Surprisingly enough there’s up to six thousand species of plants, mainly fungi, with psychoactive properties in the nature. Generally the collection of chemicals in the plants that act as psychoactive are called hallucinogens.Today there’s many forms of hallucinogens, which can be separated into three groups, depending on which neurotransmitter in the brain bears the closest resemblance to the molecular features of the drug.
- Those that are chemically similar to serotonin. LSD, psilocybin, DMT, morning glory seeds, and harmine are a part of this group.
- Those that are chemically similar to norepinephrine, such as mescaline, DOM, MDMA, and MDA.
- Those that are chemically to acetylcholine: astropine, scopoline, hyoscyamine, and ibotenic acid.
- The fourth additional group is for hallucinogens that are unlike any known neurotransmitter, such as PCP and ketamine.
Hallucinogens are often referred to as “psychedelic,” or mind-expanding, and in the 60’s they were used to expand creativity and imagination. But there’s also some negative connotations to hallucinogens, calling them “psychotomimetic”, or having the appearance of psychosis, “psychodysleptic”, or mind-disrupting, or “psycholytic”, or mind-dissolving. The trip, in reality, depends on the user’s expectations of the drug, the dosage, and the person’s psychological state.
In the end what really defines these drugs is “hallucinogenic”, meaning hallucination-producing. Hallucinations, technically, mean the perception of something that does not physically exist, but schizophrenics also hallucinate voices. With these drugs though, we are dealing with a perceived alteration in the existing physical environment, so maybe the term illusionogenic would be more appropriate.
Keep in mind that according to the recent studies it’s basically impossible for the brain to experience or understand the hallucinogenic effects which occur when under the influence on drugs, unless the drug has been consumed. It’s hard for the user to even remember what it was like after the drug has worn off. This is all due to the drug acting as a manual telling your brain how to act, and without that manual the brain can’t function the same way on its own.
In this blog post, I will examine all of these groups separately, discussing some of these hallucinogens in detail
Group I – Serotonin-like
LSD, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
LSD was accidentally created by a research chemist, Albert Hofmann, at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland in 1943. Earlier that day he was testing a new synthetic chemical, and without realizing made contact with an extremely minute trace of it. This chemical was Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), and unknowingly Hofmann had the history’s first acid trip. Later he decided to test it and record his findings, and ended up doing five times the usual dose today.
LSD is the most widely known hallucinogen, and it’s derived from ergot, a fungus present in moldy rye and other grains. Lysergic acid is one of the compounds in ergot, it’s highly toxic and induces a condition called ergotism. Ergotism epidemics occurred periodically in Europe during the middle ages, when extreme famine forced people to bake bread from infected gain. In 944 ergotism claimed up to forty thousand lives. There’s two ways ergotism could go, one is when ergotism produces a reduction in blood flow toward the extremities, leading to gangrene, burning pain, and the eventual loss of limbs. The other form is a tingling sensation on the skin, convulsion, disordered thinking, and hallucinations.
The famous 60’s hippie era tremendously experimented with LSD, it was even encouraged by some professors and physicians. New art and music was born, new social movements, fighting for equality side by side. “There were psychedelic churches, ashrams, rock festivals, light shows, posters, comic books and newspapers, psychedelic jargon and slang, Every middle-sized city had its enclaves, and there was a drug culture touring circuit. . . Everyone Has his own idea of what was meant by turning on, tuning in, and dropping out – his own set and setting – and the drug culture provided almost as many variations in doctrine, attitude, and way of life, from rational and sedate to lewd and violent, as the rest of the society.” In 1966, LSD was made illegal and turned into a Schedule I drug.
LSD is probably the most potent hallucinogen drug known to us. It’s so powerful that its dose levels have to be expressed in terms of micrograms, one-millionths of a gram, often called mikes. Taken orally, LSD is absorbed into the bloodstream and the brain with the effects beginning within forty to sixty minutes. The concentration peaks in about ninety minutes, it takes about three hours for the 50% of the drug to diminish in the bloodstream. Even though LSD is so potent, its toxicity is relatively low, with the lethal dose equating about 300-600 times the effective dose. LSD can be taken in the form of pills, powder pellets, gelatin chips, or small square pieces of paper that have been soaked in LSD (blotters).
LSD initially produces an excitation of the sympathetic autonomic activity: increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils, and a slightly raised body temperature. These symptoms are accompanied with a feeling of restlessness, euphoria, and relief. About 30-120 minutes later a psychedelic trip begins, with four distinctive features.
- Images seen with the eyes closed.
- Synesthesia, or visualization of sounds.
