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Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs

Rising to prominence in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, hallucinogenic drugs create mind-altering experiences characterized by visual distortions and hallucinations. Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs can be addictive, and habitually using them can cause lasting health concerns and contribute to the development of a severe mental disorder.

1.8 percentof Americans aged 18 to 25 reported past-month hallucinogen use in 2015.

121,000Americans aged 12 to 17 reported past-month hallucinogen use in 2015.

482,000Americans aged 26 or older reported past-month hallucinogen use in 2015.

Hallucinogens are a group of drugs that distort a person’s perception of reality, cause hallucinations and create euphoria. The combination of these effects creates a drug-induced experience called tripping.

Tripping, also known as “going on a trip,” is characterized by rapid emotional swings, seeing images that aren’t there, hearing sounds that do not exist, vision waves and a loss of reality. Hallucinogenic substances are found in certain plants, mushrooms or fungi or are made from their extract.

Common Hallucinogenic Drugs

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, hallucinogens include mushrooms, LSD, mescaline, DMT and ayahuasca.

Psilocybin Mushrooms

Commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” psilocybin mushrooms can be found naturally in tropical and subtropical regions, most commonly in South America, Mexico and the United States.

Psilocybin mushroom caps and stems can be eaten raw, mixed with food or brewed into a tea. Traditionally, indigenous cultures from Mexico and Central America have eaten psilocybin mushrooms for religious ceremonies.

LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide)

Also known as acid, LSD is a hallucinogenic substance derived from a rye fungus containing lysergic acid diethylamide, the active hallucinogen in LSD. The drug is typically taken in pill capsules filled with LSD crystals or as bits of paper containing soaked-up liquid LSD called tabs.

LSD usually is extremely potent. It can cause intense hallucinogenic effects that are typically stronger than those from psilocybin mushrooms.

Peyote (Mescaline)

Peyote refers to a substance in the top or crown of the peyote cactus called mescaline. The crown of the cactus can be dried and chewed, soaked in water to form liquid peyote or boiled for hours to create a peyote tea.

The drug causes intense psychological effects like those of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Historically, peyote has been used in religious ceremonies for native cultures in northern Mexico and the southwest United States.

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine)

Found in a number of Amazonian plant species, DMT is a hallucinogenic chemical that causes effects similar to peyote’s. DMT can also be synthesized in a lab, most commonly in the form of a white, crystalline powder that is smoked or vaporized to experience psychedelic effects.

Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a tea made by brewing DMT-producing plants and a vine containing natural alkaloid that prevents normal DMT breakdown in the digestive tract, creating psychedelic effects when ingested. Also known as aya or hoasca, ayahuasca tea has been used for centuries by indigenous Amazonian cultures for healing and religious purposes.

Hallucinogen Prevalence in the United States

Hallucinogen use is common among young adults. People aged 18 to 25 reported the highest past-month and past-year hallucinogen use among all age groups in 2015, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The survey tracks the prevalence of substance abuse in the United States, including hallucinogen use. Hallucinogen abuse statistics from this survey also include information on use of PCP and Ecstasy, which can cause hallucinogenic effects but are not considered classic hallucinogens.

LSD, in particular, is one of the most popular and widely available hallucinogenic drugs. According to the 2015 NSDUH report:

People aged 12 or older who reported past-year PCP use increased from 90,000 in 2014 to 120,000 in 2015, per the survey. That year, more than 6.3 million people aged 12 or older reported using the drug in their lifetime.

The number of Americans using hallucinogens has remained low in recent years. However, a 2012 study found that the proportion of U.S. high school students who used hallucinogens in their lifetime was higher than that of 35 other nations.

Scared and frightened man has hallucinations

Paranoia, Insanity and Other Effects of Hallucinogen Use

Hallucinogens cause people to see images, hear sounds and feel sensations that do not exist. Psychedelic effects typically begin within 20 to 90 minutes after ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and can last as long as 12 hours depending on the dose.

Experiences with hallucinogenic drugs are often unpredictable and may be affected by a user’s personality, mood, expectations and environment.

Tripping is often described as a temporary drug-induced psychosis that disables a person’s ability to think rationally, communicate with others and understand the events around them.

While tripping, individuals may experience pleasant and mentally stimulating effects, and thoughts that produce a sense of heightened understanding or different way of thinking. However, they may also experience bad trips, characterized by terrifying thoughts, paranoia, intense anxiety, depression, fear and insanity.

Sensory Effects

Physical Effects

Hallucinogen abuse is commonly linked to concurrent mental illnesses, also known as co-occurring disorders. An underlying mental disorder may be the cause of an individual’s habitual hallucinogen abuse. Persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder may occur together or with other mental illnesses or substance use disorders.

Frequent LSD, psilocybin and peyote users can quickly develop a tolerance to these substances, requiring higher doses to experience desired effects. Thankfully, tolerances to hallucinogenic drugs do not last long and usually dissipate after several days of hallucinogen abstinence.

Chronic use of these substances usually is not accompanied by withdrawals after substance abuse stops. Although more research is needed, studies show that DMT and ayahuasca do not appear to induce tolerance or create any lasting physiological effects, according to NIDA.

The two most serious long-term side effects associated with hallucinogen use are persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. Although both conditions are rare, they can be unpredictable and pose a credible risk to those affected by them.

Persistent psychosis symptoms include:

Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder symptoms include:

Dissociative Drugs: A Class of Hallucinogens

Dissociative drugs are a subclass of hallucinogens that cause euphoric effects characterized by hallucinations, dissociation from reality, paranoia, incoherence and delusion. These substances can also cause visual and auditory distortions and may leave individuals in a state of temporary psychosis. Dissociative drugs usually cause short and intense trips or highs.

Common dissociative drugs include:

PCP (Phencyclidine)

Originally developed as a general anesthetic for surgery, street PCP is usually sold as a liquid or powder. People snort, swallow, inject or smoke PCP. The substance often is sprinkled on other drugs, such as marijuana, and then smoked.

Street names for PCP include:

Ketamine

Ketamine was created as a general anesthetic for humans but is more commonly used in veterinary practice today. Veterinary offices and pharmacies often are robbed by criminals looking to obtain ketamine for recreational use.

Also known as “special K,” ketamine is usually sold in a powder form and is snorted, swallowed or smoked, though it can come in liquid form. Characterized by dissociation, delusion and the inability to control motor functions or muscles, ketamine use is popular in rave and party culture.

Ketamine is odorless, tasteless and considered a date-rape drug that is commonly used to facilitate sexual assault. The drug can cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, confusion, mood changes and irregular heartbeat.

DXM (Dextromethorphan)

Usually found in cough medicines, DXM is a commonly abused substance among adolescents and young adults. People drink large amounts of cough medicine to experience the mind-altering effects of DXM. The drug most commonly comes in liquid form, though pill and gel capsules containing the drug also exist.

Salvia

Salvia, a psychoactive plant indigenous to southern Mexico and Central America, contains a dissociative substance that produces short and intense effects. Salvia is typically ingested by chewing leaves or drinking juices extracted from the plant.

In the United States, salvia leaves are commonly smoked or vaporized to induce psychoactive effects. Salvia users report very short trips similar to ketamine “K-holes.”

Dissociative drugs other than salvia affect the brain’s glutamate receptors, which are responsible for a major role in cognition, emotion and pain perceptions. Additionally, dissociative drugs release dopamine, the chemical that produces euphoria, or “reward,” in the brain.

These substances can be extremely addictive. Frequent dissociative drug users develop a tolerance quickly, causing them to take larger doses to achieve desired effects. PCP is a particular concern, with nearly 360,000 PCP abuse admissions to publicly funded substance abuse treatment programs in 2008.

Numbness, Panic and Other Effects of Dissociative Drugs

People take dissociative drugs recreationally to experience mind-altering and euphoric effects. However, the side effects can be dangerous.

Low-dose dissociative drug effects include:

High doses of dissociative drugs are associated with even more severe side effects, including:

Using dissociative drugs with alcohol, opioids or other drugs can pose a great risk. Mixing dissociative drugs with other substances, especially depressants, can lead to respiratory distress or arrest and even death.

Frequent use of dissociative drugs can lead to a number of severe health issues. Repeated PCP and ketamine use can quickly lead to tolerance and addiction, causing withdrawal symptoms when people try to stop abusing the substances.

Long-term PCP use has also been linked to difficulties with speech, memory loss, depression, suicide, anxiety and social isolation. These symptoms can persist long after cessation of PCP use.

Long-term ketamine use can lead to severe bladder damage as well and, in some cases, may cause damage that requires individuals to have their bladders removed.

Benzodiazepine, Clonidine and Other Potential Treatments for Hallucinogen Disorders

Habitual hallucinogen users are often in poor health as a result of their substance abuse and may require additional treatment to get well. While no government-approved medications to treat hallucinogen addiction exist, inpatient and behavioral treatment have proven helpful to people with a variety of addictions, according to NIDA.

Potential treatments for hallucinogenic disorders such as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder have been largely anecdotal. Research has shown that psychotherapy, behavior modification and various pharmacological medications, such as benzodiazepines and clonidine, could reduce symptoms of HPPD. But some studies show that antipsychotic drugs such as phenothiazines and risperidone could worsen HPPD symptoms.

A study published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology found that the antiepileptic drug lamotrigine successfully treated some abnormal perceptions in a woman with HPPD. This medication, traditionally used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, was administered regularly over at least 12 months.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines, risperidone, olanzapine and naltrexone have been used in many studies to treat HPPD. These trials sometimes produced contradictory outcomes.

A report published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence analyzed 20 studies examining HPPD. The comprehensive report stated that future studies will be needed to identify effective treatment options for people with HPPD.

“Such studies should attempt to screen large numbers of hallucinogen users for ‘flashbacks’ and then follow up individuals reporting these phenomena,” the study’s authors concluded.

Scientists have found that certain hallucinogenic substances may be useful in treating chronic conditions, such as cancer.

Psilocybin, an ingredient found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, has been used to treat cancer-related symptoms. A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that 80 percent of cancer patients showed reductions in depressed mood or anxiety after using the drug over a six-month span.

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