NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Drug Facts for Teens

Medical Marijuana: It's Complicated

Doesn’t the term “medical marijuana” sound like an oxymoron? Medicine is the science and art of healing, while marijuana is an illegal drug that affects your brain and body. How can marijuana be considered medicine? The answer is complicated—and controversial. Risks The potential medical uses of marijuana have been the subject of much research and heated debate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the Government agency that approves all medicines for use in this country—has not approved marijuana to treat any disease or condition. That's because scientists can’t prove that smoked marijuana is safe. Marijuana is a plant whose makeup of chemicals and potency varies from plant to plant. Studying an inconsistent plant makes it difficult for scientists to test for safety and health benefits. In addition, scientists don’t yet know the effects that some of those chemicals have on our health. As with tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke is harmful to the lungs. Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same health problems as someone who smokes tobacco, such as daily cough, more frequent upper respiratory illnesses, and a greater risk of lung infections like pneumonia. Despite these health concerns, several states have passed medical marijuana laws, which remove the criminal penalties for possessing and using marijuana when prescribed by a physician. You may have heard that some physicians are recommending marijuana to patients with cancer. More Research Is Needed Making smoked marijuana legal for medical use is not the only option for taking advantage of the medical benefits from marijuana’s active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Currently, two FDA-approved THC pills are used to treat nausea in cancer chemotherapy patients and to increase appetite in some patients with AIDS. On its own, THC can improve other symptoms, such as chronic pain and muscle spasms, with fewer risks than smoking the plant. Scientists continue to investigate the benefits and negatives of THC and other marijuana compounds. The most promising research to date has been on cannabinoids—compounds that bind to the same receptors in the brain as THC. NIDA supports multiple studies investigating the role of cannabinoids in a healthy brain and body. Ultimately, this research may help uncover potential therapies to treat medical conditions, with low risk of abuse. There’s no question that the debate and research about medical marijuana is going to continue for a long time, but NIDA remains committed to focusing on the science of drug abuse, and will share its research to inform future medical marijuana laws. What do you think? Should marijuana be legalized for helping to treat diseases like cancer? If it were legalized for medical purposes, how would you prevent people without a prescription from obtaining it and using it nonmedically?

In the Game of Life, Nicotine is a Big "Scratch"

Have you been at a restaurant or party where people are smoking, and acting like their clouds of smoke are no big deal? Do you put up with breathing secondhand smoke to hang out with your friends? In this video, Dr. Gaya Dowling and Dr. Redonna Chandler sink a few balls while sharing some real facts about smoking.

Fact: Nicotine is addictive.

Fact: Most smokers start smoking before the age of 18.

Fact: It only takes eight seconds for the nicotine in cigarette smoke to be inhaled, enter your brain, and start affecting your brain cells—whether or not you're the one who lit up in the first place!

That's less time than it takes most people to cue up and make a shot. Watch the video and see what you think.

Drug Testing for…Poppy Seeds?

Did you know that morphine, codeine, and heroin are produced from the seeds of certain kinds of poppy flowers? Morphine and codeine are often used as medications for treating pain, and all three—known as opiates—can be abused. 

Poppy seeds are also used as a flavorful ingredient in many popular foods, including muffins and bagels. Although poppy seeds used in food are produced legally, they can contain high enough levels of the opioid to trigger a positive result on some types of drug urine tests.

So, you may wonder, if you ate a poppy seed bagel for breakfast, could results of a drug test come out positive for these opiates?

Once poppy seeds are eaten, the body develops detectable levels of opiates almost immediately. As a 2003 “MythBusters” episode notes, someone can test positive for opiates as soon as 2 hours after eating a poppy seed-loaded item. Other studies have shown that the levels remain elevated for up to 3 days.

School athletes may want to pay attention to this. Across the country, about one in seven school districts perform some sort of drug testing on their students. Students in middle school, high school, or college may be asked to take a drug test in order to participate in athletic activities or other programs.

False positives (when the test wrongly reports someone used drugs) can and do happen. For example, Federal prisoners, who undergo drug tests with some frequency, are forbidden to eat foods that contain poppy seeds.

Over the past 20 years, legal cases by law enforcement officials, workers, athletes, or students “caught” or penalized for positive urine tests for opiates have made famous the “poppy seed bagel defense.” A series of lawsuits and evolving research have proven that an individual’s urine can indeed produce a positive test result for opiates after the person eats poppy seed-containing cakes, muffins, or bagels. In one large study, up to 87% of tests considered positive for opiate use were due in part to poppy seeds in foods as well as prescription medications.

When positive test results are proven to have been due to eating poppy seeds, they are overturned. More accurate measurement of opiate levels can be done by analyzing a blood or hair sample. These tests cost more and may be used to double-check a positive urine result. 

To all you poppy seed lovers out there: They can be a tasty treat in favorite foods, but may be one to avoid before undergoing drug testing. Keep things simple: Try an onion bagel instead.

Jack Maypole, M.D., is the Director of Pediatrics at the South End Community Health Center as well as the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center. He is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. Cartooning has been a lifelong fascination and hobby.

Comic of coach warning athlete not to eat poppy seeds

poppy seed bagel

Concert Goers Overdose on Molly

MDMA, or Molly, is suspected in the death of 2 people who attended Electric Zoo—a 3-day festival of dance music in New York. Four others were hospitalized.

Earlier this summer, we reported that 21% of music festival goers admitted to using illegal drugs at a concert. Unfortunately, the tragic incident in New York resulted in multiple overdoses and forced the mayor of Randall's Island to cancel the last day of the concert.

Though Molly has been connected to electronic and dance music for years, it has recently gained popularity in mainstream music because of mentions by Kanye West, Madonna, and most recently, Miley Cyrus.

MDMA is a manmade stimulant that can dangerously raise your heart rate and blood pressure and even cause life-threatening dehydration—especially when combined with physical activity like dancing. Molly is a name for pure MDMA that comes in powder or crystal form. However, powder sold as “Molly” often is not pure. It is sometimes mixed with other drugs that can make an overdose more likely. Sometimes, it might not contain any MDMA at all.

People who buy and use drugs at music festivals have no way of knowing what they are really getting—or how it will affect them. It is important not to trust anyone trying to get you to take a drug. Just let music be your natural high.

National Inhalants and Poison Prevention Week – March 20-26, 2011

"Why does that guy keep breathing into that stupid paper bag?"

"Did you see that kid back there? Looks kinda’ dazed."

"Oh no, I think she’s passed out. Wait, is she still breathing?"

Ever seen someone at school weaving around like he’s drunk, but you know he’s never taken a drink? Maybe he smelled funny – like gasoline or rubbing alcohol or even air freshener. Or perhaps he talked about seeing things – hallucinations – that you know aren’t there.

What’s really going on?

What you may have observed is someone under the effect of inhalants. These are common household substances that people actually sniff – or “huff”– to get high.

This year, National Inhalants and Poison Prevention Week takes place the week of March 20-26, and aims to shed light on this pressing matter. “Just a single session of repeated inhalations can cause permanent organ damage or death,” according to NIDA Acting Deputy Director Dr. David Shurtleff. “Most inhalants produce a rapid high that resembles alcohol intoxication. Given the wide availability of these substances and the severe health consequences they can produce, inhalant abuse is a serious problem.”

Sara Bellum attended a news conference this week about this topic and its dangers. Erin Davis, mom of a teenager, was there to tell her story of inhalant addiction. For 2 years, she was addicted to inhaling computer keyboard cleaning spray. During that time, she had a seizure from the toxic effects to her brain; she was charged with reckless driving; and she even lost her parenting rights.

As the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Gil Kerlikowske noted, “Just because a product is legal doesn't mean it is safe.” Dr. Shurtleff reminded the audience that “these products are poisons.”

When you use these products, be safe—point them away from your face, not toward it.

Spice: "If You Use It, You're Experimenting on Yourself"

Ask NIDA scientist Marilyn A. Huestis, Ph.D., what she wants to tell young people about the synthetic (manmade) marijuana called Spice, and she responds with passion. In a recent interview with SBB, Dr. Huestis shared a news story about teens in Dallas who went to the ER with chest pains, only to learn that they had had heart attacks. All of them had recently smoked Spice.

Dr. Huestis said that dangerous health effects from Spice are possible because of the drug’s potency. “Using Spice is very dangerous because the chemicals and compounds that are in it vary from batch to batch. You might buy a package one week, go back to the same place and buy the exact same package the next week, and the ingredients may be completely different. Not only are the ingredients unknown, but so is the strength of the drug,” she said.

“Because its makeup varies so widely, studying Spice is a challenge,” said Dr. Huestis. “Essentially, if you use it, you’re experimenting on yourself.”

That experimentation could result in other life-threatening health complications. According to a recent news story out of Wyoming, three young people were hospitalized with kidney failure from using blueberry-flavored Spice. A dozen other people got sick. Everyone affected was in their late teens or early 20s.

Use Is Expanding

NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study asked teens about synthetic marijuana for the first time in the 2011 survey. What they found: Approximately 1 in every 10 high school seniors reported use in the past 12 months. Teens and young adults may be drawn to Spice because sometimes it comes in flavors.

Even though it’s illegal in the United States, Spice is still available in some truck stops and other places that market it as incense. Dr. Huestis said this is because manufacturers are constantly changing the ingredients to attempt to get around the bans. However, the United States does have an “analog law,” which bans drugs with chemistry and effects similar to illegal drugs.

“We’re learning more about Spice and how it works in the body and brain every day,” said Dr. Huestis. “Research is focusing on the body’s cannabinoid system, which regulates hunger, memory, and heart rate, among many other important functions. Spice and marijuana hijack this system.”

Read more about Spice.

Girl holding chest

Smoking: Then and Now

What we know about drug abuse evolves over time. This is true for smoking and tobacco addiction, too. We know much more now than we did 100, 40, or even 10 years ago. As we learn more about tobacco, smoking, and health, we continue to do more to prevent illness and death caused by tobacco.

Did you know there was a time when people didn't know that smoking cigarettes could be deadly? A long time ago, doctors even recommended that people smoke to cure other illnesses-check out the old advertisement below:

Old advertisement of doctor who is smoking a cigarette.

