Driving Under The Influence of Drugs
Hallucinogens and Driving

Hallucinogens and Driving: The Effects of Hallucinogens, Fines & Penalties

Updated July 15, 2019

Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause hallucinations or alter the user’s perception of reality. While under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, a person may see images, hear sounds or feel sensations that seem very real but are in fact a product of the drug’s mind-altering effect. Certain stimulant drugs like amphetamines can also cause hallucinations, though they do not qualify as true hallucinogens, as this is not one of their primary effects. Most hallucinogens are illegal, schedule 1 drugs which have no commonly accepted medical applications. Some exceptions to this are Dimenhydrinate (a nausea medication), Dextromethorphan (a cough medicine) and Diphenhydramine (and allergy medication). While legal for medical use, these drugs are still strictly regulated.

Hallucinogenic drugs can be further sub-categorized based on their effects and biological mechanisms. The two main categories of hallucinogenic drug are dissociate hallucinogens and prototypical, or classic hallucinogens.

Dissociative hallucinogens

In addition to causing hallucinations, dissociative hallucinogens cause users to feel disconnected from their own body, sense of self and immediate environment. People under the influence of these drugs often feel out of control or as if they are having an out-of-body experience. PCP (Phencyclidine), Ketamine and DXM (Dextromethorphan) are three common types of dissociative hallucinogen.

Prototypical (classic) hallucinogens

Prototypical or classic hallucinogens (also referred to as psychedelics) cause visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations without also having a dissociative effect. Drugs within this category include LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide), Psilocybin mushrooms, DMT (N-dimethyltryptamine) and Peyote (mescaline). Marijuana is easily the best-known and most widely used classic hallucinogen, the effects of which we will explore in full over the remainder of this module.

Marijuana

The term “marijuana” refers to the dried flowers of the cannabis plant, which generally appear green-gray in color. This drug is thought to be used by over 35 million Americans every year and is called by an enormous variety of different slang names, including “weed”, “bud”, “grass”, “pot”, “herb” and “ganja”. THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the compound in marijuana responsible for its mind-altering, hallucinogenic effect. THC is found primarily in the resin of the leaves and buds of the female cannabis plant. Besides THC, cannabis plants contain over 100 similar compounds called cannabinoids, which produce different physiological effects but are yet to extensively studied.

Marijuana is used more widely than any other recreational drug in the United States, despite its federal status as a schedule-1 substance. The drug is popular among younger age groups. In 2015, one survey reported that over 11 million teenagers and young adults aged 18 to 25 used marijuana within the previous 12 months. This is worrying, as studies have indicated that using marijuana regularly can impair brain development. Teenagers and young adults who take the drug long-term are likely to suffer with permanently impaired intellect as a result.

How does marijuana work?

THC’s chemical structure closely resembles that of an endogenous cannabinoid (a cannabinoid that originates within an organism) called anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter in the human brain. As discussed in previous modules, neurotransmitters are chemicals which help messages to pass between nerve cells. The similarity between THC and anandamide means that THC can bind to the cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells in its place. In doing so, THC activates these receptors, which are primarily responsible for influencing memory, thought processes, pleasure, focus, movement, sensory perception and time perception.

How is marijuana administered?

Marijuana is predominantly smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes often referred to as “joints” (with or without tobacco), or with a pipe. The drug can also be vaporized and inhaled using a special vaporizer, which allows the user to avoid inhaling smoke. Many people also eat marijuana by mixing it with food, making tea with it or baking it into cookies, brownies or candy.

Marijuana extracts are made from the plant’s resin and contain a much larger amount of THC. These resin extracts may have the consistency of a thick liquid, a semi-solid consistency (somewhat like lip balm) or appear as a hard, amber-colored solid. There is a far greater chance of poisoning or other undesirable effects occurring with a marijuana extract, as they are considerably more potent than the flowers of the plant.

