Last week’s discussion of opium leads us naturally around to another category of drugs, which is hallucinogens.
These have a long and venerable history, and also a rather bad reputation in the modern world. They’re associated with hippies, with raves, and with wacky scientific experiments of dubious methodology and value. Much as with marijuana, after an initial surge in popularity LSD became demonized, and only recently has research into its therapeutic applications been revived.
But we’ll get to the cultural side of things soon enough. First let’s look at what hallucinogens are.
They fit into the broader category of psychoactive drugs, which include all the drugs we’ve already discussed: stimulants, depressants like alcohol, and analgesics and anaesthetics. Within the term “hallucinogen” itself, the three general types are psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. The divisions between these aren’t strict; they’re based on the effect they have rather than a specific chemical differentiation, so that you’ll sometimes see the same material described in multiple ways.
Dissociatives overlap with the painkillers we talked about before because they induce a feeling of detachment and unreality, which help with pain. In fact, both ketamine and PCP were originally developed as anaesthetics; their recreational use came later. Deliriants, as the name implies, induce delirium: a state of severe confusion and loss of ability to control one’s actions. Plants that cause this effect are relatively easy to come by; the challenge is not killing yourself when you consume them. Datura, for example, is highly toxic, as are belladonna and uncured tobacco. You rarely see these used recreationally, in the sense of “for fun,” not only because of the danger but because the experience is frequently not very enjoyable at all.
But when you think of hallucinogens, you mostly think of LSD and other psychedelics. These produce an altered state of consciousness, the nature of which depends on the drug taken (and often the associated stimuli as well). The user sees and/or hears things that aren’t there, and often has a feeling of being opened to greater truths and the deep mysteries of the world. In fact, the term “psychedelic” translates to “soul-manifesting.”
Many of these drugs can also be found in nature, but unlike the deliriants, they tend to be less immediately toxic. Key chemicals are psilocin, mescaline, and DMT; these are found in psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca respectively. By contrast, LSD is an invention of modern chemistry — but it ultimately derives from an alkaloid found in ergot, which has a colorful history as both a medicine and a poison.
When you look into the histories of these plants and more, ritual use comes up again and again. They’re used for divination, for rites of passage, for spiritual and physical healing, for receiving messages from the gods. As near as we can tell, one of the earliest aspects of religion is communion with the spiritual world, with the divine — in other words, an altered state of consciousness, during which the participant experiences things outside the normal realm of daily human life.
Hallucinogens, when used in this context, are referred to as entheogens — a terminological nicety to differentiate the sacred use of a drug from secular, recreational consumption, and to escape the negative connotations that by then had attached to “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic.” The need for such a maneuver was real; the outlawing and demonization of such drugs was part of the colonial effort to stamp out indigenous culture and religion. The word “entheogen” was coined in 1979, only one year after the passage of a U.S. law that permitted the use of religious peyote in the Native American Church.
Sacred use of a drug isn’t just about the purpose for which it’s employed; it’s also about the surrounding ritual. As with any religious ceremony, the participants may be required to undergo preparation or purification, or to wear special clothing. There may be music or drumming or chanting during the experience. Taboos may limit who is permitted to consume the drug, or when. Given that these substances act on the mind, the ritual elements can play a key role in helping to create the intended experience: you’re more likely to have visions of a god if you’ve prayed to him and danced in front of his image, instead of just downing something in your living room with friends.
Even if you don’t personally subscribe to the belief systems underpinning these rituals, it’s hard to write off altered states of consciousness as useless or irrelevant. There’s genuine value in prompting your brain to make unusual connections, breaking your normal patterns temporarily or even permanently. I know an artist who said their perception of and thoughts about color changed after trying LSD; the feeling of heightened awareness that comes with acid can make you aware of things that ordinarily just form the background noise of your surroundings.
And there’s potentially real therapeutic value in using hallucinogens as part of psychological therapy — in other words, the “spiritual healing” mentioned above, just recast in modern terms. While bad trips are certainly possible, and some hallucinogens can induce paranoia and distress, many of them produce a feeling of calm and well-being. The direct effect may be temporary, but in combination with other kinds of therapy, there’s a possibility that it can produce longer-term benefits. Certainly ketamine has been hailed as the most important breakthrough in treating depression in the last fifty years.
But research into these matters is still hampered by the prejudice against hallucinogens, and indigenous groups who use such drugs in their rituals are still having to fight for the right to practice their traditions. Even though evidence suggests that many psychedelics are fairly safe and not physically addicting, they’re still far less acceptable in the modern world than alcohol is.