Looks pretty silly now. Today, no doctor who has gone to medical school would recommend smoking to their patients. Just the opposite: doctors, nurses, and teens like you are telling people not to smoke. Why? Because smoking "causes lung cancer heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy"—and it says so right on the box! Every cigarette carton in the United States is required to warn against the health effects of smoking.

Picture of cartons of cigarettes.

Different warnings appear on different cigarette packaging. While traveling in Europe recently, one of our bloggers snapped a picture of some cigarette cartons, each with its own saying. One of them said: "Smokers die younger." That's what you call truth in advertising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, smoking causes more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined! Check out more info for youth on CDC's website.

Here at NIDA, we know and understand what smoking looked like then and now. But, what gets us excited is applying what we've learned about tobacco and nicotine to help improve people's lives in the future. So, stay tuned to the Sara Bellum Blog—you never know what we, or one of your classmates, might discover.

Graphic: "We've come a long way since then!"

What’s in Cigarette Smoke, Anyway?

Stanford University professor Dr. Robert Proctor looked through tons of public documents to find out what tobacco companies put in cigarettes. He found some unusual ingredients, like:

  • Urea, a compound found in urine
  • Diammonium phosphate, used to make fertilizer
  • Levulinic acid, used in cleaning solvents
  • Ammonia
  • Formaldehyde
  • Chocolate (not the Hershey bar kind, the bitter baking kind)

He found secretions from the anal gland of the civet cat as well as the Siberian beaver—ewwwwww!

These are just a few of more than 158 additives some cigarette manufacturers roll up in cigarettes.

What Makes Smoking Cigarettes so Addictive?

You may wonder—why these ingredients? Nicotine, the main addictive chemical in all cigarettes, and other ingredients are designed to make it harder to quit: 

  • Chocolate is meant to make cigarettes taste better, but cocoa is also a bronchodilator, meaning it helps open the lungs and makes them more receptive to the smoke.
  • Ammonia breaks down nicotine molecules into a “free base” state—just like the process that makes crack cocaine so potent and addictive—which adds to cigarettes’ potency.
  • Levulinic acid increases the efficiency of nicotine uptake, or binding, in the brain.
  • Licorice, nutmeg powder, dandelion root extract, sugar, and prune juice are flavors added to cigarettes that make the smoke smoother and better smelling.

Consumers’ Reports

Proctor’s research found some odd complaints from smokers over the years. For example, a 1994 Philip Morris Co. document revealed contamination in cigarettes from rubber bands, machine belts and lubricants, ink and tax stamp solvents, glass fibers and plastics, and stains called “consistent with blood.” That doesn’t even include the bugs or worms (dead and alive!) that have been reported in cigarettes!

For more startling facts on smoking, check out the American Legacy Foundation. This group was set up using the proceeds from the Government’s lawsuit against tobacco companies for fooling the public into thinking smoking was harmless. Find out more in Legacy’s truth campaign for youth.


Cigarette Ash

Sports Supplements: Not a Safe “Quick Fix”

When working out or playing sports, you may feel like you want to up your game. There are lots of sports products out there that claim to help you run faster, be stronger, or play longer—but be careful.

It’s important to make sure any sports supplement or “vitamin” you want to take is safe. The ingredients in sports products are not required to meet the same high standards as medications. This means it’s up to you to find out what’s in any pills, drinks, or powders before you take them.

Know What You Put in Your Body

In July, USPlabs, a maker of several sports products, destroyed $8 million worth of its sports supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, after the Government said the two products might be dangerous. These two products had the stimulant dimethylamylamine (DMAA), which the Government warns can cause heart problems like shortness of breath and heart attacks. Stimulants are drugs that increase your energy and speed up your body.

In 2011, two U.S. soldiers may have died after using Jack3d. The Government is still trying to find out if that is true. The military has removed all products with DMAA from military bases to be safe.

But that’s not all.

  • Companies claim DMAA is a natural ingredient, but researchers believe it is made in chemistry labs and added to supplements.
  • In 2010, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned DMAA.
  • As of April 2013, the Government had 86 reports of illness and death related to DMAA.

Do Your Research

If you are thinking about taking a sports product, do more than just read the label. Look into the ingredients and all the effects they may have on your body. Ask your coach if he or she knows anything about the product. A healthy body is the best body, so make sure you know what you are taking and that it is right for you.

There’s no magic pill that will make you a better athlete—only hard work can do that. Tell us, how do you improve your performance without using pills, drinks, or powders? Share by commenting on this post.

Young woman lifting weights

Hit the Gym, Not the Pills

Most of us have something about ourselves that we’d like to change. Too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too stocky, too anything… In fact, research suggests that more than half of teens are unsatisfied with their bodies for some reason. Some teens are so concerned about their bodies that they take unhealthy or extreme actions, such as taking steroids or diet pills or supplements, or trying to limit their calories too much. Today, SBB will focus on steroids, which are unhealthy and illegal without a doctor’s prescription. Doctors can prescribe anabolic steroids to treat anemia (a condition where the blood doesn’t have enough red blood cells) or to treat men with low testosterone levels. However, some healthy teens—both male and female—turn to steroids to help build muscle or improve athletic performance. Scary Side Effects To build muscle, people who take steroids illegally have been known to take doses 10 to 100 times higher than those prescribed by a doctor. Taking such high doses can cause some ugly side effects, to put it mildly. In addition to stunting your growth and causing severe acne, these include:
  • For guys—shrinking of the testicles, development of breasts, and baldness, among others.
  • For girls—growth of facial hair, baldness, and a permanently deepened voice
Steroids can also cause extreme mood swings, violent behavior, depression, irritability, paranoia, jealousy, and impaired judgment. None of these things will make you the life of the party! Are steroids worth it? Let us know what YOU think... Find out more about steroid abuse.

Meet Molly: The Truth About MDMA

Recently, Madonna created some buzz when she mentioned “Molly” at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. Madonna shouted to the audience, “How many people in the crowd have seen Molly?” Madonna was talking about the song “Have You Seen Molly?” by Cedric Gervais. However, “Molly” is also a nickname for MDMA. Many news outlets reported that the legendary pop singer was talking about drugs, not the song. Madonna responded by saying, “I don't support drug use and I never have.”

All About Molly

We were happy to hear that Madonna doesn’t encourage her fans to use MDMA, because it’s a very dangerous drug. MDMA is manmade—similar to the stimulant methamphetamine. It’s commonly used at dance clubs and concerts, and can make people feel like they have more energy and less fear. But the myths about MDMA being pure and safe are definitely not true.

Let us introduce you to the real Molly.

  • Molly Is Often Mixed Up. MDMA is a synthetic drug, meaning that it’s made of chemicals. It comes in colorful pills, tablets, or capsules that sometimes have cartoon-like images on them. Sometimes each pill, or batch of pills, can have different combinations of substances in the mix and cause unknown consequences.
  • Molly Makes You Hyper. People who use MDMA might feel very alert, or “hyper.” But MDMA can also cause muscle cramping, nausea, blurred vision, increased heart rate and blood pressure—and in rare cases, hyperthermia and even death.
  • Molly Can Depress You. Potential side effects of MDMA include feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and memory difficulties. These can last for several days to a week (or longer in people who use it regularly).
  • Molly Is Dangerous. MDMA can be extremely dangerous in high doses—increasing the risk of seizures and compromising the heart's ability to maintain its normal rhythms. A study in animals showed that exposure to high doses of MDMA for 4 days produced brain damage that could still be seen 6 to 7 years later.

Ecstasy and MDMA Use Is Rising

Despite these harmful consequences, NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study shows that past-year Ecstasy use is up significantly among college students and young adults age 19–28. Another report shows that emergency room visits related to Ecstasy increased nearly 123% from 2004 to 2009; two-thirds of these visits involved 18–29 year olds. This is troubling news, since we’re still learning how Ecstasy affects the brain.

Tell us what you think of Madonna’s “Molly” mix-up. If Madonna’s comment had been referring to drug use, would that change your opinion of her? Are you more likely to buy her album “MDNA” (coincidentally similar to MDMA) since hearing about this in the news? Let us know in the comments.

Meth Mouth and Crank Bugs: Meth-a-morphosis

The SBB has already told you about some of the nasty effects that methamphetamine can have on the body—remember that post about how scavengers won’t even eat the dead bodies of meth users?

Not only can meth mess up your body’s chemical structure and even cause problems with your heart and lungs, it also changes your appearance and behavior. Soon, meth users might not even look or act like themselves.

Bad news for teeth and skin. Ever heard of “meth mouth?” It isn’t pretty. Meth reduces the amount of protective saliva around the teeth. People who use the drug also tend to drink a lot of sugary soda, neglect personal hygiene, grind their teeth, and clench their jaws. The teeth of meth users can eventually fall out-even when doing something as normal as eating a sandwich. As if that’s not bad enough, meth can also cause skin problems-and we’re not just talking about regular zits.

Take a look at these pictures from the Department of Justice—but beware, they are disturbing!

Meth users’ skin can start to look like this because they frequently hallucinate—or strongly imagine—that they’ve got insects creeping on top of or underneath their skin. The person will pick or scratch, trying to get rid of the imaginary “crank bugs.” Soon, the face and arms are covered with open sores that could get infected.

No peace of mind. In addition to the “crank bug” hallucinations, long-term meth use leads to problems such as irritability, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, sleeplessness, confusion, aggressive feelings, violent rages, and depression.

Users may become psychotic and experience paranoia, mood disturbances, and delusions. The paranoia may even make the person think about killing themselves or someone else.

For more information about how methamphetamine could harm your body and mind, read more in-depth information on NIDA DrugFacts.


Butt In: Help Reduce Cigarette Butt Litter

We already know how harmful smoking is to your health, but did you know it can be bad for the environment?

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the United States—and the world.

Since cigarette butts are so small, most people who smoke don’t think much about their effect on our environment. In fact, many smokers think putting out their cigarettes on the ground is the “right” thing to do. But the effects of tossing that butt are far from harmless.

