Hallucinogens are drugs that cause hallucinations & distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality, including seeing images, hearing sounds, and feeling sensations that seem real but do not exist. Some hallucinogens also produce rapid, intense emotional swings. Hallucinogens cause these distortions by disrupting the interaction of nerve cells and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord, the serotonin system is involved in the control of behavioral, perceptual, and regulatory systems, including mood, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, muscle control, and sensory perception. LSD is the drug most commonly identified with the term “hallucinogen” and the most widely used in this class of drugs.
Hallucinogens made synthetically include LSD, PCP, and DMT. Some hallucinogens, including MDA, MDMA (Ecstasy), and STP (DOM), have a chemical structure related to amphetamine.
Hallucinogens obtained from plants include mescaline from the peyote cactus, and psilocybin from “magic mushrooms”. Other plants containing hallucinogens include morning glory seeds, jimsonweed and nutmeg. (Marijuana in very large doses may also produce hallucinations)
Many people include the dissociative drugs into the Hallucinogen group. They are drugs such as PCP (phencyclidine) and ketamine (initially developed as general anesthetics for surgery). They distort perceptions of sight and sound and produce feelings of detachment & dissociation from the environment and self. But these mind-altering effects are not hallucinations. PCP and ketamine should therefore be properly named as “dissociative anesthetics”.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, Acid) is a very potent hallucinogen. It can be made from lysergic acid, which can be found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains, but is usually prepared synthetically in illicit labs and then sold on the street as a white, odorless powder. LSD is the most potent (effective at lowest doses) of the hallucinogens. LSD is usually taken orally, but can be inhaled or injected. As with any injection, use of needles that are not sterile can result in infections, and sharing needles with others can spread hepatitis and HIV/AIDS .The effects of LSD usually begin within an hour and last up to 12 hours. Physical effects appear first, and may include numbness, muscle weakness and trembling; increased blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature; dilated pupils; impaired motor skills and co-ordination; and nausea. In addition to the effects on perception, thought, and mood, chronic LSD use may result in prolonged depression and anxiety.
PCP (phencyclidine, “Angel Dust”)- used as an anesthetic for surgery in humans & as an animal anesthetic and tranquillizer. It is no longer used for those purposes and is now produced only in illicit labs. It is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable hallucinogens. Pure PCP is a white powder. It is sold on the street as a powder, liquid, capsule or tablet and is often passed off as LSD, THC, mescaline, or other drugs. PCP is usually mixed with tobacco, marijuana or dried parsley, and the mixture is then smoked. PCP may also be sniffed, swallowed or injected. The effects of PCP can vary greatly, and the unpredictable effects of PCP can be quite distressing for the user; the physical effects of low doses of PCP (up to 5 mg) include rapid breathing, increased blood pressure and heart rate, a marked rise in temperature, and numbness of the arms and legs. Doses of 10 mg or more may cause a rapid drop in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration, along with nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, dizziness, and decreased awareness of pain. Larger doses can cause convulsions, coma, and death. Psychological effects include impairment in ability to concentrate; Perception, mood, thought and speech is affected. Changes in these areas are similar to those produced by LSD. Some users may experience euphoria while others feel threatened, become aggressive due overwhelming fear, anxiety, or panic. Higher doses may cause delusions, auditory hallucinations, and a sensation of distance from one’s environment. Severe psychological disorganization and acute toxic psychosis can result. The long-term effects of using PCP are unknown, but may involve speech problems, memory loss, severe anxiety and depression.
Ketamine is one of the substances used in anesthesia and veterinary medicine, manufactured as an injectable liquid. In illicit use Ketamine is evaporated to form a powder, snorted, swallowed, or injected. Ketamine is odorless and tasteless, so it can be added to beverages without being detected, and it induces amnesia. Sometimes used as a “rape-drug”. Ketamine is a dissociative drug similar to PCP, but with milder respiratory depression, less confusion, irrationality and violent behavior. Long-term effects are unknown.
MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine) is a brown or white powder, sold loose, in capsules, or as an amber liquid. The common dose is 100 mg, which is usually swallowed. The effects of MDA occur in 30 to 60 minutes and last about eight hours. Users report a sense of well-being along with heightened tactile sensations and emotions. Higher doses produce hallucinations or sensory distortions. Physical effects may include: dilated pupils, high blood pressure, and dry nose and throat.
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, “Ecstasy,” “XTC”); MDMA is similar in structure to MDA and is sold as a white or off-white powder. It is usually taken orally in doses of 75 to 100 mg. MDA and MDMA have both stimulant and psychedelic effects.
PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) very rare, but one of the most dangerous hallucinogens. Sold as a beige, white or pink powder, PMA is often misrepresented as MDA. However, at doses considered safe for MDA, PMA is highly toxic.Physical effects of PMA include racing pulse, high blood pressure, increased and labored breathing, high fever, erratic eye movements, muscle spasm, and vomiting. At high doses, convulsions, coma and death can result.
