A Strange Class of Drugs
A Strange Class of Drugs
Hallucinogens are drugs that, when ingested, trigger a variety of strange and unpredictable sensations and experiences. Normally, such bizarre perceptions are experienced only in dreams, during periods of extreme emotional and physical stress, or as part of severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
There are dozens of different types of hallucinogens, some of which are produced naturally by plants and some of which are synthesized in laboratories or other facilities. There are many different hallucinogens used today, but the best known are mescaline and psilocybin, which come from plants, and LSD, ecstasy, and ketamine, which are manufactured in laboratories. What these drugs have in common is an ability to alter the functioning of the brain in such a way as to either modify the user's perceptions or create entirely artificial perceptions. Users of hallucinogens experience a range of odd sensations, from mild distortions of information affecting the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to highly animated and dramatic sensory distortions—the hallucinations that give this class of drugs its name.
Typically, users of hallucinogens characterize these sensations as seeing unusually vivid colors, hearing music with unusual clarity, tasting flavors never before experienced in foods, and smelling aromas of food with enough intensity to trigger eating binges. Users may find everyday experiences intensely funny or sad, and find mundane objects such as kitchen appliances fascinating, as though they are being experienced for the first time. Sometimes, personal experiences can seem to be more profound and offer greater insight than had been the case in the past. One user interviewed by researchers reported what he experienced while under the influence of a hallucinogen:
At one point, we went outside, it was dark out by now, and I remember looking at the street, and being aware of how the street sparkled. I had never noticed this before. Then I looked at the sky, and it looked like dark blue foil, sort of like foil wrapping paper, not the shiny kind, but the matte, etched kind. . . . I remember also becoming extremely aware of tactile changes. There was a gentle breeze that night. I felt the breeze kiss my skin. . . . I almost felt as though I had been touched by God. I felt like I was being enveloped by all of nature.1
These types of sensory alterations are considered mild, and they tend to occur when people take low doses of a hallucinogen. When people take larger doses, these alterations occur early in what is commonly called a "trip"—the hallucinogenic experience—but these are often followed by more dramatic and intense phenomena: actual hallucinations.
Unlike altered perceptions, which are triggered by some sort of external stimulus, hallucinations are sensations that people experience when there is no external stimulus. A hallucination can be experienced through any of the five senses. Hallucinations can sometimes be dramatic and complex, and as a result they can be quite frightening.
Those who have taken large doses of hallucinogens often report experiencing bizarre and impossible events. For example, some users witness inanimate objects or people morphing into animals, objects talking and moving around a room, or extraterrestrial beings visiting from outer space. Others claim to have interactions with dead people.
As bizarre as these drug-induced hallucinations can be, there are some features of hallucinations that are commonly experienced. Users often report walls flexing back and forth to the rhythm of music, straight lines curving and then straightening out, and objects appearing and then disappearing from view. In an interview, a college student recalled this LSD experience:
We went to the sink that had little droplets of water in the bottom of it. By "unfocusing" our attention, we could cause strange effects to occur. The sink became this rushing current of rapids pouring down into the drain. A blink of the eyes and it was the sink again. . . . There was a poster around campus that week for a band known as Anonymous. . . . It was a picture of a punk rocker's face with really strange shadings that had obvious [sic] been done with pencil. We watched the poster for a moment. The hair on the top of his head receded and disappeared while the shading on the face became more pronounced turning the face into that of a "wolfman.". . . The face cycled back and forth between that of the punk rocker and the wolfman, back and forth like the waves on the shore. . . . The kitchen was full of wonders. The doors on all the shelves bulged inward and outward. The hairs on our arms interweaved continually and the hairs on our legs grew straight out. The once plain walls were full of intricate little patterns as was the carpet.2
Users of these drugs claim that they usually understand during their trip that the hallucinations are drug induced and that the bizarre experience will soon end. In this sense, they are very different from dreams or hallucinations induced by extreme stress.
