People use alcohol and other drugs for many reasons - it can be a way to cope, to self-medicate, or just to be social and have fun. Whatever the reason, there's always a risk of harm. Being knowledgeable and mindful about where things could go wrong can help you to be safer.
The risk of experiencing harm from drug use is greatly increased when you don't know what you have. Without knowing what you are using, you are unable to predict the effect it will have, how long it will last, how much to take, and what the health risks could be. You can’t be sure it is what were you were told it is, because the person providing it to you may not know themselves.
You can get an idea of what your drugs are made from, through reagent tests and drug checking services. A reagent test indicates whether your substance contains what you were expecting - whether your ‘ecstasy pill’ has MDMA in it, for example. However, it can’t tell you if there are other, possibly more harmful, substances in it.
Reagent tests can be legally purchased from most stores that sell vaporisers, or online. A drug checking service can provide more detailed information about the contents of your drugs.
Using more than one substance greatly increases your risk of harm. The way that different drugs interact can be unpredictable, and using more than one at a time can put greater strain on your body. This includes prescription medication and alcohol. When mixed, some drugs can mask the effects of other drugs, make them worse, or cause a reaction you didn’t expect. If you are on medication, especially painkillers like Tramadol or MAOI anti-depressants, you should not use illicit drugs as it can be very dangerous and has the risk of causing death.
Make sure you take your drugs in the safest way possible. This means thinking about how, when and where you use. No methods are free of risk, but some are more harmful to your health than others.
If you eat or drink a substance, it enters your body through the digestive system. If you take drugs this way it can take time for the effects to be felt, so start with small amounts and wait before taking more to avoid accidentally taking too much.
Methods with a more immediate impact do not allow time for the body to respond if you use too much, and hold a greater risk of overdose. Swallowing pills is generally safer than grinding them to snort or inject. For some substances (like alcohol), your body may reject the substance by vomiting it back up if you ingest too much.
When a substance is inhaled it is processed by your respiratory system and the effects are felt quickly. Inhalation can include smoking, using a bong, using a pipe, breathing in a gas, or using a vaporiser. Vaporisers are considered a safer method of inhalation as they heat, rather than burn, the drug. This releases the active chemical without the harmful particles contained in smoke that affect your heart and lungs.
If you are using a substance that is usually smoked, consider using an e-liquid that can be inhaled with an electronic cigarette.
Drugs that are snorted are absorbed through the blood vessels in your nose, and the effects are quickly felt. Snorting drugs can damage the inside lining of your nose, making it feel raw and irritated. If your substance has ‘fillers’ or other substances mixed with it, these can end up in your lungs, causing long term harm. Blood vessels inside the nose are very delicate and can break, causing bleeding (even if it's not visible). This increases the risk of spreading disease or infection, so you should never share straws or other snorting devices.
Rinsing the inside of your nose both before and after snorting may decrease the irritation you experience.
Shelving a substance involves placing it in the rectal cavity, to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This part of the digestive system absorbs a lot of fluid through sensitive mucous membranes. It can take the substance into the bloodstream quickly, but it bypasses most of the body’s defences, which means you can very easily take too much by accident. This method can also cause ulcers, diarrhoea, damage to your rectal membranes, and bowel problems.
Injecting is the riskiest way of using a substance, as it goes straight into your bloodstream and the effects are very quickly felt. If you are injecting, it is important to use your own sterile equipment to reduce the risk of infection or contracting blood borne viruses. Always use a filter to remove contaminants, and sterile water for mixing. Clean the part of the body you are injecting with an alcohol swab.
When injecting it’s always good to plan ahead to make sure you have a suitable environment and access to a phone, so you or someone else can call for help if anything goes wrong. Never inject on your own.
New Zealand’s Needle Exchange programme provides sterile injecting equipment along with advice, education and information about safer injecting and reducing drug use. You can swap your used equipment for new, or purchase new equipment cheaply. The Needle Exchange website has a list of exchange locations.
The amount you use is dependent on many variables, including weight, metabolism, health, medication and previous use. Using a smaller amount can often give the intended positive effects, while reducing the negative effects. This is a much safer approach, as an overdose is caused by using too much of one or multiple substances.
If you are using something for the first time, or you’re not certain what it is, start with a small amount then wait at least an hour and a half to see how it affects you.
Remember that if you use a drug regularly but have had a long break from it, your body won’t have the same tolerance it did before. Take less than you were used to so you don’t take too much.
Only take drugs when you are with people you trust, and who can help you out if something doesn’t go according to plan. Let them know what you are taking, and that you’re happy for them to call medical assistance or an ambulance if you need it.
Keep an eye out for signs that your drug use is affecting the rest of your life. Are you finding it hard to get out of bed or go to work? Are the bills starting to mount up, or are you failing to meet your commitments?
These may be signs your drug use is affecting your life negatively and it might be time to make changes or ask for help.
Am I using too much?
Some people want to cut down on their drug use for reasons like health, lifestyle, or to save money. Others may become concerned and want to use less because their drug use leaves them feeling like they’ve become someone they didn’t see themselves being.
Here are some signs that your drug use might be a problem:
If you want to talk with someone about whether or not you should start cutting down, it’s a good idea to talk with a GP or drug and alcohol counsellor about your drug use and what you can expect when you start to use less or quit.
You can also call the Alcohol and Drug Helpline (0800 787 797) for confidential, non-judgmental expert advice. It’s free and available 24 hours, 7 days.
If you are only thinking about cutting back, you might consider buying less so you use less, delaying your first use of the day, and using a smaller amount than usual.
For more information about being safer, check out The Level, a straight up and non-judgemental guide for people who use drugs.
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