- Perception of multilevel reality.
- Strange and exaggerated configurations of common object and/or experiences.
During the final phase, in about 3-5 hours after taking LSD, the following features begin:
- Mood swings, often from relaxation to panic.
- A feeling of timelessness.
- The feeling of separation from one’s body.
LSD is not an dependence producing drug, even though the experience might be very pleasant. LSD and other hallucinogens cause the body to build up a tolerance to the effects faster than any other drug. Hence the user can’t stay high every day on LSD. LSD is not at easy high, one needs to put a lot of work into being high, so becoming dependent is very unlikely. “The LSD experience requires a monumental effort. To go through eight hours of an LSD high – sensory bombardment, psychic turmoil, emotional insecurity, alternations of despair and bliss, one exploding insight upon the heels of another, images hurtling through the mind as fast as the spinning fruit of a slot machine – is draining and exhausting in the extreme.” Lastly, the LSD controls the user, meaning the user can’t “come down” when he wishes. It’s too unpredictable for a person to want to do it on a daily basis, and to build up an addiction to it.
The chances of a bad trip happening, though possible, are not very common. Usually if the person is given too much LSD for their body weight, or just given LSD without knowing, the panic begins. It usually just depends on the person’s psychological state, if you start to panic – the whole experience will be the same way. There are no psychiatric problems related to LSD, and it hasn’t been linked to suicide in any way. It was also examined closely with schizophrenia, realizing that there is no relation between the two.
In the 60’s LSD was used as a creativity booster, though it appears that that’s not quite so. Professional musicians and artists on LSD might think that their new art is their best one yet, but after they sober up they realize it’s not really so. The artists might feel creative when high, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
Psilocybin is the chemical found in “magic mushrooms” which produces the desired effects. These mushrooms are native to Southern Mexico and Central America, referred to as “teo-nanacatl”, or “God’s Flesh” by the Aztecs. The tales of magic mushrooms date back to 500BC, judging from the stone-carved representations of these mushrooms in El Salvador.
In 1955 Western observes documented the psychoactive effects of these mushrooms in a remote village in mexico, three years later some samples were brought back to Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD. Albert Hofmann recorded his first trip on magic mushrooms, saying he only saw “Mexican motifs and colors. When the doctor supervising the experiment bent over me to check my blood pressure, he was transformed into an Aztec priest.” A lot of speculations arise from this statement, suggesting that Aztec designs might have been influenced over the centuries by the effects of psilocybin.
When ingested psilocybin loses a part of its molecule, becoming fat-soluble and easily absorbed into the brain. This new verison, psilocin, is the actual agent that works on the brain. LSD and psilocin are chemically similar, thus the effects are also alike. Psilocin is much less potent than LSD and is measured with milligrams. 4-5 milligrams of psilocybin causes a very pleasant, relaxing feeling; at 15 mg or more, hallucination, time distortions, and changes in body perceptions appear. The effects last about 2-5 hours.
People who have taken both kinds of hallucinogens, LSD and psilocybin, report that shrooms have a more mild effect, with less mood swings, less emotional turbulence, more visual, and more euphoric effects. Though as the dosages were increased, the panic and psychotic effects grew.
Glory Seeds, Lysergic Acid Amide (LAA)
Another Aztec hallucinogens are morning glory seeds, used in religious rites and healing. The recreational use of these seeds has stuck around to this day. Albert Hofmann identified the active ingredients in these seeds, calling them Lysergic Acid Amide (LAA) after sampling its hallucinogenic properties. Its a close relative to LSD, but its 1/10 to 1/30th as potent as LSD, and the hallucinations are more auditory than visual. These seeds are available commercially to the public, but the suppliers have coated them with an additive causing nausea and vomiting to minimize their abuse.
Dimethyltypamine, DMT, is obtained chiefly from the resin of the bark of trees and nuts native to the West Indies and central and South America. Oral administration does not have any effect, so it’s either smoked or snorted. It has very similar effects to LSD, though its effects last a lot shorter time. In the 60’s DMT was seen as “the businessman’s LSD” since it was possible to take it during lunch and be back to your desk sober within an hour. The effects of DMT start within 10 seconds, with hallucinogenic effects peaking around ten to fifteen minutes later. Paranoia, anxiety, and panic might also occur at this time. Most symptoms are over in about an hour. People say they have seen god, have experienced their own death and rebirth, and spiritual awakening on this drug.
