Why People Take Hallucinogens

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Hallucinogens are a class of drug that can cause hallucinations or sensations and images that seem real though they are not. For centuries, hallucinogens or 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 addicting, some may be, and there may be some risks and benefits involved with hallucinogenic use.

Common Uses

Hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs are used for a variety of reasons. Five common uses are highlighted below.

Recreational Use

In the past century, hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs have been used for social and recreational use. 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.

Spiritual Pursuits

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 is even incorporated in religions such as that of the Native American church.

Artistic Inspiration

Writers, poets, and artists have used hallucinogens and other drugs through the decades to find creative inspiration.

Therapeutic Uses

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 form of therapy for some. Although not approved for such use at this time, some hallucinogenic drugs have been scientifically tested to see if they might have therapeutic effects on who people who experience perceptual distortions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dementia.

Scientific Research

According to the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 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.

How They Work

Research suggests that hallucinogens work, at least partially, by temporarily disrupting communication between chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord.

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. Glutamate regulates pain perception, emotions, learning, responses to the environment, and memory.

Commonly Used Drugs

Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms or can be human-made. LSD, psilocybin, peyote (mescaline), DMT, and ayahuasca cause emotions to swing wildly and real-world sensations to appear unreal, sometimes frightening.

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 in less than a minute and last less than 30 minutes.

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 drug user 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 of being in a dissociative state, the person may partake in dangerous behaviors like jumping off a cliff because they think they can fly.

Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that ketamine users may develop symptoms that include ulcers in the bladder, kidney problems, and poor memory. Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as speech problems, memory loss, weight loss, anxiety or depression, and suicidal thoughts. Overdose with PCP can lead to seizures, coma, or death especially when mixed with other drugs. Other potential long-term effects after long-term use can include psychosis or flashbacks that lead to perception problems.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs. Research Report Series Updated January 2014.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens. Drug Facts January 2016.

  • Barbosa P, Mizumoto S, Bogenschutz M. Health Status of Ayahuasca Users. Drug Testing and Analysis, July 2012. doi: 10.1002/dta.1383