The Types and Effects of Hallucinogens

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A hallucinogenic drug is one that changes the way a person sees, thinks about, or feels the reality around them. Some of these drugs occur in nature, like peyote (mescaline), “magic” mushrooms (psilocybin), Salvia divinorum (salvia), and Ayahuasca (containing dimethyltryptamine, or DMT). Others are created synthetically in a lab, including D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine, dextromethorphan (DXM), phencyclidine (PCP), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or ecstasy), and DMT.

Hallucinogenic drugs alter moods, thoughts, and perceptions by causing a person to see, hear, and feel things that may not actually be present. This class of drugs has been around for centuries, as they were often used in religious ceremonies or for spiritual enlightenment. Today, they may also be used to try and illicit a kind of “spiritual awakening,” as a method of stress relief, for purposes of self-medication and attempts at incurring therapeutic effects, and for recreational purposes. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that just over 1 million Americans were considered to be current users of a hallucinogenic drug when the survey was conducted.

Men more commonly abuse hallucinogens than women, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). As with most drugs, NSDUH publishes that those between the ages of 18 and 25 use hallucinogens more than any other age demographic. Some hallucinogenic drugs may be commonly used in the club or rave scene by adolescents and young adults to enhance feelings and experiences. They may also be mixed with other drugs or alcohol for amplified effects.

In 2014, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that 4 percent of high school seniors had used a hallucinogenic drug in the past year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. Most hallucinogenic drugs are not considered to be habit-forming, or addictive; however, some of them may be and can lead to drug dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and other long-lasting consequences.

Types of Hallucinogenic Drugs

NIDA states that hallucinogenic drugs are commonly broken into two different classes: traditional hallucinogens and those that cause a detachment from self, called dissociative drugs. LSD, peyote, magic mushrooms, and Ayahuasca are classic, or traditional hallucinogens while PCP, salvia, DXM, and ketamine are dissociative drugs. Ecstasy is both a hallucinogenic drug and a stimulant drug, and it often classified in its own category.

It is not certain exactly how hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs work; however, NIDA postulates that they likely disrupt the communication of some of the brain’s chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that deal with sensory perception, regulate moods, control body temperature and other autonomic nervous system functions, signal hunger and sleep needs, manage muscle control, and are involved with sexual behaviors.

Most hallucinogenic drugs are considered to be illegal in the United States with no accepted medicinal use. Specifics of some of the more common hallucinogenic drugs follow:

  • Mescaline (also known as buttons, cactus, mesc, and peyoto): This drug comes from the peyote cactus, which is small and spineless. The top, or “crown,” of the plant is cut off, and the buttons are then dried, chewed, soaked in water, ground into a powder to be made into a capsule to be swallowed, or smoked with either tobacco or marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports. Mescaline produces distortion of body image, time and space, hallucinations, and illusions, and also sometimes anxiety and euphoria. It can also cause significant nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle weakness, pupil dilation, sweating, impaired motor coordination, and an increase in body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure.
  • Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms, shrooms, boomers, and little smoke): This drug is found in certain mushrooms that are either chewed, dried, mixed in food, or brewed in a tea. While under the influence, often referred to as a “trip,” individuals may not be able to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Hallucinations, panic, and even psychotic effects may occur at large doses. The mushrooms often taste bitter and may cause nausea, vomiting, lack of muscle coordination, and muscle weakness.
  • LSD (also known as acid, blotter, microdots, mellow yellow, dots, window pane, doses, and tabs): This drug has some of the most potent perception- and mood-altering effects, according to NIDA, LSD is synthesized from lysergic acid into tablets (microdots), gelatin squares (window panes), soaked onto paper that is dried and cut into squares (blotters), or sold in liquid form. Within the first hour after ingesting LSD, moods and decision-making abilities are affected, as are depth, space, and time perception. Objects appear distorted. Hallucinations may be vivid and include visual disturbances, altered view of self, changed sense of touch, and altered perceptions of colors and sounds. Dry mouth, tremors, loss of appetite, heightened body temperature, sweating, increased blood pressure and heart rate, dilated pupils, and sleeplessness are additional side effects of an LSD trip, the DEA
  • PCP (also known as angel dust, superdust, tic tac, zoom, dips, sernyl, hog, ozone, and embalming fluid): PCP comes in tablet, powder, liquid, capsule, and crystal form. It may be snorted, smoked, or swallowed, or even added to marijuana (known as dipper) or tobacco cigarettes. Depending on how much and the way it is taken, the effects can be different. When injected or smoked, effects can begin almost immediately, while snorting or ingesting it may take a few minutes up to a half-hour to feel the effects, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) publishes. Most of the drug’s effects wear off in 4-6 hours, although it may take a full day for a person to completely return to normal.PCP causes a person to become detached from themselves and their environment, and it also has sedative and analgesic effects. Individuals may appear catatonic, and have a blank look or involuntary movements of the eyes. Erratic behaviors, episodes of violence and aggression, unnatural strength, disorganized thoughts, impaired motor coordination, blurred vision, feelings of invincibility, sensory distortions, difficulties breathing, increased blood pressure and heart rate, slurred speech, numbness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, trouble concentrating, depersonalization, salivation, anxiety, paranoia, seizures, hallucinations, and amnesia are all potential side effects of PCP use.
  • Ayahuasca and DMT (also known as yage, hoasca, and aya): Derived from a plant native to the Amazon, Ayahuasca is typically brewed into a tea. DMT is the psychoactive element in this hallucinogenic drink, and it can also be synthesized in a lab. DMT may be smoked or ingested in the form of Ayahuasca. The effects of DMT come on quickly and last about 30-45 minutes, the DEA Depersonalization, significant visual hallucinations, distorted body image and sense of time, as well as agitation, seizures, heightened blood pressure and heart rate, dizziness, impaired muscle coordination, involuntary eye movements, and respiratory distress can be caused by DMT.
  • DXM (also known as dex, robo, triple C, skittles, rojo, and velvet): Found in over-the-counter cough suppressant medications, DXM may be taken at very high doses to elevate moods and produce visual and auditory hallucinations. This is often referred to as “skittling,” “robotripping,” or “dexing,” the DEA Inappropriate laughter, feelings of floating, altered sense of touch and hearing, hallucinations, paranoia, and agitation are common consequences of DXM abuse, as are slurred speech, high blood pressure, involuntary eye movements, lethargy, poor coordination, sweating, and over-excitability.
  • Salvia (also known as magic mint, ska pastora, Sally-D, and diviner’s sage): An herb that is related to mint, salvia leaves may be chewed, or the leaves can be dried and then smoked or inhaled. Individuals may lose their tether to reality, experience vivid hallucinations wherein they see bright colors and lights, feel detached from themselves, and suffer mood swings in the half-hour the drug remains active in the body, NIDA for Teens Dizziness, slurred speech, and impaired motor skills may also be evident in someone under the influence of salvia.
  • Ketamine (also known as special K, vitamin K, kit kat, and cat valium): Primarily used as an animal tranquilizer, ketamine has both dissociative and anesthetic effects. It comes in a liquid and as a powder that may be snorted (in “bumps”), smoked (often with tobacco or marijuana), mixed in a drink, or injected. Ketamine may be used in the commission of sexual assault for its ability to produce sedation and immobility. Ketamine has different levels of effect such as: “K-land,” “K-hole,” “baby food,” and “God,” according to the DEA. The first level may be mellow with colorful hallucinations, while the next may include an out-of-body experience. In the following level, an individual may become inert and immobile, and in the final level, a person may feel as if they have met their maker or had a spiritual awakening.Ketamine usually takes effect in a few minutes and wears off in a half-hour to an hour. It can cause a detachment from pain and the environment as well as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and make it so individuals may not respond to any outside stimuli. Nausea, salivation, muscle stiffness, tearing up, pupil dilation, loss of control, rapid and involuntary eye movement, and hallucinations are possible when taking ketamine.
  • MDMA (also known as Molly, ecstasy, Adam, hug drug, and XTC): A drug usually synthesized in a clandestine lab, MDMA acts as both a central nervous system stimulant (raising heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, energy levels, and attention, and decreasing thoughts of sleeping or eating) and a hallucinogenic drug. The hallucinogenic properties include distortions of time and the senses, increased tactile sensations and emotional closeness, pleasure, sexual enhancement, and decreased inhibitions. Usually swallowed in tablet form, according to NIDA, it may also be obtained in liquid form or snorted. The DEA reports that it is also commonly mixed with other drugs like marijuana and alcohol and used as a “party drug.”Effects generally last around 4-6 hours. Nausea, muscle tension, cramps, clenching of teeth, anxiety, tremors, sweating or chills, feeling faint, sleep issues, paranoia, confusion, blurred vision, trouble regulating body temperature, and depression may also be symptoms and potential side effects of ecstasy abuse.

