Drugs, Science & Safety

This article was originally published in the Concrete Drugs & Alcohol Survey 2015, you can view the survey here:


Drugs are funny little things, they can make you feel like you’re the king of the world, throw you into a nightmare of hallucinations and paranoia, or even make you enjoy Westlife. They’re chemicals which should not be taken lightly, some can cause immense harm, but steps can be taken to reduce harm when taking illicit substances.

Concrete does not condone the use of drugs, regardless of their legal status. However, as the survey shows UEA students (and the general population) continue to take drugs, and it seems only logical to give anyone thinking about taking these substances some tips on how to stay safe.

If you are affected by any issues discussed in this article, please refer to the help service below.


Easy harm reduction tips that apply to all drugs:

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

Use a test kit. Using a test kit to confirm what you have is a good start, available from sites such as, you can identify what the substance really is. Unfortunately, with pills they could contain any dosage and be mixed with anything. This is particularly a problem with MDMA. Using sites such as you can try to identify the pill you have. This can give you information as to the contents of the pill. However, this isn’t always reliable as pill shape and colours can be imitated.

Everything in moderation. Drugs like LSD and cannabis may seem harmless, but long-term use as with anything can have negative effects.

Less is more. Drug purity varies hugely. Always stick to a low dose for your first time using a new batch: you may find it’s very strong. It’s always possible to take more, but you can’t take un-take drugs.
Research something before you take it. If you want to read about people’s experiences with drugs, taken at different amounts in different ways, Erowind is a non-profit organisation that has an ‘experience vault’ for an incredibly wide variety of drugs:

A quick biology lesson:

There’s some basic biology you’ll need to know before explaining drugs. Recreational drugs largely effect our brain’s messaging systems to give a desired effect. Our brain communicates through neurotransmitters (NTs), these are the three main NTs:

This is the chemical responsible for giving you energy. When you’re in a fight or flight situation, you’ll have noradrenaline pumping in your body.


This chemical gives you that good feeling from anything as small as a satisfying meal, to reaching orgasm.



A hugely important communication chemical in the brain, responsible for a wide variety of body functions including mood, sleep, perception and appetite. NTs are released into a synapse by a neuron where it will bind to another neuron. This binding allows different parts of the brain to communicate with another. After use NTs are either recycled from the synapse to be reused, or broken down entirely.

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StimStimulants are your typical party drug, they make you want to get on your feet, chat to everyone, and dance the night away. However some cause an increase in aggression, impulsiveness, and sexual disinhibition. Dangers that are typical of all stimulants are an increased heart load, appetite suppression, and dehydration. With any of the following drugs it’s important to stay hydrated and fed. If you have any pre-existing heart conditions stimulants could cause significant harm and should be avoided.

In general, mixing different stimulants will increase heart rate, which can lead to health issues, and should be avoided. Mixing with alcohol will dull the effects of both, which can lead to more ingestion of more drugs with the potential for overdose.


Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) is the most common illegal stimulant taken at UEA, with 53.09% of respondents who had taken illegal drugs on our survey having taken the drug, its popularity speaks for itself. Ecstasy commonly describes the pill form, which is typically filled with MDMA and other drugs like amphetamine.

My own experiences with the drug have led to some great connections with some of my closest friends. It can make you feel incredibly empathetic, ironically whilst “rolling” (the term for being high on MDMA), you can feel the most human.

How it works:
MDMA works on dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. The features most characteristic of MDMA are caused by Serotonin. MDMA mimics serotonin, causing it to enter serotonin neurons. MDMA prevents any recycling of serotonin from the brain when active, whilst simultaneously causing a large release of serotonin. This increases happiness, sociability, empathy and even an enhanced sensation of touch. This feeling will last for a few hours. The comedown is caused by serotonin being actively destroyed in the synapse after use. At high enough doses MDMA will cause minor hallucinations, in a similar way to psychedelics.

