart beat faster. This can hurt your heart. It can give you a heart attack or stroke (brain injury from a blood clot). Some people die because of it.
  • HIV/AIDS, hepatitis: People who inject (shoot up) cocaine can get HIV/AIDS and hepatitis (a liver disease) if they share used needles. People also get these diseases by having unsafe sex. They may forget to use condoms because they’re high on the drug.
  • Addiction: It is easy to lose control over cocaine use and become addicted. Then, even if you get treatment, it can be hard to stay off the drug. People who stopped using cocaine can still feel strong cravings for the drug, sometimes even years later.


Heroin is a white or brown powder or a black, sticky goo. It can be mixed with water and injected with a needle. Heroin can also be smoked or snorted up the nose.

Heroin causes a rush of good feelings just after it’s taken. But some people throw up or itch after taking it. For the next several hours you want to sleep, and your heart rate and breathing slow down. Then the drug wears off and you may feel a strong urge to take more.

Effects of Heroin on the Body and Brain

These are just some of the problems heroin can cause:

  • Sick and itchy: Heroin can make you throw up and feel very itchy.
  • You stop breathing: Heroin can slow or stop your breathing. It can kill you.
  • HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis: Sharing used needles to inject (shoot up) heroin can give you HIV/AIDS and hepatitis (a liver disease).
  • Overdose: People overdose on heroin because they can’t tell how strong it is until they take it. Signs of a heroin overdose are slow breathing, blue lips and fingernails, cold clammy skin, and shaking. You can die from a heroin overdose. People who might be overdosing should be taken to the emergency room immediately.
  • Coma: Heroin can put you in a coma. That’s when nothing can wake you up, and you may die.
  • Addiction: It is very easy to become addicted to heroin. Then, even if you get treatment, it’s hard to stay away from the drug. People who stopped using heroin can still feel strong cravings for the drug, sometimes years later. Fortunately, there are medicines that can help someone recover from heroin addiction.

Meth (Crank, Ice)

Methamphetamine—meth for short—is a white, bitter powder. Sometimes it’s made into a white pill or a clear or white shiny rock (called a crystal).

Meth powder can be eaten or snorted up the nose. It can also be mixed with liquid and injected into your body with a needle. Crystal meth is smoked in a small glass pipe.

Meth at first causes a rush of good feelings, but then users feel edgy, overly excited, angry, or afraid. Their thoughts and actions go really fast. They might feel too hot.

Effects of Meth on the Body and Brain

These are just some of the problems meth can cause:

  • You overheat: Meth can make your body temperature so hot that you pass out. Sometimes this can kill you.
  • Crank bugs: Meth can make you feel like bugs are crawling on or under your skin. It makes you scratch a lot. Scratching causes sores on your face and arms.
  • Meth mouth: Meth users’ teeth become broken, stained, and rotten. Meth users often drink lots of sweet things, grind their teeth, and have dry mouth. This is called “meth mouth.”
  • You look old: People who use meth start looking old. Meth users burn a lot of energy and don’t eat well. This can make them lose weight and look sick. Their hands or body might shake. Their skin looks dull and has sores and pimples that don’t heal. Their mouth looks sunken as the teeth go bad.
  • HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis: People who inject (shoot up) meth can get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis (a liver disease) if they share used needles. People also get these diseases by having unsafe sex. They often forget to use condoms because they’re high on the drug.
  • Addiction: Meth use can quickly lead to addiction and hurt different parts of your brain. It can cause thinking and emotional problems that don’t go away or that come back again even after you quit using the drug. For instance, you might feel, hear, or see things that aren’t there. You might think that people are out to get you, or start believing strange ideas that can’t really be true.

Prescription Pain Medicine (OxyContin, Vicodin)Pill bottle on its side with pills around it

Pain medicines relieve pain from surgery or injuries. You need a prescription from a doctor to buy some strong kinds of these medicines. Prescription pain medicines are legal and helpful to use when a doctor orders them to treat your medical problem.

