Drug abuse can be very harmful to your health.

If you have a problem with drugs, there's a wide range of services that can help.

Some of these services are provided by the NHS, and some are specialist drug facilities run by charities and private organisations. You can use the local services search facility to find your nearest Alcohol and Drug support services.

This guide to getting treatment for a drug problem will steer you through the options, so you can find help that works for you. If you have a problem with drugs, you have the same entitlement to care as anyone coming to the NHS for help with any other health problem.

With the right help and support it's possible for you to get drug free and stay that way.

^^ Back to top

Getting help

Where to start

A good place to start is to visit your GP. Your GP can discuss your concerns with you, assess the nature of your problems and help you choose the most appropriate treatment. Your GP might offer to treat you or might refer you to your local specialist drug service.

Many drug treatment services accept self-referrals so, if you're not comfortable talking to your GP, you might be able to approach your local drug treatment service directly.

National organisations that provide information and support for drug users and their families include:

Your drugs keyworker

If you are seen at your local drug treatment service, you will first be assessed and, if you are deemed appropriate for treatment, you will then be allocated a keyworker. Your keyworker may be a doctor, a nurse or a drugs worker.

Your keyworker will help you organise the treatment that you need, develop a personalised care plan with you and be your first point of call throughout your treatment. You’ll see your keyworker for regular one-to-one sessions during your treatment.

Voluntary sector and private treatment

Outside the NHS, there are many voluntary sector and private drug and alcohol treatment organisations that can help you. As well as residential rehab centres, community services of various types are provided by voluntary organisations. These include structured day programmes, outreach and harm reduction services, counselling services, aftercare and housing support services.

These organisations will usually be linked to NHS services in your area.

^^ Back to top


The effects of drugs

Drug misuse can be harmful to your health in both the short term and the long term, and could possibly lead to addiction.Information on various drugs is given below.

New psychoactive substances (NPS) (also called 'legal highs')

What are NPS?

NPS, such as mephedrone (meow meow) and spice, used to be available to buy legally in "head shops" (shops that sell drug paraphernalia) or online.

Since the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect on May 26 2016 it has been illegal to supply any NPS in the UK for human consumption. This includes selling them or giving them away for free.

Alcohol, medicines, nicotine, caffeine and poppers (alkyl nitrites) are exempt from the act.

How do NPS make you feel?

The main effects of almost all psychoactive drugs, including NPS, fall into three categories:

  • stimulants
  • "downers" or sedatives
  • psychedelics or hallucinogens

Synthetic cannabinoids, which can have both sedative and psychedelic effects, are sometimes separated out into their own category. They have been a big part of the NPS market and have been particularly problematic and harmful.

Even NPS that look similar or have similar names can vary in strength and can have different effects on different people.

How do NPS affect your health?

For lots of NPS, there has been little or no research into the short- or long-term health risks from human consumption and some risks aren't yet known.

Forensic testing of NPS has shown that they often contain different substances to what the packaging says, or mixtures of different substances.

This means you can never be sure what you are taking or what the effects might be.

Risks include:

  • NPS can reduce your inhibitions, so you may do potentially harmful things you wouldn't normally do.
  • They can cause paranoia, coma, seizures and, in rare cases, death.
  • You can never be sure of what is in an NPS, so you can't be sure what you've bought or been given, or what effect it's likely to have on you or your friends. 

For more information about NPS visit the FRANK website.

Cannabis (hash, weed, grass, skunk, marijuana)

What is cannabis?

Cannabis is a calming drug that also alters perceptions. It's seen as "natural" because it's made from the cannabis plant, but that doesn't mean it's safe. It can be smoked, often with tobacco, in a "joint" or "spliff", or in a pipe or "bong". It can also be drunk as a "tea" or eaten when mixed with food, such as biscuits or cakes.

How does cannabis make you feel?

Cannabis can make you feel relaxed and happy, but sometimes makes people feel lethargic, very anxious and paranoid, and even psychotic.

How does cannabis affect your health?

Cannabis has been linked to mental health problems such as schizophrenia and, when smoked, to lung diseases including asthma.

It affects how your brain works, so regular use can make concentration and learning very difficult. Frequent use can have a negative effect on your fertility.