Along with making sidewalks and parks look dirty, cigarette butts are a toxic threat to the environment and to wildlife. Here are some reasons why:

  • Cigarette filters are made from plastic that does not quickly degrade. Depending on the conditions, it can take 18 months to 10 years for a cigarette filter to decompose.
  • Cigarette filters are meant to absorb the toxins from cigarettes that are dangerous for people to inhale, such as tar—that means those toxins are being thrown on the ground with the filter and polluting the environment.
  • Cigarette butts also pollute our water, traveling through storm water systems to end up in streams, rivers, and waterways. Marine life can mistake them for food—in fact, plastic pieces from the filter have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales, and other marine animals. This can cause severe internal injuries, suffocation, starvation, and death.

So, what can you do to help? Spread the word and check out—sponsored by Keep America Beautiful—for ideas on how to reduce cigarette litter in your community.


cigarette butts

Using Drugs When Pregnant Harms the Baby

Did you know that using alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs during pregnancy can harm the mother and her baby? Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or takes affects the baby. Using drugs can hurt the baby’s growth or even cause the baby to get sick.

About 1 in 6 pregnant teen girls (ages 15 to 17) used illegal drugs between 2008 and 2009. Below are just a few of the problems a baby can face if the mother drinks alcohol or uses drugs while she is pregnant.

Cigarettes: Pregnant women who smoke expose their babies to nicotine and the dangerous chemicals in cigarettes. If the mother smokes, her baby may:

  • Be born early (a preemie)
  • Develop an addiction to nicotine
  • Have breathing and behavioral problems
  • Die before it is born or in the first year of life

Secondhand smoke can also be harmful to a baby. The baby is more likely to develop problems breathing, ear infections, and cavities.

Alcohol: Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause babies to be born with illnesses. These children may:

  • Have problems seeing and hearing
  • Be born too small
  • Struggle with eating and sleeping
  • Have problems in school with learning and paying attention

Illegal drugs: Pregnant women who use illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, meth, or heroin can cause lifelong harm to their babies. Drug use can cause babies to:

  • Be born early
  • Grow slowly
  • Have withdrawal symptoms, including fever, vomiting, poor sleep, and shaking
  • Have heart problems or a stroke
  • Suffer lifelong disabilities

If you have been using drugs and think you might be pregnant, stop using the drug and talk to a doctor as soon as possible. (Exception: If you use heroin and you are pregnant, you will need to see a doctor to help you gradually get off the drug—if you stop too suddenly, it can harm the baby.) There are programs that can help teen moms stop using drugs and get healthy for their babies.

Pregnant woman holding stomach

Alcohol and Drugs Don't Mix

A recent episode of the hit TV show “Glee” focused on the problem of underage drinking. Called “Blame It on the Alcohol,” the episode depicted glee club members narrowly avoiding school suspension for drinking on school grounds—never a smart idea! Not only is it illegal to drink before age 21, but drinking too much alcohol can impair brain function and motor skills and lead to addiction. Mixing alcohol with illicit or other drugs—even legal ones—greatly increases the dangers: Combining alcohol with another central nervous system depressant like Xanax or painkillers like Vicodin can slow your heartbeat and breathing and may lead to death. Mixing alcohol with stimulants like Adderall or club drugs like Ecstasy can cause heart problems, too, as well as strokes and convulsions. Cough and cold medicines that don’t need a prescription can mess you up if you abuse them or combine them with alcohol—once again, heart problems and trouble breathing. Play it safe and don’t mix alcohol with other drugs.

FACT: Driving After Using Marijuana Is Dangerous

According to a recent driving study, as many as 1 in 5 teen drivers say they drove under the influence of marijuana. More than one-third of them did not believe that marijuana affected their driving, whereas less than one-fifth of teens who drove after drinking alcohol said their driving wasn’t impaired.

These numbers show that some teen drivers aren’t getting the message that both alcohol and drugs—including marijuana—are dangerous risks behind the wheel. Not only that, but drivers under the influence of these substances endanger other users of the road as well.

Reducing drunk driving has been a focus of public health campaigns in the United States for a long time. After all, SADD, which now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions, started out as Students Against Drunk Driving. Only recently have people started talking about how driving high or buzzed is just as risky as driving drunk.

Your Brain in the Driver’s Seat

Because driving is such a common activity, it’s easy to forget how you really must stay alert to stay safe. While it may seem like your body goes on automatic when accelerating or changing lanes, really your brain is in high gear.

Drugs and alcohol interfere with the brain’s ability to function properly. THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, affects areas of the brain that control the body’s movements, balance, coordination, memory, and judgment, so it’s no surprise that marijuana and driving don’t mix.

Speak Up

The driving study mentioned above also found that 90% of teen drivers would stop driving under the influence of marijuana if asked by their passengers. If you see someone who’s about to drive after using marijuana, tell them it’s not a good idea.

Note: Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only things that may mess with your driving skills—check out to find out about how eating, using a GPS, texting, or talking to passengers can also lead to an accident.

man leaning his head against steering wheel

Can It Be Bad If It’s Natural?

“Marijuana is natural, so how can it be harmful?”

Lots of teens ask us this question, and it’s a good one—a great question, in fact.

People often think that substances found in nature are automatically safer than chemicals that are made in a laboratory or a factory. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. Lots of beneficial substances are human made (medicines, for example), and lots of harmful ones come straight from the earth.

Tobacco is a great example. Like marijuana, tobacco is a plant whose leaves have been dried, crumbled, and smoked for thousands of years. It was used in religious rituals by Native Americans, who believed that exhaling tobacco smoke carried their thoughts and prayers to heaven; they also believed it possessed medicinal properties.

Once American settlers began growing the crop and exporting it to Europe and the rest of the world, tobacco enjoyed a reputation kind of like marijuana does today: Some monarchs and religious leaders thought it was unhealthy and morally corrupt and tried to ban it; but lots of people enjoyed the “precious weed” and sided with the physicians of the time, who actually praised its healing virtues—claiming that smoking tobacco could cure most forms of sickness and even protect a person from getting the plague!

It wasn’t until around the 1950s that modern medicine, armed with better science, established the truth about smoking tobacco—it can cause diseases like lung cancer and it is highly addictive. No one would now argue that tobacco is safe, let alone good for you. But it is “natural.”

Marketers of foods and other products use the “natural equals good for you” assumption all the time to manipulate people’s buying behavior. For instance, when shoppers see the “All Natural” label on a food, they tend to think it’s good for them even if it contains lots of unhealthy sugar or fat—both of which are, like tobacco, “natural.”

We still don’t know whether smoking marijuana causes lung cancer like tobacco does, but strong evidence shows that it does other bad stuff: It interferes with thinking and memory, it can lower your IQ if you smoke it regularly in your teen years, and—as a result of these and other things—it can set you up to miss achieving your full potential in life.

Is a “natural” way to hurt your brain any better than an unnatural one?

Eric Wargo is a science writer at NIDA. Before coming to NIDA, he wrote for an association of psychological scientists, people who study all aspects of the mind and human behavior. He is excited to work at NIDA, because NIDA scientists study the brain, and the brain is at the root of everything we humans do.

Marijuana in a greenhouse

What Happened to Mark?

The news story said Mark McGwire's voice "cracked with emotion" when he finally admitted to the world he had used steroids for 10 years, including the season he broke the home run record, hitting 70 slammers in 1998. He is probably not just embarrassed by this, but also concerned about his health, since steroids can cause problems even after you go off them.

There are sometimes medical uses for steroids, such as to help people with cancer or AIDS build up lost muscle mass. But many people-especially those who want to improve their athletic performance-abuse anabolic steroids to "bulk up," typically taking higher doses than people who take them for medical reasons. Steroid abuse among athletes, especially baseball players, has become such a problem that a few years ago the U.S. Congress held a special investigation. Now, major league baseball executives are working to "clean it up," which Mr. McGwire now says is a good thing.

"I wish I had never touched steroids…It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era." —Mark McGwire

Taking steroids is not a good bargain. Because even though they might make you stronger in the short-run, the price you pay can be much too high. So what can happen? Here's just a short list of the possible side effects:

  • Stunt your growth and cause bad acne.
  • Cause vicious mood swings (ever heard of "'roid rage"?)
  • For guys, abusing steroids can lead to shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts.
  • For girls, abusing steroids lead to growth of facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, and a permanently deepened voice.

The good news is that steroid use is not a huge problem among teens—as many teens have a healthy game plan. Still, somewhere between 1-2% of high schoolers, many being athletes, have tried them, mostly to enhance sports performance. Did you know that NIDA has a Web section on steroids with information just for teens? Check out Drug Facts - Anabolic Steroids. Also take a look at this YouTube video starring one of our scientists here at NIDA. Mark McGwire has done a lot of good things with his life since leaving baseball. He has a foundation that helps abused children, and he works with the National Kidney Foundation. We will have to wait and see how things turn out for him, as people debate how to handle the many awards he has won over the years and his possible selection into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But scientists at NIDA will be looking at something more important: what are the long-lasting health effects of so much steroid use, and what is the best way to prevent people from abusing steroids in the first place? What do you think?

Baseball player is batting up and the catcher is ready

E-Cig Popularity on the Rise

Cigarette smoking among American teenagers dropped to a record low in 2012. But are teens turning to a new alternative known as “e-cigarettes”?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor, and other chemicals as vapor that a user inhales, without producing actual tobacco smoke. Some people assume e-cigs are healthier than traditional cigarettes.

A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the use of e-cigs has doubled since 2011, raising the percentage of high school students who have tried them to 10%.

Why Are Teens Trying E-Cigs?                 

  • Advertising: Traditional cigarette TV ads have been banned since 1970, but most e-cigs are not regulated by the FDA. Because of this, they do not fall under the same advertising and marketing rules, so tobacco companies have been buying TV ad time to push e-cigs.
  • Flavors: The lack of FDA regulation has allowed tobacco companies to sell flavored e-cig products such as Bora Bora, with “pronounced notes of Exotic Island spice,” and Iced Berry, which claims to offer “immediate, irresistible refreshment.” These and other exotic flavors can sound very appealing to the younger crowd.
  • Selling to Teens: While more than 20 states have banned store sales to minors, e-cigs can still be bought online. Make no mistake about it—the tobacco companies want your money!

