LSD is a hallucinogenic drug that was used for both medicinal and recreational purposes throughout much of the 20th century. Although first synthesized in the 1930s and later marketed as a psychiatric cure-all, LSD really achieved widespread recognition through its association with the counterculture movement of the 1960s. LSD use declined in the following decades, then surged in popularity in the ’90s. The main users today are people in their late teens and early twenties.1
What Is LSD?
LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is a synthetic chemical compound used recreationally for its mood-altering and psychedelic effects. Classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, LSD has a very high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medicinal use.1
People use LSD in a variety of ways. The liquid form is placed onto small paper squares known as “blotters,” which people can place on their tongues and/or swallow. It is sometimes found in pill form or put into sugar cubes or gelatin squares, which can all then also be taken orally. More rarely, LSD may be encountered as a crystalline powder, which may be crushed and inhaled or dissolved in solution and injected.1
Users tend to experience the onset of effects within 30 to 90 minutes of use.1 The short-term effects of LSD can include seeing, feeling, or hearing things that aren’t there; mixed senses, such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors; intensified sensory perception; increased body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate; and changes in the way the person experiences time.1,2
A “bad trip” can include symptoms such as panic, delusions, increased anxiety, and paranoia. People that experience a bad trip may have rapid mood swings or fear that they are losing their identity.1
LSD was discovered by accident in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist. Hofmann was employed by Sandoz, a Swiss chemical company, to research and develop chemical compounds based on ergot, a fungus that was suspected to have medicinal properties.3,4
Hoffman began combining lysergic acid, a chemical found in ergot, with different substances. He eventually mixed lysergic acid with diethylamine, which is a derivative of ammonia. This compound was abbreviated to LSD-25. Hofmann noted that in experiments, animals who received this substance displayed unusually excited behavior. But the compound appeared to have no medicinal benefit and was eventually set aside.4
Hofmann kept thinking about LSD-25 for the next several years, until one day, he decided to make it again. During the formulation process, he accidentally dropped a small amount of LSD onto his skin. Initially just feeling a bit dizzy, he continued to work until later that day, when he began to experience increased restlessness and dizziness.3,4
On April 19, 1943, a day now referred to as “Bicycle Day,” Hofmann decided to test LSD’s properties by self-administering 250mcg of the compound, which is now known as a very high dose. After an hour, Hofmann noted that he experienced an extremely distorted sense of perception and decided to travel home from work by bike, which is why the day is called Bicycle Day. As Hofmann rode his bicycle, he experienced a complete shift in perception, describing his experience “as though seen in a curved mirror.”3
Hofmann decided to consult his physician, who did not note any unusual symptoms aside from dilated pupils. Upon waking the following day, Hofmann felt an increased zest for life and a dramatically improved sense of well-being.3 This experience eventually led Hofmann to begin further experimentation on animals and to informally experiment with LSD on himself and his friends.4
With the discovery of some of its potential mood-enhancing benefits, interest surged in LSD’s use for a range of health purposes, particularly for use in psychotherapy and for treating schizophrenia. In 1947, Sandoz began selling LSD under the name Delsid, essentially marketing it as a cure-all for conditions ranging from alcoholism to schizophrenia.1 Extensive research on LSD began and continued for the next few decades.
