Psychedelic Drugs in Popular Psychology

The word psychedelic is formed from Greek roots meaning “mind-manifesting,” an appropriate name for psychoactive (hallucinogenic) drugs that can severely distort perceptions and evoke vivid hallucinations. A hallucination is simply a sensory experience that occurs in the absence of sensory input; in other words, seeing, hearing, feeling, or smelling something which is not, objectively speaking, there. Hallucinogens are often divided into two categories: major hallucinogens and marijuana (usually the only member listed in the “minor” category).

Marijuana—The hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) has been cultivated for over 5 millennia for its fiber, which has historically been very important in shipping, used primarily for rope and sailcloth. For approximately as long, its leaves and flowers (marijuana) and its concentrated resin (hashish) have been used both medicinally and recreationally. The primary active ingredient is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but the plant also contains over eighty other cannabinoids, complex organic molecules found only in cannabis, many of which also contribute to the drug experience. THC produces a wide range of effects depending on the individual using the drug and the mode of use, thus making the drug difficult to classify. For example, some chemicals are active when smoked but not when ingested in food. Because of this, many references list marijuana as a separate drug category unto itself rather than including it among the hallucinogens. When marijuana is smoked, THC reaches the brain in about seven seconds, producing a stronger and more immediate effect than does ingesting it in food, which causes the peak concentration to be reached more slowly and unpredictably.

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As with other hallucinogens, the marijuana user’s experience will vary according to the situation in which the drug is taken and the individual user’s state of mind at the time. When a person who feels happy takes the drug, the result will usually be an intensification of euphoric feelings; but when an anxious or depressed person takes the drug, those feelings too may be intensified. Standard effects of taking marijuana include the following:

  • Altered Sensory-Perceptual Experiences—Vision, hearing, taste, and touch are changed. A commonly reported experience, for example, is that users hear things in music that they haven’t heard before. Intriguingly, studies using objective measures of sensation and perception not only fail to find any evidence of enhancement during marijuana intoxication, but they actually tend to report the opposite.
  • Impaired Attention and Reaction Time—On tasks requiring either sustained concentration or divided attention, performance is significantly disrupted, as is reaction time.
  • Memory Loss—Disruption of short-term memory is one of the best-known effects of marijuana. The marijuana user may be unable to keep up a conversation due to having forgotten what the other person just said, or may even forget what he or she is saying in mid-sentence. Reading comprehension is also disrupted, for the same reason. Marijuana also interferes with the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory, which is why many college students have discovered to their sorrow that studying while stoned is a remarkably bad idea.
  • Distorted Subjective Experience of Time—Marijuana causes serious distortions of the internal clock, in that time appears to pass more slowly.
  • Motivation Reduction—Marijuana appears to reduce motivation to perform on cognitive tasks, in addition to its effects on ability to do so.
  • Altered Levels of Creativity—Marijuana users frequently report that they are more creative and inspired while stoned. Research evidence tends not to support this. A common experience among marijuana users involves writing down one’s thoughts while stoned, and then discovering while sober that the “profound and creative” thoughts are actually either very ordinary or downright incomprehensible.
  • Altered Social Skills—Another common subjective experience while under the influence of marijuana is a sense of improved insight into others and enhanced interpersonal communication skills. This is also not supported by research, which tends instead to show diminished social perception.
  • Psychiatric Symptoms—Contrary to long-standing myth (exacerbated by such classic films as Reefer Madness), marijuana use does not cause psychiatric disturbances in normal people using typical amounts. In people who already have tendencies towards psychosis (such as pre-existing paranoid or schizophrenic tendencies), however, marijuana use may trigger psychotic episodes.
  • “Coming Down”—Marijuana users frequently express a belief that they can will themselves back to sobriety to carry out complex tasks such as driving a car. Again, evidence suggests that this is not the case.
  • “The Munchies”—Marijuana frequently triggers ravenous hunger, usually referred to by users as “the munchies.” This effect may have legitimate medical applications (see below).

The effects described above are mostly temporary, occurring only while the person is still “high,” but marijuana also has some longer-term effects. Chronic use is associated with difficulties in attention, memory, and motivation, even when the drug is not currently in use. Unlike alcohol, which is eliminated from the body within a few hours, THC is stored in fatty tissues of the body and may remain present for a month or more. Research also suggests that marijuana may suppress testosterone production and reduce sperm counts. Studies also show that chronic marijuana smoking may damage the lungs more than tobacco smoking does.