It is also dangerous to drive after taking cannabis. Mixing it with tobacco is likely to increase the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.

Can cannabis be addictive?

Yes, it is possible to become psychologically dependent on cannabis. And some people do experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it. For information about coming off drugs, read Drug addiction: getting help. You can also get help cutting down from the FRANK website.

Cocaine (powder cocaine, coke, crack)

What is cocaine?

Powder cocaine (coke), freebase and crack are all types of cocaine, and all are powerful stimulants. Freebase and crack can be smoked, and powder cocaine can be snorted in lines. Both cocaine powder and crack can also be prepared for injecting.

How does cocaine make you feel?

Cocaine gives the user energy, a feeling of happiness and being wide awake, and an overconfidence that can lead to taking risks. The effects are short-lived, so more drug is taken, which is often followed by a nasty "comedown" that makes you feel depressed and unwell, sometimes for several days.

How does cocaine affect your health?

If you take cocaine, it's possible to die of an overdose from overstimulating the heart and nervous system, which can lead to a heart attack. It can be more risky if mixed with alcohol.

Taking cocaine is particularly risky if you have high blood pressure or already have a heart condition. If you're pregnant, cocaine can harm your baby and even cause miscarriage. If you've had previous mental health problems, it can increase the chance of these returning.

If you snort cocaine, it can damage the cartilage of your nose over time. If you inject it, you are at higher risk of dying as the result of an overdose, and your veins and body tissues can be seriously damaged. You put yourself at risk of catching HIV or hepatitis if you share needles.

Can cocaine be addictive?

Yes, cocaine is highly addictive and can cause a very strong psychological dependence. For advice on getting help for cocaine addiction, see Cocaine: get help in the treatment section of this topic. The Cocaine Anonymous website also offers further advice.

Mephedrone (meow meow, m-cat, bubble, meph)

What is mephedrone?

Mephedrone is a strong amphetamine-like stimulant with some effects similar to ecstasy. It was once available to buy on the internet as a "legal" alternative to drugs such as speed or ecstasy.

Mephedrone, and other drugs like it, are now Class B drugs that are illegal to possess or supply to others. It is a fine white or off-white powder that is usually snorted or swallowed wrapped in paper. It's also sometimes injected.

How does mephedrone make you feel?

Mephedrone can make you feel awake, confident and happy. But it can also make you feel paranoid and anxious. It causes vomiting and headaches in some users.

How does mephedrone affect your health?

Mephedrone can overstimulate your heart and nervous system. It can cause periods of insomnia, and its use can lead to fits and agitated and hallucinatory states. It has been identified as the cause of a number of deaths.

Ecstasy (MDMA, pills, crystal, E)

What is ecstasy?

Ecstasy is a "psychedelic" stimulant drug usually sold as tablets, but it's sometimes dabbed on to gums or snorted in its powder form. It's also known as MDMA or "crystal".

How does ecstasy make you feel?

Ecstasy can make you feel alert, affectionate and chatty, and can make music and colours seem more intense. Taking ecstasy can also cause anxiety, confusion, paranoia and even psychosis.

How does ecstasy affect your health?

Long-term use has been linked with memory problems, depression and anxiety. Ecstasy use affects the body's temperature control and can lead to dangerous overheating and dehydration.

But a balance is important as drinking too much fluid can also be very dangerous for the brain, particularly because ecstasy tends to stop your body producing enough urine, so your body retains the fluid. For more information on ecstasy, visit the FRANK website.

Is ecstasy addictive?

Ecstasy can be addictive, as users can develop a psychological dependence on this drug. It is also possible to build up a tolerance to the drug and need to take more and more to get the same effect.

Speed (amphetamine, billy, whizz)

What is speed?

Speed is the street name for drugs based on amphetamine, and is a stimulant drug. It's usually an off-white or pink powder that's either dabbed on to gums, snorted or swallowed in paper.

How does speed make you feel?

Speed can make you feel alert, confident and full of energy, and can reduce appetite. But it can make you agitated and aggressive, and can cause confusion, paranoia and even psychosis. You can also become very depressed and lethargic for hours or days after a period of heavy use.

