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A-Z of Drugs

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L is for LSD

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

L is for LSD: “Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies”

(The Beatles)

We know the exact date on which LSD came into the world.

First synthesized on November 16, 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofman at the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, it was a product of a larger research program searching for medically useful blood stimulant.

It took another five years before LSD's psychedelic properties were discovered when Hofmann accidentally ingested an unknown quantity of the chemical. The day is celebrated by some to this day as ‘Bicycle day’, after the eventful ride that Hofmann made through the streets of Basel with a colleague, convinced that he has poisoned himself or that he was going insane.

After a long series of more controlled ingestions (often by Hofmann himself) a product finally came to market. LSD was launched commercially in 1947 with the somewhat outlandish claim that it was "a cure for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behaviour, 'sexual perversions,' and alcoholism”. The abbreviation LSD was a useful shortening from the more long-winded German word ‘Lysergsurediethylamid’.

In a strange turn of events a few years later, the CIA in the United States bought up the entire world’s supply of LSD. As part of its covert program ‘MKUltra’ a variety of people ranging from doctors to mentally ill patients, to sex workers were given LSD. Often it was without their knowledge or informed consent. Their aim was to find a drug which would elicit deep confessions, or alternatively ‘wipe’ a subject's mind clean and re-program him or her as ‘a robot agent’. The project continued through the darkest days of the cold war with some CIA scientists believing they could also use LSD to get Soviet secret agents to defect, even against their own will.

One of the weirder experiments undertaken was called ‘Operation Midnight Climax’, which gives us a clue to its natureit saw the CIA setting up several brothels in San Francisco specially equipped with one-way mirrors and secret filming equipment. By selecting men who would be very unlikely to reveal their actions to anyone they were given LSD to see if they were more likely to ‘crack’ under intense interrogation later. The unfortunate deaths of several men has been attributed to the stress they were put under.

The results of MKUltra experiments were even less successful that the CIA’s sister programme that tried to harness the powers of the paranormal, by ‘The men who stare at goats’. The project was deemed a failure and was wound up in the mid 1970’s.

Whilst the CIA and the American military were seeking the weaponise LSD, the counter-culture of the 1960’s was taking the use of LSD in the opposite direction. Like the military, the hippies of the era were also happy to experiment with acid but rather in an attempt to prove that LSD was for making love, not war.

Centered around the spiritual heart of the hippy movement of San Francisco, the ‘Merry Pranksters’ began as a loose knit group of free-thinkers centered around the novelist Ken Kesey (most well-known for his novel One flew over the cuckoo’s nest). Ken saw himself as the key link between the ‘beat generation’ of the 1950’s and the new ‘hippy’ generation of the 60’s. He had volunteered himself for some of MKUltra’s experiments and had gained a taste for psychedelic experiences. With the aid of Oswald Stanley who had established the first major underground LSD factory, the Merry Pranksters took their psychedelically decorated converted school bus on a series of road trips. They went on to organise a series of ‘acid test’ parties that involved taking LSD alongside a light show, films and discordant improvised music. The parties often featured The Grateful Dead, led by Jerry Garcia, who became the of house band of the movement. Jerry passed away in 1995, but four of the other surviving core members carried on performing live until as recently as 2015.

Despite the efforts of the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead, LSD came to the notice of millions more people around the world via four lads from Liverpool. They may have started off in the Cavern Club as a clean-cut foursome but by the end of 6o’s had produced such psychedelic masterpieces as ‘Sgt. Peppers lonely heartclubs band’. By adopting an alter ego it gave The Beatles the freedom to experiment musically on what was one of the first concept albums.

Nearly every track appeared to contain drug references to the listener who was looking for them. “Henry the Horse” seemed to be reference to Heroin (from the track ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’). In addition “I get high” (from ‘With a little help from my friends’) ,“take some tea” (from ‘Lovely Rita’) and “digging the weeds” (from ‘When I’m sixty-four’) looked like references to cannabis use.

The most notorious reference however came on the track ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’. Despite the context John Lennon consistently claimed that the fact that the initials of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" spelled out L-S-D was a coincidence and it in fact came from a picture drawn by his son Julian.  The coincidence was apparently not even noticed by the band until after its release!

The use of LSD in the decades following the “Summer of love” in the 1960’s was often closely connected to new musical trends. As the raves of the 1980’s featuring Electronic Dance Music (EDM) grew in size so again did the use of LSD. It was however the drug ‘Ecstasy’ that was most strongly associated with that period, sometimes used in combination with LSD.

Use dropped dramatically at the end of the century as some high-profile police raids reduced supply substantially, especially in the United States.

Throughout its history concerns have been raised about the adverse effects of LSD use. Although fatalities from LSD by itself are extremely rare (and some experts say they have never occurred) the drug can have dangerous interactions with antidepressants and lithium. Professor  David Nutt calculated it was approximately 1/10th as harmful as alcohol, with the most significant adverse effect being the impairment of mental functioning while intoxicated.

LSD may trigger  panic attacks or feelings of extreme anxiety. These feelings are known colloquially as a “bad trip”. In some cases this has led to users developing mental health problems and in extreme cases unfortunately taking their own lives, accidentally or otherwise. These problems can become compounded by the existence of “flashbacks” where an individual continues to experience some of LSD’s effects months or years after their last use of the drug. Although tolerance to the drug can build it returns to the baseline about two weeks after the last use. Experts argue about whether LSD ever can lead to a compulsive use of the drug.

In the last few years there has been a surprising shift in the use of LSD. The epicenter for use might still be California but the new generation of LSD users are a very different breed indeed. ‘Micro-dosing’ has taken off among the thousands of engineers, business leaders and other of Silicon Valley. Microdosers take regular small doses of LSD (or magic mushrooms) at levels where they don’t experience mind-bending, hallucinatory trips. They are using LSD in what could be called a pragmatic way (or as they might term it a ‘productivity hack’) giving a jolt to creativity and enabling them to focus on their work performance. Micro-dosers also claim it helps their relationships, and generally improves their stressful and demanding daily lives.

Microdosers normally dose at roughly 1/10th of a trip-inducing dose (10 micrograms of LSD) several set days a week. Users have reported a wide range of benefits from anxiety and depression melting away to gaining feelings of determination and self-resolve. Some colour-blind men also have reported seeing colour for the first time. Users are however extremely susceptible to ‘observer-expectancy bias’. Rather like someone who reads their stars in a newspaper’s morning astrology column, and then believes that the events of the day confirm that the astrologer was onto something, whatever science might say.

Recent placebo-controlled and self-blinding trials (where the participants doesn’t know the strength of the drug) have begun. Initial results appear to be inconclusive as to whether micro-dosing LSD is indeed a novel cognitive enhancer, but they have at least made a start on working out exactly how LSD can alter the brain’s perceptive and cognitive systems. As studies advance it probably won’t make much difference to those who are already convinced of micro-dosing.

Could LSD, just possibly, somehow hold the key to both finding ourselves and being ‘the best we can be’?


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