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Psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants

Drugs & Medication

Psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants

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Certain drugs can affect the subjective qualities of perception, thought or emotion, resulting in altered interpretations of sensory input, alternate states of consciousness, or hallucinations. This general group of pharmacological agents can be divided into three broad categories: psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants. All of these agents act as neurotransmitter mimics, often as agonists or antagonists at neurotransmitter receptors. Their primary effects are markedly different from those of other psychoactives such as cocaine, amphetamines, heroin or alcohol.

The term hallucinogen is often broadly applied, especially in current scientific literature, to some or all of these substances. The term, though, has long attracted criticism. (See Etymology and alternative terms)

Despite the use of "hallucinogen" as a cover term, true hallucinations, as distinct from illusions, are rare with these substances. The apparent unity of the category is further belied by the quite different effects of psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants on consciousness. Broadly speaking, psychedelics reduce the filters in the brain causing sensory overload which is often manifested in visual and audial distortion, dissociatives cause a separation between cognition and sensory awareness (possibly including hallucination or dreamlike experiences), and deliriants are a class of drug that produce a fragmented dissociated state of quasi-consciousness akin to sleepwalking where dreams and reality intertwine to produce potentially dangerous hallucinations indistinguishable from reality.

These substances have a millennial history of traditional use in medicine and religion, where they have been prized as means to access spiritual realities and to promote physical and mental healing. Together with other plant agents, like tobacco, they are important tools of shamans and other hierophants. Native American practitioners using peyote have reported success in treating alcoholism, and Mazatec practitioners routinely use psilocybin mushrooms for healing and divination.



Main article: psychedelic drug
"Blotter" LSD
"Blotter" LSD

The psychedelic (mind manifesting) drugs are classified as those whose primary action is that of enhancing or amplifying the thought processes of the brain. One prominent psychological explanation of psychedelics' effects is the "reducing valve" hypothesis, derived from Aldous Huxley's reflections on his experiments with mescaline. In this view, the drugs disable the brain's experiential "filters," which block or suppress unimportant or undesired signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, including but not limited to the senses, emotions, memories and the unconscious (or subconscious) mind. This effect has been described as mind expanding, or consciousness expanding as the conscious mind becomes aware of (or sometimes assaulted by) things normally inaccessible to it. At high levels this can become overwhelming, and can result in a dissociative state whereby one is so occupied by their racing thoughts that they lose touch with the outside world during the peak of the experience.

Classic psychedelics include LSD (acid), psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms), mescaline (peyote), LSA (morning glory seeds) and also Ayahuasca (yage). Some of the synthetic "club drugs" such as MDMA ('pure' ecstasy), 2C-B (nexus), DOM (STP) and 5-MeO-DIPT (Foxy Methoxy) which have much more specific action to particular aspects of the psyche are also classed as psychedelics, as well as cannabis (marijuana).

Some psychedelics (namely LSD, psilocybin and cannabis) are extremely non-toxic, making it difficult to overdose unless these compounds are combined with other drugs.

[edit] Dissociatives

Main article: dissociative drug
Salvia divinorum
Salvia divinorum

A dissociative is a drug which reduces (or blocks) signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, typically (but not necessarily, or limited to) the physical senses. Such a state of sensory deprivation can facilitate self exploration, hallucinations, and dreamlike states of mind which may resemble some psychedelic mindstates. Essentially similar states of mind can be reached via contrasting paths -- psychedelic or dissociative. That said, the entire experience, risks and benefits are markedly different.

The primary dissociatives are similar in action to PCP (angel dust) and include Ketamine (an anaesthetic), and DXM (an active ingredient in many cough syrups, dextromethorphan). Also included are nitrous oxide, salvia divinorum, and muscimol from the amanita muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom.

