Hallucinogens & Psychedelic Drugs
Hallucinogens are a diverse family of chemicals ranging from psychedelics to dissociative drugs. These compounds are most sought for their reality-altering effects.
These include tactile, visual, and auditory hallucinations that heighten the experience of reality or feel real but are not.
Drugs that cause hallucinations and other, related intense experiences include both lab-created chemicals and naturally occurring substances.
The High From Hallucinogenic Drugs
Based on 2010 census data, about 32 million people in the United States have used hallucinogens at least once in their lives. This includes about 17 percent of people between the ages of 21 and 64, with most use occurring in those 30 to 34 years old.
People seek these drugs (both natural and artificial) because they want a spiritual, mystical, or introspective experience; they want to feel euphoric or high; they want to escape reality; or they are curious.
Many people repeatedly abuse psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs because they have a positive experience or “trip.” However, these chemicals are unpredictable. Even if you had a good experience the first time, taking the drug again does not guarantee you will always feel good while on it.
Someone who is high on a hallucinogenic drug can have a variety of reactions. They may interact with visual or auditory hallucinations; they may freeze and stare into space; they may interact with you but appear drunk; or they could look stunned or high-energy but otherwise normal.
They may also be terrified, angry, and violent. They may have convulsions, vomit, or pass out.
Types of Psychedelic and Hallucinogenic Drugs
Humans have used psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs since the beginning of civilization. Naturally occurring chemicals have long been used for spiritual practices all over the world. However, in modern times, these chemicals are also abused for recreational reasons, and more of them are manufactured in laboratories.
Both natural and artificial psychedelics are abused for fun, relaxation, or improved mood or mental state. However, the side effects of these drugs can be harmful.
These chemicals are found in nature. The plants are often grown specifically for their intoxicating properties.
Religious traditions have prevented widespread abuse in indigenous cultures, but Western countries are now purchasing these plants or traveling on “drug vacations” to indulge in these hallucinogens.
Ayahuasca: This is a tea made from a plant native to South America. It has been used for thousands of years by Amazonian tribes for religious rituals. Now, as the drug’s popularity increases in the Western world, and there are reported health benefits associated with consuming it, citizens of the United States, Canada, and much of Europe come to these areas to vacation and get high.The leaves of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are brewed in hot water. This tea causes psychedelic effects, including dissociation from the body and visual and auditory hallucinations.The ingredients in ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi, Psychotria viridis specifically contains the chemical N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is also abused on its own in synthetic form. DMT is broken down quickly by the liver when it is taken by itself. Mixing it with the antidepressant properties also contained in the plants’ leaves helps to keep the drug bioavailable for hours.Effects begin between 20 and 60 minutes after consuming the tea. They tend to last for two to six hours.Everyone reacts to ayahuasca differently. Many people experience pleasant body highs or beautiful hallucinations that make them feel closer to the universe. Others have intense, anxious, or paranoid highs.
Datura: Also called Jimson weed, datura is a flowering plant in the nightshade family. Nightshades are notoriously poisonous, but datura has some hallucinogenic properties too, leading to both intense and negative experiences while high as well as hospitalization from poisoning.The plant is native to North America. Reports of poisoning and substance abuse related to datura increase during the summer, when it flowers.Since it is a decorative plant, it is legal to purchase datura seeds or the live plants and grow them in your home garden. The flowers are white or purple and trumpet-shaped, and the plant itself grows to between three and five feet tall.The drug can cause elevated body temperature, dilated pupils, dry mucous membranes, urinary retention, upset stomach, agitation, delirium, hallucinations (especially visual), amnesia, muscle spasms, seizures, and coma. These effects may begin within one to four hours after ingestion, but they can last for days.