Another common feature of hallucinogens is that many users also claim to have gained new religious insights as a result of their trips. Many report finding new purposes for their lives, a sense that all people, animals, and objects are spiritually connected, and some establish an emotional identification with one or more of history's great spiritual leaders, such as Jesus or Buddha. One writer expressed these spiritual thoughts following an experience with mescaline:
I began to feel like I was so connected with all of life and nature. I think, at that moment, I never felt more alive. I think somehow during this trip, I also became more aware of my own immortality. I seem to remember thinking about dying, and for the first time, it didn't really scare me because I seemed to be aware that my soul somehow transcended anything physical. I felt very thankful that God had put me on earth to see beauty.3
Despite the common elements reported by those who have used hallucinogens, drug-induced hallucinations are highly unpredictable. The experience one has with the drug may be pleasurable one time and highly disturbing the next, or, as is sometimes the case with LSD, over the course of a single trip, both pleasurable and frightening elements can occur. Occasionally, the frightening effects of hallucinogens can intensify, causing the affected person to experience feelings of hopelessness and intense anxiety that persist long after the drug itself has left the body. If this depression does not subside, people have been known to behave in ways that endanger their lives. Such out-of-control behaviors occasionally require at least short-term hospitalization.
Hallucinogens and the Brain
Although the bizarre and fanciful effects of some hallucinogens have been known for thousands of years, it is only within the last fifty years that scientists have begun to unravel the mystery of how these drugs work. Researchers now believe that chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are produced in the brain, are responsible for the eerie sensory fabrications associated with hallucinogens.
Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemical compounds that transmit signals between the brain's neurons. There is a microscopic gap between the neurons called a synapse, which signals must cross in order for information to pass from one neuron to another. For a signal to move along, each synapse must be temporarily bridged by a neurotransmitter. Then, within milliseconds after the message has been passed, the neurotransmitter withdraws from the synapse back into the neurons in a process called re-uptake; the synapse empties once again and awaits the next signal.
In the presence of certain drugs, including hallucinogens, the re-uptake process fails, causing abnormally high concentrations of neurotransmitters to build up in the synapses. When this occurs, the brain begins to behave abnormally. Researchers have identified more than fifty neurotransmitters, but they believe that one, serotonin, is the neurotransmitter that builds up in the presence of the psychoactive chemicals found in hallucinogens. Serotonin is known to affect a person's moods, memory, sleep, body temperature, and general behavior. Since each person has only about ten milligrams of serotonin, a small increase can significantly alter the function of the brain. Therefore, even a small amount of a hallucinogen can produce what experts call an altered state of consciousness.
Serotonin is not, however, found in equal amounts throughout the brain. Neurologists believe that serotonin figures most prominently in two brain regions: one is the cerebral cortex, an area involved in thought, mood, and perception; the other is the locus coeruleus, which receives sensory signals from all areas of the body and has been described as the brain's device for identifying novelty among external stimuli. This would help explain how the increased levels of serotonin could lead to the bizarre sensory experiences reported by users of hallucinogens.
It is worth noting that this view of how these drugs work in the brain is still theoretical. As Dr. Solomon Snyder of Johns Hopkins University writes,
Again, we do not know for certain exactly how the brain regulates specific behaviors, but we can formulate some educated guesses and . . . we can use these guesses as the basis for the next important advances in understanding.4
In addition to the perceptual distortions caused by hallucinogens, commonly experienced physiological reactions include dilated pupils, lowered body temperature, nausea, profuse sweating, goose bumps, and occasionally, rapid heartbeat and elevated blood pressure.
Despite these well-documented physical effects, medical researchers are nearly unanimous in their belief that, although hallucinogens can produce some short-term physical changes in the brain, there seem to be very few, if any, long-term or permanent changes when used in moderate dosages by healthy users. Perhaps for this reason, death caused by toxic effects of most hallucinogens is unknown in scientific literature. However, injuries and deaths as a result of dangerous and irrational behavior while under the influence of hallucinogens have occurred. In addition, extremely large doses of some hallucinogens, or mixing several different drugs, can pose serious health risks and have been known to be fatal.
Although most neurologists and pharmacologists report few lasting adverse physical effects from hallucinogen use, one concern among those who formulate the government's drug policies is whether hallucinogens might be addictive.
Of the scientific studies that have focused on this aspect of hallucinogens, none has concluded that they are addictive. This means that their prolonged use does not create a physiological craving or dependency based on changes in a user's body chemistry. In addition, unlike drugs known to be addictive, there do not appear to be any physiological withdrawal symptoms or cravings when use of hallucinogens is terminated.
