Talking about drugs

Drug use is a personal and sometimes sensitive issue, and may be difficult to talk about. Understanding drugs and why people might use them can help to facilitate an open and supportive conversation.

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What is a drug?

A drug is any substance that, when taken or administered into the body has a physiological effect.

A psychoactive or psychotropic drug affects mental processes and can influence mood, behaviour, cognition and perception.

The effects of any drug vary from person to person. How a drug affects a person can depend on their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking the drug, and whether other drugs are in their system at the same time.

The effects will also depend on the amount taken. It can be hard to judge how much of an illegal drug has been taken, as they are uncontrolled, so quality and strength will vary from one batch to another.

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People use drugs for many reasons; to relax, for enjoyment, to be part of a group, out of curiosity, as a coping mechanism or to minimise physical and/or psychological pain and trauma.

They use drugs for the benefits (perceived and/or experienced), not for the potential harm. This applies to both legal and illegal drugs.

Many Australians take at least one psychoactive drug on a regular basis - they might take medication (i.e. over-the-counter or via a prescription), drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or use an illegal drug. All drugs have the potential to cause harm. As use increases, so does the potential for harm.

These are some of the different categories of drug use. People may use drugs in one or several categories, and one stage will not inevitably lead to another.

  • Experimental use is when a person tries a drug once or twice out of curiosity.
  • Recreational use is when a person chooses to use a drug for enjoyment, particularly to enhance a mood or social occasion.
  • Situational use is when a drug is used to cope with the demands of particular situations.
  • Intensive use or ‘bingeing’ is when a person consumes a heavy amount of drugs over a short period of time, and/or uses continuously over a number of days or weeks.
  • Dependent use is when a person becomes dependent on a drug after prolonged or heavy use over time. They feel a need to take the drug consistently in order to feel normal or to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

While drug use can be harmful it does not automatically lead to a dependence, many people only use drugs once or infrequently.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected and remember that paramedics do not need to involve the police. If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

Having the conversation

Discussing alcohol and drugs with family members and friends is an opportunity to learn more about different types of drugs and their individual and social impact.

The Power of Words

Designed to support healthcare and other professionals working with people who use alcohol and other drugs to reduce stigma and improve health outcomes.


Many parents are concerned about alcohol as well as other drugs as their children grow up, and for good reason. Young people are at greater risk of alcohol-related harm than adults.

The law

An overview of drugs and Australian law.

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