Many dissociatives also have CNS depressant effects, thereby carrying similar risks as opioids to slowing breathing or heart rate to levels resulting in death (when using very high doses). This does not appear to be true in other cases, toxic effects do not appear to exist in the case of salvia divinorum, and the principal risk of nitrous oxide seems to be due to oxygen deprivation. Injury from falling is also a danger, as nitrous oxide may cause sudden loss of consciousness, an effect of oxygen deprivation. Long term use of dissociative anesthetics such as PCP and Ketamine (and possibly DXM) have been suspected to cause Olney's lesions, though these lesions have never been demonstrated in primates to date.


Main article: Deliriant

The deliriants (or anticholinergics) are a special class of dissociative which are antagonists for the acetylcholine receptors (unlike muscarine and nicotine which are agonists of these receptors). Deliriants are considered to be true hallucinogens as users will have conversations with people who aren't there, or become angry with a 'person' mimicking their actions, not realizing it is their own reflection in a mirror (which could be dangerous if they became aggressive towards a glass mirror). While the regular dissociatives can produce effects similar to lucid dreaming (where one is consciously aware they are dreaming), the deliriants have effects akin to sleepwalking (where one doesn't remember what transpired during the experience).

Included in this group are such plants as deadly nightshade, mandrake, henbane and datura, as well as a number of pharmaceutical drugs when taken in very high doses such as the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and the antiemetic dimenhydrinate (Dramamine or Gravol).

In addition to the danger of being far more "out of it" than with other drugs, and retaining a truly fragmented dissociation from regular consciousness without being immobilized, the anticholinergics are toxic, can cause death due to overdose, and also include a number of uncomfortable side effects. These side effects include dehydration and mydriasis.

Etymology and alternative terms

A variety of different, imprecise terms have also been used to refer to drugs of this type. One of the first terms used in English to describe these substances was "Phantastica", coined in 1928 by Louis Lewin in his ground-breaking monograph of the same name. The term was applied to plants that "bring about evident cerebral excitation in the form of hallucinations, illusions and visions ... followed by unconsciousness or other symptoms of altered cerebral functioning." Lewin complained that the word "does not cover all that I should wish it to convey", and indeed with the advent of the discovery of LSD and the widespread scientific experimentation with it and similar drugs, numerous supposedly improved terms were constructed, including hallucinogen, psychedelic, psychotomimetic, psycholytic, schizophrenogenic, cataleptogenic, mysticomimetic and psychodysleptic.

Of all the terms created, "hallucinogen", meaning roughly "generating delusions and false notions" (particularly in the form of sensory distortions), probably enjoys the most widespread and accepted usage. "Psychedelic", meaning "mind manifesting" and emphasizing the introspective potential of the drugs, and "entheogen", meaning "becoming divine within", are also widely used, particularly among those with positive attitudes towards their usage. In some cases, authors who otherwise use these terms have felt themselves pressured to use "hallucinogen" or "psychotomimetic" (or sometimes "psychomimetic", in either case meaning "mimicking psychosis") in scientific publications. The terms "empathogen" and "entactogen" (see empathogen-entactogen) are also applied to certain drugs (notably those similar to MDMA) that are also sometimes classed as hallucinogens.

Many different names have been proposed over the years for this drug class. The famous German toxicologist Louis Lewin used the name phantastica earlier in this century, and as we shall see later, such a descriptor is not so farfetched. The most popular names, hallucinogen, psychotomimetic, and psychedelic ("mind manifesting"), have often been used interchangeably. Hallucinogen is now, however, the most common designation in the scientific literature, although it is an inaccurate descriptor of the actual effects of these drugs. In the lay press, the term psychedelic is still the most popular and has held sway for nearly four decades. Most recently, there has been a movement in nonscientific circles to recognize the ability of these substances to provoke mystical experiences and evoke feelings of spiritual significance. Thus, the term entheogen, derived from the Greek word entheos, which means "god within," was introduced by Ruck et al. and has seen increasing use. This term suggests that these substances reveal or allow a connection to the "divine within." Although it seems unlikely that this name will ever be accepted in formal scientific circles, its use has dramatically increased in the popular media and on internet sites. Indeed, in much of the counterculture that uses these substances, entheogen has replaced psychedelic as the name of choice and we may expect to see this trend continue.