Potential Side Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

Hallucinogenic drugs can be highly unpredictable, sometimes offering individuals a pleasant sensation and other times a “bad trip,” characterized by psychosis, high levels of anxiety, paranoia, and fear. The “trip” from a hallucinogenic drug can last for several hours, with no relief or control over the symptoms. Adding alcohol or other drugs can increase the possible risks and dangers as well.

Individuals can overdose on a hallucinogen when toxic levels build up in the body, resulting in hyperthermia, high blood pressure, impaired respiratory levels, and a racing heart rate. Seizures, extreme confusion, delirium, nausea, vomiting, and a loss of consciousness may be the result of a hallucinogenic drug overdose, which may lead to coma or even death.

Accidents due to poor motor control, lack of depth perception, distortion of the size and shape of objects, and feelings of invincibility, fear, or aggression brought on by a hallucinogenic drug are significant risks when taking these kind of drugs.

Increased libido and sexual arousal may lead to potentially hazardous sexual liaisons that may have long-reaching side effects, like unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) publishes results on the number of medical emergencies involving emergency department (ED) treatment for the misuse of drugs. In 2011, DAWN reported the following number of ED visits for the abuse of hallucinogenic drugs:

  • PCP: 75, 538
  • MDMA: 22,498
  • Unspecified hallucinogens: 8,043
  • LSD: 4,819
  • Ketamine: 1,550

Hallucinogenic drugs may also have long-lasting side effects, especially when they are used regularly. Individuals may suffer from “flashbacks” days, months, or even years after using a hallucinogenic drug, and some may even develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). The journal Psychopharmacology publishes that HPPD may cause visual disturbances and persisting hallucinations that can interfere with a person’s ability to go about their daily life. Drugs like MDMA may permanently disrupt an individual’s memory and learning functions, the DEA warns. Hallucinogenic drugs impact levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which can alter moods and the ability to regulate emotions.

While it is believed that individuals can become tolerant to LSD, it is not generally considered to be addictive. PCP, on the other hand, is considered to be an addictive hallucinogenic drug that may cause withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t present, Psychology Today reports. MDMA may also be additive and cause negative symptoms when use is stopped after a dependence is formed.

Addiction is signified by a lack of control over drug use, and individuals may become obsessed with the drug and hardly interested in anything else. Behavioral, social, financial, physical, emotional, legal, and interpersonal consequences may be the result of drug addiction. Mood swings, a shift in personality or out-of-character behaviors, risk-taking behaviors, lack of concern over the negative side effects of drug use, and secrecy may all be possible signs of addiction to a hallucinogenic drug.

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Getting Help for the Abuse of Hallucinogenic Drugs

Treatment for abuse of hallucinogenic drugs likely depends on the type of drug abused along with other personal factors, such as one’s level of support, potential drug dependency, any polydrug abuse or co-occurring mental health disorders, and other environmental, genetic, and biological factors that can be identified through an initial assessment prior to admission into a treatment program. PCP, for instance, will likely require medical detox first, as withdrawal symptoms may include seizures, intense mood swings, and possible violence or self-harm.

In general, detox from a hallucinogenic drug usually includes largely supportive care. In a medical detox facility, individuals can be provided with a safe, calm, and quiet environment to “come down” off the drug. Supportive and encouraging staff members can make sure that clients are as comfortable as possible and that they do not harm themselves or anyone else. In some cases, medications may be helpful to manage some of the specific side effects of the drug or any withdrawal symptoms that may occur.

An inpatient treatment program following detox can help an individual to recognize why they might have started abusing drugs in the first place and provide the necessary tools for managing anger, coping with stress, avoiding possible triggers, and improving self-esteem to help avoid future relapse. Co-occurring disorders, when present, can be treated as well in an integrated fashion to improve both physical and mental health simultaneously.

A comprehensive treatment program can help a person to develop healthy habits and allow their brain time to recover from hallucinogenic drug abuse. Malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and poor physical status that may have been caused by drug abuse can be restored with healthy and balanced meals, scheduled sleeping times, and fitness programs in a residential treatment model. Support may be enhanced during treatment in the form of 12-Step programs, group therapy sessions, or family counseling.

Treatment is personal and individual in nature; therefore, no two treatment programs are going to be exactly alike. A complete treatment program that provides a wide range of services for families, individuals, and loved ones to choose from may be optimal in promoting a long and healthy recovery.