How Psychedelic or Hallucinogenic Drugs Work

LSD Molecule
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Psychedelics, also known as psychedelic drugs, hallucinogens, or hallucinogenic drugs are chemical substances which induce hallucinations and other sensory disturbances. Probably the most well-known and notorious hallucinogenic drug is lysergic acid or LSD. Other well-known hallucinogens include psilocybin, which occurs naturally in certain wild mushrooms, commonly known as magic mushrooms, or shrooms, and mescaline, which is found in the peyote cactus in Mexico and the Southwest United States.

Ecstasy or E, which is less hallucinogenic — meaning it causes fewer hallucinations, and more stimulating — meaning it increases alertness more than LSD or magic mushrooms, is sometimes classed as a stimulant and sometimes as an entactogen, rather than a hallucinogen.

Less well-known psychedelic drugs which, like LSD and magic mushrooms, are chemically similar to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, include Ololiuqui, which is found in the seeds of the morning glory flower, dimethyltryptamine or DMT, which is found in certain plants from Central and South America, harmine, which is found in a South American vine, and 5-MeO-DMT and bufotenine, which naturally occurs in the venom of certain toads.

Still, other obscure hallucinogenic drugs are, like mescaline, affect serotonin as well as other neurotransmitters. These include dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine, or DOM or STP, which is a synthetic drug similar to mescaline, which is highly potent but carries a high risk of toxic reaction. Also 4- bromo-2,5-dimethoxypheethylamine or 2C-B, which, like ecstasy, is sometimes classed as an entactogen rather than a hallucinogen.

Finally, a number of hallucinogens, including atropine and scopolamine, affect the acetylcholine system in the brain. These substances are found in various plants such as belladonna or deadly nightshade, mandrake, henbane, and datura plants, such as jimsonweed. Also hyoscyamine, which is also found in mandrake, henbane and datura plants, and ibotenic acid, which occurs in Amanita mascaria mushrooms and the iboga plant.

How Psychedelic Drugs Work

Hallucinogens work by stimulating or suppressing the activity of the neurotransmitters they are chemically similar to. This causes a temporary chemical imbalance in the brain, which causes hallucinations and other effects, such as euphoria.

Much of the perceived effect of hallucinogenic drugs is dependent on the person's expectations, known as set and setting. 'Set' is a person's previous experiences of the drug. 'Setting' is their social and cultural expectations as well as their mental state and mood at the time of taking the drug. 

The same person would probably have very different experiences on a hallucinogenic drug if they took it at a party with friends — probably a positive set and setting, than if they took it alone after the death of a parent — probably a negative set and setting.

How Long Do Hallucinogenic Effects Last?

Hallucinogens tend to be quite slow in onset, but this varies from drug to drug, and also depends on factors such as whether the drug is taken on an empty stomach.

LSD has a slow onset of about an hour but can last anywhere from four to 12 hours before it wears off. In contrast, DMT takes effect much more quickly but only lasts about one hour.

Although hallucinogenic drugs pass through the body quickly, the psychological effects can be long-lasting. 

As well as potentially inducing mental health problems, such as substance-induced psychosis, substance-induced depression, and substance-induced anxiety disorder, hallucinogens carry the risk of flashbacks or Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.

While hallucinogens are risky for anyone, people with a personal or family history of psychosis, depression or anxiety disorder are at higher risk of developing these long-term effects and should avoid taking hallucinogens.

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Article Sources

  • Denning, P., Little, J. and Glickman, A. Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol New York: Guildford. 2004.