How does speed affect your health?

Taking speed can be dangerous for the heart, as it can cause high blood pressure and heart attacks. It can be more risky if mixed with alcohol, or if it's used by people who have blood pressure or heart problems.

Injecting speed is particularly dangerous, as death can occur from overdose. Speed is usually very impure and injecting it can cause damage to veins and tissues, which can also lead to serious infections in the body and bloodstream. Any sharing of injecting equipment adds the risk of catching hepatitis C and HIV.

Is speed addictive?

Regular use of amphetamines can become highly addictive.

Legal highs

Legal highs are substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs like cocaine or cannabis. They are sometimes called club drugs or new psychoactive substances (NPS).

Many of these drugs are now controlled, but some are still legal to possess. This does not mean they are safe or approved for people to use.

Some drugs marketed as legal highs actually contain ingredients that are illegal to possess.

The risks of legal highs

Legal highs can carry serious health risks. The chemicals they contain have in most cases never been used before in drugs for human consumption.

This means they haven't been tested to show they are safe. Users can never be certain what they are taking and what the effects might be.

Other risks:

  • You increase the risk to yourself if you combine alcohol with any legal or illegal drug.
  • Legal highs can reduce your inhibitions, so you do things you wouldn't normally do. They can cause paranoia, coma, seizures and, in rare cases, death.
  • Because the chemical ingredients in a branded product can be changed without you knowing, the risks are unpredictable.
  • Even drugs that look similar or have similar names may be of varying strengths and have different effects.

When to get medical help

Most problems with short-term use of legal highs will settle after you stop taking them. However, the negative effects of some legal highs can take a few days to wear off completely, just like the comedown from stimulants such as cocaine or amphetamines.

If you think you're having a serious negative reaction soon after taking a legal high, or you experience problems that do not settle with a little time out, fluids and fresh air, get medical help straight away by going to the accident and emergency (A&E) department of your nearest hospital.

If you're worried about continuing health problems after you've stopped taking the drugs, visit your GP. But if you think further advice would be helpful before deciding whether or not to visit your GP, call the FRANK drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600, or NHS 111 Wales (if available in your area) or 0845 46 47.

Legal highs and the law

Many drugs that were previously sold as legal highs are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, including mephedrone (meow meow or mcat), naphyrone, BZP and GBL. This means they are illegal to possess or supply to others.

There are lots of different types of synthetic cannabinoids, and a large number have become Class B drugs.

To find out more about legal highs, visit the FRANK website.

Drugs and the brain

Martin Barnes of DrugScope and neuroscientist Professor David Nutt explain the results of research into the effects of recreational drugs on the brain.

Acid (LSD) and magic mushrooms

Short term: Acid and magic mushrooms are hallucinogenic, making people see, hear and experience the world in a different, ‘trippy’ way. Colours may become intensified and sounds distorted. Users may also become panicky and suffer from paranoia. The effects of acid can last 12 hours or more which, if it’s a bad trip, can be very frightening.

Long term: Some LSD users experience flashbacks. "Sometimes people may experience psychosis or paranoia, believing or seeing things that aren’t really there," says Barnes.

Cannabis (marijuana, weed, dope, skunk)

Short term: People smoke cannabis to relax and get high, but it can make it difficult to remember things, even if they’ve only just happened. It can cause anxiety attacks or feelings of paranoia. "If you use a lot of cannabis regularly, you’re putting yourself at risk of some temporary problems, such as confusion or delusions," says Barnes.

Long term: "It’s possible that cannabis might trigger long-term mental health problems, including psychosis, schizophrenia and depression," says Barnes. "Evidence suggests that cannabis users who come from a family with a history of mental health problems may be particularly susceptible to these symptoms.”

Cocaine and crack cocaine

Short term: Cocaine is a stimulant that makes you feel high, confident and full of energy. But this can turn into feelings of anxiety, panic and paranoia. Users of cocaine can end up feeling tired and depressed.

Long term: Giving up cocaine and crack can be mentally distressing and physically difficult for dependent users. Long-term use can worsen existing mental health problems and lead to depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Ecstasy (E)

Short term: Ecstasy is a stimulant with hallucinogenic effects that makes you feel relaxed, high, ‘loved-up’ and ready to dance all night. But people who are already feeling anxious or who take high doses can have bad experiences of paranoia or feeling 'out of it'.