—David E. Nichols: "Hallucinogens", Pharmacol Ther 101(2):131-181[1]

The World Health Organization effectively endorses the "psychotomimetic" point of view, defining a hallucinogen as "a chemical agent that induces alterations in perception, thinking, and feeling which resemble those of the functional psychoses without producing the gross impairment of memory and orientation characteristic of the organic syndromes." [2]

History of use

Hallucinogenic drugs are among the oldest drugs used by humankind, as hallucinogens naturally occur in mushrooms, cacti, and various other plants. Whether the use of hallucinogens is encouraged, unregulated, regulated, or prohibited, and whether hallucinogens are used for recreational, medicinal, or spiritual purposes, varies from culture to culture and nation to nation. In most nations of the world, the possession of many hallucinogens, even those that are common in nature, is a crime punished by fines, imprisonment or in many countries, death. For some religious purposes, however, there are exceptions. For instance, though possession of peyote cactus is illegal for most purposes in the United States, American Courts have upheld the Constitutional right of Native Americans to grow and consume peyote.

Traditional religious and shamanic use (entheogens)

In human culture hallucinogens have historically most commonly been used in the setting of religious or shamanic rituals. In this context they are more precisely referred to as entheogens, and are used to facilitate healing, divination, communication with the spirits, and coming of age ceremonies. Evidence exists for the use of entheogens in prehistoric times, as well as in numerous ancient cultures, including the Ancient Egyptian, Mycenaean, Ancient Greek, Vedic, Maya, Inca the and Aztec cultures, not to mention the Upper Amazon, arguabaly the region of globe where entheogens have assumed--literally over millennia--the greatest symbolic and sacred import, as noted among the Urarina of Peruvian Amazonia, who continue to practice an elaborate system of ayahuasca shamanism, coupled with animistic religious beliefs.

Urarina shaman, 1988
Urarina shaman, 1988

The rise of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) caused a decline of entheogen use in their area. Witness the destruction of the Eleusinian Mysteries, or the Great Witch Hunt of the Early Modern Age, in which practitioners of entheogenic rites in Western Europe were accused of associating with the Devil. Nevertheless, some (mainly tribal) cultures have survived this (ongoing) assault and still practise entheogen use. In others, non-religious hallucinogen use, while not exactly encouraged, is tolerated and not seen as uncommon. Present-day, historical and mythological aspects of entheogens are discussed in the entry entheogen.

Early scientific investigations

Although natural hallucinogenic drugs have been known to mankind for millennia, it was not until the early 20th century that they received extensive attention from Western science. Earlier beginnings include scientific studies of nitrous oxide in the late 18th century, and initial studies of the constituents of the peyote cactus in the late 19th century. Starting in 1927 with Kurt Beringer's Der Meskalinrausch (The Mescaline Intoxication), more intensive effort began to be focused on studies of psychoactive plants. Around the same time, Louis Lewin published his extensive survey of psychoactive plants, Phantastica (1928). Important developments in the years that followed included the re-discovery of Mexican magic mushrooms (in 1936 by Robert J. Weitlaner) and ololiuhqui (in 1939 by Richard Evans Schultes). Arguably the most important pre-World War II development was by Albert Hofmann's 1938 invention of the semi-synthetic drug LSD, which was later discovered to produce hallucinogenic effects, in 1943.