Aren’t E-Cigs Better Than Traditional Cigarettes?

We don’t know. Some companies advertise e-cigs as a way to lower nicotine cravings while causing less harm than traditional tobacco products, and some people claim e-cigs help them quit smoking. But there’s no actual evidence yet to support this claim.

The FDA has found that e-cigs might be safer than regular cigarettes because they do not release tar, carbon monoxide, and other poisons found in cigarettes. However, e-cigs still release carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, whose long-term effects are unknown.

What if you inhale the vapor of a few of these things every day—what will that do to your body over time? We just don’t know—do you want to be a guinea pig?

What’s in the Future for E-Cigs?

The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products may start regulating the sale of e-cigs. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act has given the FDA authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products, and it will soon be decided if this includes the vaporized form of nicotine used in e-cigs.

For more information on electronic cigarettes, watch this NIDA TV Spotlight.

For information on safely quitting tobacco, see these smoking cessation products.

Comment on this post and tell us what you think: Do you know anyone who uses e-cigs?

Woman using an electronic cigarette.

Risky Behavior Leads to Emergency Rooms

When you ask friends what they’re going to do for homecoming or the prom or graduation, spending the night in the local emergency room probably isn’t on their list. Unfortunately, for many young people, alcohol may change their plans. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), emergency rooms get 546 underage drinking-related emergency room visits every day—many more on special celebration days. Emergency room visits can cost $1000 or more—not including the cost of an ambulance or a hospital stay if you have to be admitted to the hospital. If a drinker in the ER is under 18, the hospital has to call their parents or guardians. To make matters worse, minors can also get into legal trouble since underage drinking is against the law. Not to pile on, BUT people who drink before their 21st birthday are more likely to use drugs, get bad grades, become a victim of a violent or sexual crime, and get addicted to alcohol. In fact, More than 4 in 10 people who begin drinking before age 15 eventually become alcoholic. Better to celebrate special events in a way you’ll be glad to remember the next morning! Teens Involved in Risky Activity While Driving

Can Smoking Marijuana Actually Lower Your IQ?

Many teenagers assume smoking weed is harmless because of all the myths floating around saying it’s safe. What few people know is that the age you start using marijuana actually makes a difference. In fact, if you start smoking it as a teenager, there can be some serious problems for you down the road.

Although we already knew from past research that if you start smoking pot as a teen, you’ll be more likely to get addicted, new research (just published in a well-known journal called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) now says if you smoke marijuana heavily as a teenager, it can actually lower your IQ!

Scientists looked at more than 1,000 people born in 1972 and 1973. When they were 13 years old, they were given IQ and other kinds of intelligence tests. They were interviewed every few years about their use of marijuana and then tested again when they were 38 years old.

The results? Those who smoked weed heavily as teens showed mental decline even after they quit using the drug—and had, on average, an 8-point drop in their IQ scores. An 8-point loss could push a person of average intelligence into the lower third of testers. Those who started smoking pot after age 18 also showed some decline, but not as much.

This was an interesting study because it also collected information from people who knew the study participants. They reported that people who smoked marijuana heavily had more memory and attention problems and did not organize their lives as well, misplacing things and forgetting to keep appointments, pay bills, or return calls. This highlights the lasting effect marijuana can have on the teenage brain, which is still developing and still wiring itself to handle the onslaught of information it gets every day. The toxic chemicals in marijuana can mess up that wiring process and hurt your ability to do well in school and in life.

Carol Krause is the Chief of the Public Information and Liaison Branch at NIDA. Since arriving at NIDA in 2006, Ms. Krause has launched several new innovative programs for teens, including Drug Facts Chat Day (an annual live Web chat between NIDA scientists and teens), National Drug Facts Week (to stimulate community events between scientists and teens), and the first Addiction Science Awards for high school participants in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

marijuana lowers IQ

Secondhand Smoke: You’re Exposed to More Than You Think

Many of us don’t realize how much secondhand smoke we inhale each day. We tend to forget about the person smoking outside a restaurant or sitting on a park bench. People’s smoking in the apartment next door affects us as well.

While these encounters with secondhand smoke seem harmless, they can mean a lot to your health.

  • Secondhand smoke contains many of the same chemicals as inhaled smoke.
  • According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, effects of secondhand smoke kill 42,000 Americans each year, including nearly 900 infants.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in a healthy nonsmoker.
  • Another recent study found that people exposed to secondhand smoke have higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

To figure out your level of secondhand smoke exposure, doctors can measure the amount of cotinine in your blood, saliva, or urine. Cotinine is the chemical created by the body when nicotine is metabolized. Measuring cotinine levels is more accurate than relying on people to remember how much exposure they have to smoking.

Newer research shows that even exposure to third-hand smoke—the chemicals from smoking that remain on surfaces and in dust—can be detrimental.

How can you avoid secondhand smoke?

  • Politely ask people not to smoke around you.
  • Don’t allow smoking in your home or car.
  • Encourage people to use designated smoking areas that are far away from building entrances and crowded areas.
  • Encourage friends and family members who want to quit smoking.

Are you worried about being exposed to more smoke than you thought? What can you do to reduce your exposure?

Two girls sitting on bench, one is smoking

March is National Inhalants Month

We get a lot of comments and questions about what drugs do to your brain, including chemicals that people sniff to get high. For example, Justin posted a comment on this blog once saying he always thought that if he “huffs” markers in small doses, just every once in a while, that it will cause little or no damage to his brain cells. Maybe or maybe not. The problem is that you really don’t know when something might be dangerous for you even if other people are okay.

What’s clear is that when you inhale toxic chemicals like those in markers, paint thinner, or computer duster, it messes with your brain’s wiring and signals, so you feel almost drunk or dizzy for a while—but if you keep doing it, you can have pretty scary side effects.

In the short term, these chemicals can cause dizziness, loss of consciousness, bad mood swings, and headaches. In the long term, toxic fumes can take the place of oxygen in the blood, leading to hypoxia (low oxygen pressure in the body), which can damage your brain and other organs or even kill you. In fact, even one hit of a toxic substance can stop your heart, aka “Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome”—a tragedy that too many teens and parents have experienced. Some only come close, like Megan who stopped just in time.

Like Justin, maybe you weren’t aware of the potential consequences of huffing. Many teens and parents are not. That’s the point of National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Month. Every year this month is a chance to educate people about the dangers of huffing, while supporting those who have already been affected. So what can you do? Maybe you can start a conversation with a friend about inhalant abuse or pass this blog along to others. You can make a difference and could maybe save a life.

Why don’t you see how you and your friends do on this short quiz about inhalants?…see if you can get them all right—let us know how you did!

1. Inhaling stuff repeatedly can cause serious damage to the:

  1. A. heart
  2. B. liver
  3. C. brain
  4. D. all of the above

2. Huffing and using illegal drugs can cause brain changes that last:

  1. A. for minutes
  2. B. for days
  3. C. four days
  4. D. for years

3. “Sudden sniffing death” can be caused by…

  1. A. Acute odor receptor over-activation
  2. B. Inhaling noxious fumes from household products like glue, hairspray, or gasoline
  3. C. Smelling dirty socks
  4. D. Inhaling noxious fumes from your little brother
  5. E. Smoking marijuana

4. Damage from the use of inhalants can slow or stop nerve cell activity and reduce the size of some parts of the brain, including:

  1. A. Cerebral cortex (the thinking part)
  2. B. Brainstem (controls respiration and basic activities)
  3. C. Cerebellum (involved in movement)
  4. D. All of the above

5. Inhalants cause damage to the brain because:

  1. A. They smell really bad
  2. B. They prevent oxygen from getting to neurons
  3. C. They cause muscles to break down
  4. D. All of the above

1.d, 2c, 3.b, 4.d, 5.b,

Distorted and fuzzy image of spray cans

5 Myths About ADHD Drugs

Prescription stimulants—like Adderall and Ritalin—have been in the news a lot recently because some high school and college students say they take these drugs to help them study better or party longer. Prescription stimulants are usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and misusing them can lead to serious health problems.

Let’s look at 5 myths about prescription stimulants.

Myth #1: Drugs like Ritalin and Adderall can make you smarter.

Fact: While these drugs may help you focus, they don’t help you learn better, and they won’t improve your grades.

Being “smart” is about improving your ability to master new skills, concepts, and ideas. Like a muscle, the brain gets stronger through exercise. Learning strengthens brain connections through repetition and practice to enhance cognition—“smartness”—over a lifetime. Shortcuts, like abusing prescription stimulants, do not “exercise” the brain.

Research has shown that students who abuse prescription stimulants actually have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t.

Myth #2: Prescription stimulants are just “brain vitamins.”

Fact: Unlike vitamins, these drugs contain ingredients that can change brain chemistry and may have serious side effects.

Also, unlike vitamins, they require a doctor’s prescription. If you take these drugs more often than directed, in too high a dose, or in some way other than by mouth, you are abusing the drug, which can lead to addiction.

Myth #3: These drugs can’t hurt you.

Fact: Prescription stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin are safe and effective when prescribed for people with ADHD and used properly. But the same drugs, when used by someone without ADHD, can be dangerous.

Stimulants taken without a medical reason can disrupt brain communication.  When used improperly or in excess, they can cause mood swings and loss of sleep, and can increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.

Myth #4: Taking someone else’s prescription—just once in a while—is okay.

Fact: Doctors prescribe medicine based on your weight, symptoms, and body chemistry. Doctors may adjust how much you take or change to a different medication to better treat symptoms or respond to side effects.

When you take a stimulant prescribed for a friend or family member, you haven’t been looked at by a doctor. The possible side effects can make you sick. Side effects include elevated heart rate, dizziness, and fainting—or, even worse, heart attacks and stroke. Side effects may also include depression and exhaustion.

Myth #5: If your doctor prescribed the drug, it doesn’t matter how you take it.

