Are Hallucinogens Addictive?

Evidence indicates that certain hallucinogens can be addictive or that people can develop a tolerance to them. Use of some hallucinogens also produces tolerance to other similar drugs.

For example, LSD is not considered an addictive drug because it doesn’t cause uncontrollable drug-seeking behavior. However, LSD does produce tolerance, so some users who take the drug repeatedly must take higher doses to achieve the same effect. This is an extremely dangerous practice, given the unpredictability of the drug. In addition, LSD produces tolerance to other hallucinogens, including psilocybin.

On the other hand, PCP is a hallucinogen that can be addictive. People who stop repeated use of PCP experience drug cravings, headaches, and sweating as common withdrawal symptoms.

Scientists need more research into the tolerance or addiction potential of hallucinogens.

How do Hallucinogens Affect the Human Body?

Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates:

  • Mood
  • Sensory perception
  • Sleep
  • Hunger
  • Body temperature
  • Sexual behavior
  • Muscle control

Other hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate, which regulates:

  • Pain perception
  • Responses to the environment
  • Emotion
  • Learning and memory

Short-Term Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

The effects of hallucinogens can begin within 20 to 90 minutes and can last as long as 6 to 12 hours. Salvia’s effects are more short-lived, appearing in less than 1 minute and lasting less than 30 minutes. Hallucinogen users refer to the experiences brought on by these drugs as “trips,” calling the unpleasant experiences “bad trips.”

Along with hallucinations, other short-term general effects include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Intensified feelings and sensory experiences
  • Changes in sense of time (for example, time passing by slowly)

Specific short-term effects of some hallucinogens include:

  • Increased blood pressure, breathing rate, or body temperature
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleep problems
  • Mixed senses (such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors)
  • Spiritual experiences
  • Feelings of relaxation or detachment from self/environment
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Excessive sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia—extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
  • Psychosis—disordered thinking detached from reality

Long-Term Effects of Hallucinogen Abuse

Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that ketamine users may develop symptoms that include ulcers in the bladder, kidney problems, and poor memory. Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as:

  • Speech problems
  • Memory loss
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts

Though rare, long-term effects of some hallucinogens include the following:

  • Persistent psychosis—a series of continuing mental problems, including:
    • Visual disturbances
    • Disorganized thinking
    • Paranoia
    • Mood changes
  • Flashbacks—recurrences of certain drug experiences. They often happen without warning and may occur within a few days or more than a year after drug use. In some users, flashbacks can persist and affect daily functioning, a condition known as hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder(HPPD). These people continue to have hallucinations and other visual disturbances, such as seeing trails attached to moving objects.
  • Symptoms that are sometimes mistaken for other disorders, such as stroke or a brain tumor

Other Health Risks & Affects of Hallucinogens

Other risks or health effects of many hallucinogens remain unclear and need more research. Known risks include the following:

  • Some psilocybin users risk poisoning and possibly death from using a poisonous mushroom by mistake.
  • High doses of PCP can cause seizures, coma, and death, though death more often results from accidental injury or suicide during PCP intoxication. Interactions between PCP and depressants such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (prescribed to relieve anxiety or promote sleep—alprazolam [Xanax®], for instance) can also lead to coma.
  • Some bizarre behaviors resulting from hallucinogens that users display in public places may prompt public health or law enforcement personnel intervention.
  • While hallucinogens’ effects on the developing fetus are unknown, researchers do know that mescaline in peyote may affect the fetus of a pregnant woman using the drug.

Treatment for Addiction to Hallucinogens

There are no government-approved medications to treat addiction to hallucinogens. While inpatient and/or behavioral treatments can be helpful for patients with a variety of addictions, scientists need more research to find out if behavioral therapies are effective for addiction to hallucinogens.