What are hallucinogens?
Hallucinogenic drugs alter a person’s thinking, sense of time, and emotions. Hallucinogens can cause people to see images, hear sounds, and feel sensations that seem real but do not exist (these are hallucinations). Some hallucinogens can produce rapid, intense emotional swings. Hallucinogenic compounds occur naturally in trees, seeds, fungi, and leaves and have been used during religious rituals for centuries. The compounds can also be made in laboratories.
The four most common types of hallucinogens are LSD, peyote, mushrooms, and PCP.
- LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the most potent mood-changing chemicals. Discovered in 1938, it is manufactured from lysergic acid, found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains.
- Peyote is a small, spineless cactus in which the principal active ingredient is mescaline. Mescaline is also found in other varieties of cactus as well. This plant has been traditionally used by natives in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States as a part of religious ceremonies. Mescaline can also be produced through chemical synthesis.
- Psilocybin is obtained from certain types of mushrooms that grow in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States. These mushrooms (or “shrooms”) typically contain less than 0.5 percent psilocybin plus trace amounts of psilocin, another hallucinogenic substance.
- PCP (phencyclidine) is a dissociative drug developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic. Dissociative drugs cause users to lose connection with reality, experience memory loss, or enter a trance-like state, as well as hallucinate. Its use as an anesthetic has been discontinued due to serious adverse effects. It is a white crystalline powder soluble in water or alcohol. It is sold on the illicit drug market in tablet, capsule, and colored powder forms that are normally snorted, smoked, or orally ingested. It is a very dangerous drug. Depending upon how much and by what route. PCP is taken, its effects can last approximately four to six hours.
How do hallucinogens affect the brain?
Hallucinogens distort a person’s perception of reality. They disrupt 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. In the brain, PCP also alters the actions of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for the euphoria and “rush” associated with many abused drugs.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) uses the term “phencyclidine use disorder” or “other hallucinogen use disorder” (depending on the substance) to define a pattern of hallucinogen use that leads to significant physical, interpersonal, medical, or work problems. It is rated as mild, moderate, or severe based on how many criteria are met. A person can also be classified as in remission, or what is commonly referred to as “in recovery.” Those with hallucinogen-related use disorder should receive treatment, and those who identify themselves as addicts often find the skills and support to stay sober through peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
Addiction is considered a brain-based disease characterized by abnormal drug-seeking behavior that leads to impaired control over one’s drug use. Addiction means a person will continue using drugs or alcohol despite the harm it does to their health, family, work or school, and relationships. An addict may experience withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability) if he or she stops using, and may need to keep using just to feel normal. “Curing” addiction is not a matter of willpower or moral strength any more than is curing diabetes or cancer. Like diabetes and cancer, addiction is considered a chronic disease which is beyond one’s control and fatal if left untreated.
How do hallucinogens affect a co-occurring mental health disorder?
Co-occurring disorders, or dual disorders, is when a mental health disorder, like depression or schizophrenia, is present along with addiction, alcoholism, or other substance use disorders. Screening for co-occurring disorders should be part of any good assessment or treatment plan.
People with co-occurring disorders, including serious mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, can seriously endanger themselves by becoming suicidal or violent when taking psychedelics or dissociative drugs. Because hallucinogens can distort one’s sense of reality, they are particularly dangerous for people struggling with mental health disorders.
Is addiction to hallucinogens treatable?
Yes. Most users of hallucinogens voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time or get help because of their experiences of “bad trips.” 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. Hallucinogen users often find treatment later for addictions to alcohol or other drugs. Treatments for PCP users may take place as a result of legal or medical interventions for a life-threatening overdose.
Addiction won’t go away, like a cold or the flu. It is a chronic disease, meaning you have it all your life. However, by staying sober and getting ongoing support, recovering people can live normal, healthy, productive lives.
There are many resources out there. The websites for the following organizations were chosen for their usefulness and user friendliness.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): This government organization is dedicated to addiction research and education. Through its website you can access up-to-date publications about many different drugs of abuse as well as emerging trends.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) SAMHSA is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Its website offers information and resources about preventing and treating addiction and mental illness.