What are Hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens, also known as ‘psychedelic’ drugs, are drugs that change the way a person perceives the world. Hallucinogens markedly affect all the senses and cause hallucinations – seeing or hearing things that do not exist or are distorted. A person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions can also be altered.
There are many different kinds of hallucinogens. Some occur naturally, in trees, vines, seeds, fungi and leaves, while others are manufactured in laboratories. Hallucinogens include LSD, ‘magic mushrooms’, mescaline, PCP (phencyclidine), cannabis (in high quantities) and ecstasy.
How are they used?
Naturally occurring hallucinogens have been used since ancient times by various cultures throughout the world, particularly North and South American Indians, for their mystical and spiritual associations.
They became very fashionable in America and Europe in the 1960s, as many young people were pursuing greater personal freedom and questioning old values and ideas.
Very few people use hallucinogens today. Those who do usually don’t take them on a regular basis, but on occasions that may be weeks or months apart. This may be because the effects require a long recovery time or the pleasurable effects are unpredictable.
Medical uses: Some hallucinogens are currently used in clinical medicine including ketamine, an intravenous anaesthetic used in many surgical procedures when the use of an anaesthetic mask is undesirable.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
LSD (‘acid’ or ‘trips’) is one of the most commonly used hallucinogens in Australia. It was accidentally invented in 1938 and explored as a treatment for some mental illnesses. During the 1960s, LSD became the drug of choice of the ‘hippy’ culture. Since then its use has declined, but there is some recent evidence of increased popularity.
In its pure state, LSD is a white odourless powder. It usually comes in the form of liquid, tablets or capsules, squares of gelatine or blotting paper. LSD can be swallowed, sniffed, injected or smoked. It is very potent, with small amounts causing strong effects. For easier handling, LSD is often diluted with another substance, such as sugar, or soaked onto sheets of blotting paper.
Since the 1960s, LSD has
appeared in many forms including
tablets, capsules, gelatine squares
and microdots. Of those only the
latter two are now occasionally
LSD paper squares are currently
the most common forms in which
the drug appears. The cartoon
designs look so innocent and
would appeal directly to children.
Further examples of cartoon-type
designs on recently seized LSD
This design depicts ‘Conan the
Barbarian’. The whole sheet
measures 24 x 15cm and contains
some 1,000 individual doeses of
A selection of patterns and symbols.
The designs in this group of LSD
squares consist of various definite
Designs occasionally appear
which are associated with current
national or international events.
This particular LSD square
shows Saddam Hussein. It
appeared at the time of the Gulf
An illicitly produced white scored
tablet containing ketamine
hydrochloride. It could be
confused with many relatively
harmless preparations which can
be purchased in a pharmacist.
Misused, particularly in
combination with other drugs,
could be extremely dangerous.
Some other hallucinogens
PCP (‘angel dust’): As well as effects similar to LSD, the effects of PCP include euphoria and numbness. Heavy use can cause PCP psychosis with aggression, paranoia and violent or suicidal behaviour.
Ecstasy (MDMA): Ecstasy is like both amphetamines and hallucinogens in chemical structure and effect. It is usually swallowed but sometimes injected. Ecstasy can have hallucinogenic properties when used in higher quantities.
Magic mushrooms (or ‘golden top’ mushrooms): are commonly found in Australia and have the active ingredient psilocybin. They can be eaten fresh, cooked or brewed into a ‘tea’. Small quantities cause relaxation and slight changes in mood, but larger quantities can cause stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, shivering, a numbing of the mouth and dizziness. People can mistake poisonous mushrooms for those containing psilocybin. Certain kinds of these poisonous mushrooms can cause death or permanent liver damage within hours of ingestion. A number of other mushrooms and plants that grow in Australia have hallucinogenic properties but also have dangerous, toxic side effects when sufficient qualities are used to give the psychedelic effect. These include datura (the belladonna plant) and fly agaric mushrooms.
