Do Long-Term Side Effects Even Exist?

As kids have always heard during Drug Awareness Week, it only takes one hit. One dose, one breath, one swallow, or one injection. It only takes one dose for the body to have a rapid, life-threatening reaction. It also only takes one dose to create a habit that leads to devastating consequences. Research exploring the long-term side effects of drugs like hallucinogens makes a fighting argument that though users may survive the immediate effects of their drug(s) of choice, their mental and physical health is still at considerable risk if they continue the habit. Some studies have traditionally contested the idea that hallucinogens have any devastating consequences after the short-term effects wear off, but deeper research continuously yields new evidence of changes in the brain and damage to the heart, as well as risk of addiction or escalation of drug abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Department of Veterans Affairs have confirmed numerous identifiable long-term effects of using certain psychedelic drugs. Additionally, those sources admit that other (and more obscure) complications of psychedelic drugs may exist, but the medical community has not yet come to comprehensively understand them. (Remember that a lack of published information on long-term effects does not equate to an absence of long-term effects.) It is therefore essential for current users of psychedelic drugs to seek drug rehabilitation in order to avoid debilitating consequences.

Identifying Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs

A substance that physically and mentally alters one’s perception of reality qualifies as a basic psychedelic drug that can be classified as either a hallucinogen or a dissociative drug. Hallucinogens are found in naturally-growing substances (like mushrooms) or are manufactured in both pill and liquid form or as a small, soluble wafer. Dissociative drugs were manufactured as anesthetics before they were illegalized. Though many of the immediate effects are the same, different psychedelic drugs fall under two separate categories:

Classic Hallucinogens cause actual hallucinations:

Dissociative Drugs cause users to feel detached from their own mind and body:

  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) or “acid”
  • Psilocybin (deriving from mushrooms) “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms”
  • Peyote (mescaline) historically used to enhance Native American religious rituals
  • DMT (dimethyltryptamine) found in Ayahuasca, among other psychedelic drugs
  • PCP (Phencyclidine) found in numerous forms (liquid, powder, tablets, capsules)
  • Ketamine (Special “K”) used as an animal tranquilizer
  • DXM (Dextromethorphan) found in some over-the-counter cough suppressants

Though there are others, these six are some of the most highly recognized psychedelic drugs in circulation. They induce similar mental and physical effects:

Psychologically, they distort reality; hallucinogen users may see, hear, taste, and feel things that do not exist within twenty to ninety minutes of consumption, whereas dissociative drug users may feel detached, depressed, or lack a general grasp on reality.

Physiologically, users may experience an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, sleepiness, nausea, and vomiting.

The psychological effects seem attractive to users wishing to cloud reality, but users are also vulnerable to acting out in a way that puts them in personal danger. Clouded reality is clouded judgment. Additionally, while the physiological symptoms mimic those experienced in everyday life when one meets a stressor or falls ill, users may not be aware of conditions they have that clash dangerously with the effects of hallucinogens and dissociative drugs on the heart. As the British Heart Foundation warns, LSD is only one drug of many that risks irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, and strokes. Therefore, an unhealthy heart may be safe if cared for properly, but vulnerable to serious damage when confronted with the effects of a psychedelic drug.

Long-Term Effects of Hallucinogen Use

As schoolchildren are reminded, a drug habit can result after one dose or twenty. Some long-term effects of psychedelic drugs are the consequences of repeated use, and they can affect the body in numerous ways. For example, PCP can, at high doses, cause seizures; research has not shown that a single seizure has lasting effects, but multiple seizures can impair normal cognitive functioning, something to which repeat users are vulnerable. Research has also shown that chronic PCP users experience depression and/or anxiety, memory loss, and speech impairment.

Some psychedelic drugs have an addictive quality that encourages users to either take the same drug in stronger doses with each successive use, (risking overdose), or search for something that is stronger and/or more dangerous. Here again, PCP is a culprit: it is highly addictive and serves as a “gateway” drug, meaning that PCP users often graduate to harsher drugs to feel the same effects.

Though research has not proven that all psychedelic drugs damage the brain with continued use, tests have yielded positive results for ayahuasca. A joint research team from Spain and Brazil observed the brains of test subjects using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and found a difference in cortical stem thickness. Twenty-two regular users of ayahuasca were tested against a matching control group and were found to have significant thinning in the posterior circulate cortex. Such thinning inhibits proper cognitive functioning such as information absorption and organized output.

Studies have revealed that LSD users may experience Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, (HPPD), a series of mental episodes in which the effects of LSD are experienced long after LSD was taken. Those suffering from HPPD have reported certain effects in which normal vision that the eyes register appears distorted. HPPD can persist for years after users quit taking LSD, and medical researchers have not yet engineered a direct treatment. Instead, doctors have prescribed anti-depressants or suggested psychotherapy to cope with HPPD while it is still present.

Avoiding the Life Abuse

Psychedelic drugs are tempting for users who prefer to submerge themselves in an alternate reality, but as we were taught, it only takes one hit before “drug use is life abuse.” Therefore, it is important that users who regularly take psychedelic drugs make two considerations:

With any single dose, I risk death or irreversible damage.

With every successive dose, my body becomes more and more vulnerable to

devastating, lasting consequences.

Users should recognize these two considerations as motivation for taking a step toward drug rehabilitation; otherwise, they are prone to a number of debilitating and untreatable outcomes. It doesn’t do to simply cut back on psychedelic drug use, because drugs like LSD can become addictive and dangerous with any dose. Therefore, both chronic users and general drug users who are prone to trying a psychedelic drug are urged to acknowledge the whole picture of short and long-term effects. Most importantly, users must be reminded that it is possible to reverse some of the damage or protect oneself from damage by stopping use in a lasting and comprehensive manner through a reputable program.