One of the most prominent LSD researchers in the 1950s was Dr. Humphry Osmond, who believed that LSD could help cure alcoholism and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Between 1954 and 1960, Osmond treated many patients with LSD, mainly alcoholics. Along with co-researcher Abram Hoffer, Osmond found that 40% to 45% of the alcoholics who were treated did not return to drinking after a year.5
In the 1950s, psychiatrist Ronald Sandison used LSD as an adjunctive treatment to psychotherapy on patients suffering from severe mental illness. He found significant improvements in symptoms among most of these patients. As a result of his experiments, Sandison founded the first LSD therapy clinic at Powick Hospital in England.6 Around the same time, a number of studies found that LSD could also have benefits for reducing anxiety, depression, and pain in people with cancer.7
During the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA also began testing LSD and other drugs on civilians, prisoners, and the military. This covert and unethical operation, known as MK-ULTRA, was carried out because the U.S. believed that communist Russia, North Korea, and China were using the drug to brainwash captured Americans during the Cold War. They didn’t want to be left behind in researching the drug’s potential for mind-control.8
During MK-ULTRA, the CIA conducted hundreds of uncontrolled tests on unsuspecting people in a variety of ways, sometimes with undercover narcotics agents secretly slipping LSD into drinks at bars and following people afterwards to see how they responded. The CIA also used LSD during interrogations, but the results of these experiments were often unreliable. The operation ceased in 1964 because LSD was determined to be too dangerous to use.8
During a secret CIA meeting in 1953, Dr. Frank Olson, a bioweapons expert, received a drink spiked with LSD. Later, Olson developed symptoms that caused him to seek psychiatric treatment in New York, accompanied by a CIA doctor with whom he shared a hotel room. He died after falling from his 13th-story hotel window. The CIA denied foul play and said he committed suicide, although Olson’s family pursued legal action in 2012 to investigate the possibility that Olson was murdered.9
The History of Other Drugs
During the 1960s, people began experimenting with LSD for spiritual and recreational purposes. Harvard University psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (who is now known as Ram Dass) were two of the most well-known psychedelic drug researchers during this time period. Alpert and Leary originally experimented with psilocybin mushrooms, sharing the drugs with the university’s faculty and students and even conducting informal experiments to test the drug’s effects. They soon switched to LSD as a means to explore alternative modes of consciousness.10
Although Leary and Alpert were ultimately fired from Harvard because of their experiments, they were not deterred from their work. They founded the International Federation for Internal Freedom in Mexico as a way to continue their research. However, the organization was evicted from Mexico due to reports of wild and disorderly behavior, and Leary returned to the U.S. to continue his research.10
In 1960, California-based writer Ken Kesey volunteered for one of the CIA’s LSD experiments at a hospital. He subsequently obtained a job working on the psychiatric wing, an experience which prompted him to write the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1964, he gathered a group of followers, known as the Merry Pranksters, and began a cross-country road trip in a painted bus to distribute LSD to people who were interested in trying it. After returning to California, Kesey began hosting a series of LSD-based parties, known as the “Acid Tests.” The Acid Tests were held in public places and incorporated psychedelic music from bands such as The Grateful Dead.10
Events in the 1960s, such as the Vietnam War, ultimately spurred the counterculture movement, which was based on dissatisfaction with the government. Members of the counterculture movement became known as hippies—with Haight-Ashbury becoming the center of the movement. Because hippies no longer wanted to participate in traditional society, LSD use became popular as a way of escaping and “dropping out” of the established order.10
1970s and Declining Use
LSD received much negative publicity due to events that started to occur in the late 1960s. Reports claimed people who used LSD ended up in mental institutions, jumped out of windows thinking they could fly, and even killed others while in LSD-induced psychotic rages.11 People also began to realize that LSD could cause flashbacks and bad trips.1 Possession of LSD was made illegal in the U.S. in 1968.12
LSD began to experience a decline in popularity in both scientific and casual use during the 1970s. Scientific research ceased in the early 1980s.1 Researchers also stopped looking into the benefits of LSD in psychotherapy, though interest in the drug as a psychotherapeutic agent has reemerged in recent years.7 Although LSD use continued to decline during the ’80s, the drug never fully disappeared and actually experienced a brief resurgence in the 1990s.1,11
In 1967, the journal Science published a study that claimed human blood cells placed in an LSD culture underwent chromosomal breakage. In addition, the researchers also found that a schizophrenic patient who underwent LSD therapy 15 times had a higher-than-normal rate of chromosomal breakage. The implication was that LSD use would harm unborn children by causing birth defects. However, an updated report in 1971 in the same journal explained that “ingesting moderate doses of LSD caused no detectable genetic damage.”13, 14
Use in Clubs and Raves
In the 1990s, LSD and other hallucinogens experienced a comeback as a part of the “rave” scene. A 1997 report by the U.S. Justice Department explained that LSD use was on the rise in the 1990s, “particularly among young adults of the same socioeconomic class as those who embraced these substances in previous decades.”15
Research published in this report found that along with MDMA, or Ecstasy, LSD was one of the most commonly used drugs at clubs and raves in the 1990s. This report also indicated that these LSD users reported similar feelings to those experienced by users during the 1960s, such as increased feelings of spirituality and personal enlightenment.15
One national survey of high school seniors found that LSD use peaked in 1996, with 8.8% using it in the past year. But use then declined to a rate of 2.4% in 2012.16
From 2002 to 2014, the use of hallucinogens such as LSD remained relatively stable, according to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.17 Despite a decline compared with its heyday, LSD use continues to be an issue, especially among younger people.
- Data from the 2016 Monitoring the Future study, which examines drug trends among adolescent students nationwide, found that 1.2% of 8th graders, 3.2% of 10th graders, and 4.9% of 12th graders reported using LSD at least once in their lives.18
- In the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.3% of young adults age 18-25 reported using LSD at least once in their lives, with 3.4% reporting use in the past month. Almost 11% of people age 26 and older had used the drug in their lifetime.18
A trend known as microdosing has been on the rise in the past few years. Microdosing refers to the practice of taking very small amounts of LSD or other psychedelic drugs over the course of several days, instead of one larger dose all at once, in an attempt to gain specific benefits, such as increased productivity or creativity.
Silicon Valley employees are particularly known for this practice. Professionals say that it helps them improve their concentration and creativity or that it helps improve symptoms of depression.19, 20 The benefits and risks of microdosing are not yet fully known. But research is underway to investigate the potential consequences of this practice.19
- Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). LSD.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). How Do Hallucinogens (LSD, Psilocybin, Peyote, DMT, and Ayahuasca) Affect the Brain and Body?
- Breen, B. (2013). Albert Hofmann Discovers LSD. Origins.
- Shroder, T. (2014). ‘Apparently Useless’: The Accidental Discovery of LSD. The Atlantic.
- Tanne, J. (2004). Humphry Osmond. British Medical Journal, 328(7441), 713.
- Costandi, M. (2014). A Brief History of Psychedelic Psychiatry. The Guardian.
- Das, S., Barnwal, P., Ramasamy, A., Sen, S., & Mondal, S. (2016). Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: A Drug of “Use”? Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 6(3), 214-228.
- Szalavitz, M. (2012). The Legacy of the CIA’s Secret LSD Experiments on America. TIME.
- McVeigh, K. (2012). CIA Sued Over 1950s ‘Murder’ of Government Scientist Plied with LSD. The Guardian.
- Miller, R. (2013). Timothy Leary’s Liberation, and the CIA’s Experiments! LSD’s Amazing, Psychedelic History. Salon.
- Treaster, J. (1991). A New Generation Discovers LSD, and Its Dangers. The New York Times.
- American Presidency Project. (1968). 561 – Statement by the President Upon Signing Bill Relating to Traffic in or Possession of Drugs Such as LSD.
- Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
- Bower, B. (2017). In 1967, LSD was Briefly Labeled a Breaker of Chromosomes. Science News.
- Hunt. D. (1997). National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief: Rise of Hallucinogen Use. U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief.
- Maisto, S., Galizio, M, & Connors, G. (2015). Drug Use and Abuse. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Hallucinogens.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. Hallucinogens.
- Brodwin, E. (2017). Scientists Are About to Find Out How Silicon Valley’s LSD Habit Really Affects Productivity. Business Insider.
- Williams, A. (2017). How LSD Saved One Woman’s Marriage. The New York Times.
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