Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Attractive but highly toxic berry of Atropa belladonna Deliriants are a class of hallucinogen. The term was introduced by David F. Duncan and Robert S. Gold to distinguish these drugs from psychedelics and dissociatives, such as LSD and ketamine, respectively, due to their primary effect of causing delirium, as opposed to the more lucid states produced by such other hallucinogens as those represented by psychedelics and dissociatives. The term is generally used to refer to anticholinergic drugs which are substances that inhibit the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Common examples of deliriants include plants of the genera Datura and Brugmansia (both containing scopolamine), as well as higher than recommended dosages of Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Despite their long history of usage, deliriants are regarded as the least-studied class of hallucinogens in terms of their behavioral and neurological profiles. Effects The delirium produced, particularly by anticholinergics is characterized by stupor, agitation, confusion, confabulation, dysphoria, akathisia, realistic visual hallucinations or illusions (as opposed to the pseudohallucinations experienced on other classes of hallucinogens) and regression to “phantom” behaviors such as disrobing and plucking. The plant-based alkaloids scopolamine and atropine in particular are both notorious for their characteristic hyperactive effects and ability to cause frank and dream-like hallucinations. The hallucinations themselves tend to often be described by users as disturbing, unpleasant or dark in their nature. Additional commonly reported behaviors and experiences by users include holding full conversations with imagined people or entities, smoking nonexistent cigarettes (even with nonsmokers), commonly having hallucinations of spiders or shadow figures as well as being unable to recognize one’s own reflection in a mirror. The effects of anticholinergic drugs have been likened to delirious fevers, sleepwalking, a fugue state or a psychotic episode (particularly in that the subject has minimal control over their actions and often has little to no recollection of the experience). This is a notable departure from the effects of serotonergic psychedelics. Some antihistamines may also act as deliriants. Deliriant substances Naturally-occurring anticholinergic deliriants are found in plant species such as Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), various Brugmansia species (Angel’s Trumpets), Datura stramonium (Jimson weed), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), and Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) in the form of tropane alkaloids (notably scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine). Other, lesser known sources of scopolamine and related tropanes include plants such as Scopolia carniolica (endemic to Europe), Latua (endemic to southern Chile), Solandra (endemic to Mexico) and Duboisia myoporoides, which is endemic to Australia and contains both scopolamine and nicotine. Synthetic compounds such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) are also deliriants. Nutmeg (although purportedly not as strong or as unpleasant feeling as diphenhydramine or scopolamine) is also considered a deliriant due to its propensity to cause anticholinergic-like symptoms when taken in large doses. These effects are caused by the compounds myristicin and elemicin which are found in nutmeg’s essential oil and can last up to several days in their effects similarly to the aforementioned tropane alkaloids found in datura. Additionally, the mushroom referred to as fly agaric and its active principles ibotenic acid and muscimol may also be considered deliriants, although fly agaric is probably more accurately described as a hypnotic. In rare cases, incredibly toxic plants from the Aconitum (wolfsbane) genus have also been used as ‘deliriants’ by certain groups practicing in European witchcraft, the left-hand path and asceticism due to the unpleasant but supposedly notable alteration in consciousness which can often be a side effect of wolfsbane poisoning. Plants of the aconitum genus contain the neurotoxin aconitine and in the case of Aconitum ferox; an extremely toxic alkaloid called pseudaconitine which is, in rare cases, taken as an ordeal poison and entheogen on the Indian subcontinent by ascetic groups such as the Aghori where it is often mixed with other psychoactive plants or poisons such as datura and cannabis. Chances of death are considered very high when taking A. ferox and its use is restricted to only the most experienced adepts of their particular school of Shivaism. Recreational use Despite the fully legal status of several common deliriant plants and OTC medicines, deliriants are largely unpopular as recreational drugs due to the severe dysphoria, uncomfortable and generally damaging cognitive and physical effects as well as the sometimes unpleasant nature of the hallucinations produced. User reports of recreational deliriant usage on the drug resource website Erowid generally indicate a firm unwillingness to repeat the experience. In addition to their potentially dangerous mental effects (accidents during deliriant experiences are common) some tropane alkaloids; such as those found in plants of the Datura genus are poisonous and can cause death due to tachycardia-induced heart failure, hypoventilation and hyperthermia even in small doses. Anticholinergics have also been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia with long-term use even at therapeutic doses, therefore they are presumed to carry an even greater risk when used at hallucinogenic dosages. Scopolamine in particular has been implemented in scientific models used to study the cholinergic hypothesis for Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. Occultism and folklore Deliriants such as henbane, belladonna, mandrake, jimsonweed and fly agaric are associated with and featured in many stories and beliefs within European mythology. Tropane-containing nightshades have played an integral role in Old World folklore and European witchcraft. Henbane in particular is reputed as having been used in Greco-Roman magic during ancient times as well as being associated with black magic and maleficium during the Late Middle Ages. During this period in medieval Europe, the Central European species Scopolia carniolica was also used as an admixture in love potions. The belladonna plant genus, Atropa is named after the Greek Fate, Atropos, who cut the thread of life. Mandrake (the root of Mandragora officinarum ) is mentioned twice in the Bible, and was also frequently mentioned as a typical ingredient in flying ointment recipes since at least as far back as the Early Modern Period. During this time period, the New World plant datura stramonium (jimsonweed) was discovered in North America by colonialists and eventually lumped in with the other classic ‘witches weeds’ of the nightshade family that were endemic to Europe. Datura has a long history of usage both in Mexico and the Southwestern United States by indigenous cultures using it for ritualistic, sacred and magical purposes. In modern times, both Datura and Brugmansia are still used for sorcery, black magic, and shamanism in Latin America. In certain South American countries, members of the Brugmansia genus have been known to be occasionally added to ayahuasca brews by malevolent sorcerers (brujos) or bad shamans who wish to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. Genuine shamans (curanderos) believe one of the purposes for this is to “steal one’s energy and/or power”, of which they believe every person has a limited stockpile. Since medieval times, extremely noxious plants of the Aconitum (wolfsbane) genus were also associated with folklore and magic and were used for similar purposes as the aforementioned tropane-containing nightshades. Despite being a highly poisonous and often deadly plant to work with, it was still often included in recipes for flying ointments and magical salves; likely as a way to help counteract both the cardiac and hyperthermic side effects of the scopolamine. The aconitum genus (specifically aconitum napellus) was firmly associated with superstition and witchcraft in Europe, particularly when it came to mythos surrounding werewolves and lycanthropy. This is believed to have originated at least partially from wolfsbane’s alleged tendency to cause paresthesia which supposedly can be reported to feel like one’s body is covered in fur. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hecate is said to have invented aconitum which Athena used to transform Arachne into a spider.