Fact: If you are diagnosed with ADHD, stimulants the doctor prescribes for you can help. But always be sure to take the medication exactly as directed—no more, no less.

Also, be sure to tell your doctor everything that’s going on at home and at school. Combining prescription stimulants with other drugs or alcohol can be dangerous.

And don’t help your friends or family members abuse prescription drugs by sharing your pills with them.

Bottle of pills

Not LOKO for Alcoholic Energy Drinks

You may remember that a while back, SBB addressed an unhealthy new fad—energy drinks. We speculated that these drinks, although highly publicized in the coolest venues, were not safe even though they promised to deliver an extra dose of energy. Now, SBB confronts an even more dangerous issue: alcoholic energy drinks, like Four LOKO. Why are alcoholic energy drinks so dangerous? They contain two main substances—alcohol and caffeine, the first a depressant and the second a stimulant. These two substances should never be consumed in large quantities and they should definitely never be mixed. Why? Because they have opposite effects on your body that can fool you into drinking more than you can handle. Depressants like alcohol slow down the central nervous system. Drinking a lot of alcohol can affect your coordination and perception and even make you pass out. Stimulants meanwhile “wake up” the central nervous system and increase energy and alertness. Opposites Do Not Attract. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the caffeine in alcoholic energy drinks masks the effects that the alcohol has on the body, which motivates people to drink more. Worse, the average beer has 4 to 5 percent alcohol, while an alcoholic energy drink is 12 percent alcohol! Therefore, people can get really drunk without realizing it, making them more vulnerable to overdose, alcohol poisoning, and even death. In the past few months, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pulled alcoholic energy drinks like Four LOKO off store shelves, banning them in many states. Better to keep it natural—go for a run or do some yoga to “feel-good.” Loko Drink

Social Smoking: Just as Bad as Regular Smoking

Many people justify smoking one or two cigarettes once in a while—known as social smoking—by thinking occasional smoking won’t damage their health as much as smoking every day. Unfortunately, smoking fewer cigarettes does not reduce the risk of smoking-related health problems.

Physical Health

With occasional smoking, you still have several health risks, like:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung and other cancers
  • Respiratory tract infections
  • Slower recovery from torn cartilage and other injuries

Brain Health

It’s not just the body—the brain suffers as well. A 2011 study shows that even occasional smoking affects memory. Northumbria University in the United Kingdom gave a memory test to college students who smoked either occasionally, regularly, or not at all. Results showed that both occasional and regular smokers performed much worse than nonsmokers on this task. In fact, social smokers performed just as badly as regular smokers.

Researchers involved in the study concluded that smoking damages memory no matter how often you do it. And decline in smoking-related memory has been linked with changes in the brain, such as brain shrinkage. That can’t be good.

Regain Your Memory

Fortunately, the damage doesn’t have to be permanent. The psychologists who researched how smoking affects memory published another study last year showing that quitting smoking can actually improve memory, restoring everyday memory to nearly the same level as that of people who don’t smoke.

For this study, participants were taken on a tour of a university campus and asked to remember a series of predetermined tasks at specific locations. While current smokers remembered 59% of tasks, people who had given up smoking remembered 74% of their required tasks. Those who had never smoked remembered 81% of tasks.

What Do You Think?

Does knowing that occasional cigarette smoking has the same brain and physical health effects as regular smoking make you think twice before lighting up? If you smoke now, have you found it harder to remember everyday tasks or errands than before you started smoking?

man's brain being used as an ash tray

Alcohol Dangers Go Beyond Drunk Driving

You’ve probably heard how deadly it is to drink and drive—or to get in the car with someone else who has been drinking. But the dangers of alcohol go beyond drunk driving. Did you know that of all alcohol-related teen deaths, only about one-third of those are traffic related?

Alcohol poisoning and suicide are also major causes of alcohol-related teen deaths (9% and 15%, respectively), but an even bigger cause may surprise you. A third of teen drinkers who die alcohol-related deaths are victims of homicide.

Why the connection between murder and alcohol? Under the influence, people do lots of things they wouldn’t normally do. That includes acting on emotional impulses like rage, jealousy, or sadness.

And people who have been drinking find themselves in situations they would normally avoid, like an argument with a classmate, boyfriend, or girlfriend. For instance, the FBI estimates that over 1,400 homicides in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010 resulted from a “brawl due to influence of alcohol.”

Alcohol clouds a person’s judgment and decision-making skills. When that happens, it’s often impossible to predict the consequences.

Tell us in comments: Do these stats surprise you? If your parents talked to you about the dangers of drinking and driving, did they also mention the other dangers of alcohol? Share with us your tips to help your fellow teens avoid drinking alcohol!

Upset girl sitting on the ground

Word of the Day: Psychoactive Drugs

Have you ever heard the term ”psychoactive drugs?” Drugs in this category act on the central nervous system and and alter its normal, everyday activity, causing changes in mood, awareness, and behavior. Psychoactive drugs disrupt the communication between neurons (brain cells), so abusing them can have serious short- and long-term effects on the brain.

Psychoactive drugs include four groups of drugs: depressants like alcohol and sleeping pills; stimulants like nicotine and ecstasy; opioids like heroin and pain medications; and hallucinogens like LSD.

The term psychoactive drug might make you think of drugs, like LSD, that change your brain and behavior in really extreme ways. LSD is a hallucinogen, or “psychedelic” that significantly alters the brain and the user’s perception of reality. It is also an illicit, or illegal, drug.

But not all psychoactive drugs are illegal. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee and energy drinks, and opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, or morphine are often prescribed by doctors to relieve pain. Abusing prescribed psychoactive drugs is illegal though, and can be as dangerous as abusing cocaine or heroin. That is one reason why they come with warning labels telling people not to drive or operate heavy machinery. Drinking too much caffeine is not good for you either (see chart)!

So legal or illegal, psychoactive drugs demand caution.

NIDA provides lots of information about the different types of psychoactive drugs:

Warning Sign

Is Pure MDMA Safer Than Other Drugs?

One of the biggest myths about Molly—pure MDMA—is that it’s safer than other drugs. This belief is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. It’s not true.
  2. It’s impossible to know if you’re actually taking pure MDMA.

Pure or Not, Molly Is Harmful

Pure MDMA—meaning there are no other substances in it—is not a safe drug to take. MDMA can have many of the same effects as other stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines. A person who takes MDMA could experience increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, involuntary teeth clenching, nausea, blurred vision, faintness, and chills or sweating.

In high doses, MDMA can affect the body’s ability to keep the correct temperature. People who take MDMA at concerts or dance parties sometimes experience a dangerous rise in body temperature (hyperthermia), which can result in liver, kidney, or heart failure—or even death.

Molly’s Identity Crisis

Even though it is supposed to be pure MDMA, Molly is just as likely to be mixed with other substances as any other drug.

Supposedly pure Molly can contain ephedrine (a stimulant), dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), ketamine, caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine, or even bath salts. Just because it comes in crystal or powder form—instead of a pill like Ecstasy—doesn’t prove that it is pure.

Some powder sold on the street as “Molly” doesn’t contain any MDMA at all. That’s even more dangerous because you don’t have a clue what you’re really taking!

There Are No “Safe” Illegal Drugs

It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a “safe” illicit drug. Certain drugs are illegal because research shows that they are harmful to the brain and body.

Has anyone tried to pressure you into doing drugs by telling you they’re safe? Tell us in comments how you reacted.

Teens handing each other drugs

Keep "Bath Salts" in the Tub

Bath salts. The name sounds innocent enough, like an old-fashioned cure for tired feet. But these days, “bath salts” are far from what you would find in your local soap aisle at the grocery store or day spa. Bath salts are a new type of drug laced with synthetic stimulants, which people use to get high by swallowing, snorting or injecting them. And…they have just been made illegal.

What Are Bath Salts?

Because these drugs are relatively new and for now unregulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), scientists are not exactly sure of the ingredients in each brand. We do know that the chemicals in these bath salts mimic the effects of amphetamines—stimulants like cocaine or meth—such as racing heart, increased blood pressure and body temperature, and even seizures, which have brought many people to emergency rooms across the country.

According to the head of the Louisiana Poison Center, at least 84 people in that state have been hospitalized after getting high from bath salts. Nationwide, more than 4,000 calls about bath salts have come in to poison centers during the first 7 months of 2011—up from 303 calls in all of 2010.


It is too early to tell what the exact short- and long-term effects from abusing bath salts is, but what little we do know so far is alarming enough. Effects can include extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts, as well as chest pains, soaring blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat. A number of deaths were reported in people who took the drug, including at least one possible suicide.

Several states, including Hawaii, Louisiana, and Michigan, have introduced laws to ban bath salts. The DEA just announced it will make selling or possessing these chemicals illegal for a year while they study them further. SBB will keep you posted on what they learn. If anyone offers you bath salts as a way to get high, let them know not only are they taking big risks, they are also doing something illegal.

Bath Salts

Prescription Stimulants Affect People With ADHD Differently

There’ve been lots of headlines lately about the dangers of prescription drug abuse—like taking a friend’s.

BUT—for people who do not have ADHD, stimulants flood the brain with dopamine, causing a dopamine overload. So instead of having a calming effect as they would on people with ADHD, stimulants taken without a medical reason can disrupt brain communication and cause euphoria. It might feel good at first, but repeated abuse of stimulants can:

  • Increase blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
  • Decrease appetite and sleep.
  • Cause feelings of hostility and paranoia.
  • Increase a person’s risk for addiction.

Doctors take many factors into account when prescribing a drug for a person who needs it: dose size, the person’s weight and height, how long the drug should be taken, and much more. The bottom line is that drugs affect everyone differently. Want to see how abusing Adderall could affect you physically and academically? Choose Your Path.

Brain images showing different amounts of dopamine

Sizzurp: It’s Not Cool

In recent months, gossip magazines have reported on Justin Bieber’s erratic behavior, such as wearing a gas mask, fainting at a London concert, and traveling with a monkey. Mixed in with these reports is speculation about Bieber’s alleged use of a drug concoction called “Sizzurp.”

