Pocket Guide to Recreational Drugs

A Practical Guide to the Safety and Health Issues of Licit and Illicit Recreational Drug Use

Updated November 18, 1995 with a minor update on October 29, 2006.

Common Recreational Drugs

Beer is 3-6% alcohol, wine is 8-12%, and distilled liquors 40-50%. Some wines include distilled liquor. Methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol, is deadly. Most industrial and solvent alcohols are deadly forms of alcohol.
Alcohol should not be mixed with barbiturates, tranquilizers (such as Valium), and especially not with heroin. It is easier to overdose on distilled alcohol. Eating can moderate the intensity of an alcohol high, as can using more natural forms such as beer or wine. Intoxication can cause users to feel confident when they are impaired. Alcohol gives a deceptive sense of warmth. Body temperature is dropping as the sense of warmth increases. Alcohol is especially damaging to the liver.
Continued use of amphetamines can cause a form of psychosis. Amphetamines are more toxic than cocaine and can cause worse problems when abused. The liver cannot detoxify amphetamines as efficiently as it can cocaine.
Eating is generally less hazardous than snorting, which is less hazardous than injecting. Some over-the-counter medicines contain amphetamines.
Caffeine occurs naturally in coffee and tea, and is added to most soft drinks. A similar drug is in chocolate. Caffeine is also added to some over-the-counter medicines.
Coffee is irritating to the stomach and bladder, especially in women. It can cause of headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia. Caffeine may increase the risk of heart attacks. Tea is less irritating to the stomach and contains less caffeine. Combining caffeine with sugar and fat can increase dependence. Caffeine can be toxic if over-used, and continued use can result in addiction.
Cocaine is derived from the Coca plant. Coca is eaten and brewed as tea. In this form it is safe. Neither coca nor cocaine are considered physically addictive, but cocaine can facilitate strong dependence. It is easy to develop a bad relationship with cocaine.
Cocaine, a stimulant, can increase the workload on the heart. Cocaine is safer taken orally. When taken nasally, inflamed nasal passages can occur, which may lead to infections. It can be dissolved with water to avoid this. Cocaine is also a local anesthetic. It will ‘numb’ the areas where it is applied, which can lead to similar problems.
Also known as MDMA, or X. Dependence is rare, but does exist, resembling amphetamine dependence. Ecstasy should not be mixed with alcohol or other depressants. Fatigue generally results the day after use.
Heroin is a derivative of morphine, a product of the opium poppy.
The opiates are nearly as addictive as tobacco. Heroin and alcohol should not be mixed. Tolerance to heroin may be site-dependent. When using it in a new setting, tolerance is reduced, and overdose can result.
Ketamine was designed from PCP, and its effects are very similar. Both are dissociative anesthetics, although at the lower recreational doses are used primarily as hallucinogens. While they can be taken orally, ketamine is usually injected intramuscularly, and PCP is usually smoked. Overdose can result in seizures.
LSD should not be used when depressed. LSD greatly intensifies and changes the way sensory information is interpreted by the mind.
The effects of LSD last 8 to 12 hours, and users may be fatigued the next day. Tolerance to LSD develops very quickly. This tolerance disappears as rapidly as it develops. The most common, and safest, form of LSD is a tab from a sheet.
Panic under LSD is best countered with calm and understanding. Medication often exacerbates the problem. LSD causes no known lasting problems, nor does it cause convulsions or seizure.
There are no known cases of marijuana overdose. The effects of marijuana are highly dependent on the user's expectations. New users often feel no effect until the second or third use.
Marijuana generally does not impair physical coordination, but does impair short term memory, causing users under the influence to be distracted more easily. While marijuana does not impair driving ability as seriously as alcohol, it does add to the impairment if used along with alcohol.
Long term regular use of marijuana can lead to desensitization to the effects. The desensitization is temporary. Marijuana can be eaten, removing any dangers of smoking.
Mescaline is the active principle of the peyote cactus. It is used as an hallucinogen. Street mescaline is often really PCP or LSD.
Psilocybe and Muscaria mushrooms are the most commonly used hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Spores are sold through the mail. Spores are legal in most states, but not in California. Mushrooms can be found in the wild, but experience is needed to identify safe varieties. Panic attacks under mushrooms are best countered by understanding. Some medical texts call for treating Amanita muscaria with atropine, under the mistaken assumption that muscarine is produced by muscaria. Atropine reacts badly with muscimol, the true secondary hallucinogen from muscaria.
Nitrous Oxide
Nitrous is used as an anesthetic and in food preparation.
Excessive or prolonged use may damage bone marrow and the nervous system, and addiction or dependence may occur. The largest danger is losing balance and falling. Nitrous is illegal as a drug, but legal for food preparation. Safe nitrous can be purchased in small canisters without resorting to the black market. Unless the nitrous is professionally manufactured for medical or food use, it may contain deadly byproducts.
The safest means of inhaling nitrous is from balloons. Frostbite or torn skin can result if nitrous is dispensed directly from metal parts. Nitrous should never be released into an enclosed area.
Nightshades, such as jimsonweed and datura, cause unpleasant side effects, including extreme thirst and anxiety. The hallucinations are often frightening and vivid , resulting in dangerous actions by the user. The lethal dose for nightshades is often close to the dose required for hallucinogenic effects. Lasting physical damage is possible.
Tobacco is our most addictive recreational drug. Nicotine, the active principle, is a stimulant, and very poisonous.
Chew and snuff are less addicting than pipes and cigars, which are less addicting than cigarettes. Addiction and health risks can be minimized by limiting use to once a week or less. Tobacco can cause cancer and heart disease, and tobacco smoke is a factor in lung disease.