Effects of marijuana

When marijuana is smoked or ingested, THC enters the blood stream and makes its way toward the brain. It can take up to an hour for the effects of marijuana to become noticeable when it is taken as food or in tea, whereas smoking produces almost immediate effects. THC overstimulates parts of the brain responsible for sensations, vision, judgment, movement, reward and memory, creating a variety of effects. The user will typically feel a “high” or a strong sense of pleasure and well-being, in addition to:

  • Altered sense of time
  • Mood changes
  • Heavy muscles
  • Extremely poor coordination
  • Altered senses (colors may appear brighter and tastes may be more intense)
  • Impaired cognition
  • Diminished judgment and problem-solving skills
  • Impaired memory

When very high doses of marijuana are taken (or when the user has little tolerance for the drug) it can also cause vivid hallucinations, paranoid delusions and psychosis. Marijuana’s effect can be negative and incredibly distressing even in relatively mild doses. As easily as it can cause feelings of calm and euphoria, this hallucinogenic drug can cause intense fear, anxiety, panic and confusion. It can even lead a person to forget who they are.

Typically, marijuana’s effects last from one to three hours when it is smoked and longer still when it is ingested with food or drink. If the drug causes an acute psychotic break, it may take days, weeks or even months for the user to fully regain their mental health.

Using marijuana (whether smoking or ingesting it) may also have negative effects on your cardiovascular health. The immediate effect of the drug leads to increased heart rate and enlargement of the blood vessels. There is some evidence to suggest that this effect leads to a five times greater risk of heart attack during the first hour after the drug takes effect.

Long-term effects

The effects of long-term marijuana use on mental health are still not fully understood, though studies have suggested that it could be linked to increased risk of psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic depression. Investigations into the relationship between marijuana use and the onset of schizophrenia indicate that certain people carry a gene which predisposes them to developing the illness. One study demonstrated that marijuana users who carry this gene are seven times more likely to develop psychosis than those who do not.

Researchers also believe there is a strong association between regular marijuana use and amotivational syndrome, a mental health disorder characterized by loss of interest in achieving goals and engaging in typically rewarding activities. This is possibly why heavy marijuana users often exhibit poor academic performance, lack of ambition and trouble holding down a job. There can be no doubt that using marijuana puts your mental health and emotional well-being at risk, but what about your physical health?

Smoking is easily the most dangerous method of taking marijuana. Like smoking tobacco, inhaling marijuana smoke can lead to inflammation of the airways, chronic coughing, lung infections (including pneumonia), increased risk of cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. Just like cigarettes, marijuana contains an array of carcinogenic compounds which could lead to dangerous cell mutations in the lungs, or elsewhere in the body. Studies have also shown that smoking marijuana can result in a four times greater build-up of tar in the lungs than smoking tobacco. People often assume that smoking marijuana is less harmful to your lungs than tobacco, but this simply is not the case.

Marijuana’s effect on driving ability

Taking marijuana will severely impair practically every mental and physical skill you need to drive safely. Remember that it can take many hours for the drug to completely wear off, during which time you will likely be experiencing blurred vision, skewed perception, the inability to think clearly, confusion and memory loss. Under these conditions, you cannot hope to accurately assess risk and respond to changes in the roadway environment with appropriate driving decisions. Furthermore, the drug’s disruptive effect on movement and motor skills will slow your physical reaction time, stop you from adjusting speed, steering smoothly and hinder your control of the vehicle in various other ways.

While there is not as much research centering around marijuana and driving impairment as there is around alcohol and driving impairment, we have learned enough to know that taking marijuana significantly increases a person’s chances of causing a fatal crash. Indeed, marijuana is the illegal drug most frequently detected in the blood of impaired drivers who have been involved in collisions. The results of two separate studies show that drivers with THC in their system are around twice as likely to cause a fatal collision, as compared to drivers who had not used drugs or alcohol.