Cannabis (marijuana): In low quantities, cannabis is a depressant drug that slows down the body’s systems. Very strong cannabis preparations or larger quantities of cannabis can cause mild hallucinogenic effects. These can lead to anxiety or panic in the user.
|Hallucinogenic (‘Magic’) Mushrooms
‘Magic mushrooms’ that have
been picked and dried. The
mushrooms contain the drugs
psilocin and psilocybin. Up to
30 may be required for an
These tablets, which have the
smell and appearance of
proprietary yeast tablets, were
illicitly made from virtually 100
per cent dried mushroom material.
Each tablet is approximately
10mm in diameter by 5mm wide
and weights up to 4 to 5 grams
Hallucinogen use in Australia
- In 1998, 10% of the Australian population reported having used hallucinogens (excluding cannabis) at some stage in their lifetime, with 3% using in the last 12 months. In 1995, the figures were 6% (in a lifetime) and 2% (recent use) respectively. 1
- The average age at which people first tried hallucinogens was 18.8 years. 1
- After cannabis and inhalants, hallucinogens were the next most commonly used substance among secondary students. 2
- Use increased with age, going from 3% of 12-year-olds to 14% of 17-year-olds. 2
1 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, First results, August 1999, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra.
2 Australian Secondary Students’ use of over-the-counter and illicit substances in 1996. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer. Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria, November 1998.
The effects of any drug (including hallucinogens) vary from person to person. It depends on many factors including an individual’s size, weight and health, how much and how the drug is taken, whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken. It also depends on whether use is combined with drinking alcohol and the environment in which the drug is taken – for example, whether the person is alone, with others, or at a party.
More than with any other drug, the effects of hallucinogens vary greatly from person to person, and from occasion to occasion. It is hard to know how the hallucinogenic experience, or ‘tripping’, will turn out.
The effects of LSD usually begin within half an hour of taking the drug, are at their strongest in 3 to 5 hours, and last for up to 12 hours. Typical effects include:
- intense sensory experiences (e.g. brighter colours, sharper sounds)
- mixing of the senses (e.g. colours are heard or sounds seen)
- distorted sense of time (e.g. minutes can be slow as hours; reliving old events)
- distorted sense of space
- distorted body image (person feels as if they are floating or being pulled down by gravity)
- pupils of the eyes may dilate
- rapid heart rate
- increased blood pressure
- sense of relaxation and wellbeing
- nausea and loss of appetite
- chills, flushing
- abnormal rapid breathing
- acute panic (a ‘bad trip’)
- abdominal discomfort
- poor coordination.
While using LSD, or ‘tripping’, the person may experience strong feelings of anxiety or fear. The hallucinatory effects can be unpleasant, such as spiders crawling on the skin. Or they can be so intense that the person feels as if they are losing control and ‘going crazy’.
Panic can lead to risky behaviour, such as running across a busy street. Also paranoia – intense fear of persecution and feelings of superiority – sometimes develops. This can cause people to accidentally injure themselves, for example, by diving into rough surf.
When negative feelings dominate the experience it is described as a ‘bad trip’. The reasons for bad trips are not known. They are particularly common among first-time users. When a ‘bad trip’ occurs, the user needs to be reassured and calmed until the immediate effects have passed, although this can take many hours. Medical assistance is occasionally required if the user becomes violent toward themselves or others, or becomes excessively anxious.
Usually the negative feelings go away when the drug wears off. However, there have been reports of users experiencing hallucinations, bizarre behaviour and paranoia for several days after taking the drug. Occasionally, these effects can last weeks or months.
How to help someone through a bad trip
- Make sure that the user, and all people around them, are safe.
- Move and speak calmly in a confident manner.
- Address them by name; remind them who they are.
- Tell them who you are.
- If possible, don’t leave them alone. This may mean staying with them for several hours.
Flashbacks: Days, weeks or even years after using the drug, some people re-experience the effects. The user may see intense colours and other hallucinations. Flashbacks can be sparked by the use of other drugs, or by stress, fatigue or physical exercise. The flashback experience can range from being pleasant to producing severe feelings of anxiety. They are usually visual and last for a minute or two.