Mescaline/peyote: Mescaline is an amphetamine found in peyote — a hallucinogenic drug made from the “buttons” of a spineless cactus native to Central America. It is one of the oldest hallucinogens known.Since the plant has a limited growing range, abuse of the drug has long been limited too. Indigenous people of the area used it carefully in spiritual rituals and rites, but with the increased popularity of recreational hallucinogen abuse in the United States, Canada, and other Western countries, demand for the substance has increased too. Rather than selling pure peyote, many drug dealers sell synthetic drugs like lab-created mescaline or PCP instead.Peyote and mescaline are both Schedule I substances according to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), with exceptions made specifically for indigenous groups using the compound in religious rituals. Effects from the drug include the following:
- Numbness or tingling
- Rapid reflexes
- Muscle twitches and weakness
- Impaired motor coordination
- Dizziness and trembling
- Dilation of the pupils
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Chills and shivering
- Appetite suppression
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Nausea and vomiting
- Vivid, distorted visions and sounds
- Altered sense of space and time
Morning glory seeds: This common plant is an invasive species in many parts of North America, but the seeds contain a chemical similar to LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamde). They may be sold legally at garden supply stores or on the street as an alternative to LSD.The effects of morning glory seeds are reportedly not as significant as those of LSD. Consuming the seeds can be toxic, as they may contain herbicides, insecticides, and other poisonous chemicals.
Use can be very harmful and lead to poisoning and hospitalization.
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Psilocybin/psilocyn: These chemicals are closely related. They are both hallucinogenic compounds found in about 75 species of mushroom that are native to South America, Mexico, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.The potency of each mushroom varies, although some contain enough of the hallucinogenic compounds that they are dried and either eaten or brewed into tea. This is typically a drug called shrooms or magic mushrooms. In some cases, psilocybin is made synthetically and sold as a white powder.
Indigenous people in Central and South America have used these mushrooms for religious rituals for thousands of years, but Albert Hofmann is credited with discovering the psychedelic chemicals in the fungi. By 1968, widespread abuse of shrooms led to a ban. By 1970, psilocybin and psilocin were placed under Schedule I.
Salvia: This plant is easy to find and considered to have a low addiction potential. However, it is toxic in larger doses, so it is considered very dangerous. The long-term effects of regularly abusing salvia as a psychoactive drug are unknown.The active ingredient is salvinorin A, a kappa opioid receptor (KOR) agonist. This chemical affects how much dopamine is released into the brain. Excess dopamine can cause intense euphoric feelings and hallucinations.The Mazatec tribe has used salvia divinorum for religious rituals for thousands of years. The leaves are brewed into a tea and then consumed so the shaman can have spiritual visions.
The leaves may also be smoked or chewed. When smoked, effects begin in about two minutes, and they can last for 20 minutes.
These chemicals are often derived from natural sources, but they are typically manufactured in a lab. Originally, these synthetic psychedelics were derived or created for medicinal purposes, like improving mental health conditions or for use as anesthetics, sedatives, or stimulants. Now, they are more often abused to get high.
251-NBOMe: This new psychoactive substance (NPS) or research chemical is a full serotonin agonist, which has stimulant and some hallucinogenic effects. There have been several non-fatal intoxications due to this drug and a small number of deaths due to overdose. While the drug is not widely abused, it is potent and dangerous.Typically, 251-NBOMe is purchased online. It is one of several compounds in the NBOMe family, which in 2013, the European Union determined was a risky group of substances and should be tightly controlled.Since 251-NBOMe is a research chemical, there are animal studies comparing it to other psychoactive drugs like psilocybin. There are no human trials available, so information on the drug is based on illicit abuse.Effects from this chemical start and last for different durations, depending on how it is consumed. Orally, it takes 15 minutes to two hours to take effect, with the plateau lasting for two to four hours. When snorted, it takes about 10 minutes to take effect, and peak intoxication occurs for about one to two hours.Effects from NBOMe can include feeling empathy and connection with others, a general change in consciousness, confusion, and paranoia. Nausea, insomnia, and swelling in the extremities may be side effects.
