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Background information

This document is based on the Review of illicit drug use among Indigenous people. For references please refer to the original review.

What are drugs?

Drugs are chemical substances. Drugs that are taken recreationally are known as psychoactive drugs - they act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel or act. Psychoactive drugs include tobacco, alcohol, cannabis (gunja, weed, dope), amphetamines (speed, ice), ecstasy (E, eccy, Adam, XTC), cocaine (freebase, crack), opioids (such as heroin, morphine and methadone), and drugs prescribed for medical purposes such as analgesics (pain killers) and benzodiazepines (relaxants).

What are illicit drugs?

Illicit drugs are:


THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannibanol) is the main chemical ingredient in cannabis that affects the brain. THC is responsible for the positive short-term effects of cannabis that include:

The negative short-term effects include:

The harms associated with long-term use include:


Amphetamines are synthetic substances, that is, they are a copy of the naturally occurring substances adrenaline and ephedrine that increase the activity of the brain and the nervous system. The short-term effects of amphetamines include:

Longer term effects include:


Ecstasy is the street name for MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine). MDMA increases the level of two brain chemicals: serotonin (at least at first, but then serotonin is used up) and dopamine. Serotonin is involved in mood, sexual activity, sleep, pain sensitivity, and memory and body temperature. Dopamine is involved in movement, thinking, motivation and reward, and is believed to be the reason for the stimulant (pick-me-up) properties of MDMA.

The short-term positive effects of ecstasy use include:

The short-term negative effects are less common, but can include:

The occurrence of negative physical effects is low but when they do occur the impact on health can be serious and even fatal. Effects include:

Longer term effects include:


Cocaine comes from the Coca plant. It increases the activity in the brain and the nervous system. The short-term effects include:

A toxic dose of cocaine (an excessive amount) can result in a number of effects including:

Long term use can also result in:


The brain naturally produces opium-containing substances that affect the opioid receptor system of the brain (this system is also called the endorphin system) which is involved in pain relief, feelings of wellbeing, and energy levels. Opioids are a group of drugs containing opium sourced from the opium poppy (such as morphine and heroin) or produced artificially (such as methadone). These drugs act mainly on the opioid system of the brain.

Short-term effects of opioid use include:

The harms arising from heroin use include:


Pain killers containing codeine are a form of opioid and can be used to make home-bake heroin.


Sedatives reduce brain activity and are used medically for the relief of anxiety. They are widely used illegally, with short-term effects ranging from:

Relatively short-term use (3 to 6 weeks) can lead to:

© Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet 2013 
This product, excluding the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet logo, artwork, and any material owned by a third party or protected by a trademark, has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence. Excluded material owned by third parties may include, for example, design and layout, images obtained under licence from third parties and signatures.

Last updated: 20 March 2014
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Australia's National Research Centre on AOD Workforce Development National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre National Drug Research Institute