Long term: Regular use may lead to sleep problems, lack of energy, drastic weight loss, depression or anxiety. People can become psychologically dependent on the feelings of euphoria and calmness that ecstasy gives them. Research shows that taking ecstasy can reduce a user’s serotonin levels, and may have an effect on certain areas of the brain.

Heroin (smack, diamorphine)

Short term: Heroin and other opiates slow down the body’s functions and stop both physical and emotional pain. Users find they need to take more and more herion to get the same effect, or even feel ‘normal’. Taking a lot can lead to coma or even death.

Long term: Heroin is psychologically and physically highly addictive. "The withdrawal from heroin is really unpleasant," says Professor Nutt. "Long-term heroin users are often depressed because of their overall lifestyle." Coming off and staying off heroin can be very difficult.

Ketamine (K)

Short term: Ketamine is an anaesthetic that makes people feel relaxed and high, but its effects are unpredictable. "It’s like drinking a whole bottle of vodka: you don’t have any control over what you’re doing," says Professor Nutt. "The biggest danger is wandering off in a daze and having an accident or getting lost and staying out all night, resulting in hypothermia." Ketamine can make you feel detached from yourself and others, and make existing mental health problems worse.

Long term: Tolerance develops quickly so people need more K to get high. "The longer term effects are more difficult to pinpoint, but may include flashbacks and losing your memory and ability to concentrate," says Barnes. "Occasionally, people get psychotic symptoms, while evidence is growing that long-term use of ketamine can severely damage the bladder. Some people find it hard to stop taking K."

Solvents (gases, glues and aerosols)

Short term: Solvents make you feel drunk and sometimes cause hallucinations.

Long term: Heavy use of solvents poisons your brain and can damage it, making it hard to control your emotions, think straight or remember things.

Speed and crystal meth (amphetamine and methamphetamine)

Short term: Speed can quickly make you feel energetic and confident but, with the high, can come panic, irritability and a paranoid sense that everyone is looking at you. Smoking a version of speed called methamphetamine (crystal meth) can give an intense and prolonged high but a severe comedown, when feelings of hopelessness and sadness are common.

Long term: There’s no research on the long-term heavy use of speed. Professor Nutt has seen users, especially those who have injected speed regularly, who appear to be permanently depressed. They have difficulty thinking straight, remembering things, problem solving and coping with their emotions.


Short term: Steroids pump up muscle mass but can bring on ‘roid rage’, with users becoming physically violent and sexually abusive. Steroids can make sleep difficult and cause confusion, depression and paranoia.

Long term: They can lead to psychological dependence, where people become convinced they cannot perform well without the drug.

Tranquillisers (benzodiazepines)

Short term: Tranquillisers such as Valium are sedative drugs. They are used to relieve anxiety and aid sleep. Some drug users take them to help a comedown from drugs such as cocaine or speed.

Long term: The body quickly gets used to benzodiazepines and soon needs more to get the same effect. It’s possible to become addicted in just a few weeks and withdrawal can be difficult and make people feel sick, unable to sleep and very anxious. Sudden withdrawal from high doses can be very dangerous and result in serious convulsions (fits).

^^ Back to top


How is cocaine addiction treated?

Treatment for dependency on cocaine, either powder cocaine or crack cocaine, can take many different forms. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Some people choose to quit completely, while others find a more gradual approach works best for them.

Unlike treatment for heroin, there are no medicines that can substitute for powder cocaine, crack cocaine and other stimulants.

However, you may be offered medication to help with related symptoms, such as sleep problems.

Will I have to go to residential rehab?

You will normally stay at home while being treated for cocaine addiction, possibly attending a structured daily programme run by your local drug and alcohol service.

A residential rehabilitation programme is usually only recommended if your situation is particularly severe or complicated.

Some people manage to give up cocaine on their own. But evidence shows that for many a combination of specialist drugs counselling and social support gives the best results.

