When it comes to using drugs, both medicinally and recreationally, one of the scariest things that can happen is an overdose. I haven’t experienced one personally, but I have seen someone else go through it; and even viewing it from the sidelines was terrifying. Some drugs carry a much higher overdose risk than others. For example, your chances of experience dangerous levels of toxicity on meth or heroin are much higher than if you were using, say, ketamine or MDMA.
As a matter of fact, psychedelics in general (both natural and synthetic) carry a very low threat of overdose. With many compounds in this class of drugs, it’s nearly impossible to reach that point. What are the chances someone could overdose on some of the more popular hallucinogens, like shrooms or LSD? Read on to learn more.
What is an Overdose?
An overdose is the term for the physiological response that occurs when we take too much of a substance or combination of substances. Overdoses are often accidental, but they can be intentional as well and make up a substantial portion of suicide attempts (67 percent, to be exact). Additionally, overdoses can happen from a variety of different substances including both illicit and prescription drugs, alcohol, and even certain vitamins (although the last one is rare).
An overdose can be fatal, and the most common cause for it is usually respiratory failure, although there are a few other ways that drug use can end in clinical overdose. That said, overdoses can be reversed, and the person can be saved if the correct medical treatment is administered in time (i.e., Narcan for opioid overdoses, or stomach pumping and use of activated charcoal for alcohol poisoning).
Because of how they function in the human body, opioids are one of the substances most likely to cause overdoses. Our bodies are full of opioid receptors, although they’re largely concentrated in the brain, central and peripheral nervous systems, and in the gastrointestinal tract. When using lower amounts of opioids, these receptors are activated and bodily functions begin to slow down. However, if you take too much, these receptors become overwhelmed, and they eventually shut down completely… resulting in overdose and possible death.
Another very dangerous substance is alcohol, although in the context of consuming too much, it’s not referred to as an overdose, but rather “alcohol poisoning”. Alcohol poisoning comes on quickly sometimes and it can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and gag reflexes. Alcohol poisoning can potentially lead to coma and also death.
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The class of illicit substances least likely to cause that level of harm, are psychedelics. Which is interesting as many remain on the DEA’s list of schedule 1 narcotics while more dangerous drugs that CAN, in fact, kill people – such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and various opioids – are classified as schedule 2 or higher. For the record, the DEA defines schedule 1 narcotics as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”; and drugs with the largest number (schedule 4 and 5) are considered safest. So, psychedelics are on the schedule 1 list and meth is not, as if that makes any sense.
Psychedelics and Overdoses
Although you technically can overdose on psychedelics, it’s rare with most and nearly impossible with some. Now, let’s quickly discuss a concept known as “effective dose vs lethal dose”. This is referring to the dose it takes to get high versus the dose it takes for the drug to kill someone, and how that ratio compares to other drugs.
For example, GHB, heroin, and methamphetamine are among the most toxic substances, with a lethal dose that is only a few times higher than the effective dose. Even the lethal dose to die on alcohol is only 10 times the dose needed to get drunk. Compare this with psilocybin, that has a lethal dose estimated to be 1,000 times higher than the effective dose, or even ketamine whose lethal dose is 38 times higher than the effective; one can easily ascertain that psychedelics – both natural and synthetic – are relatively safe.
The least physiologically toxic substances, or those requiring 100 to 1,000 times the effective dose to cause death, include psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and marijuana. There are no published cases document deaths from smoked marijuana or psilocybin mushrooms, so the actual lethal dose remains a mystery.
Overdose vs Bad Trip
Another thing to keep in mind is the difference between an overdose and a bad trip. Some people might mistake the two, but they are fundamentally different. The main contrast between the two is that overdoses are physical and bad trips are mental. Overdoses can be fatal, whereas bad trips are mostly just scary and confusing.
That distinction is extremely important, because it really highlights the sheer insanity of keep psychedelic drugs illegal. How are drugs like Oxycontin and other opioids (which kill an average of 44 people per day in the U.S.) legal with prescriptions, while psychedelics that are considerably safer remain prohibited?
Now, that’s not to say that opioids should be banned. Regulated, yes. But not outright prohibited. There’s definitely a time and place where opioid-based medications are helpful. But if we can admit that, why is the government so reluctant to admit that psychedelics can be equally helpful, if not more so; and much safer to boot since they cannot lead to physical overdose?
Overdose Risk for Common Hallucinogens
Below we’ll take a look at the four most popular psychedelics, which also happen to be the ones currently in various stages of clinical trials, to see what the levels of toxicity are for each one.
It’s very rare to actually overdose on mushrooms. As a matter of fact, recent studies confirm that only 0.2% of magic mushroom users seek emergency medical care after use… the lowest of any recreational drug, including cannabis. A psilocybin “overdose”, or a bad trip rather, can lead to various psychological symptoms, the primary one being very intense panic attacks.
One risk when eating magic mushrooms, especially if you’re foraging for them yourself, is picking the wrong type. Given that there are over 14,000 different mushroom species in the world, it’s easy to conclude that some many have very similar characteristics – making them hard to tell apart in real life situations. Eating a poisonous mushroom can be fatal, so that’s definitely something you’ll want to be very careful about.
Much like with psilocybin, overdosing on LSD is close to impossible. That doesn’t mean it’s safe to consume in large doses, and yes, you can actually experience toxicity from LSD. But because it’s so strong, it’s very rare for anyone to consume that much.
Again, you can have a bad trip on LSD. And because it’s such a potent and long-lasting hallucinogen, people can have accidents or physically harm themselves while high. There are some reports of self-harm and suicide attempts while under the influence of LSD, however, based on the research I was able to find online, that’s quite uncommon as well.
Ketamine has been around for a while but has recently seen a boost in mainstream acceptance with the FDA approval of Esketamine, current research on another drug called Arketamine, and a surge in medical practitioners who are willing to provide standard Ketamine for off-label purposes.
That said, it is possible to overdose on Ketamine, and it’s more likely than with other psychedelics. The lethal dose for Ketamine is about 40 times the effective dose, so while that’s considerably more toxic than psilocybin, it’s still much safer than most recreational (and even many prescription) drugs.
Here, it’s crucial to remember that there are some glaring differences between pure MDMA and ecstasy (which contains MDMA). One of the most substantial differences being that overdoses on ecstasy happen relatively often, whereas with pure MDMA, that is unlikely to happen.
This is because ecstasy is MDMA cut with some type of other drug, meaning an adulterant is added to enhance its potency (and often to boost the profit margins for producers as well). Methamphetamine is a common adulterant in ecstasy, making it much more dangerous than the pure form.
There are two main things I’d like readers to take away from this article. Number one – psychedelics are safe and you’re unlikely to overdose on them. If anything, that should at the very least quell some people’s anxiety about trying them. Number two – because they are so much safer than other drugs, it makes no sense to keep them illegal, as the reasons behind prohibition are clearly not in our best interest.
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