The word hallucinogen refers to several different substances, including natural drugs (like magic mushrooms) and synthetic versions (like PCP). All hallucinogens can change a person’s perception, mood, and thought patterns.
Hallucinogen abuse is easier to spot when people are intoxicated. Changes in how they walk, talk, or explain their feelings could highlight their habits.
But some hallucinogens cause long-term problems you might identify long after the high has faded. Recurring episodes of anxiety with no known cause could be triggered by hallucinogen abuse.
While most hallucinogens don’t cause life-threatening overdose symptoms, some do. And some people struggle to quit taking hallucinogenic drugs without the help of a treatment program.
What Are Hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens are drugs that alter a person’s sense of reality. About 5.5 million Americans used drugs like this in 2019, representing an increase over the years prior.
Some people abuse these drugs once, after hearing about the benefits from their peers. An incredibly bad trip could keep them from ever using these drugs again.
But some people continue to abuse hallucinogens. They believe the drugs help to keep them calm, focused, and in tune with the world around them. Sometimes, they keep using the drugs because they can’t quit (even though they want to).
Six major types of hallucinogens are used within the United States, including the following:
- Anticholinergics (such as deadly nightshade)
- Arylcycloalkylamines, such as PCP
- Cannabinoids, such as marijuana
- Indolealkylamines, such as LSD
- Phenylethylamines, such as mescaline and MDMA
Some people abuse just one type of hallucinogen, while others mix and match depending on what they can get from suppliers and the experience they want to have.
What Does a Hallucinogen High Look Like?
People who use hallucinogens often feel very strong emotions, including euphoria and terror, along with changes in how they experience reality.
People intoxicated with hallucinogens are on what users call “a trip,” and they may see, hear, or feel things you can’t. Attempts to explain what’s happening rarely work due to chemical changes deep within the brain. The person’s altered reality remains fixed until the drug wears off.
Anyone who abuses hallucinogens is at risk of a so-called “bad trip,” characterized by the following symptoms:
- Unpleasant or scary hallucinations
Bad trips can be triggered by small amounts of hallucinogenic drugs, so they’re not associated with overdose. And some people who have pleasant reactions to most hallucinogens can have a bad trip from time to time.
If someone is experiencing a bad trip, it’s not the time to discuss the dangers of drugs. Instead, stay with the person and try to keep them very calm and quiet. When the drugs wear off, the hallucinations and fear should stop.
Sometimes, bad trips are so traumatic that people end up with lingering anxiety following the experience.
What Does a Hallucinogen Overdose Look Like?
Getting hallucinogen dosing right is difficult. Natural drugs (like mushrooms) have varying potency depending on growing conditions. And synthetic versions (like PCP) can be stronger or weaker depending on the dealer’s cooking process. Anyone who uses hallucinogens could take too much and overdose.
People experiencing an overdose of LSD or mushrooms rarely experience life-threatening overdose symptoms. But they can experience very strong and persistent hallucinations, and their reactions to them can be dangerous. Some people get into accidents, hurt others, or die by suicide due to an overdose.
Hallucinogens like ketamine and PCP can cause serious and life-threatening side effects, including the following:
- Slow breathing
People experiencing an overdose often need professionals to transport them to a hospital for care. Hallucinations can make people paranoid or violent, and trained teams know what to do to help them.
If you think someone has overdosed on hallucinogens, call 911 and explain the symptoms you see. If you know what drug the person took, offer that information. The operator will send a trained team to your location, and you could be provided with information on how to care for the person until help arrives.
Never leave a hallucinating person alone. Stay close and step in if the person seems ready to cause harm to themselves or anyone else. Your care and concern could keep the person from making a mistake with lifelong consequences.
Make sure to keep yourself safe in this situation. People who are hallucinating can be unpredictable.
Why Are Hallucinogens So Dangerous?
Accidents and injuries are common among people using hallucinogens, but they’re not the only risk involved with these drugs.
Even one dose of hallucinogens can cause hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). People with this complication can slide back into a bad trip when they’re under stress. A job interview, difficult conversation, or stressful commute could cause reality distortions and paranoia. Some people become housebound due to concerns about inappropriate behavior they can’t control.
Others develop a milder form of flashback, in which they experience reality distortions regularly. Some may find the experience amusing or even pleasant. But others find their flashbacks crippling, as they can appear anytime without warning.
Hallucinogens bought from dealers can be dangerous, as the substances can be contaminated with stronger drugs like fentanyl. But “natural” drugs can be dangerous too. People looking for wild mushrooms can die if they misidentify a specimen and ingest something poisonous.
Hallucinogen Side Effects
All hallucinogens are different. They contain unique chemical properties, and they’re often manufactured or created differently. But they do share some common physical and mental side effects to watch for, like these:
Common Physical Side Effects
People who abuse hallucinogens may experience these physical symptoms while they’re intoxicated:
- Fast or slow heartbeat
Common Mental Health Side Effects
People who abuse hallucinogens can seem anxious, agitated, or incoherent while they’re high. They may seem confused or upset when the drugs wear off.
Common Behavioral Health Changes
Hallucinogens don’t come with the stigma attached to substances like heroin. People who abuse hallucinogens may believe they’re taking charge of their mental health, and they may be very willing to discuss their drug use. They may even encourage others to try drugs.
But hallucinogens aren’t always easy to get, and people with a longstanding drug habit may need bigger doses to get the same high. Spending time searching for dealers, talking with dealers, or growing drugs could all be signs of a growing substance abuse problem.
Getting Help for Hallucinogen Abuse
Researchers aren’t sure exactly how all hallucinogenic drugs work. Dealers make novel synthetic versions all the time, and doctors can’t always keep up. So far, no pill or injection can help people overcome an addiction to all hallucinogens.
But researchers do know that traditional addiction treatment methods, including talk therapy and support group work, can help people to overcome hallucinogen abuse. These methods allow people to examine why they started using drugs, and they offer skill-building lessons to lower relapse risks.
Some hallucinogen treatment programs are conducted on an outpatient basis, allowing people to live at home while they work on their addictions. Others are inpatient, allowing people to get away from triggers to build up their skills in safety.
The right treatment approach for you will depend on the severity of your addiction, your home environment, any co-occurring mental health or medical issues, and your goals for recovery. A treatment team can help you understand your options and pick the version that’s right for your recovery.
- Hallucinogens. CAMH.
- New Study Estimates Over 5.5 Million U.S. Adults Use Hallucinogens. (August 2022). Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.
- Psychedelic and Dissociative Drugs. (April 2023). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Hallucinogens. (October 2018). Department of Health, State Government of Victoria, Australia.
- Hallucinogens. (April 2020). U.S. Department of Justice.
- Hallucinogen Toxicity Treatment and Management. (January 2021). Medscape.
- Hallucinogen Use Is Associated With Mental Health and Addictive Problems and Impulsivity in University Students. (December 2019). Addictive Behaviors Report.
- Adverse Effects of Psychedelics: From Anecdotes and Misinformation to Systematic Science. (February 2022). Journal of Psychopharmacology.
- New Study Estimates Over 5.5 Million U.S. Adults Use Hallucinogens. (August 2022). Columbia University.
- Use and Abuse of Dissociative and Psychedelic Drugs in Adolescence. (April 2021). Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior.