Hallucinogen Addiction Explained
Hallucinogenic drugs have been used for thousands of years, and today millions of people take them each year worldwide. Unfortunately, for most, hallucinogen use is equal to abuse and eventually leads to addiction, with devastating consequences.
What Are Hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens are drugs which, when consumed, can cause hallucinations and altered perceptions, very significant changes in thoughts and emotions and psychological experiences which differ radically from everyday life. Various different types of hallucinogens are not necessarily related chemically: what makes a given substance a hallucinogen is defined by its effect upon the user rather than solely its form or chemical structure.
Hallucinogens include both natural and synthetic substances. Many drugs may have mildly hallucinogenic effects, or cause other changes in perception, but are not necessarily considered to be hallucinogens; their primary effects are not hallucinogenic. True hallucinogens are typically placed into one of three categories: psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants.
Psychedelics are class of drug whose main effect is to initiate psychedelic experiences – temporarily altered states of consciousness – as a result of their impact upon serotonin receptors in the brain. Psychedelics include LSD, psilocybin, masculine and DMT. The word “psychedelic”, from the Greek words for “mind” and “revelation”, was coined in an attempt to describe the concept of drugs which reveal hidden but real aspects of consciousness and the mind. Psychedelics have been especially prominent, particularly in the West, since the “flower power” era of the 1960s when significant works of literature, music and other art forms extolling the virtues and attempting to describe the effects, of psychedelic drugs were produced and disseminated.
Dissociative drugs create a feeling of becoming detached or dissociated, from one’s environment and potentially from one’s own body. Dissociative drugs may produce analgesia and amnesia, and potentially catalepsy at high doses. Some dissociatives can also have CNS depressant effects which can reduce breathing or heart rates to potentially deadly levels. This classification includes ketamine, salvia, PCP, nitrous oxide and DXM amongst others.
Deliriants are drugs which produce a state of delirium – typically involving pronounced confusion and a loss of control. The state which results can be similar to that caused by high fever and is often extremely unpleasant. Therefore, these drugs are comparatively rarely consumed recreationally. Prominent representatives of this classification include plants in the nightshade family, the fly agaric mushroom, belladonna, nutmeg and some over-the-counter antihistamines.
History of the Hallucinogenic Drugs
In the western world, the study and consumption of hallucinogens really took off at the start of the 20th century, when psychoactive plants including the peyote cactus, and drugs such as mescaline, began to be researched by chemists and psychiatrists. A significant milestone in hallucinogenic drug production and awareness came in 1938 when chemist Albert Hofmann discovered LSD, a semisynthetic drug which he inadvertently found in 1943 to have profoundly hallucinogenic qualities. The discovery of LSD’s remarkable properties spurred on an upsurge of interest in hallucinogens after the Second World War, and from the late ‘40s onwards hallucinogens began to appear in research papers, literature and art.
By the 1960s, a number of significant figures in the so-called counterculture, especially in the United States, were extolling the benefits of hallucinogens including LSD, mescaline and magic mushrooms, and these and other drugs began to be consumed by members of the general public in ever-growing quantities, with a profound effect upon social trends throughout the decade. In response, governments in the USA and elsewhere began to clamp down upon hallucinogens, with LSD banned in 1967 in America and in 1971 in the UK.
Nevertheless, hallucinogens continued to be consumed recreationally throughout the 1970s and onwards, and many advocacy groups and individuals continued to lobby for relaxation of laws which would allow greater research into psychedelics’ therapeutic properties. Such lobbying proved ineffective until well into the 21st century, although in recent years gentle relaxation of restrictions around the therapeutic use of psychedelics has developed in various legislations.
