Fact checkedFact Checked

This article is reviewed by a team of registered dietitians and medical doctors with extensive, practical clinical and public health experience.


10 Things That Matter About Psychoactive Drugs

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Gopal Ramakrishnan, Ph. D (Biochemistry)

10 Things That Matter About Psychoactive Drugs

The World Health Organization (WHO)  estimates that about 270 million people[1] globally have used psychoactive drugs in the past year. It is also estimated that drug use results in about 0.5 million deaths annually.  

Learning more about psychoactive drugs and how they affect humans could help reduce their negative societal impact.

10 Things That Matter About Psychoactive Drugs

Psychoactive drugs affect your mental state by altering your brain and nerve function. Factors such as your age, type, and quality of the drugs could affect how it interacts with your body. 

Taking psychoactive or psychotropic drugs could affect your mood, consciousness, and perception of your environment. The intoxicating effects of psychoactive drugs are why many people take them.

If you are wondering what psychoactive drugs are, we will answer your questions. A psychoactive drug alters your brain chemistry and function. Drugs that fall under the psychoactive category are not limited to the big-name hard drugs and you could be guilty of consuming psychotropic drugs daily. Alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee are classified as psychoactive drugs because they can alter your brain chemistry or influence your central nervous system (CNS). 

Psychoactive drugs have several applications in medical care. Some psychoactive substances such as CBD are used as medications for the management of anxiety disorders and pain.

However, there are risks to consuming psychoactive drugs because of how they interact with your body. That is why you should never take prescription psychoactive medication not prescribed by your doctor even if you have access to them. 

Your Age

It is common knowledge that lots of drug users start using it in their teens. The average age where people first start using drugs is between 12–14 years[2] when the brain is not fully developed. Starting so early could have negative consequences for your mental development. 

During most of your late teen and early adult years, your brain is still getting developed. Persistent exposure to high doses of psychotropic drugs during your formative years could interfere with proper brain development. Therefore, you could see some harmful effects of psychoactive substance use in adolescents that you might not see with later exposure. 

Teens and children who abuse psychotropic drugs might experience cognitive and behavioral issues[3]. These effects of drug use might impact academic performance negatively. Kids this young are also exposed to diseases, accidents, and possible overdose from abuse of a psychoactive drug. 

Early exposure to psychoactive substances could also encourage drug dependence in later years.

Route of Administration 

The quicker the psychoactive substance can get to your brain, the more likely it is that it will become an addiction. The route of administration of a psychoactive drug affects how quickly it gets to your brain and neurons. 

Injections might seem like the fastest route but they are not. Drugs administered through intravenous injections have to make it through to your heart and your lungs before getting to your brain. This journey through your circulatory system is responsible for the slight delay in response.  

However, psychoactive substances taken through intravenous injections are still one of the fastest acting and you could begin to feel its effects 15 – 30 seconds after[4].  Intramuscular and subcutaneous injections might take a few minutes to act. 

Inhalation is the fastest route for psychoactive substances and you could feel the effects as early as 7 – 10 seconds after.  Smoking, snorting, and inhaling, all fall under this category. However, inhalation could lead to cardiovascular effects such as increased heart rate and myocardial infarction. It could also damage your nasal mucosa.

Other examples of routes of administering psychoactive substances include oral, sublingual, and transcutaneous. 


It is safe to assume that the purer the substance, the greater its effects on your mental state. This rule applies to psychoactive substances too. Pure heroin has a greater psychotropic effect than heroin mixed with fillers such as talcum powder.

At several points in the supply chain, dealers mix their drugs with fillers to maximize profits. However, users are not usually too happy with this because they require a larger quantity to get high and prevent withdrawal symptoms. 

To tackle this challenge of dissatisfied customers, dealers are mixing drugs like heroin with other drugs such as fentanyl. Using drugs like fentanyl to increase the potency of opioid drugs is one of the reasons for the increasing number of deaths from an opioid overdose. 

Fentanyl is super potent and a tiny amount like a grain of salt can kill a few people. That is why some countries have decided to legalize opioids so people can have access to pure morphine and heroin which is far safer than fentanyl tainted products. 


The half-life of a drug is how quickly it reduces to half of its original concentration in your body. This figure estimates how quickly your body clears the drug from your system. 

Other factors such as how often you use the said drug and your body metabolism will affect drug clearance in your body. Drugs with a shorter half-life will get cleared from your body quickly while you will feel the effects of drugs with a longer half-life for longer. 

Psychoactive drugs with a shorter half-life such as heroin for 2 – 6 minutes and cocaine for about 50 minutes[5] might cause you to crave more much sooner as the effects wear off. They act rapidly to get you high, followed closely by a crash. The crash phase is often the direct opposite of the high.

To keep these effects for longer, users often compulsively seek out such drugs, therefore, it could lead to addiction.

Longer-acting psychoactive drugs due to their longer half-life include methamphetamine, MDMA, and methadone. However, these psychoactive drugs are not without their harmful effects. They might take a little longer to start working and it is not unusual for people to take on more doses or mix it with alcohol to set it off. This practice is dangerous and could be fatal. 

You could also experience residual effects of these long-acting drugs[6] such as aggressiveness and hostile behavior. 


Psychoactive drugs could be gotten from plants or they could be manufactured in a laboratory. 

Plant-sourced psychoactive drugs include cocaine, morphine, codeine, and marijuana. 

Years of selective genetic engineering have helped create stronger strains of marijuana. Therefore, marijuana on the market these days contains a higher concentration of THC, the psychoactive component.

Designer drugs, created in labs to mimic the effects of naturally occurring psychoactive drugs, have been increasing since they made their first appearance in the United States in 2009[7]. These synthetic drugs include bath salts, ecstasy, and spice.  

