Types of Psychedelics: The A-Z of Psychedelic Drugs from LSD to Ayahuasca
Article, Feature, Plant Medicine
There are many different types of psychedelics.
So while every psychedelic creates ‘psychedelic effects’, each deserves its own classification, because of a unique characteristic it has.
For example, we can define certain classes of psychedelics by their chemical structure, whether they are natural or synthetic, and by how long their effects last.
In this article, we will outline the various types of psychedelics and explain why each classification is distinct. As you will see, the variety of these substances is endlessly fascinating and deserves recognition.
Types of Psychedelics: Natural vs. Synthetic/Semi-Synthetic
First, we should note that many psychedelic substances occur in the natural world[*]. Different types of psychedelics can be found in a range of plants, mushrooms, toads, and mammals (including humans).
The use of naturally-occurring psychedelics has a long and rich history, with psychedelics being used in a ceremonial way in Mayan and Aztec civilizations (e.g. psilocybin mushrooms), Native American culture (e.g. mescaline-containing cacti), and among Amazonian indigenous tribes (e.g. ayahuasca).
When natural psychedelics are used for healing and therapeutic purposes, they are commonly referred to as ‘plant medicines’. On the other hand, psychedelics can also be synthetic (made via a chemical reaction) or semi-synthetic (made by a chemical process using a natural product).
- Psilocybin and psilocybin (found in a range of psychedelic mushrooms, including Psilocybe cubensis or ‘cubes’, Psilocybe cyanescens or Wavy Cap mushrooms, Psilocybe mexicana or teonanácatl as known by the Aztecs, and Psilocybe semilanceata or Liberty Caps)
- DMT (found in many species of plants[*], present in particularly high concentrations in the Psychotria viridis shrub native to the Amazon, which is used in the making of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca)
- 5-MeO-DMT (found in the venom of the Bufo alvarius toad, as well as in the tree species Anadenanthera peregrina and Virola theiodora, both of which are traditionally harvested and turned into a psychoactive snuff)
- 5-HO-DMT or bufotenin (found in the skin of some species of toad, such as the Bufo alvarius toad and in plants like Anadenanthera peregrina)
- Ibogaine (found in Tabernathe iboga, a type of shrub in West Africa that is considered sacred by the Bwiti people of Gabon and traditionally used in healing ceremonies, as well as in modern retreats and ceremonies, often to help people recover from addiction)
- Mescaline (found in a variety of psychedelic cacti[*], such as Lophophora williamsii or peyote, Echinopsis pachanoi or San Pedro, and Cereus repandus or Peruvian Torch)
- LSA (found in the seeds of the plant Ipomoea violacea or Morning glory and Argyreia nervosa or Haiwaiian baby woodrose)
- Syrian rue (or Peganum harmala), which is a psychedelic plant in its own right (when taken in higher doses), but it is usually used to strengthen the effects of other psychedelics, such as psychedelic mushrooms and DMT.
- Muscimol (found in Amanita muscaria or the fly agaric mushroom, noted for being red with white spots)
- Atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine (these three compounds are included together because they are the three psychedelic chemicals found in various Datura plant species)
- Salvinorin A (found in the Salvia divinorum plant, which can be smoked or chewed to achieve psychedelic effects)
- THC (found in the Cannabis sativa plant)
Many of the synthetic psychedelics feature in the books Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved (TIHKAL) and Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved (PIHKAL), written by the American chemist Alexander Shulgin.
To make a synthetic psychedelic, you need to create a chemical reaction that will produce the substance in question. It should be noted that many types of psychedelics that occur naturally can also be created in a synthetic way by a chemist in a lab. Psilocybin can be synthetic, as can mescaline. When a psychedelic is extracted from the plant itself through a chemical process, this doesn’t mean the compound is synthetic.
Synthetic mescaline[*], for instance, means the compound has been created purely from chemicals and chemical reactions and doesn’t involve trying to isolate the mescaline from a mescaline-containing cactus.
- 2C chemicals
Semi-synthetic psychedelics are derived from natural products but aren’t themselves found in any plants, mushrooms, or animals.
The most well-known semi-synthetic psychedelic is LSD, synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938[*].
Hofmann was creating derivatives of lysergic acid, which is a compound found in the ergot fungus that grows on rye. These derivatives were similar in chemical structure, then, to the natural compound lysergic acid. Hofmann created 25 kinds of derivatives, with the 25th being lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25).
He hoped this compound would be useful as “a circulatory and respiratory stimulant”, but – after accidentally getting the substance on his skin – he discovered it was a powerful psychedelic.
Other semi-synthetic psychedelics do exist, but they are not as widely known as LSD. One example includes Salvinorin B methoxymethyl ether, similar in structure to Salviorin A, but with longer-lasting effects.
Types of Psychedelics: Classical Psychedelics vs. Non-Classical Psychedelics
Types of psychedelics also include classical psychedelics and non-classical psychedelics.
Classical psychedelics are also known as serotonergic psychedelics because they achieve their effects by affecting the serotonin receptors in the brain, specifically the serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptor[*].