Hallucinogens after World War II

After World War II there was an explosion of interest in hallucinogenic drugs in psychiatry, owing mainly to the discovery of LSD. Interest in the drugs tended to focus on either the potential for psychotherapeutic applications of the drugs (see psychedelic psychotherapy), or on the use of hallucinogens to produce a "controlled psychosis", in order to understand psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Between the mid 1950s and the mid 1960s over 1000 scholarly articles were published on hallucinogen research. Hallucinogens were also researched in several countries for their potential as agents of chemical warfare. Most famously, several tragic incidents associated with the CIA's MK-ULTRA mind control research project have been the topic of media attention and lawsuits.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the existence of hallucinogenic drugs was virtually unknown among the general public of the West. However this soon changed as several influential figures were introduced to the hallucinogenic experience. Aldous Huxley's 1953 essay The Doors of Perception, describing his experiences with mescaline, and R. Gordon Wasson's 1957 Life magazine article (Seeking the Magic Mushroom) brought the topic into the public limelight. In the early 1960s countercultural icons such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey advocated the drugs for their psychedelic effects, and a large subculture of psychedelic drug users was spawned. Many people argue that psychedelic drugs played a major role in catalyzing the vast social changes initiated in the 1960s. As a result of the growing popularity of LSD, and, some contend, establishment disdain for the hippies with whom it was heavily associated, LSD was banned in the United States in 1967.

Social status of hallucinogens

After the fading from public sight as one of the many elements of the 1960s counterculture, hallucinogen use took a less visible but nevertheless persistent role in Western society in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s something of a revival of interest in the drugs has occurred. There are probably several important contributing factors to the resurgence. One is the rise of dance-based rave and trance culture, in which participants frequently employ drugs such as the entactogen MDMA, and to a lesser extent, other hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, magic mushrooms and ketamine, as an aid to inducing ecstatic or trance states of consciousness. A second major contributing factor to the revival of interest in hallucinogenic drugs has been the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web. This has made information pertaining to drugs much more accessible to the general public, provided a platform for advocacy that was not previously available, and has enabled otherwise isolated interested parties to communicate and exchange information and experiences. Some well-known contemporary authors of topics relating to hallucinogens include Terence McKenna, Stanislav Grof, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Alexander Shulgin, Jonathan Ott and Rick Strassman.

Legal status

As of 2004, most well known hallucinogens (aside from DXM) are illegal in most Western countries. One notable exception to the current criminalization trend is in parts of Western Europe, especially in the Netherlands, where hallucinogenic mushrooms are considered to be so-called "soft drugs", along with cannabis. While the possession of soft drugs is technically illegal, the Dutch government has decided that using law enforcement to combat their use is largely a waste of resources. As a result, public "coffeeshops" in the Netherlands openly sell cannabis, and "smart shops" sell drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca for personal use (See Drug policy of the Netherlands).

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, this attitude has spread throughout Europe; many European countries no longer actively pursue anti-drug policies, and rarely enforce extant legal penalties for personal-use quantities of hallucinogenic drugs. This is especially true with mild hallucinogens such as cannabis, which is rapidly gaining acceptance in western Europe as a harmless and socially acceptable intoxicant, much as alcohol is considered throughout the West. Despite being scheduled as a controlled substance in the mid 1980s, ecstasy's popularity has been growing since that time in western Europe and in the United States.

Attitudes towards hallucinogens other than cannabis have been slower to change. Several attempts to change the law on the grounds of freedom of religion have been made. Some of these have been successful, for example the Native American Church in the United States, and Santo Daime in Brazil. Some people argue that a religious setting should not be necessary for the legitimacy of hallucinogenic drug use, and for this reason also criticize the euphemistic use of the term "entheogen". Non-religious reasons for the use of hallucinogens including spiritual, introspective, psychotherapeutic, recreational and even hedonistic motives, each subject to some degree of social disapproval, have all been defended as the legitimate exercising of civil liberties, including freedom of thought and freedom of self-harm.

Many connect the idea of being "high" or going through a psychedelic state, as having brain damage or going crazy. This is due to the effect of the drug which, in some cases, can be overwhelming. Effects of these drugs can mimic psychological conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, and thought disorder. However, this is largely a misconception of the psychedelic state. After many studies investigating its possible use as a "psychotomimetic" and decades of personal/spiritual use it has become apparent that the psychedelic state is wholly different from a psychotic state and thus is ill-compared to schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

Several medical and scientific people, including Albert Hofmann, advocate the drugs should not be banned, but should be strongly regulated like opiates and warn they can be dangerous without proper psychological supervision. [3] Taking a hallucinogenic drug without knowledge can result in psychological trauma, and has occurred many times because many psychedelic drugs such as LSD have low dose and can easily be added to food or drink, similar to "date rape drugs" or Mickey Finns, and those who deliberately do that can be charged with assault. (These occurrences have created some urban myths such as the blue star tattoo myth).


