What Are Hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens are drugs that cause hallucinations – profound distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality. Under the influence of hallucinogens, people see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but do not exist. Some hallucinogens also produce rapid, intense emotional swings.

Hallucinogens cause their effects 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 (an abbreviation of the German words for “lysergic acid diethylamide”) is the drug most commonly identified with the term “hallucinogen” and the most widely used in this class of drugs. It is considered the typical hallucinogen, and the characteristics of its action and effects described below apply to the other hallucinogens, including mescaline, psilocybin, and ibogaine.

The drug category “hallucinogens” is comprised of a number of substances whose use results in psychoactive effects that impact the user’s thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and overall consciousness. The umbrella term “hallucinogen” can be further divided into the following three categories:

  • Psychedelics — Examples include LSD, Psilocybin (a.k.a. “magic mushrooms”), PCP, and peyote
  • Dissociatives — Examples include Ketamine and nitrous oxide (laughing gas)
  • Deliriants — Examples include Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)

Most hallucinogens are classified as either Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substances by the U.S. government.

Schedule I drugs are those that have been determined to meet the following three criteria:

  1. High potential for abuse
  2. No currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States
  3. Lack of accepted safety for use of the substance under medical supervision

Schedule II substances are described by the U.S. Department of Justice in the following terms:

  1. High potential for abuse
  2. Currently accepted for medical use in treatment in the United States
  3. May lead to severe psychological or physical dependence

Why Do People Take Hallucinogens? What is tripping like?


Hallucinogenic drugs have played a role in human life for thousands of years. Cultures from the tropics to the arctic have used plants to induce states of detachment from reality and to precipitate “visions” thought to provide mystical insight. These plants contain chemical compounds, such as mescaline, psilocybin, and ibogaine, that are structurally similar to serotonin, and they produce their effects by disrupting normal functioning of the serotonin system.

Historically, hallucinogenic plants were used largely for social and religious ritual, and their availability was limited by the climate and soil conditions they require. Mescaline comes from a cactus called peyote. And certain mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, are hallucinogens.

After the development of LSD, a synthetic compound that can be manufactured anywhere, abuse of hallucinogens became more widespread, and from the 1960s it increased dramatically. All LSD manufactured in this country is intended for illegal use, since LSD has no accepted medical use in the United States.

Extent Of Use

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)

NSDUH data show decreases in annual use of LSD from 2002 to 2004. In 2004, 9.7% of Americans aged 12 and older reported using LSD at least once in their lifetimes, 0.2% had used it in the past year, and 0.1% used in the past month. Lifetime use declined significantly from 2003 to 2004 among persons aged 12 to 17 and 18 to 25.

Lifetime use dropped significantly among 12th-graders from 2004 to 2005, while annual and 30-day use remained stable. Perceived availability of the drug fell among 12th-graders for this same period. “Lifetime” refers to use at least once during a respondent’s lifetime. “Annual” refers to use at least once during the year preceding an individual’s response to the survey. “30-day” refers to use at least once during the 30 days preceding an individual’s response to the survey.

Monitoring the Future Study
Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for
8th-Graders, 10th-Graders, and 12th-Graders

2002-2005

 

  8th-Graders % 10th-Graders % 12th-Graders %
’02 ’03 ’04 ’05 ’02 ’03 ’04 ’05 ’02 ’03 ’04 ’05

Hallucinogens

lifetimeannual

30-day

4.12.6

1.2

4.02.6

1.2

3.52.2

1.0

3.82.4

1.1

7.84.7

1.6

6.94.1

1.5

6.44.1

1.6

5.84.0

1.5

12.06.6

2.3

10.65.9

1.8

9.76.2

1.9

8.85.5

1.9

LSD

lifetimeannual

30-day

2.51.5

0.7

2.11.3

0.6

1.81.1

0.5

1.91.2

0.5

5.02.6

0.7

3.51.7

0.6

2.81.6

0.6

2.51.5

0.6

8.43.5

0.7

5.91.9

0.6

4.62.2

0.7

3.51.8

0.7


Hallucinogen Abuse

Perhaps the most widely known hallucinogen is LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a synthetic psychedelic that was first produced in the late 1930s, and which was popularized during the 1960s. But LSD is not the only hallucinogen, nor is it the only drug with hallucinogenic properties to be regularly abused.

It is manufactured from lysergic acid, which is found in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and other grains.

Hallucinogens are primarily abused for their ability to alter the user’s perceptions or consciousness.

The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed the following about the abuse of hallucinogens in the United States:

  • About 36 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 14.4 percent of that demographic group) have tried a hallucinogen at least once in their lifetimes
  • About 3.7 million (1.5% of the population) reported having used hallucinogens in the 12 month prior to completing the survey.
  • About 1.1 million (0.4 percent) reported hallucinogen use in the previous 30 days

Hallucinogen abuse can lead to significant health problems. According to data collected by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) in 2006, LSD was involved in 4,002 visits to emergency rooms.  PCP was involved in 21,960 visits, and miscellaneous hallucinogens were a factor in 3,898 visits.

Hallucinogen Addiction

Hallucinogens do not produce the physical dependence that drugs such as alcohol and heroin do. But the ability of hallucinogens to impair a user’s cognitive abilities, and to lead to a desire for continued use, means that ending one’s hallucinogen abuse isn’t simply a matter of deciding to quit.

When trying to quit using hallucinogens or dissociative drug, users may experience symptoms such as memory loss and depression, which may last for as long as a year after stopping use of the drug.

With the risk of long-term cognitive impairments, psychosis, and paranoia, hallucinogen abuse can make it difficult for users to make wise decisions regarding their drug use.

Hallucinogen Treatment

Treatment for hallucinogen abuse or addiction may include outpatient therapy, participation in a 12-Step support group, partial hospitalization, or residential treatment.

Treatment for hallucinogen abuse or addiction may include the following therapies and techniques:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • 12-Step education
  • Relapse-prevention instruction
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Biofeedback & Neurofeedback
  • Medication management
  • Anger management
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Recreation therapy