Specialist drugs counselling can help with any psychological problems linked to your addiction. This will usually be a talking therapy with a therapist or counsellor who specialises in working with drug-dependent people. It may include referral for more specialised support.

Social support could mean help with finding suitable accommodation, developing a network of non-using friends, or re-engaging with work or education.

You should be able to access treatment within one to two weeks. How long it takes you to recover will depend on your particular situation.

Does treatment for cocaine addiction work?

Most people who undergo treatment for cocaine dependency have good results. Seven in 10 people who have treatment for a powder cocaine problem either stop using or significantly reduce their use within six months.

You can refer yourself directly to a drug treatment programme or ask your GP to refer you.

See more information on accessing drugs treatment services.

Other help for cocaine addiction

Some people find mutual help groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous, helpful. These are based on the same 12-step programme as Alcoholics Anonymous.

SMART Recovery is an alternative science-based programme that helps people recover from addictions.

Some cocaine users also have problems with alcohol or cannabis. If you also have an addiction to these or any other substances, you should be offered specialised help with this too.

How is heroin addiction treated?

If you ask your GP or local drug treatment service for help, you will be assessed and offered treatment. You will receive a care plan that's tailored to your needs. This may include the following types of treatment.

Stabilising your heroin habit

If you're addicted to opiates and usually take them every day, and if you're prepared to change your drug-taking habits, you may be prescribed a heroin substitute, such as methadone or buprenorphine.

At first, a heroin substitute will be prescribed at a level that minimises your withdrawal from heroin.

Methadone and buprenorphine help you to:

  • stabilise your drug use
  • stop using illegal drugs
  • change risky behaviour, such as injecting and sharing needles and equipment
  • stop the need to commit any crimes to fund your habit

Talking therapies for addiction

As well as prescribed medication, talking therapies, such as counselling, can help you to understand and overcome your addiction and plan for your future. You may also be offered couples therapy if you have a partner who wants to support you. Or you could be offered family therapy to help you and your family change your behaviour around drugs. A care plan will be developed to identify any other help you need, and your keyworker will make sure you receive this help.

Your keyworker may arrange help for you with issues such as housing, benefits, education and employment. You may be offered the opportunity to learn computer skills or try activities, such as sport and exercise.

Self help for heroin

It may be recommended that you join a self-help group where people who have had problems meet and support one another. The groups vary from one area to another, and your drug service can tell you what is available in your area.

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a self-help organisation with groups across the country. It welcomes newcomers who want to stop using drugs. For more information, call the UKNA helpline on 0300 999 1212.

Stopping heroin completely

Once stabilised, and in the right circumstances, you will have the option of coming off methadone (or other substitute drugs) and becoming drug-free. You may be given the choice of a community or inpatient detox.

Community detox

Community detox is when your methadone (or other substitute drug) dose is reduced gradually over a period of time, minimising potentially uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. You may then be offered a drug called naltrexone.

Naltrexone can stop you relapsing by blocking the effects of drugs like heroin and reducing your desire to use them.

Inpatient detox

Inpatient detox involves a two-to-three-week stay in a hospital or residential rehab centre with detox facilities. It allows you to reduce your prescribed drug substitute dose much more quickly.

Inpatient detox is often followed by a period in a residential rehab centre or other suitable aftercare project. It is important that you continue to make progress after the detox, and you will almost certainly need some help to stay off drugs when you leave. This can be a particularly vulnerable time. If you start using illegal opiates again, the chances of overdose are much higher than before detox.

Residential rehab centres

Residential rehab may be offered if you’ve already tried to give up drugs in the community and failed. You may also be offered residential rehab if you have a high drug dependency, do not have a supportive family or employment situation, have complex physical or psychiatric problems, or are addicted to alcohol as well as drugs.

Residential rehab centres usually offer a combination of one-to-one counselling and group therapy as well as other therapies, social and vocational skills development and educational opportunities.

Residential rehab centres are almost always provided by either specialist voluntary sector or private organisations. You may be able to access funding through your local community drug services or social services community care team to allow you to enter a specialist voluntary sector rehab centre.

 You usually have to pay to access private clinics.