In the UK today, hallucinogens continue to be comparatively popular recreational substances, though levels of hallucinogen consumption are significantly below those of cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. Penalties for hallucinogen possession and supply continue to be relatively strict, with LSD, mescaline, prepared magic mushrooms and others all classified as class-A controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
Designer drugs and recreational use
A designer drug is an analogue of a controlled substance which varies sufficiently in chemical structure from that substance so as to constitute a different substance in legal terms, but which has pharmacological and psychoactive effects similar to those of the parent substance. Because of the significant profit margins involved in the production and sale of substances of abuse, a great deal of research effort has gone, and continues to go, into the development of designer drugs which produce intoxicating effects but which are intended to circumvent drug prohibition.
Designer drugs saw a huge explosion in popularity in the UK in the early years of the 21st century as drug producers exploited loopholes allowing them to bring to market a succession of highly potent psychoactive drugs, including hallucinogens, which were not technically prohibited by existing UK legislation. Some of these so-called “legal highs” were associated with a number of injuries and accidents, as well as with an upsurge in related substance use disorders, and in 2016 the British government brought in the Psychoactive Substances Act which placed a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances with the exception of those already controlled by other legislations.
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What are the Street Names for Hallucinogens?
Because of the significant number and variety of hallucinogens on the market, and the many different locations and cultures in which hallucinogens are consumed, there are effectively countless different street names by which the different drugs in this classification may be known. Some of the most common include:
- Special K
- Vitamin K
- Special K
- Cat Valium
- Horse Tranquiliser
- Kit Kat
- Yellow sunshine
- Blue heaven
- Mellow Yellow
- Window Pane
- Blotter Acid
- Angel dust
- Peace pill
- Love boat
- Magic mushrooms
- Shepherdess’s herb
- Diviner’s sage
Routes of Hallucinogenic Drugs Administration
How an individual consumes a hallucinogen will depend upon the specific hallucinogen in question, and beyond that upon personal inclination. Some hallucinogens, such as DMT, are usually smoked. Others, such as LSD, could be dissolved in the mouth. A third type is those, such as magic mushrooms, which might be ingested directly, while such ones, like the ayahuasca, may be made into a brew which is then drunk. Ketamine would most commonly be snorted in powder form.
Comparatively rarely, some hallucinogens may be injected intravenously or intramuscularly, or taken rectally or vaginally as a suppository.
Drug Classes of Hallucinogens
As well as the categorisation of hallucinogens into psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants, hallucinogens or their active ingredients represent a significant number of different drug and chemical classes, varying – sometimes widely – from one another. Different classification systems involve different modes of categorisation, and a given hallucinogen may be a member of various different classes depending upon which system is being used.
The Chemistry of Hallucinogens
Hallucinogenic drugs exhibit a great variety of chemical structures. For example, LSD has the chemical formula C20H25N3O. DMT is C12H16N2; whilst the dissociative nitrous oxide is simply N2O. Therefore, it is somewhat futile to talk about “the chemistry of hallucinogens” since the category “hallucinogens” is such a broad one.
What Is the Difference Between Hallucinogens, Stimulants and Psychedelics?
Hallucinogens primarily produce altered perceptions and hallucinations, and their effects are usually significantly more mental than physical, while stimulants mainly produce energising, invigorating effects upon the brain and body. Some hallucinogens may have stimulant effects, and likewise, some stimulants may produce hallucinations and changes in perception, but those are not their primary effects.
Psychedelics are a type of hallucinogen whose primary purpose is to induce temporarily altered states of consciousness in the brain of the user. Psychedelics are not usually considered to have noticeable stimulant properties and are distinct substances from those generally thought of as being stimulants.
What Is Hallucinogen Addiction?
Addiction is a brain disorder – more specifically, it is a disorder of the brain’s reward system whereby the affected individual is compelled to engage in repeated rewarding behaviour despite an awareness that there may be negative consequences of doing so. Addiction is often mistakenly used interchangeably with dependence, which is a phenomenon in which an individual taking a specific substance regularly over a while becomes reliant upon the presence of that substance in their system for normal functioning. When a dependent individual suddenly stops taking their substance of choice, the system may go into a period of disorder during which time various potentially unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms may manifest.
