Alcohol and other drugs

Alcohol is by far the most widely-used recreational drug in the UK.

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Recreational drug use in the UK

As well as being the most widely-used recreational drug in the UK, alcohol for most drinkers is the only recreational drug they use.

It is estimated that around 9% of the working age population of England and Wales have used at least one other recreational drug in the last year. Here, we set out some basic advice on the risks of combining alcohol with other drugs.

Since almost all recreational drugs, apart from alcohol and tobacco, are illegal in the UK, it can be hard to find out what’s being used and how often. We do know that there is a very wide range of drugs being used in the UK:

  • They may be plant-based or laboratory-produced
  • They may stimulants, depressants, sedatives, and/or hallucinogens
  • They may be drugs that can be legally prescribed, such as painkillers and antidepressants, but which are also sold and used illegally

As well as the effects users are seeking, most will also have possible unpleasant side-effects. These can include paranoia, anxiety, memory loss, and/or depression and loss of motivation. Side-effects are felt particularly when substances are used long-term.

Mixing alcohol with other drugs

It is estimated that around 9% of the working age population of England and Wales have used at least one other recreational drug in the last year.

The way that alcohol interacts with other substances varies according to what you’re mixing it with. However, one common feature is that alcohol makes us less cautious and less able to think reasonably about what we’re doing, and so more prone to overusing other substances.

Cannabis and alcohol

Although cannabis and alcohol are frequently used together, we don’t fully understand how they interact. Both drugs produce sedation, slowness of response, and reduced co-ordination. Both reduce our ability to think rationally and judge situations. So, potentially, co-using the two puts anyone at much greater risk of accidents and injuries.

Opiates and alcohol

Opiates include illegal drugs such as heroin, and also prescription medicines such as methadone and tramadol that may be misused recreationally. Both alcohol and opiates are depressants – they slow the body’s processes down – and so, taken together, they can add to the effects of each other. This can be particularly dangerous if they slow the heart, lungs or brain. Doctors who prescribe opiates to patients for pain relief usually advise them not to drink whilst taking them, and the same advice applies to any recreational use of opiates.

Stimulants and alcohol

Stimulants are drugs that make the brain work more quickly. They include amphetamines (speed), cocaine, methamphetamine (meth or crystal meth), and MDMA (ecstasy). Since alcohol is a depressant, it can reduce some of the effects of stimulant drugs. One major risk from this is that when someone is using stimulants and alcohol, they may feel a need to take more of the stimulant to experience the same effects, with a real danger of overdose. Similarly, stimulants can reduce the feelings normally associated with drinking alcohol, meaning someone may need to drink more to achieve intoxication.

Cocaine and alcohol

Using alcohol and cocaine at the same time is particularly risky in that the two substances can produce a toxin known as cocaethylene in the body. Cocaethylene stays in the body much longer than either cocaine or alcohol on their own and can damage both the heart and the liver.

New Psychoactive Substance (NPS)

As well as drugs such as cannabis and cocaine that have been known about for centuries, an enormous variety of synthetic New Psychoactive Substance (NPS), previously known as ‘legal highs’, have emerged in recent years. Perhaps the best-know NPS are the synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice, which mimic the effects of cannabis but are usually much stronger than herbal cannabis.

It is often impossible for NPS users to know exactly what they are taking and how safe it is. For this reason, it is best to assume that no NPS can be safely combined with alcohol.

One common feature is that alcohol makes us less cautious and less able to think reasonably about what we’re doing, and so more prone to overusing other substances.

Where to get help

For help and advice on all kinds of legal and illegal drugs, you can contact Talk to Frank, and in Wales the 24-hour drug and alcohol helpline DAN 24/7.