^^ Back to top


Advice for the family of a drug user

Many families in the UK are living with a loved one who is using or trying to come off drugs. It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved, but help and support is available.
Whether you're the parent, friend or partner of a person using or coming off drugs, there are some common issues that you’re likely to face. It can be initially hard to accept that the person was or is taking drugs. When the reality sinks in, it can be difficult to know what to do first.

Where to start

Many people who find themselves in this position aren't sure where to start. The person who’s been taking drugs will know how they’ve been affected by them, and why they’ve been taking them. They may even know a bit about what to expect when they come off them. But you are not likely to know very much about drugs at all. You'll want to know as much as possible in order to feel more in control and more able to help your loved one.

There are a number of ways to get the information you need. You may want to know more about the drug, what the recovery process will be like, and what treatments and support are available.

DAN 24/7, a government-run organisation, is a good place to start. They have a helpline (0808 808 2234) and a website, which provide in-depth information about drugs and advice about drugs-related services in your local area. You can also use their search facility to find your nearest drug addiction support centre.

Your GP can talk to you about the kinds of treatment options and services available. They should be able to give you information about the effects of the drugs that the person you’re caring for may have been taking, including the common symptoms and signs of withdrawals. They will also be able to give details of local support groups.

Recognising your role as a carer

Your first concern will probably be to make sure that the person you’re caring for can get all the available medical and emotional support. You may not even see yourself as a carer or someone with needs of their own.

But caring for someone using or coming off drugs can be life-changing and demanding. If you have someone in your household who is taking drugs and refusing to stop, that can be very stressful, upsetting and frustrating.

Even if they accept that they have a problem and decide to stop taking drugs, you may need to help them get through the withdrawal and recovery period. There may be some difficult times during this process. It can be an emotional time. Sometimes, carers realise that they have to let their loved one face the consequences of continuing their drug use. So it’s common to feel anger, guilt and disappointment, and even fear and loneliness.

But there are many support organisations that can help you care for someone using or coming off drugs. Many carers find that talking to someone who knows what they’re going through is really helpful, whether it’s through workshops, one-to-one sessions or talking to other carers.

Support organisations

DAN (Wales Drug and Alcohol Helpline)
A free and bilingual telephone drugs helpline providing a single point of contact for anyone in Wales wanting further information or help relating to drugs or alcohol.
Helpline number: 0808 808 2234
Website: www.dan247.org.uk

A government-run organisation providing straight-talking information about drugs and advice for parents and carers.
Helpline number: 0800 77 66 00
Website: www.talktofrank.com

It provides expertise on drugs and research materials. The Information service page signposts carers and users to relevant useful organisations and information.
Website: www.drugscope.org.uk

Community Advice and Listening Line (CALL)
Offers emotional support and information/literature on Mental Health and related matters to the people of Wales.
Website: http://callhelpline.org.uk/

A national organisation working with and for families affected by drugs and alcohol. It can advise you about many issues, including financial worries, understanding how to help during different stages of recovery.
Website: www.adfam.org.uk

Families Anonymous
Run support groups for the family and friends of people with a current, suspected or former drug problem.
Helpline number: 0845 1200 660
Website: www.famanon.org.uk

The national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law – providing free and confidential specialist advice.
Helpline number: 0845 4500 215
Website: www.release.org.uk

More information for carers

Financial advice
As a carer you may be entitled to financial help and other support. Ask your local authority for a carer's assessment. This determines what help you could receive from social services. For more information on assessments and how to apply for one, see Carers UK: carers' assessments. To find out about the benefits that you and the person you're looking after may be entitled to, see Carers UK: help with money.

Working and caring
If you work, find out about your rights in the workplace. If you’re out of work or a student, you can also get help. For more information, see Carers UK: Care for your career.

Taking a break and looking after your own health
People in a caring role often find it difficult to take a break. Your local authority or a local support group may be able to provide respite care. Depending on your circumstances, this may be offered free of charge. For more information, see Carers UK: Looking after yourself.

It's important to eat well and get plenty of exercise. If you feel exhausted or have symptoms of depression, see your GP.

Call the Carers Wales helpline on 0808 808 7777 for free, confidential advice on any aspect of caring.

^^ Back to top

The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website nhs.uk
Last Updated: 13/05/2020 07:07:32