It doesn’t take an expensive study to know that the immediate short-term effects of marijuana use would render a person unfit to drive, and likely to cause an accident if they did get behind the wheel. Beyond this initial effect, it is difficult to pin down precisely how seriously roadway risk is increased when there is THC in a driver’s system, as other intoxicating substances are often involved too. Plus, THC is detectable in a person’s blood for many weeks after the drug is taken and the effects have worn off.

In many of the fatal crashes recorded, alcohol was also found in the driver’s blood alongside THC. The statistics show that marijuana users are more likely to drive while impaired by alcohol than people who do not use marijuana. Worryingly, it seems that the combined effect of marijuana and alcohol on a person’s driving ability is far more severe than the sum of each substance’s individual effect. Basically, combining alcohol and marijuana – even in very small quantities – would be a fatal mistake if you then chose to drive.

Penalties for possessing marijuana

Marijuana’s legal status in the United States is a complex, ever-changing and much contested issue. As far as federal law goes, marijuana is a schedule 1 drug which is illegal for all purposes besides scientific research. This would make possessing, cultivating or selling marijuana a serious felony that will result in considerable prison time – depending on the amount of marijuana in question and whether the offender intended to supply the drug to other people. Seem straight-forward so far? Just wait until we add individual state laws into the mix!

Most states have their own marijuana laws, many of which completely contradict federal laws. While no two states operate with precisely the same marijuana laws, they can loosely be organized into groups that share similar policies regarding the drug. Keep in mind that quite a few states do not fit clearly into one of the categories. For instance, marijuana may be decriminalized but still illegal under all circumstances in one state, yet decriminalized and legal for medical purposes in another.

  1. 1

    Illegal.
    Many states have not decriminalized marijuana and still treat possession and recreational use of the drug as a felony offense. A few of these states do have medical programs that allow marijuana to be used under very specific medical conditions. The penalties for misuse of the drug vary greatly state by state. In some, an offender can be sentenced to a year in prison simply for possessing enough marijuana to make a joint. States where marijuana is still totally illegal include Alabama, Alaska, Florida and Georgia.

  2. 2

    Illegal but decriminalized.
    Some states have “decriminalized” possession of small amounts of the drug, meaning that offenders incur less-severe civil penalties (such as small fines of around $100 to $500) rather than harsh criminal charges. Among the states that have taken this approach are Delaware, Nebraska and New York.

  3. 3

    Legal for recreational use.
    As of 2018, nine states (including Alaska, California, Maine, Nevada and Washington) and the District of Columbia have completely legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21; though, some still have laws in place which limit its distribution and cultivation. Usually, the state will specify how many plants an individual may possess.

  4. 4

    Legal for medical purposes.
    More than 20 states (including Arizona, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio) have legalized marijuana for medical purposes only. In these states, the drug can only be used when recommended or prescribed by a doctor. Some of these states impose strict rules on the types of medical condition marijuana can be used to treat and restrictions on the potency of the drug.

As you can see, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to regulating marijuana use around the United States. Plus, the legislation fine-print varies greatly. One state may allow you to possess up to four ounces of the drug, while another only permits half an ounce. It is imperative to find out the marijuana laws in your state, just in case you are ever in a position where you are tempted to try the drug in future. Not knowing the rules could land you in serious trouble.

You are never truly safe from the legal repercussions of possessing marijuana, even in states that permit its recreational use. The trouble is that federal law takes precedence and can trump state law at any time. Though federal law enforcement tends to stay out of state affairs, they can swoop in at any point and take control of a case - or prosecute somebody federally for possessing a drug – even if that substance is legal in their state.

Other hallucinogens

While it is likely you will encounter them less frequently, there are several other potent hallucinogenic drugs besides marijuana that are sometimes used recreationally. You need to be aware of these drugs and their effects, in order to uphold your responsibilities as a driver.