Among native tribes in the western Amazon region of South America, the bark of the banisteriopsis vine holds the powerful drug harmine. Ayahuasca is a drink containing harmine, often used by local shamans in healing rituals. It’s chemically similar to serotonin, LSD, and other hallucinogens in this group. The psychological effects are different though, harmine makes the user fall into a trance, seeing images (often supernatural beings and animals) within a dreamlike state. There’s reports of people flying, falling into their bodies, being in space, or experiencing one’s death under the influence of this drug.
Recent researches show that this drink, ayahuasca, can be used to treat depression. It’s not an addictive substance, and is sometimes used to help people already addicted to other substances. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual cleansing is said to be the result of this drug, and some religions allow, or even encourage, its recreational use.
Group II – Norepinephrine-like
The hallucinogen mescaline is derived from the peyote plant, a spineless cactus with a small crown, as shows above. They can be found all over the world, and surprisingly are ingested in the same manner. First “. . .the crowns of the cactus are cut off, sliced in small disks called buttons, dried in the sun, and then consumed.” An effective dose of is about 200mg, equivalent to about five buttons. Peak response is felt in about 30-120 minutes after consumption. The psychological and physiological effects of mescaline are very similar to LSD, though some report that there’s less mood swings and more sensual hallucinations appear on mescaline. Though the trips are very similar, mescaline also tastes very bitter, causes headaches, and unless the stomach is empty, a huge amount of nausea.
DOM is a synthetic hallucinogen that has been produced to resemble mescaline’s resemblance to amphetamine without any stimulant effects of amphetamine. DOM was often combined with LSD to enhance the feeling of euphoria. In the 60’s its street name was STP, or Super-Terrific PSychedelic. Though similar to LSD in many ways, DOM has a reputation of producing higher chances of panic attack, psychotic episodes, and other symptoms of a very bad trip. DOM is also frequently added to marijuana, making smoking a bad experience.
MDMA is another synthetic amphetamine-related hallucinogen. It appeared in the 80’s, and first was considered as an empathy-inducing drug in psychiatric treatments, until the DEA classified it as a Schedule I substance and was removed from any medicinal use. MDMA is a popular club-drug, used in parties and raves. It’s widely available under the names: Ecstasy, E, XTC, X, Essence, Clarity, and Adam, it has a reputation of having the stimulant effects of amphetamines and the hallucinogenic qualities of mescaline.
There’s a lot of physical concerns related to MDMA, the acute effect is its hyperthermia and stroke, with risks rising due to dancing in an already overheated club environment. The dehydration that happens with hyperthermia causes an elevated blood pressure and heart rate, while placing a strain on kidney functioning. The risk rises if more ecstasy is taken at once, and if its combined with other types of drugs, such as alcohol or cocaine. According to the studies, long-term MDMA users have a significant degeneration of serotonin-using neurons in the areas of the brain related to attention, learning, and memory. It was also linked to long-term cognitive impairments and emotional difficulties. It might cause confusion, anxiety, sleep problems, reductions in impulse control, and declines in memory and attention.
Luckily the use of MDMA has declined especially in the younger generation, showing promise that this drug might disappear from use for once and for all. This is due to the fact that people are more aware of the side-effects and long-term effects. It has become very difficult to bring this drug into the USA, due to which other drugs are becoming more popular among the club life.
Group III – Acetylcholine-like
Amanita Muscaria is also a type of a hallucinogen mushroom, and its one of the world’s oldest intoxicants. Many historians hypothesize that this mushroom is the basis of the mysterious substance called soma, which is celebrated in Rig-Veda in Hinduism’s oldest holy books, dating back to 1000BC. It’s also suspected that this mushroom was used as an ingredient in the legendary “nectar of the gods” in Greek mystery cults. It was also used by the Viking warriors during their battles, due to the heightened aggression and the “berserk” effects.
These mushrooms can be fatal if the dose isn’t watched, but if its prepared correctly it might produce similar effects as other hallucinogenic drugs, with feelings of euphoria and mind-opening visions.
Drugs in Witchcraft
A lot of pants contain chemicals that block the parasympathetic effects of acetylcholine in the body. These chemicals have the same physiological effects: the production of mucus in the mouth and throat, and saliva in the mouth, is reduced. Body temperature rises, heart rate and blood pressure go up, and the pupils dilate considerably. The psychological effects are feelings of delirium, confusion, and loss of memory of the drugged state. The primal anticholinergic drugs are atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. They can be found in various combinations in different plants. Some of them will be examined below.
Atropa Belladonna (deadly nightshade)
This plant could be lethal with only a couple of berries. Many poisons are made with this plant. Small doses used to be applied to the eyes to dilate the pupils. Egyptian and Roman women used to do it to become pretties, hence the term belladonna, beautiful lady. The psychological effects are associated with heart-rate acceleration and arousal.