Mescaline or Peyote (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) is prepared from the Mexican peyote cactus or synthesized chemically. Mescaline is usually taken orally, but can also be inhaled by smoking, or injected. The usual dose is 300 to 500 mg. Mescaline sold on the street actually contains PCP, LSD or other substances. Physical effects include dilated pupils, fever, nausea and vomiting. High doses can cause headache, dry skin, low blood pressure, and slowing of heart rate and breathing. Psychological effects similar to those of other hallucinogens appear slowly, and last for 10 to 18 hours. Reports of mystical or religious experiences are common.
Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) can be found in several species of mushrooms and other fungi. Most belong to the genus Psilocybe. Psilocybin is chemically related to both LSD and DMT. Psilocybin is sold as mushrooms or in capsules containing powder of various colors. The common dose is from five mg to 60 mg taken orally. The effects are usually felt after about half an hour, and last for several hours. Low doses produce mild psychic effects; larger doses cause LSD-like effects. Physical effects can include dizziness, light-headedness, abdominal discomfort, numbness of the tongue and mouth, nausea, anxiety and shivering.
DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a chemical resembling psilocin, and occurs naturally in certain plants. As with other drugs, most street DMT is prepared synthetically in illicit labs. Marijuana or parsley can be soaked in a solution of DMT, then dried and smoked. The effects of DMT occur rapidly, but unlike those of other hallucinogens, they last for only 30 to 60 minutes. Users may experience anxiety and panic.
Other- milder hallucinogens are: morning glory seeds, nutmeg, jimsonweed
Morning glory seeds contain lysergic acid amide, which is chemically related to LSD, but less potent. Nutmeg powder, the common household spice, is eaten and sometimes “snorted” for its psychedelic effects. Low doses can produce mild euphoria, light-headedness, and stimulation. Larger doses can cause rapid heartbeat, agitation, vomiting and hallucinations, leading to an unpleasant hangover. Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) and Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) both cause marked dryness of the mouth, dilated pupils, hot and dry skin, blurred vision, raised body temperature, rapid heartbeat, constipation, and difficulty urinating. Larger doses produce intense stimulation of the nervous system including hallucinations, disorientation, confusion, agitation, and sometimes convulsions.
How Are Hallucinogens Abused?
The very same characteristics that led to the incorporation of hallucinogens into ritualistic or spiritual traditions have also led to their propagation as drugs of abuse. Importantly, and unlike most other drugs, the effects of hallucinogens are highly variable and unreliable, producing different effects in different people at different times. This is mainly due to the significant variations in amount and composition of active compounds, particularly in the hallucinogens derived from plants and mushrooms. Because of their unpredictable nature, the use of hallucinogens can be particularly dangerous.
- LSD is sold in tablets, capsules, and, occasionally, liquid form; thus, it is usually taken orally. LSD is often added to absorbent paper, which is then divided into decorated pieces, each equivalent to one dose. The experiences, often referred to as “trips,” are long; typically, they end after about 12 hours.
- Peyote. The top of the peyote cactus, also referred to as the crown, consists of disc-shaped buttons that are cut from the roots and dried. These buttons are generally chewed or soaked in water to produce an intoxicating liquid. The hallucinogenic dose of mescaline is about 0.3 to 0.5 grams, and its effects last about 12 hours. Because the extract is so bitter, some individuals prefer to prepare a tea by boiling the cacti for several hours.
- Psilocybin. Mushrooms containing psilocybin are available fresh or dried and are typically taken orally. Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) and its biologically active form, psilocin (4-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine), cannot be inactivated by cooking or freezing preparations. Thus, they may also be brewed as a tea or added to other foods to mask their bitter flavor. The effects of psilocybin, which appear within 20 minutes of ingestion, last approximately 6 hours.
- PCP is a white crystalline powder that is readily soluble in water or alcohol. It has a distinctive bitter chemical taste. PCP can be mixed easily with dyes and is often sold on the illicit drug market in a variety of tablet, capsule, and colored powder forms that are normally snorted, smoked, or orally ingested. For smoking, PCP is often applied to a leafy material such as mint, parsley, oregano, or marijuana. Depending upon how much and by what route PCP is taken, its effects can last approximately 4–6 hours.
How Do Hallucinogens Affect the Brain?
LSD, peyote, psilocybin, and PCP are drugs that cause hallucinations, which are profound distortions in a person’s perception of reality. Under the influence of hallucinogens, people see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but are not. Some hallucinogens also produce rapid, intense emotional swings. LSD, peyote, and psilocybin cause their effects by initially disrupting the interaction of nerve cells and the neurotransmitter serotonin.1 Distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord, the serotonin system is involved in the control of behavioral, perceptual, and regulatory systems, including mood, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, muscle control, and sensory perception. On the other hand, PCP acts mainly through a type of glutamate receptor in the brain that is important for the perception of pain, responses to the environment, and learning and memory.
There have been no properly controlled research studies on the specific effects of these drugs on the human brain, but smaller studies and several case reports have been published documenting some of the effects associated with the use of hallucinogens.
