What Are Hallucinogens?

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Hallucinogens are drugs that cause distortions in people’s reality while producing a euphorically good feeling. While under the influence of hallucinogens, some people claim to see, hear, and feel things that seem real but aren’t. In addition to the short-term “feel good” effects, there are also counter-reports of significant long-term damage to a person’s health. People can have adverse reactions to hallucinogens, even after just one use.

Common Types of Hallucinogenic Drugs

There are multiple types of hallucinogens. Scientists most commonly split them into two categories — classic hallucinogens and dissociative drugs. Both types of drugs can cause hallucinations. Dissociative drugs also can cause the user to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and surroundings.

Some hallucinogens were created for feelings of being “high,” and others were created for medical purposes. Hallucinogens can be human-made, or they can be derived from plants or mushrooms.

The most common hallucinogens are:

  • DMT – Also known as “Dimitri,” this hallucinogenic drug is a natural chemical found in some plants. It also can be human-made. It usually comes as a white powder that users smoke.
  • Ayahuasca – This hallucinogenic drug is also called “hoasca,” “aya,” and “yage.” It is brewed from plants containing DMT and consumed like tea. Indigenous people, specifically in South Africa, use it for religious and medicinal purposes.
  • DXM – Also known as “Robo,” this is a cough suppressant or mucus-clearing ingredient in some over-the-counter drugs. It is a dissociative drug.
  • Ketamine – Also known as “K” or “Special K,” doctors use this dissociative drug in humans and animals. It is an injectable liquid, but most illegal use occurs when people evaporate it into a powder that is snorted or compressed into pills. It is odorless and tasteless.
  • LSD – A human-made hallucinogen made from ergot, a fungus that grows on grains. It is the most potent hallucinogen available. It comes as a white powder or clear liquid that users put on small squares of paper and then place on their tongue. It has no color or odor.
  • Marijuana – Probably the most popular and widely used, it contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as the active ingredient. Marijuana doesn’t fit neatly into a single drug category because it has depressant, hallucinogenic, and stimulant qualities. Marijuana rarely has hallucinogenic qualities, but can if used in extreme quantities. It affects learning, memory, appetite, coordination, and pleasure. It may be cooked into food or smoked. Marijuana can also be used for various medicinal purposes.
  • Mescaline – The main ingredient in this hallucinogenic drug is a natural substance found in the peyote cactus. The cactus’ disc-shaped buttons are dried out, then chewed or soaked in liquid to produce a drink. Mescaline also can be human-made.
  • PCP – This dissociative drug is a dangerous human-made substance developed to use as an anesthetic. Doctors discontinued it for that purpose because of side effects. People sell it as a white powder or liquid that is snorted, injected, smoked, or swallowed.
  • Psilocybin – A natural substance found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. It can produce similar effects as LSD. “Shrooms” can be used fresh or dried. They are eaten, mixed with food, or brewed in tea.

How Hallucinogenic Drugs Affect the Brain

Scientists don’t know for certain how hallucinogens affect users the way they do. But, they think hallucinogens affect the brain’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is the hormone that stabilizes mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.

The parts of the brain affected by hallucinogens control mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control. It also regulates arousal and responses to stress and panic.

All hallucinogens can be addictive, and the more they’re used, the more a user may develop a tolerance to them. This tolerance isn’t permanent and builds quickly, forcing the user to take more to get the same effects. It disappears if the person stops taking the drug for several days. Therefore, changing the type of drug will not increase the effect without increasing the amount of the hallucinogen used.

One unique feature of this type or class of substance is that hallucinogenic users typically don’t experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the drugs.

Short-term Effects of Hallucinogens

People who use hallucinogens can see, hear, and feel things that seem real but aren’t. The onset of these hallucinations can begin as quickly as 20 minutes after taking the drug and can last up to 12 hours.

The effects of hallucinogens are unpredictable and depend on the amount of the drug taken, the user’s genetics, personality, mood, surroundings, and expectations. Users are known to lose their ability to recognize reality, reason, and communicate. If a user’s experience is enjoyable, it is a “good trip.” When users have a negative experience, it’s a “bad trip” and can result in terror, anxiety, despair, and sometimes long-lasting effects.

The short-term effects of hallucinogenic drugs include:

  • Hallucinations involve the sense of sound, touch, and smell
  • Dizziness, lack of coordination, and insomnia
  • Extreme, rapid emotional shifts
  • Trouble breathing
  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, dry mouth, and sweating
  • Numbness, weakness, and tremors
  • Changes in perception of time (time goes by slowly)
  • Intensified feelings and sensory experiences (brighter colors, sharper sounds)
  • Mixed senses (“seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors)
  • Spiritual experiences
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis (detachment from reality)
  • Bizarre behaviors

Long-Term Effects of Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens can have serious long-term effects as well. Two more serious long-term concerns are persistent psychosis and flashbacks, otherwise known as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD). These effects can occur separately or together.

Persistent psychosis causes:

  • Disorganized thinking
  • Mood disturbances
  • Paranoia
  • Visual disturbances (like seeing halos or trails on moving objects)

HPPD causes:

  • Hallucinations
  • Visual disturbances
  • Symptoms that resemble a stroke

Seeking Help for Hallucinogen Addiction

While there are no approved medications to treat addiction to hallucinogens, a mental health professional can help you uncover and treat the root cause of the addiction, which can then help you on your road to recovery.

If you are looking for a therapist who specializes in treating addiction, you can search our vetted directory of therapists and counselors to locate a mental health professional that is near you.

References and Citations:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2021
Common Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs [online]
https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/what-are-dissociative-drugs [Accessed 13 May 2021].

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2021
Hallucinogens DrugFacts online]
https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens [Accessed 13 May 2021].

Harvard Health Publishing. 2022
Back to the future: Psychedelic Drugs in Psychiatry. [Online]
https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/back-to-the-future-psychedelic-drugs-in-psychiatry-202106222508 [Accessed 23 April 2022].

The Wall Street Journal. 2020
Silicon Valley and Wall Street Elites Pour Money Into Psychedelic Research [online]
https://www.wsj.com/articles/silicon-valley-and-wall-street-elites-pour-money-into-psychedelic-research-11597941470 [Accessed 24 April 2022]