The dangers:
MDMA is thought to be neurotoxic, although currently unclear, some suggest that overheating by dopamine causes neurons to die [1], other suggest that MDMA is broken down into a more toxic chemical in the body [2].
Death by MDMA overdose is uncommon but can occur, where a typical dose of MDMA can be between 110-160 mg, death can occur at doses as low as 500 mg (10-20 mg/kg)[3].

How to prevent harm:
Staying hydrated is important. If you’re at a rave, dancing for hours, aim for 500 ml of water an hour. If you’re not constantly dancing and sweating you won’t need to drink as much.

Vitamins can be used to help with toxicity, 200 mg+ of elemental magnesium, 1-2 g of vitamin C and 100 mg of alpha lipoic acid an hour before use will help with jaw clenching and neurotoxicity. 5-HTP can be taken at least 12 hours after use to help restore serotonin levels[4], more information on other vitamins to take can be found at

MDMA use should be limited, ideally waiting a minimum of a month between uses. Unlike dopamine or noradrenaline, serotonin takes a long time to replenish fully. Giving plenty of time between uses will reduce damage. Those on antidepressants or herbal products that affect serotonin should avoid MDMA, as it can result in a build-up of serotonin in the brain, which can be very damaging and in some cases fatal.


Cocaine is the next most common stimulant at UEA after MDMA, which is surprising considering how expensive it is. Although drugs like MDMA or meth can be made in a lab, cocaine cannot be efficiently made synthetically, thus, the only access is from places such as Colombia and Peru, increasing price.
Cocaine has a strong euphoria combined with the energy and confidence that can make you feel invincible. However this isn’t the case, with addiction and heart problems prevalent in users, it’s definitely no miracle drug.

Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr

How it works:
Cocaine works by preventing the re-uptake of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. Unlike MDMA, cocaine is more selective towards dopamine and noradrenaline, the increase in NTs means an increased amount of energy and euphoria. The drug has a very short duration, which can lead to re-dosing.

The dangers:
Aside from the danger to your bank balance, cocaine, like all stimulants, will increase your risk of heart problems, alongside overheating which can cause cell death. Addiction to cocaine can lead to depression, psychosis and formication, which is the sensation of insects crawling under skin.

How to prevent harm:
With a short and powerful high, the craving for more can be intense, but remember taking more will increase neurotoxicity and health risks. The more you take the more damaging it will be so try to avoid long binges, or frequent use, as this may lead to addiction.

Cocaine is generally snorted. To minimise nasal problems, rinsing the nose with slightly salty warm water after cocaine use will clean the nasal passage.


Anyone who has seen Breaking Bad will know a fair bit about methamphetamine. Meth has taken America by storm, although it’s still fairly rare in Europe, with amphetamines being far more common.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Used either as a study aid or on a night out, amphetamines give a euphoric feeling with enough energy to take on anything. To compare, amphetamine gives you that feeling of energy you get before competing in a race, whereas cocaine makes you feel like you’ve just won.

How it works:
Similar to MDMA, it causes a release of all three NTs. However, it is far more selective to dopamine and noradrenaline, resulting in increased focus, euphoria and energy.

The dangers:
Problems with amphetamine or meth use are made worse by re-dosing. Amphetamine will give peak effects for three to four hours, and methamphetamine lasts even longer. If users re-dose, this can lead to sleep deprivation and increased neurotoxicity. During use, users may find themselves more aggressive or impulsive than usual.

How to prevent harm:
During use it’s important to stay hydrated and fed, as your appetite will be suppressed. Taking antioxidants and multivitamins can also reduce neurotoxicity.

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Dep Depressants are not commonly thought to be party drugs, however, the biggest party drug in the UK is a depressant, alcohol. Where stimulants increase the level of alertness and energy, depressants do the opposite. Mixing depressants together can be potentially fatal, and should therefore be avoided.

Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax)

Benzodiazepines are used medically for a variety of problems including anxiety and insomnia. Different benzodiazepines will differ in sedatory, anti-anxiety or muscle relaxant effects. Benzos are also commonly used during the comedown of stimulant use.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

How it works:
Benzodiazepines work by activating GABA receptors. GABA receptors are responsible for the inhibition of the central nervous system. In short, if noradrenaline is the accelerator of the body, GABA is the brake. By activating this receptor, the user will feel more relaxed, sedated, and free of anxiety.

The dangers:
The danger from benzodiazepine comes not directly from the drug, as an overdose is largely impossible to reach, but with drug combinations and the loss of inhibitions. If a high dose is taken, blackouts are common. Anecdotal stories include waking up in a police station with no recollection of past events, or blackouts lasting as long as two to three days at high enough doses.

Addiction is a huge problem with benzodiazepines. With cocaine, heroin or meth addiction, death from withdrawal is rare, however, if daily benzodiazepine use is not reduced slowly by medical professionals then death is highly possible.

How to prevent harm:
Preventing harm is achieved through avoiding any combination with alcohol or other depressants, and avoiding high doses to prevent blacking out. I would argue that benzodiazepines are one of the most addictive drugs due to their effects being subtle with little comedown, so regular use must be avoided.

Opioids (Heroin, Morphine, Codeine)

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

One of the older drug on this list, opium was first introduced to Britain in the late 17th Century and has been a pretty big hit on the scene for a while now.

Many people have taken opioids in one way or another, such as in A&E with a broken leg, or maybe a minor sprain needing some co-codamol. These painkillers, like many recreational drugs, have very important medical uses, but abuse can lead to problems.

How it works:
Codeine, morphine and heroin (diamorphine), are all similar drugs acting on the opioid receptors. There are multiple types of receptors giving a range of effects, including pain relief, euphoria and in some cases neuroprotection. Codeine and diamorphine do not directly act on opioid receptors, instead they are converted to morphine, which produces all or part of their activity[5].

But why is heroin so much stronger than morphine? Heroin has the ability to enter the brain more readily. When in the brain heroin is converted to morphine, where a stronger effect is produced[5].

The dangers:
Heroin can be easily overdosed, with as little as five times what is considered an “active dose” needed to cause fatal effects, with unknown drug purities, overdosing is very possible.
Heroin administration is largely performed through injection and this can cause a large variety of issues if sharing needles, including spreading blood-borne viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis.

How to prevent harm:
If you intend to inject the drug, services such as needle exchanges can be used to acquire clean needles. Starting with lower doses with each batch is advised due to the risk of overdose and range in purity.

Addiction is a serious problem with opiates, avoid regular use and avoid slipping into a state where you feel you need the drug. If you feel dependant on opiates, seek medical advice as there are treatments to help with withdrawals on the NHS.

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With 98.15% of people who had taken illegal drugs on our survey having taken cannabis, it’s fair to say that cannabis is the BNOC of drugs. Becoming legal for recreational use in some states in USA, and some South American countries, the possibility of cannabis becoming legal in the UK is a legitimate possibility in the next few decades.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Cannabis has been put under the psychedelic section, although it’s actually a drug that actually produces effects from all three drug categories, the wide range of cannabis plant species makes it very difficult to accurately describe how it feels to be high, as each strain can give such different effects.

How it works:
The cannabis plant contains 483 known compounds[6], the primary constituent is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). THC is one of 85 cannabinoid compounds found in cannabis that work on the creatively named, cannabinoid receptors. These receptors produce differing effects, from short term memory loss to anti-inflammatory effects.
As mentioned, cannabis contains different levels of cannabinoid compounds that work more strongly on different receptors, causing the huge variety in effects seen in different strains.

The dangers:
Overdose on cannabis is largely impossible, to overdose you need to take roughly 40,000 times what would get you high in the first place. However, there are some risks with cannabis, including increased heart rate, paranoia, anxiety and possible memory problems.

