A drug is any kind of medicine or chemical that changes how your body or brain functions. There are legal drugs, which you can buy over the counter or get from a health professional, and illegal (or ‘street’) drugs. Most illegal drugs fall into one of three drug types: depressants, stimulants and hallucinogens.

This can help if:

  • you want to know about the different types of drugs
  • you’re curious about the effects of different types of drugs
  • you want to know why certain drugs are illegal.
Alot of pills lying around

Medical drugs

Some medical drugs have side effects that make them appealing to people who don’t have a medical reason to take them. They include drugs such as:

  • benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ambien)
  • amphetamines (Dextroamphetamine, Ritalin)
  • opiate painkillers (Vicodin, Oxycodone, Codeine).

Even though these drugs are prescribed for medical purposes, they can be extremely dangerous. They are often very addictive, and if taken improperly or with alcohol or other drugs, they can cause death.

Recreational drugs

Recreational drugs fall into three main categories: depressants, stimulants and hallucinogens.


Depressants slow down the messages sent to and from your brain. For this reason, they’re often called ‘downers’. Examples of depressants include:

  • alcohol
  • opiates (such as heroin and morphine)
  • cannabis
  • sedatives (such as Valium)
  • some glues, petrols and other solvents.

If you take different types of depressants at the same time, you’re more likely to overdose (OD). So, if you’re using depressant drugs, the safest way to do so is to stick to one type of drug. Large amounts of depressants can:

  • make you pass out
  • stop your breathing
  • make you feel nauseous
  • make you vomit.


Stimulants, or ‘uppers’, speed up the messages sent to and from your brain. Examples of stimulants include:

  • caffeine
  • nicotine
  • amphetamines (such as speed or ice)
  • ecstasy
  • cocaine.

Stimulants can:

  • put a strain on your heart
  • increase your body temperature
  • make you paranoid, anxious or psychotic.

Using different stimulants together, or in combination with depressants, puts an extra strain on your heart and can cause major health problems.


Hallucinogens change your perception of reality. Examples of hallucinogens include:

  • LSD (acid)
  • magic mushrooms
  • ecstasy
  • mescaline
  • high doses of cannabis.

People who take hallucinogens often have ‘trips’, which is when they hear and see things that aren’t really there. How your ‘trip’ goes depends on your mood, state of mind and the setting. You can’t predict whether a ‘trip’ will be good or bad, or how strong it will be. Hallucinogens can make you:

  • feel panicky, anxious or paranoid
  • take risks you wouldn’t normally take
  • lose touch with reality (psychosis).

Why are some drugs illegal?

When drugs are made illegal, it’s usually either because they pose a serious risk to people’s health or because there’s no health benefit from taking them.