LSD (d-lysergic acid diethylamide)

LSD is sometimes referred to as “doses”, “hits”, “microdots”, “sugar cubes”, “trips”, “tabs”, “acid” and various other slang names. This dangerous drug is among the most potent classic hallucinogens, renowned for its extreme mind-altering effect and ability to cause vivid hallucinations. It is generally taken as thin LSD-soaked squares of paper or gelatin that are dissolved on the tongue or diluted in water.

People who take LSD report experiencing a distorted view of the world around them. They often view colors differently, hear unusual sounds and see incredibly realistic objects which are not there. LSD can make you feel euphoric, energized, giggly and in awe of your immediate surroundings. It can just as easily leave you frightened, confused, panicked and overwhelmed. The effects of the drug are strongly influenced by the mindset and current emotional state of the person taking them.

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine)

This potent hallucinogenic compound occurs naturally in several species of plant, including the Amazonian ayahuasca plant. It can also be manufactured in a laboratory. This latter type of synthetic DMT typically looks like a white powder. Usually, it is inhaled using a vaporizer or smoked using a pipe. Plant-derived DMT is generally brewed into a tea.

As another prototypical hallucinogen, DMT creates intense auditory and visual hallucinations, alongside a distorted sense of space and time. The effects of this drug are profound, sudden and not always pleasant. Many users report taking DMT as being like a near-death experience. The potential for distressing hallucinations is great and like LSD, depends largely on the mental state of the user. In addition to endangering the mind, DMT can threaten your physical health by causing:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme dizziness
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (when taken orally)

Psilocybin mushrooms

Psilocybin mushrooms may also be referred to as “shrooms”, “magic mushrooms” or “boomers”. The compound psilocybin within these mushrooms is chiefly responsible for their hallucinogenic effect. The mushrooms are typically eaten dried or raw, or brewed into a tea. The drug produces effects very similar to those of LSD, though they are far more unpredictable as it is impossible to know how much of the active compound is present in the fungi. A user’s experience with this drug may be positive, resulting in euphoria, excitement and pleasant hallucinations. Or, it could be resoundingly negative, resulting in anxiety, extreme paranoia and frightening hallucinations.

One of the main dangers of taking mushrooms is that there are hundreds of species of poisonous mushrooms growing in the wild, many of which appear very similar to the non-lethal psilocybin mushroom. Mistaking one mushroom for another could be fatal. Even the relatively safe psilocybin mushrooms have negative physical effects that can be debilitating, including sickness, dizziness, severe stomach pains and diarrhea.

Peyote

The compound mescaline which occurs in this small, cactus-like plant produces extreme hallucinogenic effects. The drug is prepared by boiling or soaking the seeds of the peyote in water, to create an intoxicating liquid which is then ingested. Taking mescaline generally results in visual distortions, auditory hallucinations and in extreme cases, seeing objects which are not there. Users also report experiencing a dream-like state while taking this drug. As with all hallucinogens, the reality distortions which occur after mescaline use can be pleasant, or disturbing. Vomiting, headaches and feelings of extreme anxiety can also occur.

PCP (Phencyclidine)

This synthetic dissociative hallucinogen is created in a laboratory and was originally intended for medical use as a general anesthetic. PCP usually comes in powder, liquid or tablet form. It may be ingested or smoked with tobacco or marijuana. On the street, this drug is sometimes referred to as “rocket fuel”, “superweed”, “ozone” or “love boat”.

Taking PCP can produce an array of different effects, which are typically accompanied by a feeling of physical numbness or being outside of one’s own body, caused by the drug’s pain killing mechanism. In addition, PCP causes mood changes, memory distortions, changes in perception of time and visual hallucinations. It is not uncommon for people who have taken a large dose of PCP to become violent, towards themselves or other people. The drug will also lead to dangerously increased body temperature, loss of physical coordination, loss of muscle control and in severe cases, convulsions.

Ketamine

Ketamine is a dissociative hallucinogen, which is also referred to as “special K”, “ket”, “vitamin K”, “super K” and “cat valium”. This last street name came about as ketamine is commonly used by veterinarians as an anesthetic for animals. It is manufactured as an injectable liquid but sold illegally for recreational use as powder, or in tablet form. People who use ketamine either swallow the tablets, snort it in powder form or inject it directly into their muscles.