Mandrake, or Mandragora Officinarum
Mandrake is an oddly shaped plant, which kind of resembles a human body. According to the medieval folklore, mandrake plants supposedly shrieked when they were uprooted, driving people mad. It contains a combination of atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. Low doses act as a depressant, and it used to be a sedative-hypnotic drug to relieve anxiety and induce sleep. At higher doses, it produces bizarre hallucination and muscular paralysis. It was also used in the Harry Potter series as a healing drug, a human shaped root which used to scream when taken out of the ground.
Henbane is a strong smelling herb, with yellowish flowers and hairy leaves. Its English name means “harmful to hens” due to its toxicity to birds. It is a lethal plant used to make poison. It is said that Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play was poisoned using this drug. Lower doses of henbane can be used as an anesthetic and painkiller.
During medieval times, witches used to mix mandrake, deadly nightshade, and hebane to produce psychoactive effects. Satanic celebrations of Black Mass centered around these types of brews. The atropine in the mixture produced the feeling of flight, and the hallucinogens enabled the people to see the devil. Witches used to rub these ointments on their bodies and broomsticks, which they straddled. The chemicals were absorbed through the skin and membranes of the vagina. That’s where the image of witches on brooms came from.
The most infamous and notorious hallucinogen is the PCP, also known as angel dust. It’s a very dangerous drug that has been around since the 1960’s. It’s a combination of stimulant, depressants, and hallucinogenic effects. Due to its effect of a feeling of being dissociated or cut off from one’s environment, it should be considered a dissociative anesthetic hallucinogen.
PCP was first used as a synthetic depressant, but was removed from medical use after the patients showed signs of delirium, disorientation, hallucination, intense anxiety, and/or agitation. It can be taken orally, intravenously, or by inhalation, but commonly its smoked. The results are very dangerous no matter how its taken, its even more unpredictable than LSD or other hallucinogens. Due to its analgesic properties people under the influence lose fear and withstand considerable amounts of pain.
The hallucinations under PCP differ from anything else. “The most frequent hallucination is that parts of your body are extremely large or extremely small. You can imagine yourself small enough to walk through a key hole, or you can be lying there and all of a sudden you just hallucinate that your arm is twice the length of your body.” People under the influence become detached from the people around them.
The effects of PCP could last for a few hours, or up to two weeks. Its followed by amnesia from the total experience. Deaths are very common under the influence of this drug, but not due to the physiological effects, but psychological. Its possible for a person to drown in a very small amount of water, or to cut off their limbs.
Ketamine is a drug chemically similar to PCP, and can also be classified as a dissociative anesthetic hallucinogen. Ketamine also has a mixture of stimulant and depressive properties, though the depressive effects are much more prominent and don’t last as long as PCP. It was used in medicine as a anesthetic for severe cases, but due to its adverse effects it was removed from the medicinal world. Unpredictable and sometimes violent jerking and twitching of the body made it almost impossible to operate on the body, and the vivid and unpleasant dreams during and after surgery also added to the problems. After waking up, patients would experience hallucinations and feelings of disorientations. Nightmares might last up to two weeks after ingestion.
It has lately become a popular club drug, often called Special K or Vitamin K. It produces a dream-like intoxication, accompanied by an inability to move or feel pain. Dizziness, confusion, and slurred speech are also common effects of this drug. Drug users often can’t remember what they did while under the influence. Primary health risk of Ketamine is the depression of breathing, and might give flashbacks weeks or months after the use. It’s often used as a date-rape drug on women, where the victims can’t move or remember what happened to them.
I hope this blog post will keep you away from hallucinogens. Or at least inform you enough to be very mindful and careful when under the influence. Please stay away from any hardcore and poisonous hallucinogens, such as PCP, Ketamine, and Deadly Nightshade. make sure to stay hydrated if you still decide to take anything more safe on this list, since dehydration is very common and might lead to horrible side-effects. See the graph below as a guideline for a bad trip on LSD, which can be applied to any other hallucinogen also. Stay healthy and know what you’re taking. Drug awareness is very important!
Graphs and Citations:
Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Society, and Criminal Justice. Pearson, 2016.
“Why do people take ayahuasca?”. BBC. 29 April 2014
Goode, Drugs and American Society. Snyder, Solomon H. (1986). Drugs and the Brain. New York: Freeman.
Hofmann, LSD. Schultes, Richard E., and Hofmann, Albert (1979). Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogen Use, New York: McGraw-Hill
Grinspoon, Lester, and Bakalar, James B. (1979) Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered, New York: Basic Books