Plants and fungi contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, which all serve many different purposes. Some may help to protect against disease. Some may help deter insects.
When humans ingest these compounds, it can have a wide variety of effects. Certain natural substances can have psychoactive effects and alter our states of consciousness. They may even cause us to hallucinate, making us see and hear things that don’t exist.
Plants and fungi that cause hallucinations are called natural hallucinogenics. Read on to discover more about some of these below.
Many Hallucinogenic Drugs are Based on Natural Compounds
A hallucinogen is a psychoactive drug that can cause hallucinations when ingested. Hallucinations are sensations (sights, sounds, touch, taste, and smell) that seem real but have no physical cause.
Examples of hallucinations caused by psychoactive drugs include:
- Visual: Often, hallucinogens cause people to see colorful patterns and geometric shapes.
- Auditory: Hallucinogens can cause people to hear beeping and ringing noises. Sometimes they can cause people to hear voices.
- Tactile/physical: Hallucinogens can cause people to feel like they are moving even though they are still. Some people report the feeling of things crawling on their skin.
There are many different types of hallucinogens, but they can be broadly divided into two main categories:
- Synthetic: Hallucinogens that are manufactured in a laboratory
- Natural: Hallucinogenic plants and fungi which grow from the Earth
Although there are many synthetically produced hallucinogens, many of these synthetics are based on, or structurally similar to, naturally occurring molecules. Here are some examples:
LSD and Ergot Fungus
Ergot is a fungus that grows parasitically on rye and other types of grains. In the middle ages, ergot-containing bread caused mass disease, known as “ergotism.”
One of the compounds found in ergot is lysergic acid. The Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann investigated compounds based on lysergic acid to create new pharmaceutical medicines in the late 1930s. In doing so, he synthesized LSD-25, now known as LSD, or “acid”, one of the most commonly used hallucinogens today.
MDMA and Sassafrass
Sassafrass is a type of tree native to North America. Safrole oil can be extracted from the root bark of the sassafras tree and is used in the manufacture of MDMA and other amphetamines.
A German pharmaceutical company developed MDMA in 1912 while attempting to make a medication to help control bleeding. During the late 1980s, it became recognized as a party drug and was made illegal.
The original production of MDMA used safrole oil and hydrobromic acid as starting chemicals. However, a variety of different methods are used to manufacture MDMA today.
Mescaline and the 2C Family
Mescaline is a naturally occurring compound found in several different species of cacti.
The American psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin used mescaline as a starting point for synthesizing several different drugs. He is most well known for synthesizing the 2C family, a group of drugs with notable hallucinogenic and stimulating effects.
Natural Hallucinogenic Plants
Several plants and fungi contain naturally occurring hallucinogenic compounds. These include:
Several species of mushrooms across the globe contain the hallucinogenic compounds psilocybin and psilocin. Increasingly, scientists are beginning to synthesize psilocybin as evidence from research shows that psilocybin could be a useful tool in treating various psychological disorders.
Evidence from research shows that psilocybin could be a useful tool in treating various psychological disorders.
Some reports suggest that Amanita muscaria mushrooms, also known as fly agaric, may also be hallucinogenic. However, instead of psilocybin or psilocin, the psychoactive compound in these mushroom species is muscimol.
Ayahuasca is a brew made from plants native to South America. These include the Psychotria viridis shrub (also known as chacruna), which contains the hallucinogenic compound DMT.
When chacruna is mixed with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, compounds inside the vine called MAOIs prevent the DMT from being broken down. This mixture means DMT stays in people’s bodies for long enough for them to have a prolonged altered state of consciousness.
Research has shown that alkaloid compounds in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine – harmine and harmaline – may also have psychoactive effects.
San Pedro and Peyote:
Several species of cacti, found predominantly throughout the Americas, contain the hallucinogenic compound mescaline. The two most commonly used sources of mescaline are the San Pedro and peyote cacti.
Because of the increasing popularity of mescaline, more tourists are visiting Mexico and consuming peyote. Because of the long time required for cacti to grow, peyote is now an endangered species. Synthetically-produced mescaline could provide a more sustainable alternative.
Cannabis, also known as marijuana, comes from Cannabis sativa, a flowering herb. Cannabis sativa is native to East Asia, but because of its popularity, it has been distributed worldwide and can be found growing in several places across the globe.
Cannabis contains various compounds called cannabinoids, The most well-known psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC induces an altered state of consciousness, and in high doses, can cause hallucinations.
Datura stramonium, also known as devil’s trumpet or jimsonweed, is a flowering nightshade plant. It’s likely to have originated in Central America. However, its various medical uses mean it has since been distributed globally and can be found growing in many different countries.
The main psychoactive compound found in datura is scopolamine. Scopolamine is classified as a deliriant – a group of hallucinogens whose primary effect is causing delirium, a state characterized by agitation, confusion, and dysphoria.
Natural Hallucinogens and the Law
The 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances criminalized hallucinogenic drugs. The act made legal bans on hallucinogenic compounds and not their organic sources (i.e., the plants and fungi they are derived from). However, in many countries, the cultivation, harvesting, possession, and distribution of the organic sources themselves is a crime.
There are certain exemptions under the act where consumption of natural hallucinogens is allowed. For example, spiritual or religious groups can consume naturally hallucinogenic plants and fungi, traditionally used in ceremonies or religious rites.
Several countries, including the USA, UK, and parts of Europe have reclassified certain hallucinogens in recent years.
The UK, parts of Europe, and the USA have reclassified certain hallucinogens in more recent years. Cannabis moved from schedule 1 to schedule 2 in 2006 in the UK, meaning a doctor can now give it as part of a medical prescription.
In the USA, a vast majority of states have now implemented medical cannabis programs. A growing number have also passed laws allowing adults aged 21 and over to use the plant recreationally. Many others have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.
In the past couple of years, several states in the USA have also decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms.
How Are Natural Hallucinogens Used?
Hallucinogenic plants and fungi have been used throughout history for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. Many scholars believe that the ancient Greeks consumed ergot fungus as part of the Eleusinian mystery rites. Ancient Hindu texts also call attention to “soma” – a psychoactive suggested to be the Amanita muscaria mushroom.
Examples of spiritual hallucinogen use in today’s world include the ceremonial use of peyote by members of the Native American Church and ayahuasca by the Church of Santo Daime.
Certain indigenous groups use natural hallucinogens for community healing. For example, the Tukano people in the Amazon use ayahuasca to maintain social harmony in their tribe.
Hallucinogens are becoming increasingly popular globally. More people are beginning to travel to places like Mexico and South America, where certain natural hallucinogens are legal, to participate in psychedelic ceremonies. Many people attend these ceremonies for exploration, healing trauma, and self-transformation purposes.
Are Natural Hallucinogens Safe?
While natural hallucinogens may have potential benefits, they still come with potential dangers. As such, anybody interested in taking natural hallucinogens should research the risks of what they’re taking and how to avoid them.
Some general risks of natural hallucinogens include:
- Psychosis and other related long-term mental health issues
- Hallucinogenic perception persistence disorder (HPPD)
- Psychological addiction
- Harmful drug interactions
- Dangerous behaviors and engaging in dangerous situations during a trip
Summary on Natural Hallucinogens
Several hallucinogenic compounds occur naturally, and many synthetic hallucinogens are based on natural molecules.
As hallucinogens become increasingly popular, more people are traveling to countries where they can legally access natural hallucinogens. With an increase in the number of people consuming hallucinogens, it’s important public attention is brought to the safe use of these substances.