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Hallucinogen Drug Overview

What Is a Hallucinogen?

Brain affected by hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that are known to cause hallucinations and alter users’ sense of reality.1,2

Hallucinogens are divided into 2 categories: classic hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.1,2 Dissociative drugs, such as PCP, ketamine, and DXM, cause users to feel detached from their bodies and environment.1,2

This article will focus on classic hallucinogens:1,2

  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)—Also called acid, blotter, trips, and tabs, LSD is one of the most powerful hallucinogenic drugs. LSD is synthesized from lysergic acid, a fungus found on grains like rye. The clear or white odorless drug is sold either as tablets called “microdots,” gelatin squares called “window panes” (liquid diluted in water or alcohol), or most commonly on small blots of paper soaked in LSD.
  • Psilocybin—Also known as “magic mushrooms or shrooms,” psilocybin is derived from mushroom plants found in tropical and subtropical parts of South America, Mexico, and the United States. The drug produces effects similar to LSD and has been used by certain cultures for religious and spiritual purposes. The leaves of the plant are typically dried and either eaten raw, with food, or brewed into a tea.
  • Peyote—This drug contains mescaline that comes from a tiny, spineless cactus plant native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The crowns of the plant (or “buttons”) are dried out and then either chewed or brewed into a tea. Like psilocybin, peyote has been used by certain groups as a part of religious and spiritual rituals.
  • DMT (dimethyltryptamine)—This potent chemical found in Amazonian plants and can also be synthesized in a lab. Ayahuasca is a plant form of DMT that is brewed into a tea and traditionally used for healing purposes by indigenous cultures in South America (though its popularity is growing in other countries).

What Are Synthetic Hallucinogens?

Synthetic hallucinogens have emerged on the market in recent years.4 These drugs are man-made in laboratories and contain different ingredients than non-synthetic hallucinogens.4 Synthetic DMT, which is similar to ayahuasca, appears as a white, crystalline powder that can be vaporized or smoked.1

Another synthetic hallucinogen, 251-NBOMe, also sold under the names “smiles” or “n-bombs,” is another synthetic hallucinogen that is increasing in popularity.5 It causes effects similar to LSD and mescaline, but it is more potent.2,5 The most popular form of the drug is sold on small blots of paper that are taken orally, though it also sometimes found in powder or liquid form.5,6

Effects of 251-NBOMe include:5,6

  • Changes in mood and cognition.
  • Altered sensory experiences.
  • Aggressive or violent behavior.
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Seizures.
  • Kidney damage.

There is also a risk for fatal overdose with this drug.6

Short-Term Effects of Hallucinogens

When a person takes a hallucinogen, the effects are typically felt within 20 to 90 minutes and can last up to 12 hours depending upon the specific drug.1

The psychoactive effects of hallucinogens include psychological sensory effects such as:1

  • Hallucinations, where a person may see, hear, feel, or smell things that do not exist.
  • Mixed sensory experiences, such as “hearing colors.”
  • Distortions in sense of time.
  • More intense sensory experiences, such as colors appearing brighter or sounds appearing more distinct.

The term “psychedelic” is often used to collectively describe the above psychological sensory effects, which are often understood by the subject as not based in reality. For these users, hallucinogens are a way for them to transcend the state of being human, potentially allowing for a better understanding of themselves and their relationship with the world and reality.8

The general physical short-term effects of hallucinogens include:1

  • Increased energy.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Nausea.

While hallucinogens generally cause the previously listed short-term sensory and physical effects, certain types of hallucinogens may cause their own specific short-term side effects:1,3

  • LSD can increase blood pressure and body temperature and cause loss of appetite, dilated pupils, sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, tremors, and rapid changes in mood.
  • Psilocybin can cause negative effects like anxiety, panic, and paranoia. Other physical effects include muscle weakness and poor coordination.
  • Peyote may cause users to experience increased body temperature and heart rate, sweating, flushing, headaches, and difficulty coordinating movements.
  • DMT may result in increased heart rate and irritability.
  • Ayahuasca can cause increased blood pressure and vomiting.

Long-Term Effects of Hallucinogens

Woman having a flashback

In some cases, hallucinogen users may develop perceptual abnormalities that persist or recur intermittently following a return to normal functioning. These so-called “flashbacks” are defined as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPDD) and can occur spontaneously days or years after taking the drug.1,2 Symptoms of HPDD can include:1,2,7

  • Visual disturbances (e.g., flashes of color, trails of images of moving objects, halos around objects, false perceptions of movement in the peripheral visual fields).
  • Mood instability.
  • Paranoia.
  • Disorganized thinking.

Users are more likely to develop HPPD if they have a history of mental health issues, but these conditions can potentially arise in anyone even after one use.1,2

What Is a Bad Trip?

People’s experiences using hallucinogens vary widely based on the type of drug, amount used, and the person’s mood,  personality, expectations of the experience, and environment.1 Hallucinogen users use the term “bad trip” to describe a negative and unpleasant experience while under the influence of these drugs.1

Because of the nature of hallucinogens, there is no way to determine whether an experience taking the drug will be positive or negative.

In some cases the high may be pleasurable, while other times it can be distressing and involve significant anxiety and fear.1 Accidents and physical injury might occur as a result of experiencing distorted reality in a state of fear and anxiety. 8 Because of the nature of hallucinogens, there is no way to determine whether an experience taking the drug will be positive or negative.

Can You Get Addicted to LSD or Other Hallucinogens?

Classic hallucinogens do not induce physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms.8 The potential for addiction to hallucinogens has been debated; however, regular use of some hallucinogens, including LSD, psilocybin, and peyote, can cause users to develop tolerance, where they may experience less of an effect from the same dose of the drug over a period of time.1 This can result in taking dangerously large amounts of hallucinogens.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some hallucinogens are addictive. The hallmark of addiction is an inability to stop using hallucinogens despite the problems that you are experiencing or expect to experience as a result.7

If you are finding yourself unable to stop using hallucinogens and/or other substances, you may need professional help. If you also suffer from mental health issues, it’s important to seek out a program like the one at Desert Hope that addresses co-occurring, or “dual diagnosis,” disorders. These types of programs treat both addiction and mental health disorders at the same time. Dual diagnosis programs can also treat persistent mental health issues that are caused by hallucinogen use, including persistent psychosis and Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder.

Quitting hallucinogens with the help of addiction treatment can help reduce the severity of psychological problems and prevent future problems from developing.

References:

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Research report series: Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). DrugFacts: Hallucinogens.
  3. S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Agency. (2017). Drugs of Abuse: A DEA resource guide.
  4. Department of Health and Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia. (2018). Hallucinogens.
  5. Suzuki, J., Dekker, M. A., Valenti, E. S., Cruz, F. A. A., Correa, A. M., Poklis, J. L., & Poklis, A. (2015). Toxicities associated with NBOMe ingestion—A novel class of potent hallucinogens: A review of the literaturePsychosomatics56(2), 129-139.
  6. Kyriakou, C., Marinelli, E., Frati, P., Santurro, A., Afxentiou, M., Zaami, S., & Busardo, F. P. (2015). NBOMe: New potent hallucinogens–Pharmacology, analytical methods, toxicities, fatalities: A reviewEuropean Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences19(17), 3270-81.
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
  8. Herron, A. J., & Brennan, T. (2020). The Asam essentials of addiction medicine. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
About The Contributor
Ryan Kelley, NREMT
Medical Editor
Ryan Kelley is a nationally registered Emergency Medical Technician and the former managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS). During his time at JEMS, Ryan developed Mobile Integrated Healthcare in Action, a series... Read More