On April 19th, 1943, a chemist working for Sandoz pharmaceuticals took an experimental drug he had synthesized 5 years earlier. 250 micrograms of a peculiar substance originally intended for use as a respiratory and cardiac stimulant, and an analeptic. Albert Hoffman’s groundbreaking drug was LSD and would never be used clinically for its original intended purpose, however, it would change the world forever. The anniversary of this is dubbed “Bicycle Day” to commemorate Hoffman’s fateful bike ride home under the influence of LSD.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) was available as a treatment for a wide array of psychiatric conditions under the brand name Delysid. Included in the package were instructions for any physician using the drug on a patient to experience it themselves first.
In combination with psychotherapy, the drug had been used to treat repressed trauma in patients and many psychiatrists reported great success. Perhaps it’s most impressive use though, was for the treatment of alcoholism and narcotic addiction. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, studies using a variety of different methods to treat alcoholics. While the exact results varied from study to study, there were amazingly positive results. In most of the studies, the rate if successful abstinence from alcohol after the treatments ranged from 40%-75%. To this day no other treatment for alcoholism has proven to be as successful.
Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous which is currently the most respected recovery program for alcoholics around the world was also interested in the results. Under the supervision and care of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, Mr. Bill Wilson himself was given LSD in a clinical setting on 8/29/1956. His interest grew even more, and both his personal writings and official biography make notes of his belief that LSD could be of great benefit to the treatment of alcoholism.
In the case of narcotics addiction there was not nearly as much research, however, one study by Savage and McCabe showed great promise. 70 subjects were placed in a 6 week halfway house, with one group given a single dose of LSD combined with psychotherapy. In the group who received LSD with psychotherapy, 25% remained abstinent whereas, in the control group, only 5% remained abstinent. Of the 13 subjects who had perfect community adjustment scores after one year, 12 reported having had a psychedelic peak experience during their treatment with LSD.
Unfortunately LSD is perhaps the most misunderstood drug in both popular culture and in politics. Due to the hallucinogenic state it caused, it was painted in the light of being dangerous and addictive even despite the studies being done at the time. The claims made that brought forth the prohibition of the drug carries a special irony. Not only did sheer urban legends play a huge role in driving public opinion towards banning the chemical, but of the urban legends that weren’t based entirely on fiction, most were based on things the government had been responsible for. The Anti-LSD propaganda never thought to mention that though.
One of the claims made about LSD had included a story of a man jumping out of a window because he thought he could fly. Not only is their not a single verified instance of this happening, but it had its roots in a true story from a CIA operative who was unknowingly dosed with LSD. Even in this instance, the man (Frank Olsen) had plunged from the 13th-floor window of a New York hotel 9 days after being dosed with LSD. The entire story is shrouded in mystery though, and some argue he was murdered.
In 1969, Diane Linkletter who was the daughter of a celebrity TV host had also perished from a presumed suicide. Many made the claim she was also on LSD at the time, yet there is zero evidence this is true.
Stories of “permanent acid trips” also became common folklore. Yet again, not a single verified case of someone “stuck in a trip” from LSD exists, but this myth was perpetuated so much that even today many people believe it. This, however, is more exaggeration than a total falsehood. A condition called “Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder” does exist, and while rare does give mild lasting visual effects to those with the condition. This is usually a result of incredibly large and repeated doses of a psychedelic drug and is not mutually exclusive to any single specific drug. The disorder amounts to recognizing patterns and seeing slight distortions when looking at a complex pattern and in some cases is reported to worsen in times of stress. Those affected by HPPD lead normal lives.
The next myth is one of my favorites. Reports of dealers selling LSD laced tattoos or candy to children, usually mentioning some form of rat poison such as strychnine being in the drug. They also often cited that children were dying.
Not a single case of this has ever been verified, yet in the 60s and 70s, flyers similar to the one pictured above had commonly circulated in schools, neighborhoods, police stations, and even newspapers. The rat poison myth was also common, yet again there is not a single confirmed case of it being found in an LSD sample.
There were also fears that a drug of such potency could be used to taint water or food supplies. Oddly enough, the in 1951 the CIA had tainted the entire supply of bread in a bakery in a small village in France. This was just one if many MK Ultra experiments, and likely is the reasoning for the paranoia about food and water supplies.
Unfortunately, the scare tactics worked. Claims LSD and Marijuana was “corrupting the minds of youth” were prominent. The hippie counterculture made it easy to paint psychedelics in this same negative light as if wanting peace was a bad thing. In addition, outspoken and eccentric figures such as Timothy Leary were gaining notoriety. You did not need to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” to hear about LSD, it was everywhere. The psychedelic movement among the youth was questioning everything, and that perhaps was what scared people the most.
Eventually in 1966 LSD was made illegal. Currently a schedule 1 drug, it is deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no significant medical uses. Since then, the study of psychedelic drugs such as LSD and the benefit they may have on society is effectively shut down. A few studies have been done since, and the folks at MAPS.org have been hard at working navigating the bureaucratic nightmare that the DEA has put in place to complete more studies and educate people on the truth behind LSD and other psychedelics.
To put it plainly, the irrational fear based prohibition of LSD (and similarly Psilocybin and other psychedelics) is setting us back dramatically in terms of mental health. There exists a strange irony in using the same failed drug laws that gave us the opioid crisis, to fight off a substance that may help combat the opioid crisis. In a day and age where opioids are the leading cause of death in Americans under 50, this legislation of LSD and related drugs may actually be costing us the lives of our own people.
But has the ban on LSD made anyone safer? In short, no. With LSD banned, a demand for a replacement came about. Many other lysergamides have been discovered since, and work very similarly. Thanks to regulations on the precursors to LSD which these other lysergamides share, the cost to produce them is high. On the other hand, many other highly potent drugs are being sold deceptively as ‘Acid’ and users have no clue what they are buying. Some of these drugs are potentially fatal, such as NBOMe compounds. Others such as DOB, DOC, and similar substances can last for days and are amphetamine based psychedelics that put users at a much greater risk of psychosis or paranoia.
As with any attempt at prohibition, it only serves to make an issue worse. In the case of LSD, it created issues that weren’t there. This bicycle day, I would hope you (the reader) gives this a share and possibly help spread the word about the great injustice that is LSD prohibition.
Matt Murphy is a regular guest on the Think Liberty Podcast. Listen to episodes here.