Drugs and alcohol: know the facts

24 October 2019

Attending university and socialising can often come with its own pressures. It’s important to know your personal limits, health risks and the law around alcohol and drugs.

variety of pills

Some may say that drugs and alcohol are part of the university experience. This is not strictly true, as you will find that many students spend their university years without ever touching drugs or alcohol.

Students can be curious beings and with this being the case it’s important for you to be aware of both the legal and health implications, so that you may make an informed decision. Here are a list of some drugs and their health risks and the associated legal implications:

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is everywhere and the most common substance chosen by students. Although it may seem like everyone drinks, this is far from the truth. No matter how often or little you indulge it’s important to be aware of the risks.

Health risks

  • Feeling out of control, slurring words, loss of balance and vomitting
  • More argumentative and aggressive
  • Lack of movement coordination – falling over and lack of ability to walk straight
  • Overconsumption – brain, heart, liver and pancreas damage
  • Can increase risk of some cancers
  • Stunts fetal growth (if pregnant)

(Source, Talk to Frank)

The law

Alcohol is legal of course, but is governed by some strict laws. For example, it is illegal to buy alcohol if you are under 18 or to buy alcohol for a minor if you are over 18. People over 18 can drink in public, except in areas where there is a Public Space Protection Order in place.

Transport for London (TfL) bans passengers from drinking alcohol on all public transport, including buses, the tube and the Overground.

The alcohol limit for drivers in England and Wales is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, but since there is no fool-proof way of drinking and staying under the limit,the only safe advice is to avoid alcohol if you are driving.  

2. Nootropics

These are often labelled as ‘cognitive enhancers’ or ‘smart drugs’, and are said to improve cognitive functions such as memory, creativity and motivation in healthy individuals. They have become increasingly popular with university students to cope with exam stress. The drugs are being used to improve academic performance

Health risks

  • Onset of psychiatric disorders
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Sensitive skin/skin reactions
  • Sleep apnoea and insomnia
  • Dizziness
  • Increased heart rate

(Source, NHS)

The law

In the UK, nootropic ‘smart drugs’ that contain psychoactive substances are illegal. However, a majority of nootropics are natural  as they do not contain psychoactive drugs, and so are legal.

3. Xanax

Xanax, alprazolam also known as vallies, rugby balls, jellies and moggies are tranquilisers that are normally used to treat anxiety and depression. They come in form of tablets, capsules and injections. They are also available in a wide range of different colours. Xanax is considered to be a benzodiazepine which works by slowing down your nervous system to give you a calm feeling.

Health risks

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Depression
  • Muscle weakness
  • Increased blood pressure

(Source, Talk to Frank and NICE)

The law

Alprazolam is a class C drug, which means it’s illegal to have for yourself, give away or sell. Possession of Xanax can get you up to 2 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both. Driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you are caught driving under influence you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban or prison sentence.

4. Cannabis

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, pot, weed and dope (amongst other things) is the most commonly used illicit substance. It can be found in different forms, most commonly as dried, shredded leaves which are either smoked (in a ‘joint’ or a ‘blunt’) or eaten, most commonly in brownies. Some people claim to find it relaxing, while others claim it makes them paranoid and hungry (known as ‘having the munchies’).

Health risks

  • Wheezing and short of breath
  • Cough uncontrollably/painfully
  • Increase risk of lung cancer
  • Increases heart rate
  • Can increase risk of psychosis
  • Detrimental effect on IQ, motivation and mood
  • Similar risks of tobacco use such as lung cancer

(Source, Talk to Frank)

The law

Cannabis is a Class B drug and as such is illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell in the UK. Police can issue a warning (which entails keeping a record) or an on-the-spot fine of £90 if you’re found with cannabis.


MDMA (sometimes shortened to ‘MD’ and otherwise known as ecstasy or ‘Molly’) is a drug that alters your perception (hallucinogen). Hallucinogens are highly variable and unreliable, producing different effects in different people at different times. Because of their unpredictable nature, the use of hallucinogens can be particularly dangerous.

Health risks

  • Liver, kidney and heart failure
  • Colds and sore throats more often
  • Increase body temperature and sweating
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Memory problems
  • Depression and anxiety

(Source, Talk to Frank)

The law

MDMA is a Class A drug and as such carries large penalties for possession: up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.

6. Cocaine

Cocaine (‘coke’) is a short-acting stimulant, which can lead users to take the drug many times in a single session, and as such is highly addictive. Some users claim it makes them feel more confident. It comes as a white powder that is either inhaled through the nose (‘snorted’) or dissolved in water and injected into the bloodstream.

Health risks

  • Increased risk of heart attacks
  • Damage to cartilage in nose (if snorted)
  • Lead to miscarriage, premature labour and low birth weight (if pregnant)
  • Breathing problems/pain in chest
  • Severe paranoia
  • Depression and anxiety

(Source, Talk to Frank)

The law

Cocaine is a Class A drug and carried the potential penalty of up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both for possession.

7. Laughing gas

Use of nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ can cause very short-term euphoria or slight hallucinations. It is commonly mixed with oxygen and used by dentists to relax patients during some procedures. In its recreational form it is taken by inhalation, often from a balloon.

Health risks

  • Decrease in mental performance and audio-visual ability
  • Light-headedness/dizziness
  • Heaviness/tingling of the arms and legs
  • Can lead to oxygen deprivation leading to low blood pressure, fainting and heart attacks

Source (Talk to Frank)

The law

Laughing gas is a psychoactive substance and as such is illegal, but carries no penalty for possession.

If you choose to use alcohol or recreational drugs, please keep yourself informed and know your limits to stay safe. On a night out, be sure to watch out for your friends if they take any drugs.

The website Talk to Frank has comprehensive and honest information about all sorts of drugs, and includes contact information (phone, text or email) should you be concerned about yourself or someone else.

They also provide an online search tool to find drug support services near you.

All health risks are sourced from Talk to Frank, NHS and NICE

By Annie Warren, UCL Alumna, BA French and Italian

Updated by Student Support and Wellbeing, October 2019