Simple Safety Tips

  • Don’t use drugs while driving. When using drugs in a social setting, try to have a ‘designated driver.’
  • Don’t use recreational drugs alone. If you have an accident, friends can help.
  • Don’t use drugs to help you do your job. If you really need coffee every morning, re-think your sleep schedule.
  • Don’t use drugs while pregnant, especially during the first few months.
  • Don’t use drugs to feel normal. This is one of the more common themes heard from addicts-that the addict doesn’t feel “right” until taking the drug.
  • Be honest and open with your doctors. Many drugs, including alcohol, interact with other drugs. Talk with your doctor and ask questions.
  • Don’t use drugs for hangovers. Don’t use drugs to overcome the hangover or ‘down’ period after using drugs.
  • Don’t mix drugs. Especially concentrated drugs-mixed drinks, caffeine pills, cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs.
  • Don’t be afraid to get help! If a friend is having a seizure, convulsions, or is in a coma, seek emergency help, whether the drugs are legal or illegal.
  • Don’t share needles or straws. They can spread AIDS, Hepatitis, and other diseases by bringing those diseases directly into your bloodstream.
  • Most drugs are safest eaten, less safe smoked or snorted, and least safe injected. The more directly the drug is placed in the body, the less chance the body has to detoxify it and remove impurities.

Drug Terminology

Active Principle
The active principle of a drug is the part of the drug that causes the desired effect, in this case, intoxication. Alcohol is the active principle of beer, for example.
Addiction and Dependence
Some drugs, such as tobacco or opium, can cause an addiction in users. Addiction is physical-there is a physical withdrawal if the drug is not used. Dependence is not physical. The user is ‘in the habit’ of using the drug regularly, or likes doing the drug a lot, but abstinence would not cause physical withdrawal.
Other texts use addiction and dependence interchangeably, adding ‘physical’ to describe classical addiction.
Legal, Over-the-Counter, Prescribed, Prohibited
Some drugs are fully legal, such as caffeine. Others are available over-the-counter, such as nitrous oxide, freely available but recreational use is prohibited. Others are prescribed, and can only be legally acquired through a prescription, such as ketamine. A few drugs, such as marijuana, are prohibited, and cannot be acquired legally. The legal status of a drug seems to have no relation to its safety or intoxicating effects. Severe criminal and civil penalties can result from using prohibited drugs, including jail and loss of property. Punishment can exceed that for murder and rape.
Some drugs cause tolerance after use. Tolerance makes the user less susceptible to the intoxicating effects of the drug, as well as less susceptible to the lethal effects of the drug. In some cases (barbiturates, for example), tolerance for the psychoactive effect can increase faster than tolerance for the toxic effects, resulting in greater chance of overdose.