What are psychedelics and what can they do?

Psychedelics are a group of psychoactive drugs that can induce hallucinations and feelings of euphoria. Although some research suggests they can treat certain mental health conditions, they can cause dependence and be dangerous if misused.

Some cultures use psychedelics for religious and spiritual practices. People also use psychedelics for recreational purposes, although many psychedelic substances are controlled and illegal in the United States.

Emerging evidence suggests that certain psychedelics may have medicinal benefits for a range of health conditions, particularly common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

This article discusses the characteristics, potential medicinal benefits, and risks of psychedelics.

Psychedelics are also known as hallucinogens because taking them can result in hallucinations. Hallucinations are sensory experiences that cause a person to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel things that are not really there. Someone who takes psychedelics may experience changes in their awareness of their thoughts and surroundings.

Some psychedelics come from plants or mushrooms (often referred to as “magic mushrooms”), while others are synthetic and manufactured by humans.

Types of psychedelics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are two main types of psychedelics: classic hallucinogens and dissociative drugs.

Classic hallucinogens

Classic hallucinogens include substances such as:

LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide)

LSD is a potent mind-altering chemical that is clear or white in color and has no smell. It is made from lysergic acid, which is found in a fungus that grows on grains.

Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine)

Psilocybin is the main active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” which include a wide range of mushrooms found in tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the U.S.

Peyote (mescaline)

Peyote is a small cactus native to Mexico and southern regions of the U.S. It can also be synthetic.

It is used in some Native American religious ceremonies, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) restricts it as a Schedule I substance. It contains mescaline, which can cause hallucinations, altered body image, and euphoria.

DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine)

DMT is a powerful chemical present in certain plant groups, including PhalarisDelospermaAcaciaMimosa, and in the leaves of citrus plants. People can make a tea called ayahuasca, which is also known as hoasca, aya, or yagé, from the natural plant version.

There is also a synthetic version of DMT, which is a white powder that people can smoke.


251-NBOMe is a synthetic substance originally developed by neuroscience researchers. It has similar qualities to LSD and MDMA. MDMA stands for 3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine, and is a recreational psychoactive drug. However, 251-NBOMe is more powerful than LSD and MDMA.

Dissociative drugs

Dissociative drugs include substances such as:

PCP (Phencyclidine)

Surgeons used PCP in the 1950s as a general anesthetic, but manufacturers stopped producing it due to its serious side effects, which included postoperative delirium and hallucinations. At high doses, PCP can cause seizures, severe muscle contractions, violent or aggressive behavior, and symptoms of psychosis.

At lower doses, PCP can cause feelings of detachment from a person’s surroundings and self, slurred speech, and loss of coordination. It is also a strong pain reliever.

The effects of PCP can develop within 2–5 minutes after smoking, and 30–60 minutes after swallowing. Some people experience these effects for 4–8 hours.

It is an illegal, schedule II controlled drug. Its street names include:

  • angel dust
  • hog
  • ozone
  • rocket fuel
  • wack
  • crystal
  • embalming fluid

A person can consume PCP by smoking, snorting, or swallowing the drug. It comes in powder, crystal, tablet, capsules, and liquid forms, with powder and liquid PCP being the most commonly sold forms.

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