3 minute read


Brilliant colors. Strange sounds. Indescribable feelings of love toward others. Life moving in slow motion. “Floating” in air outside the body.

The world of hallucinations is a dream world, a state of unreality. To hallucinate means to have an imaginary perception. Many people today—especially young people—have discovered a cool way to dream without going to sleep: by consuming a special kind of chemical substance (which happens to be illegal). A hallucinogen can change the way a person sees and interprets reality. To someone under the influence of a hallucinogen, other people, objects, and activities become distorted. A school bus might become a jolly, flying elephant. A line of ants may transform into a marching band—complete with lively, audible music. Furniture may seem to walk, attack, or talk. The words of another person are heard, but with a distorted meaning.

The person under the influence is not asleep but experiences the real senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Those senses, though, are confused. Ordinary occurrences may seem outrageously delightful—or frightful.

Dreams while asleep are natural. Hallucinations are unnatural. Sleep dreams instantly can be brought to an end by a shake on the shoulder or the ring of an alarm clock. Alarm clocks don't work against drug-caused illusions, and the victim can't be shaken awake. The hallucinogen must run its course before normal senses return.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, regularly collects information about the illicit use of substances by Americans ages twelve and older. Its 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 8.3 percent of Americans (more than twenty million people) had used various substances illegally during the month before they were interviewed. Some of the survey details include the following:

  • Marijuana, a mild hallucinogen, continued to be the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. Six percent of Americans were using it.
  • Young people ages twelve to seventeen had reported a reduction in illegal drug use between 2002 and 2005, from 11.6 percent down to 9.8 percent. No further progress was suggested in the 2006 survey.
  • Marijuana use by people in that age group dropped from 8.2 percent in 2002 to 6.7 percent in 2006. Boys, more so than girls, appeared to be losing interest in marijuana.
  • On the other hand, ecstasy (MDMA) was attracting new interest after a period of decline. First-time users numbered around 600,000 in 2005—half the number of first-time users estimated in 2002. In 2006, the number of first-time users rose to an estimated 860,000.
  • Half the 2006 survey respondents ages twelve to seventeen said it was easy to obtain marijuana. Fourteen percent said it was easy to obtain lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). In 2002, 55 percent of respondents had said it was easy to get marijuana, and almost 20 percent had said it was easy to buy LSD. Statistics suggest it may be slightly more difficult now for teenagers to obtain illegal substances.
  • About 60 percent of teenagers responding to the survey said they had discussed drug, alcohol, or tobacco dangers with a parent during the past year.
  • Nine out of ten teenagers said their parents would strongly disapprove of them experimenting with marijuana. Parental disapproval markedly influenced teenagers' decisions of whether to try the substance.
  • Substance abuse or dependence impaired approximately 22.6 million Americans—9.2 percent of people twelve or older—according to the 2006 SAMHSA survey. Of those cases, 4.2 million involved marijuana.

In December 2007, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported on its latest Monitoring the Future survey of eighth-, tenth-, and twelfth-grade students. It indicated an overall decline in the illicit use of some substances, including marijuana, over the past decade. Troubling, however, was evidence that more and more teenagers consider ecstasy and LSD to be harmless. This attitude may help explain the increase in ecstasy experimentation by young people.

Renewed teenage interest in ecstasy may illustrate that each new generation has to learn for itself. The state of “ecstasy” promised by hallucinogens continues to attract thousands of America's young people.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaCommon Street Drugs