Hallucinogens are psychoactive substances which cause changes in perception, the state of consciousness, emotions, and thoughts. These substances alter our very experience of reality.
What are Hallucinogens?
The criteria for a hallucinogen is:
- Predominantly alters mood, perception, and thoughts over other effects
- Lack addictive cravings altogether
- Have minimal effects like narcosis, stupor or excessive stimulation
- Cause minimal impairment to memory and intellect
- Cause minimal effects of the autonomous nervous system
While the exact biological working of hallucinogens is unknown, the most popular model for psychological effects (as popularized in Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception), are that they disable the brain’s ‘filters’ for selectively perceiving sensations and experiencing emotions – thereby allowing these signals to reach the conscious mind.
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Hallucinogens as a Rite of Passage
While absent from modern day Western culture, many of the ancient cultures across the world still use one or more of the 120 plants that have been identified as hallucinogens in ritual ceremonies when individuals transition into adulthood.
Writings from the African Congo detail how the Eboga plant (Ibogaine) was prepared and given to young adults as an initiation rite. Olmec and Aztec societies (and their modern-day counterparts) engaged in drinking Ayahuasca (which contains the active ingredient DMT, or dimethyltryptamine).
The Veda, an ancient Hindu scripture, refers to a hallucinogenic drink called Soma, which archaeologists later discovered in ceramic containers at ancient Hindu shrines. Kykeon, which induces a trancelike state, was used by ancient Athenians.
In Mexico, the Peyote ceremony is conducted at significant occasions (starting at early adulthood) which require spiritual guidance.
All of these substances induce visions which are often described as a ‘journey’ of the soul (the etymological root of the word ‘trip’).
Which Drugs are Hallucinogens?
The main types of hallucinogens are:
- Classical hallucinogens
These drugs are the first ones to come to mind when thinking of the cultural revolution of the sixties. Flower power, free love, the growing social movement against the war in Vietnam – all of these are accepted as a part of the change in values that is mainly attributed to the social effects of these drugs.
- LSD (‘acid’)
LSD-25 (lysergic acid diethylamide or commonly known as ‘acid’) is the best known of these hallucinogens. The drug was first synthesized by Dr. Albert Hoffman, a Swiss researcher at Sandoz Laboratories, from the ergot fungus which grows on rye.
In his notes, he famously explains how he accidentally ingested an unknown quantity while working in his lab. Feeling unable to continue working he rode his bicycle home through the Swiss countryside while he saw “fantastical crystal cities.”
During the 1950’s the CIA researched the potential of LSD as a truth serum in its infamous Project MKULTRA. When the drug was administered to unwitting targets, the ensuing drug psychoses resulted in many deaths.
LSD-25 is similar in structure and effects to Psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘Magic Mushrooms.’
Given the potential for abuse, it is debatable whether marijuana (or cannabis) should be included as a hallucinogen, though through it widespread use and recent legalization in the US it certainly deserves mentioning.
The active compound in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD), which, in small doses (for instance in a joint or bong) seldom causes the psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens (THC causing the psychedelic effects while CBD causes relaxation and sedation).
In higher doses, like with ‘dabbing,’ the compound is much more concentrated and effects significantly pronounced. Over the last 25 years or so, marijuana strains have on average more than doubled in THC content. Critics from the medical and psychiatric professions claim that increased TCH levels without the corresponding increase in CBD result in more instances of drug psychosis and hospitalization.
Users report feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, increased appetite (the munchies), as well as finding music more enjoyable.
These groups of hallucinogens are described as psychedelics which act by “generating the divine within” (translated literally from the Greek word ‘entheos’). Entheogens have been used since ancient times during ceremonies of spiritual, religious or shamanic importance.
Traditional entheogenic drugs include:
- Magic Mushrooms (mostly the Psilocybe species), which contains psilocybin
- The Colorado River Toad (Bufo alvarius), which contains DMT and bufotenin
- Ayahuasca (a potent mixture of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria Viridis), which also contains DMT
- The Peruvian Torch Cactus (Echinopsis Peruvian) contains mescaline, which produces effects similar to those of LSD
- Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), and the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pacha Noi) are South American cacti which also contain mescaline
- Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor) is a type of flower which contains ergoline alkaloids and was initially consumed by the Aztecs
These drugs cause a state of detachment from the physical world, and at high doses, one can expect to experience (or not experience) amnesia (memory loss), analgesia (an inability to feel pain) or even catalepsy (a trancelike state that could result in a loss of consciousness).
In moderate doses, dissociative induce an experience of depersonalization known as ‘ego death, ’ and out-of-body experiences likened to astral traveling.
Typical examples of dissociative drugs include:
- The Amazonian plant Salvia divinorum (“diviner’s sage” or “seer’s sage” which produces brief 2-3 minute out-of-body visions when smoked)
- Ketamine (a powerful animal tranquilizer which produces ‘near-death’ experiences)
- nitrous oxide
- DXM (dextromethorphan)
- PCP (phencyclidine).
The potential for failure of the central nervous system at high doses makes these drugs very dangerous.
Drugs that aren’t Hallucinogens
Also known as research drugs, designer drugs resemble illegal drugs in pharmacological action. By making slight changes to the chemical structure of the active compounds, manufacturers are often able to bypass drug laws.
Bath salts (mephedrone), tryptamines, tropanes, and methamphetamines are the most common examples – all of which are potentially lethal.
Dangerous Street Drugs
These include drugs like:
- heroin (a post-World War 1 brand name of morphine which is no longer produced in laboratories)
- cocaine (a powerful painkiller once used for a toothache and still in use for eye surgery)
- crack (cocaine cut with baking soda)
- Mandrax (a brand name for methaqualone, a sedative formerly used in psychiatric hospitals).
What is the Legality of Hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens that are illegal in the USA:
- Bath salts
- Peyote (legalized for religious ceremonies only)
- Colorado River Toad (owning the pet is legal, though removing the active ingredient is not)
- Peruvian Torch Cactus (owning the plant is legal, though extracting the active ingredient is not)
- Morning Glory (owning the plant is legal, though removing the active ingredient is not)
- Marijuana (in particular states)
- Salvia Divinorum (in particular states)
Harm & Potential for Abuse
Many of the drugs in this article do not pass L.E Hollister’s criteria for a hallucinogen and may cause physical addiction, as well as severe (sometimes fatal) risks to the user’s health. Those drugs that don’t result in physical addiction may still cause psychological addiction – as an escape from reality as one of the use signs. Drugs that are illegal to possess carry dire legal penalties.