What are Hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens are a diverse group of drugs that alter perception (awareness of surrounding objects and conditions), thoughts, and feelings. They cause hallucinations, or sensations and images that seem real though they are not. Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms (or their extracts) or can be human-made. People have used hallucinogens for centuries, mostly for religious rituals. Common hallucinogens include the following:

Ayahuascais a tea made from one of several Amazonian plants containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the primary mind-altering ingredient. Ayahuasca is also known as Hoasca, Aya, and Yagé. DMT is a powerful chemical found in some Amazonian plants. Manufacturers can also make DMT in a lab. The drug is usually a white crystalline powder. A popular name for DMT is Dimitri.

D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is one of the most powerful mood-changing chemicals. It is a clear or white odorless material made from lysergic acid, which is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. LSD has many other names, including Acid, Blotter, Dots, and Yellow Sunshine. Peyote (mescaline)is a small, spineless cactus with mescaline as its main ingredient. Peyote can also be synthetic. Buttons, Cactus, and Mesc are common names for peyote.

  • 4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (psilocybin) comes from certain types of mushrooms found in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States. Other names for psilocybin include Little Smoke, Magic Mushrooms, Purple Passion, and Shrooms. Some hallucinogens also cause users to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and environment. Common examples include the following:
  • Ketamine Dextromethorphan (DXM) is a cough suppressant and mucus-clearing ingredient in some over-the-counter cold and cough medicines (syrups, tablets, and gel capsules). Robo is another popular name for DXM. Ketamine is used as a surgery anesthetic for humans and animals. Much of the ketamine sold on the streets comes from veterinary offices. While available as an injectable liquid, manufacturers mostly sell it as a powder or as pills. Other names for ketamine include K, Special K, or Cat Valium. 
  • Phencyclidine (PCP) was developed in the 1950s as a general anesthetic for surgery. It’s no longer used for this purpose due to serious side effects. While PCP can be found in a variety of forms, including tablets or capsules, liquid and white crystal powder are the most common forms. PCP has various other names, such as Angel Dust, Hog, Love Boat, and Peace Pill. 
  • Salvia divinorum (salvia) is a plant common to southern Mexico and Central and South America. Other names for salvia are Diviner’s Sage, Maria Pastora, Sally-D, and Magic Mint.

How do hallucinogens affect the brain?

Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates: mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control.

Other hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate, which regulates: pain perception, responses to the environment, emotion, learning and memory.

What Are the short-term effects?

The effects of hallucinogens can begin within 20 to 90 minutes and can last as long as 6 to 12 hours. Salvia’s effects are more short-lived, appearing in less than 1 minute and lasting less than 30 minutes. Hallucinogen users refer to the experiences brought on by these drugs as “trips,” calling the unpleasant experiences “bad trips.”

Along with hallucinations, other short-term general effects include: increased heart rate, nausea, intensified feelings and sensory experiences, changes in sense of time (for example, time passing by slowly),

Specific short-term effects of some hallucinogens include: increased blood pressure, breathing rate, or body temperature, loss of appetite, dry mouth, sleep problems, mixed senses (such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors), spiritual experiences, feelings of relaxation or detachment from self/environment, uncoordinated movements, excessive sweating, panic, paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others, psychosis—disordered thinking detached from reality.

What are the long-term effects?

Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that ketamine users may develop symptoms that include ulcers in the bladder, kidney problems, and poor memory. Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as: speech problems, memory loss, weight loss, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Hallucinogens can cause severe visual disturbances such as a distorted view of a car driving on the road.

What are other risks of hallucinogens?

High doses of PCP can cause seizures, coma, and death, though death more often results from accidental injury or suicide during PCP intoxication. Interactions between PCP and depressants such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (prescribed to relieve anxiety or promote sleep—alprazolam [Xanax®], for instance) can also lead to coma. Some bizarre behaviors resulting from hallucinogens that users display in public places may prompt public health or law enforcement personnel intervention. While hallucinogens’ effects on the developing fetus are unknown, researchers do know that mescaline in peyote may affect the fetus of a pregnant woman using the drug.