The vast majority of hallucinogens are not considered to have a significant dependence liability. That is, even regular consumption is unlikely to lead to dependence – though there are noteworthy exceptions to this rule including ketamine.
However, a substance does not have to be “addictive” per se for someone to develop an addiction to consuming it. Addictions can be behavioural as well as substance-related. A regular user may become functionally addicted to the act of taking the drug itself and the very experience related to this act. This could happen even if the substance in question is not one with a notable dependence liability.
Who is most at risk of hallucinogen addiction?
Firstly, only individuals who take hallucinogens in the first place risk developing a hallucinogen addiction. Because of hallucinogens’ limited role in medicine, this means that unlike some other kinds of recreational drug use of hallucinogens is by far the most common means by which an individual will be exposed to the risk of addiction.
Although addiction is now a fairly well-understood phenomenon, doctors and scientists have not yet fully established why it may affect some people and not others. However, numerous risk factors have been identified as increasing the likelihood that a given individual will go on to develop a hallucinogen addiction, including:
- a family history of substance abuse and addiction
- experience of childhood trauma
- stressful or otherwise challenging life circumstances
- growing up in a household where hallucinogen abuse was commonplace
- a personal history of recreational substance use
- easy access to hallucinogens
- associating with a peer group in which recreational hallucinogen use is commonplace
- poor mental health
- a history of risk-taking behaviour
- a strong desire to fit in
- working in the creative arts and/or the entertainment industry
How Addictive Are Hallucinogens?
Mechanism of hallucinogen addiction
When someone engages repeatedly in an addictive behaviour, it can disorder their brain’s reward system, in particular the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and the mesolimbic pathway connecting the two. Engagement in the behaviour in question produces higher levels of dopamine and other chemicals associated with reward and pleasure, and the brain then adjusts to these levels over time, meaning that in order to sustain previously normal levels of those neurochemicals the user is compelled to continue to engage in the behaviour – in in this case, to continue to take hallucinogens. Failure to do so may produce a number of unpleasant sensations and emotions which the user may wish to dispel by repeating the act of consuming hallucinogens.
Dangers of overdosing on hallucinogens
The risk of overdose associated with hallucinogen use varies considerably from one specific substance to another. Even where there have been no recorded overdose-based deaths, many people taking especially high doses have died as a result of accident or suicide because of the loss of mental control resulting from consumption. On the other hand, some dissociatives and deliriants also act as CNS depressants, and overdose of those substances can cause death by respiratory depression and other causes.
Generally speaking, hallucinogen overdose is likely to involve significant mental disorder and distress rather than physical danger – but this does not mean that it should be considered a non-fatal, let alone safe, condition, due to the significant risk of accident and bodily harm, and anyone exhibiting signs of significant impairment should be given medical attention as soon as possible.
Hallucinogens Use and Psychosis
Signs and Symptoms of Hallucinogens Use
Because so many different drugs fall into the category of hallucinogens, and because of the unique nature of any individual’s reaction to each of those drugs, it is difficult to put together a list of symptoms that would indicate that a specific hallucinogen has been consumed. Moreover, hallucinogen use is associated with a certain degree of stigma and has potentially serious legal consequences, and as a result, many people using hallucinogens go to great lengths to conceal their activities.
Nevertheless, some symptoms of hallucinogen use may be identified. It is important to note that these symptoms may also result from causes not related to hallucinogen use, including any of various mental health disorders. With that in mind, some signs to look out for include:
- Dilated pupils
- Incoherent or nonsensical speech
- Compulsive laughter
- Reduced sensitivity, including to pain
- an inability to focus
- poor spatial awareness
- volatile mood
- a fascination with mundane items
- loss of motor control
- auditory and visual hallucinations
How to tell if someone has a hallucinogen dependence problem
Dependence is typically diagnosed via the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use. If someone you know has been taking hallucinogens and then exhibits symptoms of withdrawal when they stop taking them, this is a good indication that they have developed a hallucinogen dependence. Hallucinogen withdrawal symptoms are typically psychological in nature, and may include:
- Mood swings
Dangers of Trying Hallucinogens for the First Time
Someone who has never taken hallucinogens before may be extremely unprepared for the very significant hallucinations and changes in perception which can result from hallucinogen consumption, which are frequently very unlike a person’s normal experience of the real world. This can result in very significant distress, anxiety and panic. Numerous individuals have died as a result of an accident or poor judgement upon the first instance of hallucinogen use.
