The drugs that produce the most extreme alteration of consciousness are the hallucinogens, psychoactive drugs that alter sensation and perception and that may create hallucinations. The hallucinogens are frequently known as “psychedelics.” Drugs in this class include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, or “Acid”), mescaline, and phencyclidine (PCP), as well as a number of natural plants including cannabis (marijuana), peyote, and psilocybin. The chemical compositions of the hallucinogens are similar to the neurotransmitters serotonin and epinephrine, and they act primarily as agonists by mimicking the action of serotonin at the synapses. The hallucinogens may produce striking changes in perception through one or more of the senses. The precise effects a user experiences are a function not only of the drug itself, but also of the user’s preexisting mental state and expectations of the drug experience. In large part, the user tends to get out of the experience what he or she brings to it. The hallucinations that may be experienced when taking these drugs are strikingly different from everyday experience and frequently are more similar to dreams than to everyday consciousness.
Cannabis (marijuana) is the most widely used hallucinogen. Until it was banned in the United States under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1938, it was widely used for medical purposes. In recent years, cannabis has again been frequently prescribed for the treatment of pain and nausea, particularly in cancer sufferers, as well as for a wide variety of other physical and psychological disorders (Ben Amar, 2006). 1 While medical marijuana is now legal in several American states, it is still banned under federal law, putting those states in conflict with the federal government. Marijuana also acts as a stimulant, producing giggling, laughing, and mild intoxication. It acts to enhance perception of sights, sounds, and smells, and may produce a sensation of time slowing down. It is much less likely to lead to antisocial acts than that other popular intoxicant, alcohol, and it is also the one psychedelic drug whose use has not declined in recent years (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2009). 2
Although the hallucinogens are powerful drugs that produce striking “mind-altering” effects, they do not produce physiological or psychological tolerance or dependence. While they are not addictive and pose little physical threat to the body, their use is not advisable in any situation in which the user needs to be alert and attentive, exercise focused awareness or good judgment, or demonstrate normal mental functioning, such as driving a car, studying, or operating machinery.