But people sometimes take these without a doctor’s prescription to get high or to try to treat themselves or their friends. Drug dealers sell these pills just like they sell heroin or cocaine. Some people borrow or steal these pills from other people.

Some people think that prescription pain medicines are safer to abuse than “street” drugs because they are medicines. Prescription pain medicine abuse can be as dangerous as heroin or cocaine abuse.

Oxycodone is one pain medicine that people often abuse. Sometimes it goes by the brand names OxyContin® or Percocet®. Another one that is often abused is hydrocodone. One of its brand names is Vicodin®.

Pain medicines are usually white, round, or oval pills. They can be taken whole, smoked, or crushed into a powder that is snorted or injected.

Like heroin, pain pills can cause a rush of good feeling when they’re first taken, but they can also make you want to throw up. They can make you very sleepy, and you can get addicted to them.

Effects of Pain Medicine Abuse on the Body and Brain

These are just some of the problems pain medicine abuse can cause:

  • You stop breathing: Pain medicine abuse can slow down or even stop your breathing.
  • Coma: Pain medicine abuse can put you in a coma. That’s when nothing can wake you up.
  • Addiction: Prescription pain medicines can be as addictive as heroin—especially if they are smoked or injected. Then, even if you get treatment, it’s hard to stay away from the drug. Fortunately, there are medicines that can help someone recover from prescription pain medicine addiction.
  • Overdose: Signs of a pain medicine overdose are cold and sweaty skin, confusion, shaking, extreme sleepiness, trouble breathing, and coma.
  • Death: Many people die from pain medicine overdoses. In fact, more people overdose from pain medicines every year than from heroin and cocaine combined.

Other Drugs of Abuse

There are many other drugs of abuse, including:

Ecstasy (X, E, XTC) is a pill that is often taken at parties and clubs. It is sometimes called the “love drug” because it makes people feel very friendly and touchy. It also raises body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, and can make you feel sad for days after its effects wear off. Learn more information about ecstasy here.

K2 or Spice (fake weed, Skunk) is a drug made from shredded dried plant materials and chemicals. It is usually smoked. The “high” feels about the same as the “high” from marijuana. Spice users sometimes end up in the emergency room with rapid heart rates, vomiting and other uncomfortable side effects. K2/Spice is illegal. Learn more information about K2/Spice here.

LSD (acid) comes in pills or on small pieces of paper that have been soaked in liquid LSD. It makes you see, hear, and feel things that aren’t there. You might see bright colors, pretty pictures, or things that scare you. Learn more information about LSD here.

PCP (angel dust) is a pill or powder that can be eaten, smoked, or snorted up the nose. It makes people feel far away from the world around them. PCP often makes people feel angry and violent, not happy and dreamy. Learn more information about PCP here.

Inhalants are dangerous chemicals that make you feel high when you breathe them into your lungs (also called huffing or sniffing). These chemicals are found in household cleaners, spray cans, glue, and even permanent markers. Inhalants can make you pass out, stop your heart and your breathing, and kill you. Learn more information about inhalants here.

Club Drugs
Some drugs are called “club drugs” because they are sometimes passed around at nightclubs and parties:

  • GHB is a liquid or powder that can make you pass out. It’s called a “date rape” drug because someone can secretly put it in your drink. This means that you can’t fight back or defend yourself. Then they will have sex with you without your permission.
  • Rohypnol (roofies) is a date rape pill and can also be put in a drink.
  • Ketamine (K, Special K) makes you feel far away from what’s going on around you and can feel scary and unpleasant. It is usually taken by mouth, snorted up the nose, or injected with a needle.

Bath Salts are drugs made with chemicals like the “upper” found in the Khat plant. They are only sold with the name “Bath Salts” to make them look harmless. These drugs can make you “high” but they can also make you shaky, afraid, and violent. They look like a white or brown shiny powder and are sold in small packages labeled “not for human consumption.” They can be taken by mouth, by inhaling into the lungs, or with a needle. Some people end up in the emergency room or even die after taking bath salts. Learn more information about bath salts here.


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