Hallucinogens are a class of drugs used to enhance or alter mood, perceptions, and emotions. They have a rich cultural history and have been used by the Hindu and Aztec culture for centuries to heighten religious or mystical experiences. Well-known hallucinogens include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), salvia, peyote, phencyclidine (PCP), and psilocybin (mushrooms). Ketamine can be considered as hallucinogen as well as a dissociative anesthetic. A common misconception is that these drugs cause hallucinations, which by definition are false idea or beliefs when in reality; these substances are known to cause a change in thought and mood. Although some hallucinogens are naturally derived in nature, they can also be synthesized in laboratories. LSD was the first hallucinogen synthesized in a laboratory and was initially used by psychiatrists to help uncover repressed emotions and was also used by the CIA as a mind-controlling agent and as an interrogation tool, however, LSD was later deemed dangerous due to its severe adverse reactions and was banned in 1966.

Today, hallucinogens are being abused by individuals as young as 12 years old. These agents are quite common among high school and college students due to their mind-altering effects however they come with serious side effects and addiction. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 229,000 Americans ages 12 and older reported current (past-month) use of LSD and 33,000 reported current use of PCP (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013). Among high school seniors, salvia was significantly more popular than LSD or PCP.

Signs and symptoms of hallucinogen intoxication

Depending on the specific hallucinogen, signs and symptoms can vary. For example, PCP is known to cause rapid eye movements known as horizontal nystagmus, severe agitation, and even violent behavior. On average, hallucinogens produce effects within 30 minutes of ingestion with effects lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours depending on the specific drug and the dosage. The following are general signs and symptoms associated with hallucinogen intoxication:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increase in anxiety and agitation
  • Numbness, weakness, and tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Feeling of intense relaxation
  • Rapid emotional shifts
  • Increase in impulsive behavior
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Dizziness
  • Loss sense of reality
  • Violent behavior
  • Feelings of detachment

Long-term effects of hallucinogens

Although hallucinogens are not physically addictive, individuals can exhibit a psychological addiction due to the long-term impact on the brain. Hallucinogens disrupt neurons resulting in a dysregulation of serotonin. LSD, peyote, and psilocybin are known to directly affect the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a significant role in behavioral, perceptual, and regulatory systems. PCP, on the other hand, acts through a glutamate receptor that is important for pain perception, responses to the environment, learning and memory. Over time the use of hallucinogens can result in altered mood, memory problems, emotional dysregulation, persistent speech difficulties, suicidal thoughts, depression, social withdrawal, and severe flashbacks. Although hallucinogens are not deemed physically addictive, they can cause withdrawal effects such as flashbacks, which occurs when an individual abusing hallucinogens goes through a “trip” after the effects of the drug have worn off. This can happen months or even years after discontinued use. PCP specifically is known to have withdrawal effects, which include headaches, sweating, and severe cravings.

Treatment for hallucinogen addiction

Treatment for hallucinogen addiction is aimed at providing a safe and calm environment for the individual during behavioral therapy. There is no pharmacological treatment for hallucinogen addiction and individuals may continue to have a false perception of reality and may exhibit psychosis. Therefore, it is essential to seek a treatment center where the therapy team is experienced in treating individuals with this specific addiction. As with all other substance abuse disorders, it is crucial to assess the individual for underlying co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. If a co-occurring disorder is left undiagnosed or untreated, the substance abuse disorder will most likely re-occur in the future.