Hallucinogenic drugs, also known as hallucinogens, are substances that produce their effects by altering the information entering the brain through one or more of the senses. A small but substantial minority of teenagers and adults in the U.S. use these powerful substances, which can have a strongly negative effect on mental and physical health and well-being. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of American researchers assessed the current popularity of various hallucinogenic drugs.
Hallucinogenic Drug Basics
Hallucinogens are natural and synthetic substances that get grouped together because they create the sensory distortions known as hallucinations. In the strictest sense, substances that meet this basic definition include LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), two separate compounds — psilocybin and psilocin — found in certain mushroom species, a cactus compound called mescaline, phencyclidine (PCP), lesser known compounds called phenylethylamines and tryptamines, and MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly), a manmade compound that has both hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. Responses to hallucinogenic drugs vary widely, both among individuals and across experiences by a single user. While the short-term effects of these substances may be pleasant, they may also involve mental states that can include fear, terror, profound disorientation and confusion, and extreme forms of anxiety or hopelessness. Users of these drugs also run the risk of developing schizophrenia-like symptoms of psychosis or unpredictable, potentially dangerous “flashbacks” to previous hallucinogen-induced states (a condition known formally as hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder or HPPD).
Tracking Hallucinogen Use
In the U.S., information on patterns of hallucinogen use comes from several highly regarded federal sources. The National Institute on Drug Abuse tracks usage patterns among eighth-graders, high school students and young adults through an annual, University of Michigan-led nationwide survey called Monitoring the Future. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) tracks usage patterns in all Americans age 12 or older through a yearly, nationwide project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA also maintains the Drug Abuse Warning Network (frequently referred to as DAWN), a national system that uses the information recorded by hospital emergency departments, coroners and medical examiners to calculate the number of annual drug-related hospital visits in the U.S., as well as the yearly number of drug-related fatalities. In addition, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tracks drug manufacturing trends through a network called the National Forensic Laboratory Information System.
Current Facts and Figures
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the Addiction Research Institute School of Social Work used information gathered from Monitoring the Future, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Drug Abuse Warning Network and the National Forensic Laboratory Information System to determine the current level of hallucinogenic drug use across the U.S. The included figures all come from the year 2012, except for the information gathered from DAWN, which comes from 2011.
Figures gathered from Monitoring the Future indicate that the most commonly used hallucinogens among high school students and young adults are MDMA and LSD. Usage rates for MDMA are highest among college students (5.8 percent); LSD use occurs most often among 12th-graders (2.4 percent). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health releases a combined figure for all forms of hallucinogen use. In 2012, 14.6 percent of all Americans over the age of 11 reported using hallucinogenic drugs at some point in their lifetimes; the highest rate of lifetime use (23 percent) occurred among adults between the ages of 26 and 34.
According to figures gathered from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, in 2011 more people (22,498) received emergency room treatment for MDMA use than for any other form of hallucinogen intake. Figures gathered from the National Forensic Laboratory Information System indicate that MDMA is also the most common synthetically produced hallucinogen in the U.S. Other fairly commonly produced substances include LSD and synthetic psilocin.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence believe they are the first researchers to produce such a detailed, integrated picture of hallucinogen use in modern America. (Their study also included two groups of newly popular substances — synthetic cathinones or “bath salts” and synthetic marijuana — not typically classified as hallucinogenic drugs.) They believe that their work will help public health officials make more informed decisions about where to target their resources for combating hallucinogen intake among young people and in other population groups.