As a general anesthetic, ketamine reduces physical sensations and creates a feeling of numbness throughout the body. Depending on the size of the dose, the effects can last around two to three hours. Taking ketamine can produce a wide variety of effects, such as:

  • A dream-like state where the user feels detached from their own body
  • A state of extreme relaxation and happiness
  • Confusion and a feeling of being out of control

Ketamine users are at serious risk of injury, as the drug will impair their movements, muscle coordination and motor skills. The user will be more likely to hurt themselves as a result, yet less likely to notice, as ketamine totally blocks pain signals. Long-term ketamine use can cause severe health problems, including:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Bladder problems and urinary tract diseases
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Heart damage
  • Permanent short-term and long-term memory impairment

DXM (Dextromethorphan)

DXM is a dissociative drug – sometimes known as “robo” – present in small quantities in various over-the-counter medications, due to its cough-relieving and expectorant actions. High-strength cough syrup contains enough DXM that it is sometimes abused by teenagers and youths looking for an easily accessible high. When sold on the street, DXM usually comes in powder, liquid or tablet form, to be snorted, injected or ingested. This drug has very similar effects to ketamine; when taken, it creates a feeling of physical detachment, numbness and sedation. When used in high doses, DXM can lead to:

  • Total loss of physical coordination (users may be unable to get up, walk or perform simple physical tasks)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shallow labored breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Vision impairments
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Salvia divinorum

Commonly referred to as “Salvia”, “holy sage” and “Mexican magic mint”, salvia divinorum is a Mexican plant which contains potent psychoactive compounds in its leaves. People take salvia for its hallucinogenic effect, usually by chewing the plant’s fresh leaves. It can also be smoked, vaporized or made into a tea. The plant is known to cause extremely vivid hallucinations, which may be positive or negative in nature depending on the strength of the dose and the user’s state of mind.

People who use salvia divinorum long-term run the risk of developing serious mental health problems. Some research suggests that this plant – like marijuana – can trigger psychotic breaks in users who are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia.

GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid)

Are you wondering why this obscure chemical name seems familiar? Over the past few articles, GHB has been mentioned on multiple occasions as it is a neurotransmitter which occurs naturally in human cells! GHB can also be manufactured in a laboratory, so that its sedative effect on the central nervous system can be harnessed for medical purposes. Unfortunately, synthetic GHB is often misused.

You may hear this drug referred to as “roofies”, “easy lay”, “Georgia home boy” or “goop”. GHB is most commonly taken in liquid form, mixed in with a soft drink. When taken, GHB reduces inhibitions, creates a feeling of euphoria, relaxation and sleepiness. The drug is extremely potent; accidentally taking too much could lead to a severe overdose. Even at relatively “safe” doses, GHB’s powerful sedative effect can lead users to pass out unexpectedly in dangerous situations.

Hallucinogens and your driving ability

Taking any hallucinogenic drug will severely impair your ability to pay attention to the road, collect accurate visual information and as a result, make appropriate driving decisions. Even very small doses of hallucinogens can produce visual, auditory and sensory hallucinations. While behind the wheel, you may not be able to tell what it real and what is not. You may even see objects on the roadway ahead of you that are not really there, causing you to swerve out of your lane, off the road or into the path of oncoming traffic!

Any hallucinogen with dissociative effects will hinder your reaction time and at high doses, render you incapable of controlling the vehicle. Remember that these drugs create a powerful “out of body” feeling and impair muscle control. While under the influence of a dissociative hallucinogen, you may not be able to operate the car’s pedals, turn the steering wheel, use the in-car controls or even sit up properly in your seat. How then can you expect to respond appropriately during emergency situations, or even perform the most basic maneuvers? When it comes to drugged-driving, there are few substances more dangerous than hallucinogens.

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