There is also some evidence that heavy use of LSD can impair a user’s memory and concentration. Using LSD may increase the risk of certain people developing severe mental disturbances.
Hepatitis & HIV
Sharing needles, syringes and other injecting equipment can greatly increase the risk of contracting blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the virus that causes AIDS).
Tolerance and dependence
Tolerance to the hallucinatory effects of LSD and other hallucinogens develops rapidly. With repeated daily use over three to four days, the desired effects tend to cease irrespective of the amount used. Any tolerance developed quickly goes away once regular use is stopped.
Typically LSD is not a drug that is used daily, or even regularly. LSD does not appear to cause any physical dependence. Some people may be psychologically dependent on using LSD for various events or occasions.
With LSD no physical withdrawal symptoms have been observed, even after long periods of use.
The use of LSD and other hallucinogens seems to be linked to an increased risk of miscarriage. There may also be a higher incidence of birth defects among babies born to women using LSD.
Check with your doctor, or other health professional, if you are taking or planning to take any substances during pregnancy, including prescribed and over-the-counter medications.
Hallucinogens and other drugs
Hallucinogens can be dangerous when combined with drugs like alcohol or amphetamines (‘speed’) . This is because the effects of both drugs are often increased in unpredictable ways. Despite this, some users take benzodiazepines or cannabis to help them ‘come down’ after using hallucinogens.
Hallucinogens and driving
It is illegal to drive while under the influence of any drug (including hallucinogens). Breaking this law carries penalties including disqualification from driving, fines and/or imprisonment.
It is also extremely dangerous to drive after using hallucinogens.
Perception of space and time is distorted and the user may ‘see’ things that will cause erratic driving. The combination of drugs and alcohol can make driving significantly more dangerous.
Hallucinogens and the law
Hallucinogens are illegal. Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making or selling hallucinogens. Drug laws in Australia distinguish between those who use drugs and those who supply or traffic drugs.
At present in Victoria, penalties range from a $2,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment for cultivation (if the court is satisfied that the offence is not related to trafficking), $3,000 and/or one year’s imprisonment for possession/use (not relating to trafficking) to fines of up to $250,000 and/or 25 years imprisonment for commercial trafficking.
In Victoria, the police and courts have recently introduced a number of new schemes in relation to drug offences. Some of these aim to divert people from the criminal justice system, others involve referring people with a drug problem to treatment programs.
In Australia, there are a number of drug treatment options. Some aim solely for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle. Others recognise abstinence as one option, however, due to individual circumstances, may not be possible in certain situations. The overall aim of these programs is to reduce the harm/risks related to a person’s drug use.
Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person’s specific situation and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication and supervised/home withdrawal.
Reducing the risks
Australian drug policy is based on harm minimisation. This is about reducing drug-related harm to both the community and individual drug users.
Harm minimisation strategies range from encouraging ‘non-use’ through to providing the means for drug users to use drugs with less risks.
For more tips on how to reduce the risks of using hallucinogens call the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.
Remember: there is no safe level of drug use.
What to do in a crisis
If someone has an adverse reaction while using hallucinogens, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. Quick responses can save lives.
- Call an ambulance. Dial 000. Don’t delay because you think you or your friend might get into trouble. Ambulance officers are not obliged to involve the police.
- Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives. Find out if anyone at the scene knows mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
- Ensure adequate air by keeping crowds back and opening windows. Loosen tight clothing.
- If the person is unconscious, don’t leave them on their back â€” they could choke. Turn them on their side and into the recovery position. Gently tilt their head back so their tongue does not block the airway.
- If breathing has stopped, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If there is no pulse, apply CPR.
- Provide the ambulance officers with as much information as you can – what hallucinogens were taken, how long ago, and any pre-existing medical conditions.
- Before using hallucinogens, make sure you and your friends know what to do in a crisis.