What are hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens, or psychedelics, are drugs that affect a person's perceptions, sensations, thinking, self-awareness, and emotions by disrupting normal functioning of the serotonin system.   Hallucinogens include such drugs as LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, MDMA (ecstasy), and DMT.  Some hallucinogens come from natural sources, such as mescaline from the peyote cactus.  Others, such as LSD and PCP are synthetic or manufactured.  LSD is manufactured from lysergic acid, a compound derived from rye fungus, and is odorless, colorless, and tasteless.  In initial form, LSD is crystalline, but can be crushed into powder to produce tablets called “microdots”, thin squares of gelatin called “ window panes”, and more commonly dissolved into liquid form to be absorbed onto paper cut into small decorated squares called “blotter acid”.  Mescaline is usually smoked or swallowed in the form of capsules or tablets.  Depending on the type of hallucinogen, effects can begin almost immediately and last somewhere between 30 minutes and 12 hours.

What are the warning signs?

The effects of psychedelics are unpredictable.  It depends on the amount taken, the user's personality, mood, expectations, and the surroundings in which the drug is used.  The physical effects soon after use may include: dilated pupils, higher body temperature, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, dry mouth, paranoia, and tremors.  Sensations and feelings change, too.  The user may feel several different emotions at once or swing rapidly from one emotion to another.  The person's sense of time and self may also change.  Sensations may seem to “cross over”, giving the user the feeling of “hearing” color and “seeing” sounds.  All of these changes can be frightening and cause panic.  Hallucinations distort or transform shapes and movements, and users may perceive themselves and others as moving very slowly or changing shapes.

What are the effects?

Research has shown some changes in the mental functions of heavy users of LSD, but they are not present in all cases.  Heavy users sometimes develop signs of organic brain damage, such as impaired memory and attention span, mental confusion, and difficulty with abstract thinking.  It is not known whether such mental changes are permanent.  Large doses may cause drowsiness, convulsions, and coma.  Taking large amounts of PCP can also cause death from repeated convulsions, heart and lung failure, or ruptured blood vessels in the brain.  PCP can produce violent or bizarre behavior in people who are not normally that way.  This behavior can lead to death from drowning, burns, falls, and automobile accidents.  During time of fear, paranoia, or anxiety, users may become more aggressive while others may withdraw and have difficulty communicating.

Having bad psychological reactions to LSD and similar drugs is common.  Users refer to the hallucinogenic experiences as “trips” and the bad psychological reactions as “bad trips”.  The scary sensations may last a few minutes or several hours and be mildly frightening or terrifying.  The user may experience panic, confusion, suspiciousness, anxiety, helplessness, and loss of control.  Two long-term effects are psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).  Some users experience distorted reality and difficulty with communication and rational thinking after the trip has ended.  HPPD, more commonly known as “flashbacks”, is where a person experiences a drug's effects without having to take the drug again.  It most commonly consists of visual disturbances, which can be persistent and in some persons remained years after use has stopped.

How can someone get help?

The first step is to determine if there is a problem.  A Certified Addictions Counselor can effectively perform an assessment to determine what level of care is most appropriate.  For a free confidential assessment, call the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at (800) 522-3784.  An assessment can be completed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Appointments are preferred, but walk-ins are always welcome. 

Sources: National Institute on Drug Abuse, American Psychiatric Association, National Institutes of Health