Drugwise: Growing Up Straight in a Chemical Culture
 Author:   Jim Parker
Publisher:   Do It Now Foundation

 Publication Date:

  September 2003

 Catalog No:



Marijuana is just one example--and a mild one, at that--of a broader category of drugs known as hallucinogens.

Drugs in this group produce a wide range of changes in thought, mood, and perception. There are dozens of other hallucinogenic drugs, but the two best-known are LSD and PCP. They're also two of the riskiest.

LSD is one of the most powerful psychoactive drugs ever discovered. An active dose can be as little as 30 micrograms, or about one one-millionth of an ounce.

Still, a little LSD can go a long way--and can cause major changes in the way users think and feel.

Its common name is "acid," short for its chemical name, lysergic acid diethylamide. It's sometimes sold in tiny tablets (called "microdot") or gelatin chips ("windowpane"), but more often today it's soaked onto small squares of paper, known as "blotter."

Other hallucinogenic drugs are similar to LSD, including psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline, which comes from the peyote cactus.

There's an alphabet soup of other chemicals in the group, too, including DMT, MDA, and MDMA (or "ecstasy"). Known as hallucinogenic amphetamines, the drugs are similar to both hallucinogens and speed.

So how do they work? Good question.

Because even though researchers have been looking for answers for years, the brain is pretty complex--maybe a million times more complex than the fastest computer. And that makes it tough to trace what, exactly, microscopic amounts of hallucinogens do when they start doing their thing.

Still, we do know that some--like LSD--produce their main effects by temporarily "shorting-out" the way the brain works and processes sensory input.

Others--including ecstasy--temporarily tip the balance of brain chemicals that relay thoughts and feelings from one cell to another.

Effects vary from one drug to another; so does the length of time that drug effects last. An acid "trip" lasts about 8-10 hours, ecstasy wears off a little faster.

One problem common to hallucinogens is that their effects are often so strange and disorienting that users can panic, fearing they'll never come down. Luckily, most do.

Others aren't so lucky. Some users don't come down on schedule and, sometimes, they have to be hospitalized.

PCP. If anything, PCP, and its chemical cousin, ketamine (or "Special K"), are even weirder.

They're hallucinogens, like LSD, but they also have depressant and anesthetic drug effects--which means they slow the body down and block sensitivity to pain.

Because of their wide range of effects, both can be really risky.

Unlike LSD, users can physically overdose on both PCP and ketamine. And because they're anesthetics, users can seriously injure themselves and not know it.

Something both PCP and LSD--and most other hallucinogens--have in common are flashbacks, or recurrences of a scary drug trip.

Flashbacks don't always happen, but when they do, they're most often triggered by fatigue or other drug effects. Flashbacks are frightening because of their sudden onset and their intensity.

That causes more panic, and that makes things even worse.

Want to jump ahead (or go back) to a particular drug or drug category? Click in the table below to go there, or use the links, below right, to continue with the main text.

Alcohol Downers Speed
Cocaine Marijuana Hallucinogens
Inhalants Narcotics Other Do It Now Info

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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health published by Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.