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Things teens should know about commonly used substances


  • Alcohol is an intoxicating ingredient in beer, wine, and liquor. It is by far the most common substance used by adolescents.
  • Alcohol affects every organ in the body. Intoxication can impair brain function and motor skills. Heavy use can increase the risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver disease.
  • Adolescents commonly engage in binge drinking. This heavy, episodic drinking pattern may lead to black outs caused by alcohol toxicity affecting the brain cells. Adolescents who have blacked out are vulnerable to being hurt, abused, or molested.
  • Binge drinking makes adolescents more susceptible to accidents — particularly car accidents. Binge drinking also puts teens at risk of dying by drowning, falling, or exposure to cold weather.
  • People who start drinking at a young age are at much higher risk of developing alcohol dependence later in life. Kids who start drinking when they’re 14 or younger have an almost 50 percent chance of developing dependence as adults. Those who begin drinking at age 21 have a less than a 10 percent chance.

Cannabis (marijuana)

  • Marijuana is an addictive substance that comes from the cannabis plant. Like all addictive substances, chronic use of marijuana causes changes in the brain.
  • Short-term effects of marijuana use include euphoria, distorted perceptions (which may be pleasurable), memory impairment, and difficulty thinking and solving problems.
  • Kids and teens who develop marijuana use disorders typically will think they can stop at any time. Most won’t associate problems with family, friends, or school with their use of marijuana. Many will be unwilling to quit or seek treatment.
  • Marijuana addiction is associated with serious mental health disorders. Many kids with marijuana addiction will feel they have to continue using marijuana to control their anxiety or depression. While marijuana may help in the short run, regular, long-term use makes it very difficult to treat these other conditions.
  • Use of marijuana can also increase the risk of serious mental health issues, including schizophrenia in susceptible adolescents.
  • While several states have passed “medical marijuana” laws, these laws are not recognized by the federal government. The FDA continues to categorize cannabis as “class 1,” indicating no accepted medical use. To date there are no safety and efficacy measures that physicians use to guide medical prescribing.
  • Use of synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called “K2” or “Spice,” is on the rise. These substances have similar effects as marijuana, though the side effects may vary depending on the substance.


  • This class of drugs includes narcotic pain medications, such as morphine, codeine, Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin. It also includes illicit drugs, such as heroin, opium, and fentanyl, which is often produced illicitly.
  • Many adolescents think that pain medications are safe because they are prescribed by a doctor. Unfortunately, this class of drugs has an extremely high potential of addiction. Many kids tell us they became addicted after using just once or a few times.
  • Individuals who become addicted to opioids will use frequently — usually daily or more — and many end up switching to heroin, which has the same physiologic effects but can be cheaper and easier to get on the street.
  • Heroin is an addictive drug that is processed from morphine and usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black, sticky substance. It can be injected, snorted, or smoked.
  • Short-term effects of opioids include a surge of euphoria, clouded thinking and drowsiness, or “nodding off.” Kids who overdose can stop breathing and die.


  • Inhalants are chemical vapors found in common household products, such as lighters, whipped cream cans, keyboard cleaners, and body spray.
  • Inhalants are often used by younger teenagers because these products are easy to get and do not generally arouse suspicion by adults.
  • Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. If a sufficient amount is inhaled, nearly all solvents and gasses produce a loss of sensation and even unconsciousness.
  • A single use of inhalants can be lethal.


  • This group includes prescription medications (such as Adderall and Ritalin) prescribed to improve the inattention associated with ADHD.
  • Teens may give, trade, or sell their medications to peers who may take the medications to improve focus. However, use of stimulants by individuals who do not have ADHD does not improve long-term performance.
  • Unmonitored stimulant use can lead to physical problems, mental health problems, and addiction.At high doses, stimulants can produce euphoria and give the user a higher level of alertness. Adolescents trying to achieve euphoria may crush pills and “snort” them in order to get a large dose of amphetamine to the brain very quickly.
  • When misused, this class of drugs has effects similar to cocaine.

Methamphetamine (meth)

  • Methamphetamine is a very addictive stimulant closely related to amphetamine.
  • It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder taken orally or by snorting or injecting, or as a rock "crystal" that is heated and smoked.
  • Methamphetamine increases wakefulness and physical activity, produces rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure and body temperature.
  • Methamphetamine use can be fatal: It can cause a person’s body temperature to rise so quickly that they pass out and can die without proper medical attention.
  • Death can also occur from heart attack or stroke due to the drug’s effects on heart rate and blood pressure.


  • Cocaine is a powerfully addictive central nervous system stimulant that is snorted, injected, or smoked. Crack is cocaine hydrochloride powder that’s been processed to form a rock crystal that is usually smoked.
  • Cocaine usually makes the user feel euphoric and energetic, but it also increases body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate.
  • Even sporadic cocaine use can cause sudden cardiac death.

MDMA (ecstasy or molly)

  • MDMA, most commonly known as ecstasy or molly, is a synthetic drug that produces both energizing and psychedelic effects.
  • Ecstasy is referred to as a “club drug” because it tends to be used at bars, nightclubs, concerts, and parties.
  • Short-term effects include feelings of mental stimulation, emotional warmth, enhanced sensory perception, and increased physical energy.
  • Ecstasy use can lead to seizures and other neurologic side effects, including hyperthermia (abnormally high body temperature), which can be lethal.


  • Depressants work by slowing down the activity of the brain and central nervous system. They may be prescribed by a doctor for anxiety or insomnia.
  • Common depressants include:
    • barbiturates, used to treat seizure and anxiety disorders
    • benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, Klonipin), used to treat acute stress and anxiety and sleep disorders
    • sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta), used to treat sleep disorders
  • When taken as prescribed, depressants can be very helpful, but taking depressants to get high or depressants that haven’t been prescribed to you can cause serious health problems and lead to dependence.
  • Depressants can cause slurred speech, disorientation, sleepiness, and shallow breathing. It is possible to overdose and die from using depressants.

You can find more information on the effects of different substances on these sites: NIDA For Teens and SAMHSA.