Young people and drug use
The following data, from the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey, shows how many young people aged between 12-17 years consumed a drug in the past year.
Use the following sections to find out about the effects of the more common drugs used by Australian secondary school students. You can also visit our Drugs Facts pages for more information.
Cannabis affects everyone differently. Even the same person may have a different experience on separate occasions or over the course of their life. Some people report feelings of relaxation and happiness, while other people report anxiety and paranoia.
The effects include:
- feelings of relaxation and joy
- spontaneous laughter and excitement
- increased sociability or social withdrawal
- increased appetite
- impaired judgement
- dry mouth.14
A large amount, strong batch, or concentrated form can cause:
- temporary memory loss
- slower reflexes
- bloodshot eyes
- increased heart rate
- feeling detached from your own body, thoughts and emotions
- anxiety and paranoia.14
Long-term effects depend on how much, and how often, cannabis is consumed and may also be affected by how the cannabis is used (e.g. vaporising a concentrate versus smoking the flower).
Heavy, regular use of cannabis could potentially lead to:
- tolerance of the effects
- reduced cognitive functioning.15, 16
Cannabis use and mental health
Mental health issues associated with cannabis include depression, anxiety, and in some cases psychotic disorders.17
While cannabis may not directly cause mental health issues, people who frequently use it, or use large amounts, may have an increased risk of developing these problems17 – especially if mental health conditions run in the family.
It is important to note that young people who use cannabis may not experience mental health issues until later in life. Smoking cannabis regularly can increase a young person’s likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood.17, 18
Cannabis may also trigger cannabis-induced psychosis. Although this is uncommon, psychosis is a serious mental health condition, where people can lose touch with reality, have hallucinations and delusions, and become paranoid.
Once cannabis use is stopped, however, symptoms typically resolve.19
Note: The effects of synthetic cannabis are unpredictable and are typically more harmful than plant-derived cannabis.20
Inhalants are common household, industrial and medical products that produce vapours, which some people breathe in to make them feel intoxicated or ‘high’.
The effects of inhalants are:
- an initial rush or ‘high’
- blurred vision
- abnormal heart rhythm
- sudden death.21
If a substance is inhaled many times or a person uses a particularly strong inhalant, they can overdose, which can cause:
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
- irregular heartbeat
- chest pain
- blackout, seizures and coma.22
Some inhalants can cause long term harm such as cognitive dysfunction, kidney disease and growth impairments, especially if people use them heavily for a long period of time.23
Sudden sniffing death can also occur, which is the result of heart failure from an irregular heartbeat, and usually occurs from strenuous activity after inhaling.23
If you are concerned that your young person could be using inhalants, a guide for parents and families can be found here.
Nitrous oxide, known as ‘nangs’, is another type of inhalant that young people often experiment with. Nitrous oxide bulbs are relatively cheap, legal and readily available.
The drug is classified as a dissociative anaesthetic and has been found to produce:
- disconnection of the mind from the body (a sense of floating)
- distorted perceptions
- in rare cases, visual hallucinations.
The gas is inhaled, typically by discharging nitrous gas cartridges (bulbs or whippets) into another object, such as a balloon, or directly into the mouth.
Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a rapid rush of euphoria and a feeling of floating or excitement for a short period of time.24
Vaping is when an electronic device (e-cigarette) is used to heat liquids and produce a vapour, which is then inhaled – mimicking the act of smoking.
Some people use e-cigarettes to reduce or quit smoking - however, there is not enough evidence to support this use and vaping is not officially recommended for smoking cessation.25
Vaping devices come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. They can also be known by a range of other names including: electronic cigarettes, electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), e-cigs, ecigarro, electro-smoke, green cig, smartsmoker, vape, pens, pods, Juul, e-hookah.26, 27
Substances that can be vaped include: nicotine (which is the main drug in tobacco); nicotine-free ‘e-liquids’ made from a mixture of solvents, sweeteners, other chemicals and flavourings; and, other drugs such as THC (cannabis) e-liquids.28
While it is illegal to sell or purchase e-liquids containing nicotine in any form in Australia, nicotine-free vaping devices and e-liquids can be legally sold and purchased in most states and territories.
Although nicotine e-liquids are more harmful (nicotine is a toxic substance), nicotine-free e-liquids still contain a wide range of chemicals, additives and flavourings which can be potentially hazardous. The long-term health consequences of these substances are not yet fully understood.29
There are concerns that vaping products may normalise smoking and attract young people, with companies glamourising their products to appear cool or fun and using sweet flavours, such as candy or fruit, which are more likely to appeal to younger people.30
MDMA is usually swallowed in tablet or capsule form, but it can also come as a powder or crystal.
