Hallucinogens, often romanticised for their mystical and mind-expanding qualities, lure individuals into uncharted territories of perception and consciousness. From LSD to psilocybin, the spectrum of these substances is wide-ranging, each carrying its own set of effects and risks. For those seeking solace or transcendence, the allure of hallucinogens can be captivating, promising an escape from the mundane or an entrance into realms unseen.
However, this allure comes unequivocally with the unknown. The unpredictable nature of hallucinogens raises questions that extend beyond the immediate experience – this article aims to answer those questions.
Hallucinogens, often referred to as psychedelics, constitute a diverse class of substances capable of inducing profound alterations in perception, cognition and consciousness. These mind-altering compounds have been utilised for centuries in various cultural and spiritual contexts.
Hallucinogens aren’t just the result of laboratory synthesis, many come from plants, like the peyote cactus, and certain mushrooms are known to produce hallucinogenic effects.
The spectrum of hallucinogens encompasses a variety of substances, each with its unique effects and origins. Some of the most well-known hallucinogens include:
Synthesised from lysergic acid, LSD is a potent hallucinogen that can induce intense visual and auditory hallucinations, distort time perception and evoke a heightened sense of introspection. LSD can cause giddiness, confusion, anxiety and bursts of energy; it can also cause colours, sounds and even time to feel strange or disturbing.
Found in certain mushrooms (particularly those of the psilocybe genus), psilocybin is metabolised into psilocin in the body. Psilocybin mushrooms, more commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’, have been used for centuries and can lead to sensations of excitement, confusion, anxiety, nausea and hallucinations.
A naturally occurring substance found in various plants and animals, DMT is known for its rapid onset and intense but short-lived psychedelic effects. These effects can include seeing things that aren’t there, feeling frightened or confused, and raising both the blood pressure and heart rate of the person taking it.
Derived from the peyote cactus, mescaline alters the user’s perceptions of reality, vivid colours and a feeling of being in a dream-like state. While the drug can make people feel positive, it also causes vomiting, headaches and anxiety.
While MDMA is primarily recognised as a stimulant, it also exhibits hallucinogenic properties. It enhances sensory perception and empathy, as well as anxiety, paranoia, body temperature and heart rate.
According to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 1% of people aged 16-59 in England and Wales were using hallucinogens in the year ending March 2023. This had increased from 3 years prior when the figure was 0.7%. A 2021 population estimate from ONS approximates there are 34.2m people in England and Wales aged between 16 and 59.
This means that approximately 239,550 people in England and Wales were using hallucinogens in the year ending March 2020, whereas this figure rose to over 342,200 just 3 years later. This is an additional 102k people using hallucinogens between 2020 and 2023.
Hallucinogens primarily affect the serotonin receptors in the brain, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, sleep and appetite. When hallucinogens bind to these receptors, they disrupt normal serotonin transmission, leading to altered perceptions and sensory experiences.
The exact mechanisms through which hallucinogens induce their effects are not fully understood, but they enhance sensory perception, increase introspection and alter the way people perceive time and space. The subjective experience can vary widely, ranging from euphoria and sensory enhancement to vivid hallucinations, fear, paranoia, anxiety and increases in the heart rate and blood pressure.
While hallucinogens are often perceived as having a lower risk of addiction compared to other substances, they are not without their dangers. Users may face various risks, both immediate and long-term, associated with hallucinogen use.
One of the potential risks of hallucinogen use is the development of psychosis, characterised by a loss of contact with reality. Psychotic episodes may include hallucinations, delusions and impaired cognitive function. Individuals with a predisposition to mental health disorders may be particularly vulnerable.
HPPD is a condition where individuals experience persistent visual disturbances, such as seeing geometric patterns, even after the drug has left their system. This condition can significantly impact daily life and may persist for an extended period.
Hallucinogens can impair coordination, perception of time and judgment, leading to an increased risk of accidents and injuries. Engaging in activities that require full cognitive function, such as driving, can be particularly dangerous under the influence of hallucinogens.
It’s important to note that individual reactions to hallucinogens can vary and the risks may depend on factors such as dosage, individual susceptibility and the setting in which the drug is used.
While overdosing on hallucinogens is rare, it is possible. Overdosing can lead to respiratory issues, comas, seizures and death from respiratory arrest.
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