Although marijuana is primarily used recreationally, its potential medical applications have led to powerful grass-roots movements supporting its legalization in the United States and Canada. Marijuana has long been a favored treatment for glaucoma, and other legitimate uses have become widely known more recently. Marijuana is far more effective than other drugs for many patients in relieving the nausea caused by chemotherapy. It also is effective in relieving the nausea and pain experienced by AIDS patients, and getting the munchies helps prevent the severe weight loss often seen in such patients. Knowledge of these uses is best accompanied, however, by an understanding of the ways in which the toxicity of marijuana smoke compromises the benefits provided by THC. Unfortunately, many glaucoma and chemotherapy patients report that THC in pill form is not as effective in providing relief as smoked marijuana.

Major Hallucinogens —Some hallucinogens are naturally occurring substances, but the best-known and best-documented drug in this category is LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). The drug was created in 1943 by chemist Albert Hofmann, who also inadvertently took the first “acid trip” after accidentally ingesting a miniscule quantity of the chemical. LSD is effective in extremely small doses: where the effective doses of other drugs, including other hallucinogens, are measured in milligrams, LSD requires measurement in micrograms. LSD’s effects on the user, which include vivid hallucinations, participation in dreamlike scenes, and powerful emotional states, appear to be highly dependent on the individual’s mood and state of mind at the time of ingestion. Consequently, the emotions and images experienced may cover the whole range from euphoria and deep peace to terror and panic. Users also frequently experience synaesthesia, or the transformation of sensory experiences in one modality into experiences in another modality. In plain English, that means they hear colors and shapes and see sounds.

LSD appears to primarily mimic the action of the neurotransmitter serotonin in various parts of the brain, thus causing areas of the brain to communicate with each other which shouldn’t (thus producing synaesthesia) and causing other areas to communicate when they shouldn’t (some studies show that nerve pathways which are ordinarily active during dreaming are also highly active during an LSD trip). Some of LSD’s effects may last long after the drug is no longer present. A well-documented after-effect of LSD is the flashback, in which the user may re-experience portions of the trip weeks, months, or even years later. It has been suggested that this may be a result of actual physical changes to neurons that occur in the presence of LSD. Results of physiological studies remain inconclusive on this.

Although LSD was synthesized in 1943, the effects of similar drugs have been known for centuries, thanks to several naturally occurring plant substances that have been used ceremonially by Native Americans since long before the arrival of European settlers. Psilocybin is a hallucinogen found in several species of wild mushrooms, commonly referred to as “magic mushrooms” or simply “shrooms.” The mushrooms were considered sacred by the pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico and Central America, where the Aztec word for them was teonanacatl, or “flesh of God.” They are still used by certain tribal groups in the Yucatán peninsula area of Mexico and Guatemala, and their effects are virtually identical to those described above for LSD. Since the hallucinogenic effects rely so profoundly on the user’s emotional state, the tribesman who has prepared for a deep religious experience will generally have one, whereas bad trips are extremely rare under such conditions.

Mexican and Plains Indian tribal groups have also long used peyote, a spineless desert cactus that grows in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The top of the cactus is sliced into pieces known as buttons, which are then dried in the sun. In ceremonial use, the buttons are softened in the mouth and then chewed and swallowed. At first, the effects of the active ingredient, mescaline, include nausea, tremors, and vomiting. Once these feelings end, the hallucinogenic effects may take an hour to manifest themselves, at which time they may last for several hours.

Like the other hallucinogens, the effects of mescaline depend heavily on the mood and expectations of the user, and so the religious structure of the experience tends to produce very positive, ecstatic trips. Because it is used in the religious ceremonies of Native Americans, peyote is the only hallucinogen described here which is legal for use in the United States, but only when taken as part of a religious ceremony. This is a result of the government’s reluctance to interfere in religious practices and was formalized by an act of Congress in 1970. A similar attempt by Rastafarians seeking to use marijuana legally as part of their religion, however, has failed.


  1. Stafford, P., Bigwood, J., and Orfali, S. J. Psychedelics Encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Ronin, 1992.