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Recreational drugs and alcohol

Explains the mental health effects of recreational drugs, what might happen if you use recreational drugs and also have a mental health problem, and suggestions for where to find support.

What are recreational drugs and alcohol?

Recreational drugs are substances people may take:

  • to give themselves a pleasurable experience
  • to help them feel better if they are having a bad time
  • because their friends are using them
  • to see what it feels like.

They include alcohol, tobacco (nicotine), substances such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, and some prescribed medicines.

"All my experiences with recreational drug use started due to social influences, of wanting to 'fit in'."

Recreational drugs may be:

  • legal – such as nicotine and alcohol
  • illegal – this means it is against the law to have them or supply them to other people; most recreational drugs are illegal
  • controlled – these are drugs used in medicine, such as benzodiazepines; it is legal to take controlled drugs if a doctor has given you a prescription for them but it is illegal to have them if not; it is also illegal to give or sell controlled drugs to anyone else.

A number of substances previously known as ‘legal highs’ are now illegal – for example, mephedrone ('meow meow').

Drugs and the law

Possession and supply

Most drugs come under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which makes it illegal to possess certain drugs and to supply them to others. They are classified as class A, B or C, depending on the presumed risk of harm they may cause.

New synthetic versions of existing drugs (previously called ‘legal highs’) come under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. These are chemicals made to mimic the effects of existing illegal drugs, for example cannabis or cocaine. The Psychoactive Substances Act, which came into effect in May 2016, makes it illegal to produce or supply these types of substances, or to possess them with the intention of supplying them.

The way street drugs are legally classified does not reflect how harmful they are to your mental health. Legal, illegal and controlled drugs can all have a negative impact on you, whichever Act of Parliament they come under and whatever class they are given.


  • It is illegal to drive if you are not fit to do so because of a drug you have taken, whether it is a legal, illegal or controlled drug.
  • It is illegal to drive with an illegal drug in your blood, whether or not it affects your driving.

Medical uses

Some of the substances discussed on these pages have potential medical uses:

  • synthetic versions of cannabis are available for use in some branches of medicine
  • ketamine, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and LSD are being researched in the UK for possible use in treating mental health problems

The drugs discussed in these pages are those that are used most commonly. There are many others – information about these can be found on the Frank and Erowid websites.

This information was published in November 2016.

This page is currently under review. All content was accurate when published. 

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