Furthermore, unlike users of addictive drugs, users of hallucinogens typically do not have the urge to take their drugs many times a day. In fact, hallucinogenic experiences tend to be exhausting, and users report needing time to rest and recover following a trip. The use of hallucinogens more often than once a week is extremely rare; the majority of regular users report using them once a month or a few sporadic times in the course of a year. One of the reasons given for this low frequency of use is the long duration of a hallucinogen trip, which often lasts many hours. The effects of addictive drugs, in comparison, wear off more quickly.
In addition to not being addictive, hallucinogens do not appear to build tolerance in users. As a result, the dose level of hallucinogens tends to remain constant. There is little motivation for increasing dosages. Although higher doses of hallucinogens will increase perceptual distortions and the intensity of hallucinations, many users report that they do not feel comfortable when a trip gets out of control. Plus, users typically do not feel the need to increase their dosage over time to achieve the same effect, as is often the case with addictive drugs. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports, for example, that the typical dose of LSD has declined from an average of 250 micrograms during the 1960s to about 100 micrograms today.
The position taken by most researchers, that hallucinogens are not addictive, is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which published this statement regarding LSD: "Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time. LSD is not considered an addictive drug since it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior as do cocaine, amphetamine, heroin, alcohol, and nicotine."5 The NIDA and the DEA make similar comments about other hallucinogens as well.
The Pineal Gland
Recent research is tentatively pointing to the pineal gland as holding the answer to the question "How do some hallucinogens such as mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD alter perceptions more dramatically than other hallucinogens?"
Early researchers believed that the pineal, about the size of a grain of rice and shaped like a pine cone and located in the center of the brain, served a purpose millions of years ago but had long since ceased to be of any use. In 1958, however, a Yale Medical School professor named Aaron B. Lerner dissected 250,000 pineal glands from cattle and discovered that they are a source of serotonin, the same neurotransmitter that neurologists believe is responsible for mood changes and altered states of perception in humans.
Lerner's colleagues later continued his research by examining the brains of human cadavers and discovered that different areas of the human brain store varying amounts of serotonin. However, of all the sources of serotonin in the human brain, the pineal was unmistakably the richest.
The connection between hallucinogens and elevated levels of serotonin as the probable explanation for dramatic mood shifts and hallucinations has been well received by researchers even though it is still considered theoretical. If it is correct, then it may follow that the more potent hallucinogens have the unique ability to stimulate the pineal to release its relatively large reservoir of serotonin which in turn causes the dramatic altered states reported by LSD users.
The influence of psychedelic drugs during the 1960s flooded the music world. Many of the best-known singers and songwriters produced hit after hit record with lyrics reflecting the drug culture. This musical style was invented in San Francisco by groups using surreal and mystical imagery inspired by psychedelic experiences. It was intended to be played while under the influence of psychedelics.
Songs that directly referred to illicit drugs were banned on most radio stations, forcing writers to hide drug references in the lyrics. One of the most famous psychedelic songs with surreptitious images associated with the altered perceptions of hallucinogens was the song "White Rabbit" by the Jefferson Airplane. This song describes taking pills that distort perceptions while talking to animals that are behaving as though they are people.
The Beatles were one of the most prolific recorders of psychedelic songs. In their song "Tomorrow Never Knows," they use mystical spiritual imagery common to the drug culture of the 1960s to describe a dreamy relaxation while floating on a river contemplating the mysteries of life.
Possibly the most widely celebrated example of hidden references to hallucinogens was the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The use of trancelike psychedelic imagery in the song was apparent to nearly everyone, but the real convincing clue to its hidden meaning was in its title: Many people believed that the L in "Lucy," the S in "Sky," and the D in "Diamonds" were a reference to LSD. Even though the Beatles denied that they had intentionally included a reference to LSD in their song, few listeners believed them.
Being nonaddictive does not mean hallucinogens are risk-free, however. Although the probability of death from the effects of a hallucinogen itself is low in comparison to narcotics such as heroin, health-care professionals warn that using hallucinogens can still have serious health consequences. There are no known deaths among humans because of brain, heart, or pulmonary failure that can be directly attributed to an overdose of any hallucinogen (although laboratory animals administered high doses of LSD have died from respiratory arrest). However, even though studies indicate that low doses of hallucinogens produce no long-lasting effects, high doses of hallucinogens have been known to cause severe psychotic breakdowns requiring long periods of psychiatric treatment.