- LSD. Sensations and feelings change much more dramatically than the physical signs in people under the influence of LSD. The user may feel several different emotions at once or swing rapidly from one emotion to another. If taken in large enough doses, the drug produces delusions and visual hallucinations. The user’s sense of time and self is altered. Experiences may seem to “cross over” different senses, giving the user the feeling of hearing colors and seeing sounds. These changes can be frightening and can cause panic. Some LSD users experience severe, terrifying thoughts and feelings of despair, fear of losing control, or fear of insanity and death while using LSD.LSD users can also experience flashbacks, or recurrences of certain aspects of the drug experience. Flashbacks occur suddenly, often without warning, and may do so within a few days or more than a year after LSD use. In some individuals, the flashbacks can persist and cause significant distress or impairment in social or occupational functioning, a condition known as hallucinogen-induced persisting perceptual disorder (HPPD).
Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time. LSD is not considered an addictive drug since it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior. However, LSD does produce tolerance, so some users who take the drug repeatedly must take progressively higher doses to achieve the state of intoxication that they had previously achieved. This is an extremely dangerous practice, given the unpredictability of the drug. In addition, cross-tolerance between LSD and other hallucinogens has been reported.
- Peyote. The long-term residual psychological and cognitive effects of mescaline, peyote’s principal active ingredient, remain poorly understood. A recent study found no evidence of psychological or cognitive deficits among Native Americans that use peyote regularly in a religious setting.2 It should be mentioned, however, that these findings may not generalize to those who repeatedly abuse the drug for recreational purposes. Peyote abusers may also experience flashbacks.
- Psilocybin. The active compounds in psilocybin-containing “magic” mushrooms have LSD-like properties and produce alterations of autonomic function, motor reflexes, behavior, and perception.3 The psychological consequences of psilocybin use include hallucinations, an altered perception of time, and an inability to discern fantasy from reality. Panic reactions and psychosis also may occur, particularly if a user ingests a large dose. Long-term effects such as flashbacks, risk of psychiatric illness, impaired memory, and tolerance have been described in case reports.
- PCP. The use of PCP as an approved anesthetic in humans was discontinued in 1965 because patients often became agitated, delusional, and irrational while recovering from its anesthetic effects. PCP is a “dissociative drug,” meaning that it distorts perceptions of sight and sound and produces feelings of detachment (dissociation) from the environment and self. First introduced as a street drug in the 1960s, PCP quickly gained a reputation as a drug that could cause bad reactions and was not worth the risk. However, some abusers continue to use PCP due to the feelings of strength, power, and invulnerability as well as a numbing effect on the mind that PCP can induce. Among the adverse psychological effects reported are—
- Symptoms that mimic schizophrenia, such as delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, disordered thinking, and a sensation of distance from one’s environment.
- Mood disturbances: Approximately 50 percent of individuals brought to emergency rooms because of PCP-induced problems—related to use within the past 48 hours—report significant elevations in anxiety symptoms.4
- People who have abused PCP for long periods of time have reported memory loss, difficulties with speech and thinking, depression, and weight loss. These symptoms can persist up to one year after stopping PCP abuse.
- Addiction: PCP is addictive—its repeated abuse can lead to craving and compulsive PCP-seeking behavior, despite severe adverse consequences.
What Other Adverse Effects Do Hallucinogens Have on Health?
Unpleasant adverse effects as a result of the use of hallucinogens are not uncommon. These may be due to the large number of psychoactive ingredients in any single source of hallucinogen.3
- LSD. The effects of LSD depend largely on the amount taken. LSD causes dilated pupils; can raise body temperature and increase heart rate and blood pressure; and can cause profuse sweating, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, dry mouth, and tremors.
- Peyote. Its effects can be similar to those of LSD, including increased body temperature and heart rate, uncoordinated movements (ataxia), profound sweating, and flushing. The active ingredient mescaline has also been associated, in at least one report, to fetal abnormalities.5
- Psilocybin. It can produce muscle relaxation or weakness, ataxia, excessive pupil dilation, nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness. Individuals who abuse psilocybin mushrooms also risk poisoning if one of many existing varieties of poisonous mushrooms is incorrectly identified as a psilocybin mushroom.
- PCP. At low-to-moderate doses, physiological effects of PCP include a slight increase in breathing rate and a pronounced rise in blood pressure and pulse rate. Breathing becomes shallow; flushing and profuse sweating, generalized numbness of the extremities, and loss of muscular coordination may occur.At high doses, blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration drop. This may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, flicking up and down of the eyes, drooling, loss of balance, and dizziness. PCP abusers are often brought to emergency rooms because of overdose or because of the drug’s severe untoward psychological effects. While intoxicated, PCP abusers may become violent or suicidal and are therefore dangerous to themselves and others. High doses of PCP can also cause seizures, coma, and death (though death more often results from accidental injury or suicide during PCP intoxication). Because PCP can also have sedative effects, interactions with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can also lead to coma.