The pills come in different colours and sizes, often printed with a picture, symbol or logo. Two pills with the same logo/symbol, however, may have different effects — they can come from different sources and have different ingredients.31
Some pills may only contain a small amount of MDMA or none at all, with other drugs and ‘fillers’ often used instead. This makes it hard to know what reactions to expect or if there will be negative side effects.
Just because a pill has the same logo/symbol as another pill, does not guarantee they have the same ingredients or will cause the same effects.
The effects of MDMA include:
- extreme happiness
- feeling energetic and confident
- enlarged pupils
- jaw clenching and teeth grinding
- heightened senses (sight, hearing and touch)
- excessive sweating and skin tingles
- muscle aches and pains
- reduced appetite
- fast heartbeat
- increased blood pressure
- heat stroke
- drinking excessive amounts of water (which can cause death).22, 31-33
A large amount or strong batch of MDMA can cause:
- perceptual changes, such as hallucinations
- out-of-character irrational behaviour
- irritability, paranoia and aggression
- high body temperature
- racing heartbeat
New psychoactive substances are designed to mimic established illicit drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, MDMA and LSD. They come in the form of powders, capsules, pills, and dried herbs that have been mixed with man-made chemicals. These drugs often come in branded packages and are sold online and through adult stores and some tobacconists.
Given how rapidly new drugs are emerging, it’s difficult to know the common effects and what dose causes certain effects.34 There have also been a number of reported deaths from NBOMes (N-methoxybenzyl), which are sold as synthetic LSD and are sometimes included in MDMA (ecstasy) pills.
The laws surrounding synthetic drugs are complex and differ between states/territories and federal law. These laws are also constantly changing, so a drug that was legal to possess yesterday, could be banned tomorrow.
The effects of NPSs vary depending on the type of drug. More information on New Psychoactive Substances.
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- Smit K, Otten R, Voogt C, Kleinjan M, Engels R, Kuntsche E. Exposure to drinking mediates the association between parental alcohol use and preteen alcohol use. Addictive Behaviors. 2018;87:244-50.
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- Sharmin S, Kypri K, Khanam M, Wadolowski M, Bruno R, Attia J, et al. Effects of parental alcohol rules on risky drinking and related problems in adolescence: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2017;178:243-56.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Draft Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Australian Government; 2020.
- Positive Choices. Talking to a young person about alcohol and other drugs: Postive Choices; 2019. [Accessed March 15, 2021].
- Spear LP. Effects of adolescent alcohol consumption on the brain and behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2018(4):197.
- Guerri C, Pascual M. Impact of neuroimmune activation induced by alcohol or drug abuse on adolescent brain development. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. 2019;77:89-98.
- Bonomo YA, Bowes G, Coffey C, Carlin JB, Patton GC. Teenage drinking and the onset of alcohol dependence: a cohort study over seven years. Addiction. 2004;99(12):1520-8.
- Cancer Australia. Alcohol: Australian Government; 2021. [Accessed March 15, 2021].
- World Health Organization. The health and social effects of nonmedical cannabis use. Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2016.
- Colizzi M, Bhattacharyya S. Cannabis use and the development of tolerance: a systematic review of human evidence. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2018;93:1-25.
- Scott JC, Slomiak ST, Jones JD, Rosen AF, Moore TM, Gur RC. Association of cannabis with cognitive functioning in adolescents and young adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry. 2018;75(6):585-95.
- Lowe DJE, Sasiadek JD, Coles AS, George TP. Cannabis and mental illness: a review. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 2019;269(1):107-20.
- Copeland J. Changes in cannabis use among young people: impact on mental health. Current opinion in psychiatry. 2013;26(4):325-9.
- Wilkinson ST, Radhakrishnan R, D’Souza DC. Impact of Cannabis Use on the Development of Psychotic Disorders. Current Addiction Reports. 2014;1(2):115-28.
- Palamar JJ, Barratt MJ. Synthetic cannabinoids: undesirable alternatives to natural marijuana. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2016;42(4):371-3.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Caring for people who sniff petrol or other volatile substances: a quick reference guide for health workers. Melbourne; 2011.
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- Crossin R, Scott D, Witt KG, Duncan JR, Smith K, Lubman DI. Acute harms associated with inhalant misuse: Co-morbidities and trends relative to age and gender among ambulance attendees. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2018;190:46-53.
- Papanastasiou C, Dietze, P. Just a laughing matter? Nitrous oxide use among a group of regular psychostimulant users in Melbourne, Victoria. Melbourne: Centre for Population Health, Burnet Institute; 2013.
- Greenhalgh E, Jenkins S, Scollo MM. Key Australian and international position statements on e-cigarettes, health, and options for regulation: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020 [Accessed March 15, 2021].
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- Cao DJ, Aldy K, Hsu S, McGetrick M, Verbeck G, De Silva I, et al. Review of Health Consequences of Electronic Cigarettes and the Outbreak of Electronic Cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury. Journal of Medical Toxicology. 2020;16(3):295-310.
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