Hallucinogens are natural and synthetic (synthesized) substances that, when ingested (taken into the body), significantly alter one's state of consciousness. Hallucinogenic compounds often cause people to see (or think they see) random colors, patterns, events, and objects that do not exist. People sometimes have a a different perception of time and space, hold imaginary conversations, believe they hear music and experience smells, tastes, and other sensations that are not real.
Many types of substances are classified as hallucinogens, solely because of their capacity to produce such hallucinations. These substances are sometimes called "pyschedelic," or "mind-expanding" drugs. They are generally illegal to use in the United States, but are sometimes sold on the street by drug dealers. A few hallucinogens have been used in medicine to treat certain disorders, but they must be given under controlled circumstances. Hallucinogens found in plants and mushrooms were used by humans for many centuries in spiritual practice worldwide.
Unlike such drugs as barbiturates and amphetamines (which depress or speed up the central nervous system, respectively) hallucinogens are not physically addictive (habit-forming). People can become psychologically dependent upon them, however. The real danger of hallucinogens is not their toxicity (poison level), but their unpredictability. People have had such varied reactions to these substances, especially to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), that it is virtually impossible to predict the effect a hallucinogen will have on any given individual. Effects depend upon the person's mood, surroundings, personality, and expectations when taking the drug.
Hallucinogens and Spirituality
Some users of hallucinogens have reported feeling mystical and insightful, while others are fearful, paranoid (excessively suspicious or mistrustful of others), and hysterical (exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excitability). Medicine men, shamans, and other spiritual leaders have used natural hallucinogens found in plants and mushrooms since ancient times, believing in their power to help contact the spiritual world or mystical beings for guidance in serving their people.
Pollen from flowers and other plants-—most with medicinal properties-—was found in the grave of a Neanderthal man in Shanidar, Iraq. Scientists believe that since these prehistoric people very likely knew how to use plants for medicine, they probably used hallucinogenic plants in rituals. Archaeological evidence also shows that psychoactive drugs (drugs that affect the mind or behavior) were used in ancient Egypt, Greece, Europe, and many other cultures.
Natural hallucinogens are formed in dozens of psychoactive plants, including the peyote cactus, various species of mushrooms, and the bark and seeds of several trees and plants. In Mexico, mushrooms called Psylocybe mexicana, which contain the fungi psilocybin and psilocin, have been used in religious rituals since the time of the Aztec civilization (before 1519, an empire in Central America noted for its advanced social development). In Europe, the fungus Amanita muscaria was thought to have been used by the Vikings. Amanita muscaria and its close relative, Amanita pantherina, are also found in the United States. Both contain psychoactive ingredients called ibotenic acid and muscimol.
Some members of the Native American Church, an organization made up of Native Americans from tribes throughout North America, practice the use of mescaline, a form of psychedelic drug found in the peyote cactus. Currently peyote is the only psychedelic agent that has been authorized by the federal government for limited use during Native American religious ceremonies.
A few less common natural hallucinogens are also used in religious practice. These include ololiuqui (morning glory) seeds, which are eaten by Central and South American Indians both as intoxicants (a substance, such as alcohol, that excites or makes one insensible) and hallucinogens. Harmine, another psychedelic chemical that has been used for centuries, is obtained from the seeds of Peganum harmala, a plant found in the Middle East. The feeling of exhilaration (cheerfulness, excitement) brought about by this drug is sometimes followed by nausea, fatigue, and sleep. People using the drug may experience visual distortions (for instance, an object appears to be in a different shape from what it really is) like those induced by LSD.
DMT (dimethyltryptamine)is a hallucinogen found in the seeds of certain West Indian and South American plants. People in Haiti have used this drug, in the form of a snuff (a tobacco product inhaled through the nostrils, chewed, or placed against the gums) called cohoba, in religious ceremonies.
Marijuana, LSD, and PCP
Marijuana and hashish, two substances derived from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), are also considered natural hallucinogens, although their potency (power) is very low when compared to others. Marijuana (also called grass, pot, tea, weed, or reefer), a green herb from the flower of the hemp plant, is considered a mild hallucinogen. Hashish is marijuana in a more potent, concentrated form. Both drugs are usually smoked. Their effects include a feeling of relaxation, faster heart rate, the sensation that time is passing more slowly, and a greater sense of hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Even the most potent of these naturally occurring hallucinogens is not nearly as powerful and unpredictable as the synthetic hallucinogen LSD, which is chemically derived from ergot, a parasitic fungus (a fungus that lives in or on a host, deriving benefits from the host while injuring it) that grows on rye and other grains. LSD became well known in the 1960s, when many people sought spiritual enlightenment through the use of drugs.
A form of LSD was first produced in 1938, when Albert Hoffman, a Swiss research chemist at Sandoz Laboratories, synthesized many important ergot alkaloids (organic plant bases), including Hydergine, LSD-25, and psilocybin. Hoffman accidentally experienced the first "LSD high" when a drop of the material entered his bloodstream through the skin of his fingertip. Hoffman could hardly recount his experience after it was over. He was the first to record LSD's ability to cause the user to experience synesthesia, an overflow of one sensory ability into another. For example, a person experiencing synesthesia may hear colors and see sounds.
The physical effects of hallucinogens are considered small compared to their effects on the mind. Death from an overdose of hallucinogens is highly unlikely, but deaths have resulted from accidents or suicides involving people under the influence of LSD. The drug made them so indifferent to the world around them they thought they could step out of a window, for example, without harm. LSD is sold on the street in various forms, sometimes on a piece of paper marked into squares, with each square being one dose.
LSD is so powerful that a tiny amount can have a hallucinogenic effect. Just three pounds of LSD could cause a reaction in all the people in New York City and London combined. Because it is so strong and its action so unpredictable, LSD is considered very dangerous.
The drug phencyclidine, or PCP, known as "angel dust" and "rocket fuel," was widely abused in the late 1970s. PCP is dangerous because it produces a sense of indifference about the world and a reduced sensitivity to pain. Combined with hallucinogenic effects, it can result in bizarre thinking and violently destructive behavior.
Taking hallucinogens can cause sweating, excessive salivation, decreased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and change in pupil size. LSD users may experience flashbacks of visions they had when on the drug. Some LSD users suffer organic brain damage, which results in impaired memory and attention span, confusion, and difficulty in thinking. Some scientists believe hallucinogens affect serotonin, a neurotransmitter (a substance that transmits nerve impulses) in the brain. Recently several hallucinogenic compounds have been found to resemble serotonin structurally. One theory is that at least some drug-induced hallucinations are due to changes in the functioning of serotonin neurons. It was demonstrated that LSD interfered with the transmitter action of serotonin.
Medical Uses of Hallucinogens
Hallucinogens have been studied for possible medical uses, including the treatment of some forms of mental illness, alcholism, and addiction to the drug opium. They have also been given to dying patients. Most of these uses have been abandoned, however.
A synthetic form of the active chemical in marijuana, THC, has been approved for prescription use by cancer patients who suffer from severe nausea after receiving chemotherapy (treating cancer with drugs). THC is also used to reduce eye pressure in treating severe cases of glaucoma. PCP is occasionally used by veterinarians as an anesthetic and sedative for animals.