Synthetic drugs known also as legal highs are made to bypass regulations restricting controlled substances. However, behind their colorful appearance and fun names lie a hidden danger. 

Many users of these drugs have no idea what exactly they are taking. Furthermore, their effects can be pretty dangerous especially when combined with alcohol. These effects[8] include aggressiveness, seizures, violence, paranoia, coma, and death. 

Set and Setting 

Set and setting[9] are factors that affect your response to psychoactive drugs. These factors could be psychological, social, or cultural.

The set includes your preparation, intentions, expectations, and personality. Set also includes biological factors such as your genes that create selective responsiveness to substances. Your brain chemistry and overall body physiology can influence how you respond to drugs.

On the other hand, the setting includes your social, physical, and cultural environment. A better understanding of how the set and setting influences drug use could help reduce drug harm and increase drug efficacy.

Poly-Drug Use

Many young people are likely to use multiple psychoactive substances simultaneously. Mixing different psychoactive substances is much easier with suspicious drug cocktails available for purchase. 

These mixtures can produce a greater high than the component drugs would when isolated. This feature is known as potentiation[10]. However, these mixtures can be unpredictable and could result in death. A large number of drug-related incidents involve people who combine several drugs and alcohol. 

Refinement and Extraction 

The extraction and refinement process to produce drugs from their plant source often concentrates the active ingredient. 

Therefore, you are likely to have a stronger reaction to crack or refined mescaline than you would if you chewed a coca leaf or took a piece of cactus.


A more potent drug is likely to have a stronger effect on you. Most psychoactive drugs act by stimulating dopamine release in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in reward, pleasure, and aversion.  

However, you cannot determine the potency of illicit drugs.

Type of Drug 

Psychoactive drugs can be classified based on how they interact with your central nervous system (CNS). The classes include:

  • Stimulants. Increase CNS activity e.g cocaine and caffeine 
  • Hallucinogens. Alter your sensory perception e.g LSD and mescaline
  • Depressants. Decrease CNS activity e.g alcohol and opioids
  • Others. Do not quite fit into the other categories but have psychoactive properties e.g cannabis and MDMA


Psychoactive substances, that alter a person’s mental state, have several clinical applications. However, abuse of psychoactive substances is a global health problem affecting lots of teens and young adults. 

When it comes to psychoactive substance use, there are some important factors to note such as how the type and process of making the drug interact with your body. Your environment is also a key player. 

+ 10 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

  1. World Health Organization: WHO (2019). Drugs. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/drugs-psychoactive#tab=tab_2 [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  2. ‌Izenwasser, S. (2005). Differential effects of psychoactive drugs in adolescents and adults. Critical reviews in neurobiology, [online] 17(2), pp.51–67. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1752119/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  3. ‌Ojp.gov. (2021). Consequences of youth substance abuse. [online] Available at: https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/drugid/ration-03.html [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  4. ‌mediaxis (2021). Routes of administration of psychoactive substances – Pharmacodependence Centre (CEIP Bordeaux). [online] U-bordeaux2.fr. Available at: http://www.pharmacologie.u-bordeaux2.fr/en/pharmacodependance/administration.htm [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  5. ‌Pharm, J. (2021). What Does Half Life Mean in Drugs? [online] MedicineNet. Available at: https://www.medicinenet.com/what_does_half_life_mean_in_drugs/article.htm [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  6. Editorial Staff (2019). Short Half-Life vs. Long Half-Life Drugs | Sunrise House. [online] Sunrise House. Available at: https://sunrisehouse.com/prescription-drug-addiction-recovery/half-life/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  7. ‌Davison, N. (2015). “Our purity is above 99%”: the Chinese labs churning out legal highs for the west. [online] Theguardian.com. Available at: https://amp.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/01/chinese-labs-legal-highs-west-drugs [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  8. ‌Tomo Drug Testing (2017). Types of Synthetic Drugs and Their Effects – Tomo Drug Testing. [online] Tomo Drug Testing. Available at: https://www.yourdrugtesting.com/types-of-synthetic-drugs/amp/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  9. ‌Hartogsohn, I. (2017). Constructing drug effects: A history of set and setting. Drug Science, Policy and Law, [online] 3, p.205032451668332. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2050324516683325 [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].
  10. Health.gov.au. (2021). Department of Health | 6.3 Drug-related factors that influence the experience of intoxication. [online] Available at: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/drugtreat-pubs-front12-wk-toc~drugtreat-pubs-front12-wk-secb~drugtreat-pubs-front12-wk-secb-6~drugtreat-pubs-front12-wk-secb-6-3 [Accessed 19 Jul. 2021].

Medically reviewed by:

Jennifer Anyabuine holds a bachelor's degree in Biochemistry from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and is currently a medical student. She is a freelance medical writer specializing in creating content to improve public awareness of health topics.

Medically reviewed by:

Harvard Health Publishing

Database from Health Information and Medical Information

Harvard Medical School
Go to source

Trusted Source

Database From Cleveland Clinic Foundation

Go to source

Trusted Source

Database From U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Governmental Authority
Go to source


Database from World Health Organization

Go to source

Neurology Journals

American Academy of Neurology Journals

American Academy of Neurology
Go to source


United Nations Global Compact
Go to source

Trusted Source

Database From National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Go to source

Trusted Source

Database from U.S. National Library of Medicine

U.S. Federal Government
Go to source

Trusted Source

Database From Department of Health and Human Services

Governmental Authority
Go to source

PubMed Central

Database From National Institute Of Health

U.S National Library of Medicine
Go to source