The harmful long term effects of cannabis continue to be debated. With cannabis usually being combined with other drugs such as tobacco or alcohol, resultant health issues cannot easily be identified as being caused by cannabis use. Although cannabis is not thought to cause schizophrenia, it can trigger symptoms of the condition in people susceptible to the effects. It has been shown that regular uses under the age of 15 have an increased risk of developing psychotic illness later in life. Data suggests that the more smoked the greater the chance of developing a psychotic illness.

How to prevent harm:
When consuming edible forms of cannabis, be aware it takes longer to have the full effect and will last longer, so as always, start off with a low amount and give ample time for the effects to kick in. If you have pre-existing problems of paranoia or anxiety, cannabis may increase the symptoms. If you have any heart conditions, cannabis should be avoided due to the increased heart load.

LSD & Other Psychedelics (Magic Mushrooms, 2c-b, NBOMe):

Now to the drugs that will make you “trip”. Often portrayed in the media as drugs that will make you see strange, colourful worlds, all psychedelics work in similar ways, but I’ll focus on how LSD works specifically.

“Trips” can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 18 hours, depending on what psychedelic you take. My experience with LSD and other psychedelics have given me a better perspective on life. The best way to describe LSD is that it changes the way you think; you see society from ‘outside of the box’, giving a completely new and different perspective.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

How it works:
The most common theory is that LSD works by mimicking serotonin. By binding where serotonin should, there is an increased activation in the receptors. Imagine a room of people, where a handful of them are telling you the weather, the time, and the temperature accurately. When LSD increases neuronal activation, more people in the room start to shout. In this scenario you would struggle to determine what the truth is. In the same way the brains struggles at deciding what is real and what isn’t. This results in hallucinations where you may hear, see, touch, smell or even taste something that isn’t there. It’s also thought that LSD causes communication between areas of the brain that would previously not interact. This can explain why people on LSD feel they can taste, see or even feel music.

LSD’s effect on our cognition is poorly understood, as our overall understanding on cognition is limited. So, it’s hard to say how LSD affects this, but it’s thought to in some way.

The dangers:
Overdose on LSD is, like cannabis, largely impossible. With an active dose as low as 0.1 mg, the lethal dose is 0.2-1 mg/kg. So a fatal dose will be around 400 times the normal dose.

The danger with LSD lies more with the trip itself. Although the chemical isn’t known to be harmful it’s important to remember the effects are unlike anything you would have experienced before. People being in dangerous situations or situations they don’t understand is a bigger risk than the chemical itself.

How to prevent harm:
Stay safe by having a comfortable environment, having safe surroundings is incredibly important when tripping. Having a positive attitude will help avoid having a bad experience. If possible have someone sober to be with you whilst tripping, as they may be able to help if things becomes too overwhelming.

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1. Yuan J, Cord BJ, McCann UD, Callahan BT, Ricaurte GA. Effect of depleting vesicular and cytoplasmic dopamine on methylenedioxymethamphetamine neurotoxicity. Journal of Neurochemistry. 2002;80(6):960-9.
2. Bai F, Lau SS, Monks TJ. Glutathione and N-Acetylcysteine Conjugates of α-Methyldopamine Produce Serotonergic Neurotoxicity:  Possible Role in Methylenedioxyamphetamine-Mediated Neurotoxicity. Chemical Research in Toxicology. 1999;12(12):1150-7.
3. TheDEA. Ecstasy: An abridged FAQ for medical personnel and assorted science geeks. place unknown: TheDEA; [date unkown] [cited 2015 17/02/2015]. Available from:
4. RollSafe. THIS IS AN MDMA HARM REDUCTION GUIDE place unknown: RollSafe; date unknown [cited 2015 17/02/2015]. Available from:
5. Rang HP, Dale MM. Rang and Dale’s pharmacology. Edinburgh; New York: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone; 2012.
6. Russo EB. Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Therapeutic Potential: Taylor & Francis; 2013.


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