If you’re a teen, chances are pretty good you know people who take drugs, know how to get drugs, have been offered drugs, and may even have taken drugs yourself.

But do you know the real risks of drug abuse? Not the stories whispered in the school bathroom but the real, scientifically demonstrated risks?

Signs of Trouble

Some kids avoid drugs; others smoke the occasional spliff at a party. Then there’s those who can’t get through the day without a chemical high. When you reach the point where you’re not just using drugs but they’re using you, common sense goes out the window. You give up all the things you used to love – friends, family, activities – just to get more of the drug. “Are you spending all of your money on it? Are you continuing to use despite negative consequences?


Do you need more and more in order to get high? These are questions you should ask yourself to see if your drug use is getting out of hand, says teen drug abuse expert Karla Frazier. Other signs of trouble include failing in school (especially if you were doing fine before you started using), losing friends, or having more trouble than usual getting along with family.

A Crap Shoot

You may think you’re immune to addiction or that you’re only sticking with “non-addictive” drugs. Don’t think that makes you safe. Be aware that there’s good evidence that teens are actually more susceptible to addiction than adults.

Be aware that there’s good evidence that teens are actually more susceptible to addiction than adults.

“If you use alcohol before the age of 15, you’re five time more likely to become addicted to it than someone [who starts] after age 21. That’s a definite fact,” says Frazier.

But don’t get caught up on labels. It’s not important whether or not you are technically “addicted” to something. What matters is how your drug use is affecting you and the people around you. And using any drug, even those that some people consider “non-addictive,” can mess up your life.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that many people go through life regularly taking drugs without appearing to have any problems with it. “There are people who are hard-wired [for drug abuse] and some who are not,” says Frazier. “For instance, there are some people who go off to college and drink heavily and then leave college and never have a problem with it again. … But some do. And you cannot know that ahead of time.”

Read that last line again. No matter what you think about your self-control, no matter what anyone tells you about this or that drug, there is no way of knowing for sure whose drug use will become out-of-control and whose will not.

“It’s a crap shoot,” says Frasier. “You don’t know what you’re getting [with most illegal drugs], and you don’t know what the effects are going to be for you. Sometimes you walk away from it fine, but some people are not going to. And there’s no way of knowing ahead of time. And it’s tragic if you’re not the one who can leave it alone.”

What do you know about some of the most popular drugs among teens? Let’s review.


Considered by many to be a “safe” drug, the marijuana available today is not the stuff your parents smoked. It’s far more potent – and toxic. Smoking marijuana, in any of its many forms, is far more damaging to the lungs than smoking cigarettes and can cause the same lung diseases. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Smoking marijuana, in any of its many forms, is far more damaging to the lungs than smoking cigarettes and can cause the same lung diseases. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The main active ingredient in marijuana, known as THC, is soluble in fat. This means it can hang around in your body for a long time, wreaking havoc on your ability to learn and remember for weeks or months after taking the drug. This is definitely not a great pre-exam high!

marijuana abuse

Marijuana use also negatively affects the health of sperm in men, speeds up your heart rate (putting you at increased risk for a heart attack), and can sap your motivation. In some people, it can cause paranoia. If you have big plans for the future, this is not the drug for you.

No matter how well you know your dealer, don’t be fooled into thinking that your marijuana is “clean”.

This is one of the most commonly adulterated drugs, and even your dealer may not know what’s in his or her stash. “I’ve had kids who show up positive for PCP, and I know they’re telling me the truth that they’re not aware they’ve ever used it,” says Frazier.” Our conclusion was that maybe it was in the marijuana they got.”

Ever taken a close look at someone who’s been smoking for years? Note their yellow teeth, wrinkled face, and sallow skin. Regularly smoking marijuana will give you the same “old hag” makeover.

Ecstasy (MDMA)

The quintessential club drug, ecstasy can make dancing all night seem just that much more fun. But what is it doing to your brain? It ramps up the activity of three brain chemicals known as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. That can mean a great high, but at what cost?

“It’s like you’re born with a box full of quarters,” says Frazier. “You can spin them a few at a time or you can spin them all at once. You only have so many of certain chemicals in your brain, and when you spin them all at once, you can burn them out.”

Research suggests that the brain’s serotonin system is what can burn out with ecstasy abuse.

That’s a bad thing because serotonin is important for keeping us happy. Burn out this system, and you’re looking at ongoing problems with depression and confusion. Long-term use of ecstasy can also zap your attention span and memory. Again, if you plan to go onto great things in your life, you don’t want to be burning out your brain chemicals now.