Bieber isn’t the only musician associated with the drink. Back in March and again at the beginning of May, rapper Lil Wayne was admitted to the hospital with seizures, allegedly from his use of Sizzurp (although he denied it).

NIDA works to stay on top of new drugs. If celebrities are involved, it’s even more important for people—especially teens—to know the facts, because sometimes people may think something’s cool just because a star does it.

Facts About Sizzurp

First, it is not cool. In fact, it’s quite dangerous. Sizzurp, also known as "Lean" and "Purple Drank," is a mixture of cough medicine—often prescription strength, containing an opioid called codeine—and soft drinks and candy for flavor. Abuse of cough medicines, especially ones that contain opioids, can cause an overdose leading to coma or even death. Less grave (but still serious) symptoms include nausea, dizziness, impaired vision, memory loss, hallucinations, and seizures like Lil Wayne experienced.

Teens may think that just because something is available from the pharmacy, it won’t harm them—but that’s not true. When not used as directed on the label, cough and cold medicines (even over-the-counter ones) can be dangerous.

Tell us in comments: If a celebrity does something, do you feel the urge to try it? What would you say to a friend who wanted to try Sizzurp?

The Price of Smoking

You’ve already heard plenty about what smoking can do to your looks and your life. But have you ever stopped to really think about how much money gets burned up with each pack of cigarettes?

The average price for a pack of cigarettes (PDF, 57.91 KB) nationwide is around $5.50—more or less depending on the State you live in. The spending calculator lets you enter the number of packs smoked per week as well as the price per pack. Then, it calculates the monthly and yearly cost.

Let’s say you smoke one pack a week at the average price of $5.50 per pack—that’s $22 a month and $264 a year. If you smoke two packs a week, the numbers double—$44 a month and more than $500 a year! I’m sure you can think of better things to do with $500....

According to NIDA research, nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, and most people smoke tobacco regularly because they are addicted to nicotine. Once people get addicted, they need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. That means smoking leads to more smoking, which leads to more money for the cigarette companies and less for you—not to mention the hit on your health.

When you quit, treat yourself to a reward, and pay for it with the money you used to spend on cigarettes. To talk to someone about quitting, call the national toll-free number, 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).

Hand reaching for an empty pocket.

High School Seniors Are Taking Up the Hookah

NIDA’s 2013 Monitoring the Future study reported that more than 20%—that’s 1 in 5—high school seniors have used a hookah to smoke tobacco. A hookah is a pipe that burns flavored tobacco and passes the smoke through water before it is inhaled. It can have one stem to smoke from, or several stems so multiple people can smoke from the same pipe.

Hookah bars, frequently found near college campuses, are gaining popularity with young adults. The exotic flavors of “shisha” (a mixture of tobacco, molasses, and fruit used in hookahs) appeal to teens. There are dozens of flavors, including strawberry, lime, and chocolate. The social aspect of hookahs is another attraction, with groups of young people gathering for smoking sessions that can last for hours.

Tobacco Is Just as Harmful in a Hookah!

Many think that smoking tobacco through a water pipe is safer than smoking a cigarette, believing that the water filters out the harmful chemicals.

That’s a myth!

Hookah smoke contains the same harmful tar and other toxic chemicals that cigarette smoke has. Hookah smoking is linked to many of the same health problems as cigarette smoking—like heart disease and lung cancer. In addition, a typical hour-long hookah session, in which a person inhales several long, deep breaths of smoke, can equal as many as 100 cigarettes or more!

It gets worse. The tobacco in hookahs is heated with charcoal, which exposes you to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Also, since hookahs are meant to be shared, you get exposed to germs, putting you at risk for all sorts of other nasty illnesses.

What’s the upside? We’re not sure there is one. Smoking a hookah might look cool, but it’s not much different than smoking a cigarette.

Tell us in comments, what would you say if your friends wanted to try out the local hookah bar?

Hookah surrounded by tobacco smoke.

Smoking Stinks!

You probably know that smoking is NOT cool—and that it’s really dangerous, too. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and kills nearly a half a million people each year. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke have been linked to serious long-term side effects, including cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and even death. People who smoke may become infertile, and pregnant women who smoke are more at risk for stillbirths, having babies with low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that it will require prominent cigarette health warnings on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States. Check out the new warning labels here:

But cigarette smoking doesn’t just affect the smoker—“secondhand” smoke also affects families and friends and many thousands of others. Secondhand smoke is exactly what it sounds like: nonsmokers inhale the smoke that “firsthand” smokers exhale from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that each year, secondhand smoke causes as many as 3,400 lung cancer-related deaths in the United States.

So, if you want a longer, healthier life, better to indulge in activities like sports, yoga, running, and spending time with friends and family.

Medications and Alcohol Don't Mix

If you’re taking any medications—either those prescribed by a doctor or over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine—it’s not a good idea to drink alcohol. Often, the medication label will warn you not to—because of the possible dangerous side effects. Read the label! You’ll find lots of good info, like:

  • The medication’s active ingredients, including ingredient amounts in each dose
  • The medication’s purpose and uses
  • Dosage instructions—when and how to take it
  • Specific warnings about interactions (with alcohol and other drugs)
  • Activities to avoid
  • The medication’s inactive ingredients (important to help people avoid an allergic reaction)

Because the drug label information can be confusing, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what side effects you might experience and not to mix medications and alcohol. Here’s what can happen:

  • Drinking alcohol while ibuprofen (Motrin) is in your system could cause stomach upset, stomach bleeding, and even liver damage.
  • If you’re taking a sleep medication like Ambien, alcohol could cause increased drowsiness, difficulty breathing, and memory problems.
  • Mixing caffeine and energy drinks with alcohol is also a bad idea since their opposite effects (alcohol is a depressant, caffeine a stimulant) can fool you into drinking more than your body can handle.

Here is a list of many common medications and what can happen if the user drinks alcohol while taking them. Some of them may surprise you.

warning label on medication advising against drinking alcohol

Meth Mouth and Crank Bugs: Meth-a-morphosis

Few SBB posts have gotten as many grossed-out reactions from readers as this one from January 2010—check out what meth does to your body and let us know in comments what you think.

SBB has already told you about some of the nasty effects that methamphetamine can have on the body—remember that post about how scavengers won’t even eat the dead bodies of meth users?

Not only can meth mess up your body’s chemical structure and even cause problems with your heart and lungs, it also changes your appearance and behavior. Soon, meth users might not even look or act like themselves.

Bad news for teeth and skin. Ever heard of “meth mouth?” It isn’t pretty. Meth reduces the amount of protective saliva around the teeth. People who use the drug also tend to drink a lot of sugary soda, neglect personal hygiene, grind their teeth, and clench their jaws. The teeth of meth users can eventually fall out—even when doing something as normal as chewing a sandwich. As if that’s not bad enough, meth can also cause skin problems—and we’re not just talking about regular zits.

Take a look at these pictures from the U.S. Department of Justice—but beware, they are disturbing!

Meth users’ skin can start to look like this because they frequently hallucinate—or strongly imagine—that they’ve got insects creeping on top of or underneath their skin. The person will pick or scratch, trying to get rid of the imaginary “crank bugs.” Soon, the face and arms are covered with open sores that could get infected.

No peace of mind. In addition to the “crank bug” hallucinations, long-term meth use leads to problems such as irritability, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, sleeplessness, confusion, aggressive feelings, violent rages, and depression.

Users may become psychotic and experience paranoia, mood disturbances, and delusions. The paranoia may even make the person think about killing themselves or someone else.

For more information about how methamphetamine could harm your body and mind, read more indepth information on NIDA DrugFacts.

Meth-a-morphosis shows deterioration of a meth user's appearance


Smokeless tobacco is the latest nicotine-based product to drift into the marketplace and try to catch the attention of young people.

Snus pouches are a new version of snuff, or chewing tobacco laced with nicotine. Instead of putting a loose wad of tobacco inside the upper lip or between the cheek and gums, snus pouches look like small tea bags. These products are “spitless”, making their use easy to hide. Some tobacco companies even add flavors – like vanilla, peppermint, or spearmint – along with a sweetener.

These flavors are more likely to make the product appeal to young people.

Isn’t snus safer than cigarettes?

Snus has a similar effect on your brain, acting as a stimulant. Although it is marketed as an alternative to cigarettes, the little packets of wet tobacco are just as addictive. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies have determined that smokeless tobacco products:

  • Cause serious diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other diseases of the mouth, gums, and teeth;
  • May increase the risk of serious diseases when used in combination with smoking;
  • Cause adverse reproductive effects and should not be used during pregnancy; and
  • Are not a safe alternative to smoking.

So don’t let a clever name, fun packaging, or candy flavors fool you. By the way, here’s the un-fun part of the package, but that’s because it’s required by law:

Warning: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.

Who’s using snus?

According to NIDA’s 2009 Monitoring the Future survey of teens (PDF, 1.34 MB), the use of smokeless tobacco is increasing significantly among 10th and 12th graders. The percentage of 12th graders reporting past-month smokeless tobacco use increased from 6.1 percent in 2006 to 8.4 percent in 2009, a 38 percent increase, while the percentage of 10th graders reporting smokeless tobacco use increased from 4.9 percent in 2004 to 6.5 percent in 2009, a 33 percent increase.

Treating Addiction With Medication

Most people are familiar with taking prescription medications like antibiotics when they get sick. Some people also are prescribed medication to help with a problem like depression or ADHD. Did you know that some (not all) drug addictions actually can be treated with prescription medications, too? It may seem odd that someone addicted to a drug like heroin would start taking another drug so they can stop using heroin. But, research shows that some people respond very well to what is called “medication-assisted treatment.”

Why Does Medication Help?

If a person is addicted to an opioid (like heroin or prescription pain relievers), medication can help him or her get back to a better state of mind—beyond just thinking about seeking and using the drug. It also can help ease withdrawal and cravings, which can give a person who is addicted the chance to focus on changes needed to recover.

Taking medication for opioid addiction is like taking medication to control heart disease or diabetes. It is not the same as substituting one addictive drug for another. Used properly, the medication does not create a new addiction. 