Hallucinogens can be classified by quality of action, mechanisms of action, or by chemical structure. These classifications often correlate to some extent. The classification system below attempts to blend these three approaches in order to create a balanced and simple overview that is as clear and easy to grasp as possible.

Almost all hallucinogens contain nitrogen and are therefore classified as alkaloids. THC and Salvinorin A are exceptions. Many hallucinogens have chemical structures similar to those of human neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and temporarily modify the action of neurotransmitters and/or receptor sites.

A classical classification is that of Lewin (Phantastica, 1928):
Class I Phantastica roughly correspond to the psychedelics, which is a more modern term usually used as synonym to "hallucinogen" by people with positive attitudes towards them. Here the term is used a bit differently to discriminate one particular class of hallucinogens which it seems to describe best. They typically have no sedative effects (sometimes the opposite) and there is usually a clearcut memory to their effects.

Class II Phantastica correspond to the other classes in this scheme. They tend to sedate in addition to their hallucinogenic properties and there often is an impaired memory trace after the effects wear off.

Psychedelics and mental illnesses in long-term users

Most psychedelics are not known to have long-term physical toxicity. However, amphetamine-like psychedelics, such as MDMA, that release neurotransmitters may stimulate increased formation of free radicals possibly formed from neurotransmitters released from the synaptic vesicle. Free radicals are associated with cell damage in other contexts, and have been suggested to be involved in many types of mental conditions including Parkinson's disease, senility, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's. Research on this question has not reached a firm conclusion. The same concerns do not apply to psychedelics that do not release neurotransmitters, such as LSD, nor to dissociatives and deliriants.

No clear connection has been made between psychedelic drugs and organic brain damage; however, high doses over time of some dissociatives and deliriants have been shown to cause Olney's lesions in animals, and have been suspected to occur in humans. Additionally, Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) is a diagnosed condition where some effects of drugs persist after a long time--although medical technology has yet to determine what causes the condition.

Pharmacological classes of hallucinogens

Psychedelics (serotonin 5-HT2A receptor agonists)


  • NMDA receptor antagonists and sigma1 ligands
  • Kappa opioid receptor agonists
  • Inhalants
  • Cholinergics

Deliriants (anticholinergics)

Hallucinogenic plants, fungi, and animals

Among the best-known hallucinogenic plants and fungi are:



  • Ayahuasca (contains DMT and an MAOI, commonly Banisteriopsis caapi with Psychotria viridis)
  • Epená (Virola sp.) (contains 5-MeO-DMT and DMT)
  • Hawaiian baby woodrose (Argyreia nervosa) (contains Ergine)
  • Ololiuhqui/Coaxihuitl (Turbina/Rivea corymbosa) (contains Ergine)
  • Tlitliltzin/Badoh Negro (Ipomoea violacea) (contains Ergine)
  • Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) (contains ibogaine)

Cacti psychedelics
  • Peruvian Torch cactus (Trichocereus peruvianus) (contains mescaline)
  • Peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) (contains mescaline)
  • San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) (contains mescaline)


  • Cannabis (contains THC)
  • Sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia) (questioned hallucinogenic activity)
  • Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) (hallucinogenic activity results from ingestion of massive doses of this spice)


  • Diviner's sage (Salvia divinorum) (contains salvinorin A)


  • Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) (contains tropane alkaloids)
    Floripondio (Brugmansia sp.) (contains tropane alkaloids)
    Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) (contains tropane alkaloids)
    Mandrake (Mandragora sp.) (contains tropane alkaloids)
    Thorn Apple/Jimson Weed (Datura sp.) (contains tropane alkaloids)




  • Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) (contains muscimol)



  • Psychoactive toads (Bufo alvarius) (contain 5-MeO-DMT and Bufotenine)

See also


  1. ^ [1]

External links

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