Hallucinogen addiction in teens
Hallucinogen use often begins during teenage years as individual users push boundaries and begin to explore alternative viewpoints because of the developing nature of the teenage mind, teenagers are usually considered more susceptible than adults to psychological changes brought by hallucinogen use, as well as to hallucinogen addiction. Hallucinogen addiction itself is considered more dangerous for young people than for their older peers, again because of the developing nature of the teenage mind.
Signs your teen is using hallucinogens
Many of the signs of hallucinogen use in young people – such as furtive or deceitful behaviour, unexplained absences, coming home late at night, changes in peer-group et cetera – are similar to those of other substance abuse, including alcohol, and if you observe behavioural change in your teen or any of the symptoms previously listed in this article, it does not necessarily mean that your child is engaging in hallucinogen use. Moreover, confronting them about your suspicions could impair your relationship and could potentially worsen the situation. If you suspect that your teen may be using hallucinogens, contact an addiction specialist to discuss your concerns and any potential action you may take. Always prioritise your own safety and that of those around you.
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Co-Occurring Disorders and Hallucinogen Abuse
When a mental health disorder occurs alongside a substance use disorder, the condition is known as dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis is comparatively common in case of hallucinogen abuse, as long-term hallucinogen use can cause significant mental health impairment, and on the other hand, many people suffering from existing mental health disorders engage in substance abuse, including hallucinogen abuse, as a means of escapism or self-medication. Dual diagnosis usually requires specialist treatment, typically in a residential rehabilitation (rehab) facility.
Immediate Side-Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse
The side-effects of hallucinogen abuse vary greatly from one substance to the next, but generally are psychological in nature and include distressing mental states such as panic, anxiety, paranoia and psychosis. Some hallucinogens can produce physical side effects including hypertension, respiratory difficulties, perspiration, dilated pupils, incontinence, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, intense itching, loss of motor control and others.
Long-Term Side-Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse
Depending on the means of administration, and/or the drugs in question, some hallucinogens can have various negative long-term physical effects. Chronic ketamine use, for example, can cause damage to the urinary tract and bladder potentially requiring complete bladderectomy. Injecting hallucinogens intravenously or intramuscularly can cause damage to the skin, cardiovascular system, and muscles, and can also result in the contraction of potentially fatal conditions such as HIV/AIDS. Smoking hallucinogens over a long period can cause permanent damage to the lungs, throat, teeth, gums and mouth.
How hallucinogens affect the brain’s chemistry
Different hallucinogens have different effects upon the brain, and any full list of those effects would be impractically lengthy. Most obviously, even short-term hallucinogen use can result in a disorder of the brain’s reward system and abnormal levels of dopamine potentially causing significant psychological distress, as well as a depletion of serotonin, a neurochemical link with feelings of pleasure and happiness, which has been associated with a significant number of suicides.
How Hallucinogens Affect People’s Lives
Many people are able to take hallucinogens recreationally with few or no negative consequences. However, hallucinogen use can have a catastrophic effect on the lives of users and those around them.
People taking hallucinogens regularly may find themselves growing distant from those who do not, including love ones, because of the changes in a worldview which can result from the experience of taking hallucinogens. Many people find the idea of taking hallucinogens terrifying and do not wish to associate with people taking drugs. As with any drug use, hallucinogen use can lead to arguments within the family which in some cases result in a family breakup and all its obvious negative consequences.
Because of the legal nature of hallucinogens, taking the drugs can result in criminal penalties with obvious lifelong consequences. Anyone becoming addicted to hallucinogens risks serious mental health issues, financial and reputational damage, and potentially destitution.