How Does Medication Work?

Medications to treat opioid addiction (like methadone and buprenorphine) affect the same brain areas as the drugs of abuse they are opposing (like heroin and OxyContin)—but in different ways. Anti-addiction medications “trick” the brain into thinking it is still getting the drug, which stops withdrawal. They help the person feel normal, not high, and reduce drug cravings.

Alcohol dependence also may be treated with medication. Three oral medications and one that is injected have been shown to help patients reduce drinking, avoid relapse to heavy drinking, or stop drinking altogether. Of course, these medications aren’t available over the counter at your local pharmacy. They are dispensed at treatment centers or by primary care doctors approved to prescribe them.

Medication isn’t the only treatment for opioid or alcohol dependence—adding counseling or therapy can help, and the support of family and friends is often crucial to a person’s success. See NIDA’s new treatment resource, Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What To Ask.

To learn more about medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction, read the brochure, Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction: Facts for Families and Friends.

Hand holding prescription drug

Take the National Drug IQ Challenge

National Drug Facts Week is in full swing! Have you looked up any facts? As a scientist, I love studying data and reading about real facts that have been tested by credible science. Some facts might surprise you.

For example, did you know that:

  • if you begin smoking marijuana as a teen, it could lower your IQ?
  • more people die from painkiller overdoses in the country every year than from heroin and cocaine combined?
  • fewer kids are smoking cigarettes these days?

What kinds of drug facts interest you? I recommend you try three things.

  1. Check out our NIDA for Teens Web site at
  2. If your school has not signed up for National Drug Facts Day, watch our chat with NIDA scientists tomorrow, January 31, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
  3. Take the interactive 2013 National Drug IQ Challenge to see what you know about drugs!

Stay smart by taking some time to research the facts about drugs.

National Drug IQ Challenge

“Spice” – Not as Fun as it Sounds

SBB first alerted teens to the dangers of Spice in February 2011. Check out the post below.

Spice—also known as K2, Fake Marijuana, Skunk, and other names—is a synthetic (or man-made) substance made from shredded dried plant materials and chemicals. Spice appears to stimulate the same brain receptors—molecules that recognize specific chemicals and transmit messages into cells—as marijuana does and produces a similar “high.”

Like marijuana, Spice is usually abused by smoking, but it can be prepared as a drink.

Because Spice is marketed as being “natural,” some people may think it’s safe to use. But the ingredients used to make Spice can vary, and no one’s watching to see what people producing Spice are using—meaning the results could have dangerous effects on your body and brain. Some mixtures even contain harmful metal residues.

Nothing Nice

Spice is illegal in the United States and in most European countries. And several local governments (Florida, Arizona, Maryland, and more) are taking an even tougher approach to banning the chemicals in Spice to help police better enforce the laws.

Spice products are labeled “not fit for human consumption” and are illegal in the United States and most European countries. Its side effects, like the ingredients, often vary, but emergency rooms report seeing people with rapid heart rates, vomiting, agitation, and hallucinations.

Using Spice can lead to abuse and even addiction as the body builds up tolerance to the drug’s effects over time and craves a higher dose to achieve the same effect.

Our recommendation? Get your highs the natural way: exercise, friends, music, whatever you like to do—without altering your brain’s chemistry!

package of K2

Cough and Cold Medications: Use Only as Directed

Winter is here and, with it, cold season. To arm themselves, many people purchase over-the-counter drugs, which are those that don’t require a doctor’s prescription. Taken as directed, over-the-counter cold medications like cough syrups are safe and can help relieve annoying cold symptoms that interrupt our lives.

However, some teens are abusing these otherwise safe medications. NIDA scientists refer to this dangerous practice as “robotripping.”

What Is Robotripping?

Named in reference to Robitussin, one of the most common cold medicines, “robotripping” describes the act of abusing cough and cold syrups by taking more than the recommended dose on the label. The active ingredient in cold syrups, Dextromethorphan (DXM), is a drug that suppresses coughing. Like many other medications, when DXM is abused—taken in high doses and for the wrong reasons—the consequences can be extremely dangerous.

Someone who consumes more than the recommended amount of DXM is likely to experience hallucinations or dissociative “out of body” feelings for up to 6 hours. These side effects are similar to the hallucinations people experience when they abuse an illegal drug like PCP.

But feeling detached from your body and hallucinating is just the start. Ingesting more cough syrup than recommended on the label can cause impaired motor function, numbness, nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate and blood pressure, permanent brain damage, and even death. Find out what else NIDA has to say about DXM.

Cough syrup being poured into a cup.

The Connection Between Pain Medications and Heroin

More and more young people are using heroin these days, and sometimes they start using it because they’ve gotten addicted to prescription painkillers.

One study showed that people who abuse painkillers like OxyContin are 19 times more likely to start using heroin. The study also found that 8 out of 10 people who started using heroin abused painkillers first.

Heroin and painkillers belong to the same class of drugs: Opioids. Opioids attach to specific molecules called opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, intestines, and other organs. When painkillers or heroin attach to these receptors, they can decrease the feeling of pain. Opioids can also cause a person to feel relaxed and happy, which can lead some people to abuse the drugs.

Opioids have many negative effects. Painkillers and heroin can cause sleepiness, constipation, and, depending on the amount taken, affect a person's ability to breathe properly. In fact, taking just one large dose of painkillers or heroin could cause a person’s breathing to stop, sometimes killing them.

Why do people switch from painkillers to heroin? In an effort to cut down on painkiller abuse, changes have been made to laws and prescription drug tracking systems. Because it’s getting harder to get painkillers, people may turn to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to get.

The Danger in Abusing Painkillers or Heroin

Not everyone who abuses painkillers starts using heroin, but even painkiller abuse alone can hurt you. Opioid drugs of all kinds can be very addictive. Addiction is a disease where you feel like you need to use a drug even if that drug is hurting you and messing up your life. Addiction is caused by chemical changes in the brain after drug use.

When someone is addicted to painkillers or heroin, it is very difficult for them to stop using the drug. People trying to stop using opioids after they are addicted may have withdrawal. Some of the effects of opioid withdrawal are restlessness, muscle and bone pain, trouble sleeping, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goosebumps, and uncontrollable leg movements.

Did you know abusing painkillers was so dangerous and could lead to using heroin? Tell us in comments. 

Man holding a needle to give a teen girl an injection.

The Buzz on Caffeine

Do your parents or teachers start the day with a cup of coffee? There’s no question that coffee is a popular drink—the National Coffee Association estimates that Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee a day. It’s the caffeine in coffee that provides the energy boost that many people claim they need to function. Caffeine has that perk-up effect because it is a stimulant. It blocks a brain chemical, adenosine, which causes sleepiness. Caffeine is found in tea leaves, coffee beans, cacao (used to make chocolate), and cola nuts (which come from the plant that gives soda its flavor). Caffeine is also found in many foods and drinks—non-cola sodas like root beer and orange soda, hot cocoa, and ice cream—and some medicines. The latest place to find caffeine is in energy drinks. Caffeine’s Effects—Not Totally Harmless Caffeine is a mild stimulant and not a drug, so its use isn’t regulated like prescription drug use is. Still, consuming too much caffeine can make you feel jittery or jumpy—your heart may race and your palms may sweat. If caffeine is taken in combination with other substances, like alcohol, it can really be dangerous because mixing a stimulant and a depressant like alcohol confuses the brain. A recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that emergency room visits for high doses of caffeine have increased sharply. The likely cause is caffeine-infused energy drinks mixed with alcohol. Those most affected? Young people between 18 and 25 years old. So What’s a Body To Do? Everyone needs to perk up in the middle of a long day from time to time, but a jolt of caffeine isn’t your only option. Here are a few alternatives you can try to feel energized without overdoing the caffeine:
  • Sleep. This may sound obvious, but getting enough sleep is important. Teens need 9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Eat regularly. When you don’t eat, your glucose (sugar) levels drop, making you feel drained. Some people find it helpful to eat four or five smaller meals throughout the day instead of fewer big meals.
  • Drink enough water. Since we are more than two-thirds H20, our bodies need at least 64 ounces of water a day.
  • Take a walk. If you’re feeling drained in the middle of the day, it helps to move around. Do sit-ups or jumping jacks. Go outside for a brisk walk, ride your bike.
Now we want to know: What strategies help you keep your energy up during the day? Cup of coffee with coffee beans

Perception of Risk: Fewer Teens Believe Marijuana Is Harmful

Knowing the health risks that come with using or abusing drugs convinces most teens (and adults) to stay away from them. But what if you don’t think certain drugs are unsafe?

In December 2012, NIDA released the results of the 2012 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study (involving 8th, 10th, and 12th graders). The findings show that fewer teens believe abusing marijuana and Adderall is bad for their health. This belief is contributing to higher rates of abuse of these drugs.


Graph of perceived risk of marijuana use among 12th graders. Over the last 5 years, current (past-month) marijuana use has gone up significantly among 10th and 12th graders. In fact, current marijuana use among high school seniors is at its highest point since the late 1990s. Daily marijuana use has climbed significantly across all three grades. The study also found that fewer teens now believe using marijuana is harmful.

However, the science shows otherwise. People who smoke a lot of pot risk injuring their lungs with the chemicals found in the smoke, and may also experience depression and anxiety. New research has found smoking marijuana heavily in your teen years and continuing into adulthood can actually lower your IQ!


Also in the 2012 MTF study, 12th graders reported increased nonmedical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall—commonly prescribed to people with ADHD. As with marijuana, fewer teens perceive that abusing Adderall is risky. If that trend continues, Adderall abuse will probably continue to increase as well.

Abusing a stimulant medication like Adderall may increase blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature; decrease appetite and sleep; and cause feelings of hostility and paranoia.

Perception of Risk

Studies have found that when teens think a drug can be harmful, they are less likely to abuse it. In the case of marijuana and Adderall, it appears that some teens don’t see the risk. Tell us: Do you think these drugs are dangerous? If you agree they are, what can we do to help people you know get the message?