These psychedelic compounds are also called ‘classical’ because they are the most common and historically and culturally rich chemicals.
- Psilocybin and psilocin
Meanwhile, non-classical psychedelics tend to create psychedelic effects by acting on different brain receptors to the classical psychedelics (e.g. Salvinornin A acts on the opioid receptors[*]). But, non-classical psychedelics may still affect the 5-HT2A receptor to some degree.
Many psychedelics are also non-classical because they may only sometimes lead to psychedelic effects, they have mild or limited psychedelic effects, or they are better known for their other effects and uses.
Non-classical psychedelics also include psychedelics that are uncommon or new. These types of psychedelics include all of the synthetic psychedelics listed above, as well as the following.
Types of Psychedelics by Differences in Chemical Structure
Psychedelics can be further divided into other types of psychedelics, based on what their chemical structure looks like. For example, there are:
- Tryptamines (structurally similar to the brain chemical serotonin)
- Phenethylamines (structurally similar to the brain chemicals epinephrine and norepinephrine)
- Ergolines (they have a core molecule of ergoline and are derived from ergot)
- Psilocybin and psilocin (the active ingredients found in magic mushrooms)
- N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)
- 5-MeO-DMT (bufo alvarius)
- MDMA (‘ecstasy’)
- 2C chemicals (e.g. 2CB, 2CI, and 2CE)
Types of Psychedelics: Compounds With Other Significant Effects
The non-classical psychedelics can be divided into types of psychedelics defined by other psychoactive effects.
For example, there are dissociative drugs that can have psychedelic effects. Dissociative substances are those that produce feelings of detachment from oneself and one’s environment.
- Salvinorin A
Then there are non-classical psychedelics whose main or other significant effects include feelings of empathy.
These substances are known as empathogens or entactogens. But they can also have psychedelic effects.
Types of Psychedelics: Legal vs. Illegal Psychedelics
Something we haven’t touched on so far is the legal aspect of different types of psychedelics. Indeed, while most psychedelics are illegal in most countries, in some countries, it’s legal to use certain psychedelics or legal in specific contexts, such as for religious reasons.
- Psilocybin and psilocin (legal in Brazil, Jamaica, the Netherlands)[*]
- Ayahuasca (legal in Brazil and Peru)[*]
- Mescaline (legal for members of the Native American Church to use but only in the form of peyote)[*]
- Salvinorin A (legal in many states in the US)[*]
- THC (cannabis is completely legal in Canada, Uruguay, South Africa, and Georgia, and legal – either for recreational use or medical use – in some US states and countries)[*].
Researchers have scientifically studied psychedelics such as psilocybin, DMT, LSD, MDMA in countries such as the US and UK[*]. But these substances are only legal in the context of research. Outside of this context, in these countries, they are illegal.
It would be too lengthy to list all of the psychedelics that are illegal. All psychedelics are illegal in the large majority of countries. But we can note some popular psychedelics that are widely illegal, which include the legal ones above, just not in the countries specified.
- DMT (except in the form of ayahuasca in Brazil and Peru)
- Ketamine (except for medical use as an anesthetic or antidepressant)
Psychedelics also differ in their potency, that is, how much of it you need to take to achieve psychedelic effects.
Types of Psychedelics by Potency
Some psychedelics are highly potent. This means that you do not need to take much of the substance to experience changes in your perception, emotions, or thoughts.
The most potent psychedelic substance is LSD[*], as doses are measured in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram). A standard psychedelic dose of LSD is 100 micrograms.
With other psychedelics, you need to take a much higher dose than this to experience perceptual changes. This includes psilocybin[*], where dosages are 4-40mg (a milligram is one-thousandth of a gram), as well as DMT[*] (dosages might be 10-50mg), and 2CB[*] (people usually take 5-40mg of the substance).
With other psychedelics, you need to take higher doses than this to experience a similar intensity in effects. This would include mescaline[*], with standard doses being between 200-700mg.
Types of Psychedelics by Duration of Effect
Another way of distinguishing between types of psychedelics is to look at how long their effects last.
Psychedelics With a Short Duration
- DMT (vaporized, with the effects lasting 5-20 minutes)
- 5-MeO-DMT (vaporized, with the effects lasting 15-60 minutes)
- Salvia (smoked, with the effects lasting 5-25 minutes)
Psychedelics With a Medium Duration
- Psilocybin (effects last 4-6 hours)
- Ayahuasca (effects last 2-6 hours)
- 2C psychedelics (effects last 4-8 hours)
Psychedelics With a Long Duration
- LSD (effects can last up to 14 hours)
- Mescaline (effects can last up to 16 hours)
- Ibogaine (effects can last up to 36 hours)
This should give you an idea of how much psychedelics can vary. If you are looking to join a plant medicine retreat, you can use the above information to help guide your decision. For instance, you now know where plant medicines are legal and where they aren’t. You can also make a choice based on how comfortable you feel with the duration of the psychedelic journey.
Article written by Sam Woolfe