What are hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens are a diverse group of drugs that alter a person’s awareness of their surroundings as well as their own thoughts and feelings.

Close-up of gloved hands selecting psilocybin psychedelic mushrooms.
Image by ©GettyImages/Moha El-Jaw

They are commonly split into two categories: classic hallucinogens (such as LSD)

and dissociative drugs (such as PCP). Both types of hallucinogens can cause hallucinations, or sensations and images that seem real though they are not. Additionally, dissociative drugs can cause users to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and environment.

Some hallucinogens are extracted from plants or mushrooms, and some are synthetic (human-made). Historically, people have used hallucinogens for religious or healing rituals. More recently, people report using these drugs for social or recreational purposes, including to have fun, deal with stress, have spiritual experiences, or just to feel different.

Common classic hallucinogens include the following:

  • LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the most powerful mind-altering chemicals. It is a clear or white odorless material made from lysergic acid, which is found in a fungus that grows on rye and other grains.
  • Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) comes from certain types of mushrooms found in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States.
  • Peyote (mescaline) is a small, spineless cactus with mescaline as its main ingredient. Peyote can also be synthetic.
  • DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is a powerful chemical found naturally in some Amazonian plants. Ayahuasca is a tea made from such plants, and when taken in this form it is also known as hoasca, aya, and yagé. People can also make DMT in a lab. Synthetic DMT usually takes the form of a white crystalline powder that is smoked.
  • 251-NBOMe is a synthetic hallucinogen with similarities both to LSD and MDMA (see DrugFacts: MDMA) but that is much more potent. Developed for use in brain research, when sold illegally it is sometimes called N Bomb or 251.

Common examples of dissociative drugs include the following:

  • PCP (Phencyclidine) was developed in the 1950s as a general anesthetic for surgery, but it is no longer used for this purpose due to serious side effects. PCP can be found in a variety of forms, including tablets or capsules; however, liquid and white crystal powder are the most common.
  • Ketamine is used as a surgery anesthetic for humans and animals. Much of the ketamine sold illegally come from veterinary offices. It mostly sells as a powder or as pills, but it also available as an injectable liquid. Ketamine is snorted or sometimes added to drinks as a date-rape drug.
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) is a cough suppressant and mucus-clearing ingredient in some over-the-counter cold and cough medicines (syrups, tablets, and gel capsules).
  • Salvia (Salvia divinorum) is a plant common to southern Mexico and Central and South America. Salvia is typically ingested by chewing fresh leaves or by drinking their extracted juices. The dried leaves of salvia can also be smoked or vaporized and inhaled.

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