The danger of hallucinogens lies not in their toxicity but, rather, in the unpredictability of their psychological effects. For example, users have been known to wander down streets without knowing who they are or where they have been, or have walked in freezing weather without proper clothing, unaware that they were suffering from frostbite.
Episodes of fatal consequences of hallucinogen use, mostly attributed to LSD, have been recorded. Pedestrians under the influence of LSD have been killed when they wandered into busy streets. There have also been reports of LSD users committing suicide because of the disorienting effects of the drug. Doctors Martin H. Keeler and Clifford B. Reifler reported the suicide of a twenty-year-old college student who completely disrobed and jumped from a window to his death while under the influence of LSD. In the article they wrote describing the student's mental state before the suicide, the doctors concluded: "The circumstances strongly suggest that he would not have died at the time he did if he were not in a state of LSD intoxication."6
Coroner reports tend to support the anecdotal evidence that hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin (also known as "magic mushrooms") are relatively nontoxic. Between 1994 and 1998, for example, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported an average of two deaths per year relating to LSD, none for peyote, and none for magic mushrooms. In cases where deaths have occurred, most coroner reports of victims' blood samples reveal the presence of multiple drugs, rarely just one. The nation's health reports indicate that the most common cause of death among hallucinogen users occurs from mixing hallucinogens with other drugs, especially with alcohol. Alcohol functions as a depressant that can suppress the breathing reflexes and in the presence of hallucinogens, which disorient the brain, the body's natural response to increase breathing can be obstructed.
Illness or deaths have also resulted from hallucinogens that are contaminated with toxic substances. Health officials point out that, because no government or health agency regulates the manufacturing of illegal drugs, ingesting a pill supposedly containing a hallucinogen is often an act of faith on the part of the user. Hallucinogens cannot be tested for purity except in a laboratory with sophisticated equipment—rarely an option for casual users. As a result, the first indication that a toxic contaminant is present may well be the sudden severe reaction or death of the user.
Hallucinogens: False Prophets
Some writers and artists who advocated the use of hallucinogens during the 1960s later recanted their views. Writer Ken Kesey was one of the first to disavow his earlier opinions. Novelist Tom Wolfe quotes Kesey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: "What I told the hippies was that LSD can be a door that one uses to open his mind to new realms of experience, but many hippies are using it just to keep going through the door over and over again, without trying to learn anything from it."
Richard Alpert, who researched LSD and advocated its use in collaboration with Timothy Leary at Harvard University, said in a 1970 interview with Playboy magazine, "I think LSD is making itself obsolete. All acid does is show you the possibility of another type of consciousness and give you hope. But your own impurities keep bringing you down. . . . After a while you dig that if you want to stay high, you have to work on yourself."
Novelist and adventurer Peter Matthiessen, who experimented with hallucinogens for a time, had this comment about how drugs affect the mind in his book Snow Leopard: "Drugs cannot clear away the past and enhance the present; toward the inner garden, they can only point the way. Lacking the grit of discipline and insight, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life. Old mists may be banished, that is true, but the alien chemical agent forms another mist, maintaining the separation of the 'I' from true experience of the infinite within us."
Even when the dosage and purity of a drug are known, some risk remains. This is because heredity plays a significant role in an individual's reaction to hallucinogens. For example, the probability of experiencing long-term psychological harm from hallucinogens increases among users who have a hereditary predisposition to psychotic behavior such as schizophrenia. Heredity also determines an individual's natural amount of serotonin, which can vary. Researchers speculate that users who experience dangerously out-of-control hallucinations have inherited naturally occurring levels of serotonin that are higher than those who experience milder hallucinations. Since few, if any, people know their natural level of serotonin, there is no way to predict whether someone will experience a severe adverse reaction or none at all—particularly the first time they try a hallucinogen.
Regardless of the risks posed by taking hallucinogens, they are used by millions of people. In fact, hallucinogens are so important in some cultures that their use is considered sacred.