And by the way, a bad trip on ecstasy means nausea, vomiting, chills, sweating, muscle cramps, and teeth clenching. An overdose can result in high blood pressure, panic attacks, fainting, and even loss of consciousness and seizures. Party on…?

Anyone who’s tried ecstasy will tell you it makes you grind your teeth. That can wreak havoc on your pearly whites and also make your jaw ache. The drug also boosts your body temperature, making you sweat. Blotchy skin and clammy armpits will be your new fashion accessories.

Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth)

Yes, it gives you the energy to party all night, but this is one drug that really spins those quarters. This time it’s the brain chemical dopamine, also important for keeping us happy, that goes into overdrive. Long-term use of methamphetamine produces quite profound changes in the brain that have been shown to last for months and even years. These changes can produce negative effects on your mood, memory, and even your motor ability.


For your brain to recover from the effects of methamphetamine, you need to stop using it. That’s a lot easier said than done; ask anyone who’s tried. This is a very addictive drug. In the short-term, methamphetamine revs up your system, which puts your heart at risk and can cause convulsions. Methamphetamine also affects your judgment and can reduce your sensation of pain, making you a likely candidate for taking some pretty dangerous risks. A safe drug this is not.

In the short-term, methamphetamine revs up your system, which puts your heart at risk and can cause convulsions. Methamphetamine also affects your judgment and can reduce your sensation of pain, making you a likely candidate for taking some pretty dangerous risks. A safe drug this is not.

Methamphetamine use can have pretty horrific effects on your appearance.

Within a few months, you’ll look ten years older, and not in a now-I-can-get-into-clubs-without-fake-ID sort of way but more in an I-look-like-an-old-bag-lady kind of way. Before-and-after images of meth users on the Internet are shocking.

Why such a dramatic effect?

Meth constricts blood vessels, making it more difficult for your body to heal itself. That translates into wrinkled, saggy skin that is prone to acne and sores that take forever to heal. Then there’s “meth mouth”, a not-so-attractive combination of broken, rotting, and stained teeth, which is caused by meth making the salivary glands dry out and the tendency for the drug to make you grind your teeth. Meth will make you lose weight, but again not in a skinny supermodel sort of way but more in a walking skeleton sort of way. Put it this way, you can be Freddy Krueger for Halloween without bothering with a costume.

Incidentally, while meth has a reputation for making you a careless sex god (putting you at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS), you should know that regular use is likely to make you impotent.

Prescription Opioids

This category of drugs includes oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). They seem like the drugs of choice for young celebrities these days. Hardly a day goes by without some news story of a pretty young starlet crashing her Benz while under the influence of a prescription opioid.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that opioid drugs are safe just because they’re legal when obtained with a proper prescription. They’re from the same family of drugs as heroin and, taken inappropriately, can be just as dangerous.

Opioids slow down the system, including breathing and heart rate.

Take enough, and these will stop altogether. The more you take these drugs, the more your body builds up a tolerance. So, what gives your more experienced buddy a mild high could kill you. Tolerance can be tricky, too. You can build up a tolerance to the pleasant effects of these drugs faster than to their effects on the heart and breathing. In other words, as you take more and more of the drug to get high, you may soon find that the dose you need to feel good will kill you.

Regular users of opioids can easily be identified by their sleepy, droopy appearance, constricted pupils, and poor hygiene. If you snort the drug, add to that a runny nose and eyes. Injectors will give themselves away with scars and track marks. Remember not to enter any beauty contests if you’re an opioid abuser.

Homemade Drugs

Mixing drug cocktails at home with ingredients you can buy at the pharmacy is a really, really bad idea.

“Don’t read what’s on the Internet [about making and taking drugs,]” says Frazier.” It has some crazy things on it. There are people on there trying to tell you how to use drugs in a ‘safe’ way. … but for some people you can’t ever be safe with anything.”

Let’s take just one example of drug cocktails you mix up at home. Triple C is popular. This and many other home mixes are based on the cough suppressant DXM (dextromethorphan). On its own, DXM can produce nausea, vomiting, racing heart, and high blood pressure.

But one of the reasons making a DXM cocktail at home is so dangerous, says Frazier, is that the drug is usually sold in formulations that combine it with other drugs, such as decongestants.

“Some of the other ingredients in the medicine compete with [DXM] when being processed by the body,” she says. That slows down the body’s ability to eliminate all of these drugs, resulting in a “chemical soup that sits around and can damage the organs.”