Dextromethorphan (DXM): This chemical is found in many over-the-counter cold and flu treatments. It suppresses coughing and the production of mucous. DXM may also be in some prescription medications to treat sinus congestion, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and itching.When taken as directed, DXM has few adverse side effects. Abuse of the drug has increased as more people discover the drug’s hallucinogenic, dissociative, and intoxicating properties.In large doses, DXM is a dissociative anesthetic. It can create powerful psychedelic effects that can be compared to the effects of ketamine or PCP. Effects vary depending on the dose but may include the following:
- Hot flashes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness and lack of coordination
- Panic attacks
- Lethargy and slurred speech
- Feelings of floating
- Altered sense of time and space
- Tactile hallucinations
- Impaired judgment
DMT: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a hallucinogenic tryptamine found naturally in several plants and animals. Sometimes called the spirit molecule for the very specific and consistent hallucinations it produces, DMT is typically produced in a clandestine laboratory.Effects from the drug are felt almost instantly, depending on how it is consumed. When it is smoked, effects occur in a minute or less and last for about 30 minutes. When consumed orally, often as a tea, effects take about 30 minutes to begin, and they last for four to six hours.The hallucinations from DMT are similar for many people, and they include geometric, symmetrical visions. Sometimes this is called the crystalline machine elves, as the person feels like they have broken through into a different world with moving, machine-like parts.
Some people have bad hallucinations, paranoid feelings, and negative body sensations during and after taking DMT.
Ketamine: This chemical is sometimes used as part of surgical anesthesia since it has pain-stopping and dissociative properties. Today, it is less widely used since many people who received this as part of their preoperative anesthesia had bad emotional and physical reactions after waking up. Still, because it has medical uses, the drug is Schedule III under the CSA.When abused, ketamine can cause hallucinations at certain doses. It is also a dissociative anesthetic, so people may abuse it for pain relief, to feel far away from their bodies, or to feel euphoric.Versions of the drug sold illicitly are powders, liquids, or tablets, so it can be smoked, snorted, or orally consumed.
Lower doses cause feelings of floating, dissociation, stimulation, and hallucinations. Very large doses produce an effect called the K-hole, which is an out-of-body experience that is produced as the person is almost completely sedated. It may feel like you are about to die. In fact, it is possible to die from an overdose of ketamine.
LSD: D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is one of the most famous and potent hallucinogens in the United States. LSD was synthesized from lysergic acid, which is derived from the ergot fungus, by Albert Hofmann in 1938.It became a psychiatric drug in the 1950s. Then, it was widely abused by counterculture movements in the 1950s and 1960s. It was finally placed on Schedule I in 1970.LSD is not considered addictive. There are no known reports of overdose on the substance, but abusing too much of this drug can change brain chemistry in a negative way.
It is also possible to have a bad trip. This may involve visual and auditory hallucinations that are disturbing; feelings of anxiety or paranoia; and possible negative cardiovascular effects.
PCP: Phencyclidine (PCP) is also called angel dust. It was originally developed as a dissociative anesthetic and used for this purpose in the 1950s. The negative outcomes associated with it led to less widespread use in 1965. The chemical often caused delusions, severe anxiety, and agitation.While PCP is still occasionally used in veterinary medicine, it is no longer used in humans for medical reasons. It is produced mostly in illicit laboratories.PCP disrupts the brain’s glutamate receptors, which play a major role in perception of pain, learning, emotion, and memory.
Effects may be dose-dependent, but can include the following:
- Mild to intense euphoria
- Trouble concentrating or thinking
- Visual or auditory hallucinations
- Intense feelings of alienation
- Anxiety, depression, paranoia, or despair
- Impaired motor skills
- Irregular heartbeat
- High body temperature
- Coma, convulsions, or death
Get Help to Overcome Psychedelic Drug Abuse
Although hallucinogenic drugs are not often considered addictive, some people do repeatedly abuse them. This may occur in combination with other addictive substances like alcohol, cannabis, opioids, or cocaine.
It is important to find a detox program that understands psychedelic substances, so you can get the best medical support from doctors, nurses, and counselors. A rehabilitation program can help you understand triggers for substance abuse and how to manage them so you can sustain sobriety.
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Jimson Weed (Datura Stramonium). Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), New York State.
Peyote. (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).
Morning Glory Seeds. (2003). Encyclopedia.com.
Psilocybin/Psilocin. (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).
Salvia: What Are the Effects? (January 2019). Medical News Today.
251-NBOMe: Critical Review Report. (June 2014). Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, World Health Organization (WHO).
Dextromethorphan (DXM). (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).
Everything You Need to Know About DMT. (March 2017). Medical News Today.
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PCP. (October 2013). Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR).