As I mentioned in my most recent article, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is funding MDMA PTSD research as its top priority. However, the organization also aims at legal approval of the medical use of several other Schedule I drugs. These include the well-known psychedelic drug LSD, so called as an abbreviation for its German name, Lysergsäure-diathylamid (or in English, lysergic acid diethylamide), often known simply as “acid.” This substance is often associated, unfortunately, with former Harvard University psychology professor Timothy Leary, and its resulting bad reputation and prohibition has stifled its legitimate medical use for years.
Leary was expelled from the Harvard faculty largely for his increasingly unscientific experiments with the drug, which disregarded the restrictions imposed by the university. He aggressively proselytized for its use among all people, including those under 18. He often advised his listeners to “turn on, tune in,” (that is, take LSD in order to become more aware) and “drop out” of society, which many took to mean rejecting mainstream activities such as education and employment.
The substance, though, originated with someone who never shared Leary’s views. Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was both the first to synthesize the substance in 1938 and, five years later, the first to consume it. While purifying the substance had had just produced, Hofmann apparently absorbed traces of the substance through his skin. Soon afterwards, as he records in LSD: My Problem Child, he “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”1 The next day, he deliberately took what turned out to be quite a high dose of the drug, which led to a terrifying yet ultimately harmless experience. Sandoz Laboratories, Hofmann’s employer, began distributing the drug for medical and scientific use in 1947, under the name Delysid.
Hofmann characterizes Leary, whom he met in Switzerland in 1971, as charming and sincere, but as “a man who truly soared high in the clouds,” and because of this “tended to underrate or completely overlook practical difficulties, unpleasant facts, and dangers.” Leary felt that “it had been his fateful historic role to make LSD known worldwide,” and that the “overwhelmingly positive effects” of this knowledge would greatly outweigh any accidents or other problems his unrestrained glorification of the substance might cause.2
The drug caught the attention of some psychoanalysts, who believed that it allowed the release of repressed thoughts and memories in their patients, as well as suspending the usual influence of the ego.3 Some modern therapists, as well as users, will testify to the drug’s capacity to temporarily eliminate the ego in sufficiently high doses, leading to a fundamental shift in attitude. Early studies on more concrete problems showed promising results as well. Studies in the 1960s concerning alcoholism, for example, have recently been formally analyzed. Fifty-nine percent of patients who were given LSD showed a reduction in alcohol abuse, compared with 38% who were not. These benefits were maintained for at least six months from a single dose.
The use of LSD became much more popular than Hofmann had expected. He himself cautioned against its use without medical supervision, or by those in a depressed or generally unstable state of mind. The customary use of the substance which soon developed in psychotherapy was limited to adults, which Hofmann agrees was a wise restriction, and required the therapist to prepare the patient thoroughly for the experience by giving them an idea of what to expect.4 However, such precautions were often not taken by the general public, and LSD began to accumulate bad publicity and myths surrounding its use.
Many publicized cases involved mental breakdowns attributed to LSD, or accidents apparently caused by the user’s belief that they were invulnerable or could fly. Numerous people were admitted to hospitals after taking LSD and apparently having panic attacks. Psychiatrists initially believed, in fact, that the use of LSD would allow a therapist to temporarily experience the same state of mind as his mentally ill patients. However, this belief was soon abandoned as the usual effects of LSD were not sufficiently similar to any known psychiatric condition.5
So-called “bad trips,” involving paranoia or panic attacks, were actually, as Hofmann put it, not as common as one might think “on the basis of reports that were sensationally exaggerated by the mass media.”6 One survey estimated that only 24 percent of LSD users ever had what they considered a bad trip, and that 50 percent of these actually saw the “bad” experience as beneficial. Adverse reactions were particularly common in people who already suffered from psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.
Further, some alleged horrors of LSD were clearly fabricated. In New York in April of 1966, a young man was accused of murdering his mother-in-law and apparently used LSD as an excuse. He had been under the influence for three days, he claimed, and thus had no memory of the crime. However, the effects of LSD last twelve hours at the most, and taking additional doses immediately afterwards would have been ineffective. The drug also has never shown any negative effect on memory, not even temporarily. LSD was also accused of being responsible for chromosome damage and birth defects. Upon closer investigation, these claims proved to be unfounded.
Sandoz Laboratories responded to the negative publicity (as well as a flood of requests for the drug) by ceasing production of LSD in August 1965. Within the next few years, most governments of the world strictly prohibited the drug. As Hofmann put it, “all these legislative and official precautions…had little influence on LSD consumption in the drug scene, yet…hindered and continue to hinder medicinal-psychiatric use and LSD research in biology and neurology, because many researchers dread the red tape that is connected with the procurement of a license for the use of LSD.” He adds that many doctors rejected the psychiatric use of LSD thanks to “its depiction as an “insanity drug” and a “satanic invention.”7
In the United States, LSD has been prohibited since 1968. Under federal law, the possession of any amount of LSD is now punishable by up to a year in prison for a first offense. The sale, or possession with intent to sell, of less than 1 gram of LSD is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it has been classified in Schedule I. This means that as far as the law is concerned, it has absolutely no accepted medical uses, no potential for safe use even with medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.
In the UK, the substance is in both Schedule I and Class A. Schedule I, as in the US, implies absolutely no accepted medical use outside of specially licensed research, while Class A mandates the harshest set of sentencing guidelines available for drug offenses. A report from the UK Police Foundation in 2000 recommended downgrading the drug from Class A to Class B, but was rejected by the government.
However, no one seriously claims that the drug is addictive. Taking LSD multiple days in a row would actually have very little effect after the first day, because a single dose produces a high tolerance for the drug. Further, there is no known lethal dose of the substance, which is very unusual for a mind-altering drug. Hofmann provides an estimate by extrapolating from studies on animals: “Only a 300- to 600-fold overdose of LSD, compared to the lethal dose in rabbits, or fully a 50,000 to 100,000-fold overdose, in comparison to the toxicity in the mouse, would have fatal results in human beings.”8
Scientific interest in LSD has increased somewhat in recent years. Along with the already mentioned application for alcoholism, the drug has shown positive results in the treatment of anxiety in the terminally ill. A Swiss study of LSD for this purpose was just completed in 2011, and was the first such study done on the drug in at least 35 years. Earlier research, which Hofmann makes reference to, had showed potential for LSD as a treatment for pain in terminal patients.
The drug also shows promise for treating the excruciating condition known as cluster headaches. The headaches have no clear physical cause, but have been characterized as the greatest pain human beings are capable of experiencing. Current evidence suggests that even doses significantly lower than those taken recreationally can relieve cluster headaches for months at a time. The drug’s legal status, though, continues to make its medical use a crime, and to make research into it difficult. Reconsideration of these laws is long overdue.
1. Albert Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child (Santa Cruz: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, 2009), 47.
2. Ibid., 99.
3. Ibid., 74.
4. Ibid., 91-92.
5. Ibid., 77.
6. Ibid., 89.
7. Ibid., 87.
8. Ibid., 55.
A version of this article was published by Students for Sensible Drug Policy at http://ssdp.org/news/blog.
Photo credit to www.gilles-arnaud-sphere.com.