Ancient Dreams, Modern-Day Dreamers

Drug abuse became a major public health concern during the 1960s, as millions of young people began experimenting with LSD and other substances. It was not a new phenomenon, though. People in different parts of the world have used such substances for thousands of years.

Natural hallucinogens come from raw plants. Synthetic varieties are made by humans.
Two types of hallucinogens exist: natural and synthetic. Natural hallucinogens come from raw plants. Synthetic varieties are made by humans.

Natural Hallucinogens

Natural hallucinogens can be obtained from plants that grow in the wild or on “drug farms.” They include some types of mushrooms and peyote, a cactus plant. Other plants and flowers, such as morning glories, contain hallucinogenic chemicals. Technically, they are not drugs; they are naturally occurring substances or agents that can cause hallucinations.

More than six thousand kinds of mushrooms have been identified. Many are good to eat. Some are poisonous. A few contain a hallucinogenic substance called psilocybin.

Peyote is a short, deep-rooted cactus. At the top of the plant are “buttons” that contain mescaline, a hallucinogen. People who want to get high on mescaline eat the button raw or dry it for later use. Dried peyote buttons are often brewed into a tea.

Marijuana is a comparatively weak hallucinogen. It comes from the tops and leaves of cannabis plants. It affects a person’s thoughts and emotions, but not as powerfully as other hallucinogens. Because of that, many users argue that it is harmless—even beneficial—and should be legalized.

Synthetic Hallucinogens

Synthetic hallucinogens are produced in laboratories with different combinations of substances. They include LSD, PCP, and “designer drugs” such as MDMA (ecstasy).

PCP stands for phencyclidine. In the drug culture, it is called angel dust. Doctors consider it the most dangerous hallucinogen, in part because it affects different people in unpredictable ways.

PCP is made in different forms: powder, capsule, tablet, and beverage. Some users force it directly into their bloodstreams with hypodermic syringes for faster effect. Others apply PCP powder to marijuana cigarettes or mix it with liquid cocaine.

LSD is lysergic acid diethylamide, often simply nicknamed “acid.” It is hundreds of times more powerful than natural hallucinogens. Consuming a tiny speck of the white powder can distort the senses. Illegal drug makers produce LSD capsules, tablets, sugar cubes, gelatin fragments, and dissolvable papers.

Other synthetic hallucinogens include certain “designer drugs.” Designer drugs are very similar to controlled substances and have the same effects on the body, but they are created with a slightly different chemical structure. Why are they made this way? Because if they are not exactly the same substance that is defined by law as illegal, then they arguably are legal. Not every variation is thoroughly lab-tested, which means they can be especially dangerous.

Hallucinogenic designer drugs include MDMA (methylene-dioxymethamphetamine), popularly known as ecstasy, and ketamine, called special K.

Hallucinogens throughout History

Scientists and historians believe Mexican Indians used peyote more than ten thousand years ago. Archaeologists have found paintings of mushrooms in northern Africa that, some believe, may indicate hallucinogenic substances were used in rituals there as long ago as nine thousand years. Three-thousand-year-old statues of gigantic mushrooms have been discovered in Central America. Two thousand years ago, the Greeks, according to historical writings, may have mixed a substance similar to LSD in a festival drink concocted to make people feel happy.

Ancient peoples used hallucinogens for different reasons, not merely to feel good. Tribal religious leaders believed the substances could connect them with their gods and dead ancestors and could reveal the future. In some tribes, they were prescribed by medicine men as remedies. Five hundred years ago, the Aztecs of Mexico made a paste including hallucinogenic parts of morning glories. They rubbed it on the skin of soldiers and priests, believing it gave them special powers. Viking warriors are believed to have eaten a type of mushroom before battle because it made them supernaturally violent and frightful.

Approximately a quarter of a million American Indians today still use peyote in religious ceremonies. They won the legal right to use it for that purpose in six western states.

Medical Experiments

Since the late 1800s, doctors and scientists have studied hallucinogens to determine whether they might be useful in medical treatment. They began creating synthetic versions of the substances. A Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, developed LSD in 1938 and believed it could be a cure for headaches. But when he took it, headaches became the least of his problems. He felt nauseous and unsteady, as if drunk. As the drug took over his system, he saw weird shapes and colors in changing patterns. Experimenting with stronger doses, he saw people and objects as distortions, like crazy mirror images at amusement parks. He felt unable to move. He seemed to float outside himself, looking down at his motionless body. He babbled foolishly. Activities around him seemed to occur in slow motion.

During the 1950s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reportedly experimented with LSD to learn how it might affect suspects under interrogation. Other researchers thought LSD might be useful in treating certain physical ailments and controlling alcoholism and mental disorders. One problem they quickly discovered is the unpredictable nature of hallucinogens. These substances do not affect everyone in the same ways.

Certain designer drugs were also developed with noble intentions. Pharmaceutical researchers in the early twentieth century studied ecstasy, for example, as a possible appetite control medication. It was later used to treat psychiatric patients. It was outlawed in the United States in 1985.

PCP came under study in the 1950s because doctors believed it, too, might be useful. Besides being a hallucinogen, PCP is an anesthetic. People think of anesthetics as medications that deaden pain—obviously helpful for patients undergoing surgery or suffering from major injuries. Anesthetics don’t exactly kill pain, though. They block pain signals from the affected area before the brain receives the signals and reacts. You don’t feel pain unless your brain tells you there is pain.

Anesthetics do what doctors want them to do, but they can also make a patient drowsy. They slow down breathing and heartbeats. PCP, doctors learned, does more than that. As a hallucinogen—not just an anesthetic—it affected patients like other hallucinogens do. Patients had “out-of-body experiences.” They felt fearful, sad, or angry. By the mid-1960s, doctors stopped using PCP as an anesthetic for human patients. (Some veterinarians began using it on animals.) They decided its negative risks were not worth its benefits.

From Medical Practice to Peace Rallies

While researchers were discovering the downsides of hallucinogens, young people were discovering their upsides. Those involved in the drug culture of the 1960s took an interest in hallucinogens as agents of love and peace. They produced and sold PCP, for example, as the “peace pill.”

Since then, new generations of young people have been intrigued by hallucinogens. Some begin using it as preteens. Antidrug efforts of government agencies, community organizations, and schools appear to have succeeded in lowering the usage rates of certain substances during the 1980s and 1990s. These successes may not be permanent, however. The temptation to experiment with so-called dream drugs continues.