Bottom Line

ecstasy dangersThere are so many drugs out there, with new ones popping up all the time, that this article can only just touch the surface of what kind of trouble they can get you into. The bottom line is, you’re probably going to have the opportunity to take drugs in your life. You may have many opportunities and even find yourself in situations where people are trying to push drugs on you. The important thing is to have your facts straight. Don’t listen to what your buddies say; they may mean well, but they may be wrong. Get to the truth. Learn about the risks.

You can learn more about drug and drug use by checking out the Internet sites listed here in the Resources section, but be careful if you stray from these sites. The Internet is full of misinformation about drugs. The list of sites included here has been carefully put together to include only those that provide reliable information presented by experts and backed by scientific research. Use it. Show it to others.

What to Do

If you think you have a problem with drugs, you’ll probably “need help getting help,” as Frazier puts it. Talk to an adult you trust. Your parents are a good start, but not if they’re the ones who started you on drugs in the first place. If your parents can’t help, find someone else: a teacher, a guidance counsellor, your doctor, or even your local walk-in medical clinic.

These days, most drug problems can be treated on an out-patient basis, meaning you won’t have to stay at a hospital or treatment facility. Be aware, though, that you may need to go to such a place, depending on how serious your problem is and which drugs you are using.

If a friend is abusing drugs, you also need to tell a trusted adult, even if it costs you the friendship.

“If you really care about somebody, you’re sometimes willing to take a step that they won’t like you for. With drugs, it often happens that way,” says Frazier.

You may need to kill the friendship to save the life.

For parents

Drug abuse.

Those two words can send a chill down almost any parent’s spine. There are few things more frightening and disappointing than learning your child is abusing drugs. It may be the hardest thing you ever do, but this is not the time to lecture or punish. An abuser needs help, and you’re probably in the best position to help your child.

How to Tell

How do you know if your child is abusing drugs?

Karla Frazier offers some signs that may tip you off:

  • Sudden drop in grades
  • Hanging out with new friends/ abandoning old friends
  • Regular use of air freshener and/or mouthwash
  • An odd smell around your child and his/her things
  • Coming home late
  • Staying up all night
  • Missing school
  • Bloodshot eyes or weird pupils
  • Regular use of eye drops

“Does their drug use cause problems in their relationships?” Asks Frasier. “That’s a pretty big sign for an adolescent. Adults may lose their job or their license, but for kids it shows up in relationships. People that used to care kind of drift away.”

Frazier is a clinical program consultant at the Youth Villages-Inner Harbour Campus near Atlanta, Ga., and a certified master addiction counsellor. Youth Villages is a private nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children with emotional and behavioural issues and their families live successfully.

What to Do

If you’re worried that your child has a drug problem, sit down with him or her during a quiet moment and talk about your concerns. Bring up the specific changes you’ve noticed. Ask your child to work with you in order to make things better.

If your child refuses to admit to a drug problem but you are still suspicious, it is possible to have him or her tested. Home drug screen kits are available over the Internet, or you can ask your doctor to do it.

Once you’ve confirmed the presence of a drug problem, you need to find treatment.

Ask your doctor or local hospital for local treatment centres or check out the “Get Help” section on this website.

It is definitely best if your child goes to treatment willingly, but there are options if he or she initially refuses. Staging an intervention in which a group of family and friends supportively and lovingly urges the abuser to seek treatment can sometimes be convincing enough. This can be done with the help of a professional interventionist. As an absolute last resort, you can have your child arrested for drug possession. For some kids, getting them off the street this way can be life-saving, says Frazier.

Preventing Drug Abuse

How can we prevent our children from becoming drug abusers? The sad truth is that you can’t protect them fully from drugs any more than you can protect them from any of life’s potential pitfalls. Use of illicit drugs is common among Canadian teens. In a 2012 study, nearly 25% of Canadian teens between the ages of 15 – 17 reported that they had tried cannabis.

What you can do is try to keep the lines of communication open and make sure both you and your kids are informed about the drugs available on the street today. The Resources section included here can help with that.

Frazier says that a number of her adolescent clients were first introduced to drugs by their parents. She warns all parents that the drugs available on the street today are nothing like what was available when they were younger. They are stronger and purer. They’ve been chemically and genetically enhanced for power, making them potentially far more dangerous. If you give your child a puff of a marijuana cigarette, you may not know how strong it is or even what’s really in it.

Article written by Alison Palkhivala