Hallucinogen Addiction Treatment Options
Medications for Hallucinogen Addiction
At present, there are no medications available designed specifically to treat hallucinogen addiction. This is not to say, however, that medication does not play a role in the treatment of hallucinogen addiction: various antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics, sleep aids and other drugs may be given to address symptoms of hallucinogen addiction, as well as certain long-term side effects of chronic hallucinogen use.
As with other forms of drug addiction, residential rehabilitation (rehab) is usually considered to be the most effective way to treat hallucinogen addiction. In rehab, hallucinogen addicts stay 24/7 in a dedicated treatment facility providing constant medical support as well as offering facilities including gyms and social rooms aimed at increasing clients’ levels of fitness and general well-being. Typically, a stay in hallucinogen rehab will last for between one and three months, though any given individual’s treatment plan, including the duration of their stay, will depend upon their personal circumstances.
Hallucinogen Rehab Treatment
Detox is necessary to cleanse an addict’s system of substances of abuse and to overcome any dependence which may have developed, and usually, a client will move through into the detox phase shortly after entering rehab. The duration of detox will depend upon the specific substance of abuse in question and the severity of the client’s addiction, as well as on other factors including their physiology and psychology.
Following detox, the client will progress through to a rehabilitation phase featuring therapy and other elements of a treatment programme including the provision of tailored dietary and fitness plans. During the rehabilitation phase client will also usually benefit from the presence of a peer group consisting of other addicts in treatment, who understand the challenges of addiction and who can provide vital support, advice and fellowship.
Upon the conclusion of a hallucinogen addiction treatment programme, the client will react to the outside world having been given various coping mechanisms and psychological defence strategies against relapse. Nevertheless, recovery is not complete at this stage, as dealing with the temptations of life outside treatment facility is in many ways the hardest part of overcoming a hallucinogen addiction. As a result, good rehabs typically provide up to a year’s free aftercare for any client completing a hallucinogen addiction treatment programme.
Facts & Statistics About Hallucinogen Addiction
- LSD was first synthesised in 1938. Since then it has been tried at least once by up to 10% of people living in the Western world.
- Up to 100 million doses of LSD can be produced from 25kg of its precursor substance, ergotamine tartrate.
- Nitrous oxide was first used recreationally in Britain in 1799.
- Prehistoric rock art suggests that humans have been taking magic mushrooms for ceremonial purposes for at least 9,000 years.
- Recreational use of ketamine began on the West Coast of USA in the early 1970s; however, it had been abused by soldiers in the Vietnam War for several years prior to this.
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If you have a hallucinogen addiction, your mental health and even your life could be in danger, and you need professional help to overcome your addiction and get your life back on track.
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It may seem a long hard road back from hallucinogen addiction to a happy healthy life – but it can be done, and the sooner you can reach out the help you need, the better the prognosis. Don’t delay: make that call to your GP and/or an addiction specialist today and set out on the path back to the happy and healthy life free of hallucinogen abuse that you want and deserve.
An out-of-body, or dissociative, experience is one in which an individual feels themselves perceiving the world as if removed from their body and physical environment. They may believe that they observe their physical form from another place, or indeed may feel completely distant from the body.
There are many reasons why people choose to seek out different states of consciousness through the use of hallucinogenic drugs – really, as many different reasons as there are users. Some people do it out of curiosity, others for spiritual purposes, others for pure pleasure, others still to self-medicate mental health disorders. There is no one reason why people choose to use hallucinogens.
In the UK, almost all hallucinogens are illegal, under varying degrees of legislative control.
Hallucinogens have varying degrees of overdose potential; it is possible to overdose fatally on some hallucinogens.
Hallucinogen abuse can have various long-term effects including death or physical impairment; permanent psychological damage; financial, professional and/or reputational ruin; the loss of important relationships; the emergence of mental health disorders; and a permanently impaired outlook upon the world.
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