Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that can cause hallucinations or sensations and images that seem real even though they are not. For centuries, hallucinogens (also known as psychedelics) have been used by people in many cultures for religious rituals, by artists to spark creativity, or for recreation.
The reasons people try hallucinogens are varied, but for most, they alter perception, thoughts, and feelings. Though most are not addictive, some may be, and there may be some risks and benefits involved with hallucinogenic use.
Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs are used for a variety of reasons. Five common uses are highlighted below.
Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs are used for social and recreational use.1 People may use hallucinogens to deal with stress or to try to achieve an enlightened state of mind. Some may take hallucinogenic drugs simply to escape life’s troubles or to relieve boredom.
Hallucinogens are sometimes used in spiritual pursuits to produce mystical “visions” or simply to induce a detachment from reality in order to be closer to mythical beings. Historically, hallucinogens were used in shamanic practices of indigenous cultures and some are even incorporated in religions such as that of the Native American Church.
Writers, poets, and artists have used hallucinogens and other drugs through the decades to find creative inspiration.
People who have mental or emotional issues might try hallucinogens simply to alter their state of mind. In fact, hallucinogens have been investigated as a way to aid in the psychotherapeutic process for some.1
Although not approved for such use at this time, some hallucinogenic drugs have been scientifically tested to see if they might have therapeutic effects in mood, substance use, and anxiety disorders.
According to research published in 2017, anecdotal reports and small studies have suggested that ayahuasca may be a potential treatment for substance use disorders and other mental health issues, but no large-scale research has verified its efficacy.2
How They Work
Research suggests that hallucinogens work, at least partially, by temporarily disrupting communication between chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord.3
Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin can affect mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control. Other hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate.
Commonly Used Hallucinogens
Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms or can be human-made. They may cause emotions to swing wildly and real-world sensations to appear unreal and sometimes frightening.3 Some of the most common hallucinogens include:
Hallucinogens in the subcategory of dissociative drugs include phencyclidine (PCP), ketamine, dextromethorphan, and Salvia.
Effects and Risks
Hallucinations or experiences while under the influence of hallucinogens are commonly referred to as “trips.” Trips can begin within 20 to 90 minutes of ingesting a hallucinogen and last for about six to 12 hours. For Salvia, trips can happen rapidly and generally last less than 30 minutes.4
Unpleasant experiences while under the influence are commonly referred to as “bad trips.”
Tripping may seem enticing to some, but it can potentially put the person in a dangerous situation, psychologically or perhaps physically.
Hallucinogens, by definition, can cause people who use them to have extreme distortions of their perception of reality. They may have experiences that look, feel, and seem very real, but in fact, are only in their mind.
In completely escaping reality, they can make misjudgments that can affect their safety, like walking off a curb into traffic. In extreme cases, the person may partake in dangerous behaviors like jumping off a cliff because they think they can fly.3
Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that people who use ketamine recreationally may develop urological symptoms and poor memory.5 Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as:
- Memory loss
- Speech problems
- Suicidal thoughts
- Weight loss
Overdose with PCP can lead to seizures, coma, or death—especially when mixed with other drugs.6 Other potential long-term effects after long-term use can include psychosis, flashbacks, and perceptual problems.