Psychedelic drugs are substances that alter cognition and perception in a way that often produces some kind of hallucination or change in how the user perceives reality. These include LSD (acid), psilocybin mushrooms (shrooms), DMT, cannabis, and mescaline. Salvia, a substance that is legal in many states and has been gaining popularity, is considered an atypical psychedelic drug.
Possession and use of most of these drugs are illegal in many countries except for medical and religious use. In the United States, the vast majority are listed as Schedule I controlled substances. An increasing number of nations and US states are also legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. Psychedelics are considered to be nonaddictive, at least in the physical sense, meaning they don’t produce physical withdrawal symptoms when an individual stops taking them.
There is some controversy on the topic of psychological addiction, which typically manifest as cravings and symptoms like depression and anxiety upon stopping use, especially when it comes to cannabis. However, these drugs can still be abused to the point that one’s life is disrupted and physical health and safety are at risk.
The effects of psychedelic drugs come in a particularly wide range and depend heavily on the type of drug taken and even the subtypes of each drug within the category. While cannabis often simply alters or enhances certain senses like taste and touch, LSD can produce vivid visual hallucinations. Others can make users feel as though they are losing their sense of self, commonly referred to as an ego death. These experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the individual’s state of mind prior to taking the drug and how prepared the person is for the sometimes dramatic effects. Unpleasant experiences are often referred to as bad trips.
Who Uses Psychedelics?
Psychedelic drugs are often tried out of curiosity. The idea of experiencing an unpredictable hallucinatory state is alluring to many, especially to young people. Once a good trip has been experienced, a lot of individuals will go back to the drug in order to try and recreate the incredible feelings and hallucinations that happened the first time. But users never really know when a bad trip will occur.
Of course, some individuals use low-intensity psychedelics for medical purposes, particularly cannabis. This substance also has pain relief properties and can combat nausea and increase appetite. Other psychedelic drugs are used for religious purposes, and some cultures believe that other natural psychedelics such as mescaline, which comes from a type of cactus, and Ayahuasca, which is a beverage made with a vine that contains a type of DMT, have healing properties.
Recreational use of psychedelics is on the rise in the US after decades of being considered a relic of the 1960s. A recent survey found that 17 percent of all adults in the US between the ages of 21 and 64 have used one of these drugs in their lifetime. That amounts to 32 million people. Rates among 21-year-old individuals are about as high as the rates of those who are considered to be of the baby boomer generation that came of age during the height of the psychedelic drug craze of the 1960s. However, rates are highest among those in the 30-34 age range.
There is some evidence suggesting that certain psychadelic drugs can be effectively used to treat mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even addiction. However, current studies on the potential of these substances for this purpose are preliminary and complicated by the fact that most of the drugs being tested are illegal.
Dangers of Psychedelic Drug Abuse
The most dangerous thing about psychedelic drugs lies in their unpredictability. Bad trips can have a number of very distressing effects that can drive individuals to hurt themselves or others, either on accident or occasionally on purpose. These include:
- Intense anxiety
- Extreme paranoia
Individuals left unsupervised while intoxicated on a psychedelic may hallucinate to the point that they will wander out into a busy street or climb onto the roof without realizing where they are. There have been stories of people so disconnected from reality that they jump off high places thinking they can fly or are impervious to harm. These are unusual cases, but the potential for injury and death are great enough that many governments have deemed powerful psychedelics like LSD to be too dangerous to be legal.
There is also a possibility, albeit unlikely, that a psychedelic drug can cause effects that last for days, weeks, or even months after the actual substance has worn off, which typically takes no longer than 12 hours. One reported condition is referred to as persistent psychosis, which is characterized by continuing psychological disturbances that began with the ingestion of the drug. For a few people, the paranoia, mood changes, disorganized thoughts, and even visual disturbances will keep going long after the drug was taken. Others who heavily abuse psychedelic drugs may experience flashbacks to certain “trips” without warning years after they stop using. Rarely, these individuals will develop hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder (HPPD), in which the flashbacks occur on a daily basis and affect everyday functioning.
One study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that 60 percent of its 51 subjects given a high dose of psilocybin experienced a personality change that lasted for almost an entire year. Users of psychedelic mushrooms also face the risk of ingesting poisonous mushrooms due to the fact that there is no regulation of the psilocybin market.
Additionally, despite the fact that psychedelics are not considered to be addictive, it is possible to develop a tolerance to certain types of these drugs. Enough use of LSD, for example, can cause a person to need to take more of the substance to get the same effect. However, due to the unpredictable nature of psychedelics, this can dramatically increase the risk of having a bad trip and experiencing intense anxiety and panic.
Signs of Abuse
Due to the unusual and varying nature of psychedelic drugs, it can be hard to spot signs of abuse. This is made worse by the fact that these substances are not physically addictive, so one cannot rely on the presence of physical withdrawal symptoms. However, psychological addiction is possible and often comes with telltale behavioral and lifestyle changes, including:
- Sudden financial difficulties
- Change in personality
- Change in social circles
- Extreme mood swings
- Change in availability or reliability
- Difficulty keeping track of time
- Increase in anxiety
- Emergence of a panic disorder
- Changes in appetite
Psychological addiction is characterized by cravings and feelings of unease when the drug is not available or fearing that the drug will not be available in the future. Depression and/or anxiety can occur when the individual stops taking the drug on a regular basis. These symptoms are not as severe as those of physical withdrawal but can still make it difficult for a person to quit, even in the face of financial, social, or legal consequences.
Treatment for psychedelic drug abuse is complicated by the facts that each individual drug in the category is quite different and there is no medication to treat psychological addiction. Individuals who abuse these drugs may be seeking pleasure or escape from dissatisfying or stressful lives, or they may have underlying psychological issues that need to be addressed via therapy. Some abuse these drugs to escape from past trauma. In fact, a report by the Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America found that a full two-thirds of individuals who regularly use LSD reported using it to escape from past physical or sexual abuse.
Mood disorders can also often be treated with simple medications, though it may take some time to figure out which antidepressant or mood stabilizer works the best with the fewest side effects. However, the most effective treatment for both substance use disorders and mood disorders combines other forms of treatment with individual or group therapy and/or support groups. There are support groups available for individuals psychologically addicted to specific types of psychedelics. For those who have experienced abuse, trauma therapy may be necessary in order for the individual to reach the level of life satisfaction necessary to not feel the need to escape from reality.
Though it may not be as simple to address as addiction to alcohol or drugs like heroin or cocaine, those who feel they do not have control over their abuse of psychedelic drugs should seek professional help as soon as possible to avoid injury or severe and ongoing mental disturbances. Those who have already experienced a distressing change in personality or hallucinations outside of when using the drug should seek medical attention. These symptoms may be manageable via medication or calming/coping techniques that can be taught in substance abuse treatment.