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Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Mood-Altering Drugs

Women and Ecstasy and Other Illegal Drugs

It can be challenging to get good information about the risks of illegal drug use and the services available to support women who want to make changes in our use.  The illegal status of these drugs makes it risky for users to ask for information, and for service providers and educators to provide balanced information. Websites that offer a range of stances on illegal drug use are provided here, so that you can review the information available and make the best possible decisions for yourself about substance use and getting help.  Some drug policy sites are included as well, in case your interest is in joining with others to advocate for improved policy, education, or treatment. 

Violence and Illicit Drug Use

One of the central concerns about women’s illegal drug use is that it is often done under pressure from partners and others in our lives who exert power over us. If you are experiencing pressure to use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs or want more information about strategies for standing your ground in the face of controlling behavior, abuse, or violence in your life, see the Violence and Abuse chapter in the book and the Violence and Abuse chapter page on the website.

Pregnancy, Mothering, and Drug Use

Pregnant women and mothers often face strong disapproval and even punitive legal actions for use of illegal drugs. If you are a mother and use drugs, look for women-centered outreach and treatment programs that support mothers in stopping use, retaining custody of children, and building healthy and productive lives for and with children (see treatment links below).  Two websites included here describe efforts on the policy level to improve the legal and policy responses to substance-using mothers.

  • National Advocates for Pregnant Women
    NAPW supports and advocates for the civil rights, health, and welfare of pregnant and parenting women.  NAPW uses a variety of strategies, from litigation and public education to organizing on the local and national level, to ensure that pregnant and parenting women have access to a full range of reproductive health services, as well as to non-punitive drug treatment services.

  • National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare
    This initiative aims to improve practice, procedures and policies on substance abuse and child welfare in the U.S.

Information on Drugs Commonly Used by Women

Ecstasy and cannabis are the illegal drugs most commonly used by girls and women, so online information on these two drugs is highlighted here. Information on other illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin is also available at many of these sites as well.


Ecstasy (MDMA) is a synthetic combination drug that has both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. It affects serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood, cognitive functions, and sleep.  The positive effects sought by users are a relaxed and euphoric state, heightened feelings of empathy, emotional warmth, self-acceptance, and connection with others.  It also produces negative and dangerous effects, such as anxiety, paranoia, and depression.  With use of Ecstasy and other amphetamines, there is also significant risk of early decline in mental function and memory, or Alzheimer-type symptoms. Ecstasy is commonly associated with raves, parties, and dances, and use in these contexts can result in severe dehydration, heat exhaustion, and liver malfunction that can lead to death.

As with all drugs, Ecstasy may affect women differently than men.  Women seem to be more sensitive to the effects when given the same amount as men, and may experience more intense perceptual changes and impaired decision-making.  Women have also reported more long-term effects such as depression, mood swings, paranoia, and anxiety.  Girls and women with poor self-esteem and relationship problems, those who are trying to lose weight, and those looking to lose sexual inhibitions may be particularly vulnerable to the appeal of Ecstasy’s short-term effects, setting us up for long-term serious health consequences. Grave concern exists on the international level about the spread of abuse of Ecstasy and other amphetamine drugs worldwide, especially among youth, and the lack of educational programming.
The following recent resources on Ecstasy use may be helpful:

  • In the Mix - PBS Television Series
    Teens from across the U.S. talk about their experiences with and attitudes towards club drugs. Young people whose drug use landed them in the hospital, in prison, and in rehab also share their stories.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse- Companion Web Site
    Provides the latest scientific research reports about Ecstasy (MDMA). Includes a slideshow teaching packet for health practitioners, teachers, and neuroscientists that details the effects of Ecstasy on the brain.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse- Info Facts
    Provides factual information on the cognitive, physical, and psychological effects of Ecstasy and the hidden risks of drug impurities.

  • DanceSafe - US
    Promotes health and safety within the rave and nightclub community and provides information on safer use.

  • Students for Sensible Drug Policy
    Offers an alternative to the outdated methods of reaching students with messages about drug use.


Many websites with information on illegal drugs address the consequences of cannabis (marijuana) use.  Changes in attention and memory are often mentioned as consequences of cannabis use. Problems associated with driving when under the influence are also highlighted. Chronic bronchitis and other impacts on the lungs are also risks, especially when tobacco is also smoked.  People with mental health problems can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis, and may be at risk for anxiety, panic, and psychotic symptoms. And as with all drugs, there is also the risk of becoming addicted.  There is some evidence that women who smoke cannabis in pregnancy may increase the risk of having a low birth weight baby. 

Written by: Nancy Poole
Last revised: March 2005

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