Other notable findings from the 2012 MTF study:

  • Most of the top drugs abused by 12th graders are legal substances, like alcohol, tobacco, over-the-counter drugs, and prescription drugs.
  • Abuse of synthetic marijuana—K2 or Spice—remained stable in 2012.
  • Most teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends.
  • Alcohol use and cigarette smoking are steadily declining.

Check out this cool infographic to learn more.

These drug abuse estimates come from the Monitoring the Future study’s national surveys of approximately 45,000 students in about 400 secondary schools each year. View all of the 2012 data.

Teen head silhouette with Monitoring the Future title

Alcohol: The Friend Factor

There may be some truth to the saying “you are who you hang out with.” Researchers have discovered that teens whose best friends drink alcohol are twice as likely to try alcohol themselves. And, if teens get alcohol from friends, they’re more likely to start drinking at a younger age.

It’s a big deal. Studies have shown that a person who drinks alcohol early is more prone to abusing alcohol when he or she gets older.

So, if your friends drink and you don’t want to, what are you supposed to do? Get a whole new set of friends? That’s probably not necessary—but you might have to work a little harder to stay away from alcohol. It can be tough to say no if the people you’re with are all doing something. It’s a good idea to have some strategies for dealing with peer pressure.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • It’s brave to stand up for yourself. Be that guy or girl who doesn’t drink. It might be hard at first, but eventually people will respect you for sticking to your beliefs. You might even start to influence some of your friends to stay away from alcohol too.
  • It’s okay to make up an excuse. If someone is really hounding you, dodge the issue—you could say that you took medicine that will make you sick if you drink. But ask yourself: If someone isn’t respecting your decisions, then are they really that good a friend?

Tell us: How do you avoid doing something you don’t want to if your friends are doing it?

Teens with arms around each other's shoulders

Word of the Day: Depressants

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “depressants?” Maybe “depressed” or “sad?” But the drugs called depressants aren’t called that because they’re depressing in the emotional sense.

Depressants slow down (or “depress”) the normal activity that goes on in the brain. Alcohol is a depressant.

Doctors often prescribe central nervous system (CNS) depressants to patients who are anxious or can’t sleep. When used as directed, CNS depressants are safe and helpful for people who need them.

Types of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants can be divided into three main groups:

  • Barbiturates, which are used to treat some forms of epilepsy
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax), which can be used to treat severe stress, panic attacks, convulsions, and sleep disorders
  • Sleep medications (Ambien, Sonata, Lunesta), which, as the name suggests, are used to help people with diagnosed sleep problems

How They Work

Most CNS depressants affect the brain in the same way—they enhance the activity of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a neurotransmitter, one of the naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that sends messages between cells. GABA works by slowing down brain activity.

Although different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, they ultimately increase GABA activity, which produces a drowsy or calming effect.

Effects When Abused

CNS depressants can be addictive* and should be used only as prescribed. Otherwise, they can bring about major health problems, including addiction. Combining them with alcohol or other drugs like pain medications can lead to slowed breathing and heart rate, and even death.

Find out more about depressants from this NIDA fact sheet (PDF, 718kb).

(*Addiction is when a person compulsively seeks out the drug and cannot control their need for it, even in the face of negative consequences.)

Young man sleeping on homework

Twenty Years of Inhalant Abuse Awareness

March 18–24, 2012, marks the 20th observance of National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week. The good news is that fewer teens are inhaling poisons and chemicals to get high, according to NIDA’s 2011 Monitoring the Future study. Use has been declining since about the mid-2000s, especially among 8th and 11th graders.

Still, even one person using an inhalant is too many. Here are some facts about inhalant use that you might not know.

Helium isn’t harmless. You may have seen people inhale helium out of a balloon at a party to make their voices sound funny. But doing so can be dangerous, and in rare cases it can even cause sudden death. This happened recently to a 14-year-old in Oregon who inhaled helium out of a tank.  

Inhalants can affect speech. Inhalants rob cells of oxygen, which can harm your brain. Using inhalants repeatedly can affect the hippocampus—a brain area that helps control memory—so that a person may lose the ability to learn new things or have a hard time carrying on a simple conversation.

Even if a person stops using, the damage may already be done. Some effects of inhalant use may never go away. These include hearing loss, limb spasms, and damage to the bone marrow and to the central nervous system (or brain).

Inhalants can be addictive. Although not very common, some people may become addicted to inhalants after long-term use.

And never forget about sudden sniffing death, which can result from irregular and rapid heart rhythms caused by sniffing inhalants. It can occur the first time or 100th time a person uses inhalants. Read other SBB posts that address inhalants.

Spray can

A Day at the Movies: The Harmful Effects of Marijuana

Hollywood is exciting, glamorous, dramatic, funny, and can make just about anything seem cool—including drug abuse, and especially the use of marijuana. But films don’t tell you the whole story. Did you know there are over 400 different chemicals in marijuana smoke? Did you know that marijuana smoke really does hurt your memory, judgment, and perception? And yes—you can get addicted to marijuana!

In this video, NIDA scientist Dr. Joe Frascella explains why marijuana is not all its “glammed” up to be. Dr. Frascella runs the division of NIDA that deals with clinical neuroscience, human development, and behavioral treatment for drug abuse and addiction. Watch the video and then tell us in comments which movies you think glamorize the use of marijuana.

Bath Salts: An Emerging Danger

Bath salts—the drug, not the perfumed crystals you put in bath water—showed up just a few years ago. The synthetic powder is sold online and in drug paraphernalia stores under a variety of names, such as "Blue Silk," "Zoom," "Cloud Nine," and "Hurricane Charlie." But don’t let the fun names fool you: Bath salts are extremely dangerous.

What Are Bath Salts?

Bath salts are a new family of drugs that contain synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant. Bath salts typically appear as white or brown powder and are sold in small plastic or foil packages labeled “not for human consumption.” People who abuse bath salts swallow, inhale, or inject them.

How Do Bath Salts Affect the Brain?

Much is still unknown about the chemicals in bath salts, but they are similar to amphetamines (such as methamphetamine) as well as to MDMA (Ecstasy). So far, research has shown that the most common chemical found in bath salts, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), works like cocaine by increasing the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, causing a feeling of euphoria and hyperactivity. However, MDPV is 10 times more potent than cocaine.

Bath salts may also raise the levels of serotonin, causing hallucinations. Mephedrone and methylone, two other chemicals often sold as bath salts, were found to raise serotonin in a way similar to MDMA.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Bath Salts?

The synthetic chemicals in bath salts are very toxic and have been linked to increases in visits to emergency rooms and poison control centers across the country.

Bath salt abuse can cause the following physical and psychological symptoms:

Racing Heart Panic Attack High blood pressure Dehydration
Chest pains Kidney failure Paranoia Breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue
Hallucinations Insomnia Psychotic and violent behavior Death

What Are We Doing To Prevent Abuse of Bath Salts?

Bath salts users have reported that the drugs trigger intense cravings (or a compulsive urge to use the drug again) and that they are highly addictive.

In response to rising abuse rates of bath salts, President Obama signed into law the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which bans MDPV, mephedrone, and other bath salts ingredients. However, drug manufacturers have responded by developing new versions of bath salts that use ingredients that, while just as toxic, are not yet banned.

If you know someone who is abusing bath salts, tell an adult or contact 1-800-662-HELP to find out how to get help for the person.

Find out more about bath salts.

Tin of bath salts

Real Teens Ask: What Are the Different Types of Opioids?

This past Drug Facts Chat Day, teens from across the country submitted their questions about drug abuse to NIDA scientists.

A teen from Walter Johnson High School in Maryland asked, “What types of opioids are there?”

In general, opioids are psychoactive chemicals that work by binding to opioid receptors in the body. These receptors are found principally in the central and peripheral nervous system as well as the gastrointestinal tract and can produce both the good and bad effects of opioid use.

Many teens don’t know that there are illegal opioids (like heroin) as well as legal opioids that are prescribed for pain relief (like hydrocodone, which has the brand name of Vicodin). This is why common painkillers like Vicodin are so often abused—because they provide a “high” while relieving pain.

Here are the main types of opioids:

  • Natural opiates are alkaloids, nitrogen-containing base chemical compounds that occur in plants such as in the resin of the opium poppy. Natural opiates include morphine, codeine, and thebaine.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids are opioids created in labs from natural opiates. Semi-synthetic opioids include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone (the prescription drug OxyContin), as well as heroin, which is made from morphine.
  • Fully synthetic opioids are opioids that are completely manmade, including fentanyl, pethidine, levorphanol, methadone, tramadol, and dextropropoxyphene.

Some opioids (e.g., morphine, codeine, OxyContin) are used by doctors to treat various things, such as pain after surgery. But opioids also have addictive properties and negative health effects that make them dangerous when abused.

Do you have other questions about types of drugs? Tell us in comments.

poppy plants

“Spice” – Not as Fun as it Sounds

Spice—also known as K2, Fake Marijuana, Skunk, and other names—is a synthetic (or man-made) substance made from shredded dried plant materials and chemicals.  Spice appears to stimulate the same brain receptors—molecules that recognize specific chemicals and transmit messages into cells—as marijuana does and produces a similar “high.”

Like marijuana, Spice is usually abused by smoking, but it can be prepared as a drink.

Because Spice is marketed as being “natural,” some people may think it’s safe to use.  But the ingredients used to make Spice can vary, and no one’s watching to see what people producing Spice are using—meaning the results could have dangerous effects on your body and brain.  Some mixtures even contain harmful metal residues.

Nothing Nice

Spice is illegal in the United States and in most European countries.  The U.S. Naval Academy recently expelled seven midshipmen for using it.

Spice products are labeled “not fit for human consumption” and are illegal in the United States and most European countries. Its side effects, like the ingredients, often vary, but emergency rooms report seeing people with rapid heart rates, vomiting, agitation, and hallucinations.

Using Spice can lead to abuse and even addiction as the body builds up tolerance to the drug’s effects over time and craves a higher dose to achieve the same effect.

So, SBB’s recommendation?  Get your highs the natural way: exercise, friends, music, whatever you like to do—without altering your brain’s chemistry!

A picture of synthetic marijuana.