LSD: The real story

After over fifty years as an outlawed intoxicant, LSD is making an unlikely comeback as a panacea of mental health.  

By: Dominic Munton, Historie-Engelsk Lektorgrad 
Picture: Alex Rhek Usow / Rhek Creative 

If you’ve kept an eye on the news over the past year, you’ve probably seen a few surprising claims: “Psychedelics can have beneficial effects on mental health”, or “Ecstasy being used to treat PTSD.” Great news! But hang on a minute, haven’t we been told that LSD causes psychosis? And isn’t ecstasy a notorious party drug that makes holes in the brain? How could these dangerous illegal drugs possibly have therapeutic use? In fact, common public knowledge relating to these substances has been strictly controlled over the last fifty years by a staunchly prohibitionist establishment. In 1961, the US-led Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was subscribed to by 186 out of 206 world states and has dominated international attitudes to psychedelics ever since. This convention and related legislation not only rendered psychedelics illegal, but also influenced the availability of information pertaining to them. But away from the simplicity of Nancy Reagan’s “just say no”, there is another, far more nuanced story to be told. In the light of recent research and in the interests of balance, let us walk the road less travelled and investigate the real story of the much-maligned psychedelic, LSD. 

In 1943, a young Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann was investigating the properties of compounds isolated from ergot, a fungus that grows on rye grain. Hofmann’s initial investigation into the 25th analogue of the test substance called lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) proved fruitless, and LSD was consequently stricken from the research program. Five years later, a hunch inspired Hofmann to re-synthesise the molecule, but his work was interrupted by a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination.” The only plausible explanation was that the experience arose from the consumption of LSD. Yet Hofmann was a meticulously neat worker, and it was hard to believe that he may have intoxicated himself simply by touching the synthesised crystals. A self-experiment conducted three days later dispelled all doubts. Hofmann took a dose of only 250μg of LSD (about one thousand times less than a dose of aspirin), but his report from the following day indicates, “Home by bicycle…most severe crisis.” By his own account, the first planned LSD trip was both marvellous and terrifying. In his book LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann notes: “There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world.” We now know that LSD is active at doses from 50 μg upwards and it is entirely possible that Hofmann had accidentally intoxicated himself through his skin by touching the pure crystal with his gloved hand. 

“I realized people were not having LSD experiences; they were having experiences of themselves. But they were coming from depths that psychoanalysis didn’t know anything about.” – Dr. Stanislav Grof 

Hofmann was so moved by his experience that he immediately reached out to colleagues working in the fields of psychology and mental health. LSD was soon being produced and sampled by scientists around the world, including in Norway, who initially praised the substance for its ability to temporarily mimic the effects of psychosis. This conclusion was later discarded by psychoanalytically and phonologically orientated clinicians and investigators who identified many specific characteristics that distinguished LSD from schizophrenia. In 1957, a psychology graduate student called Stanislav Grof was given LSD as part of a research program at Charles University, Prague. His experience inspired him to pioneer the use of LSD in psychotherapeutic practice. Grof published the findings of his research in his book, Realms of the Unconscious: Observations from LSD research. The book summarises the results of 17 years of research with LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Grof’s discoveries were ground-breaking. Over the course of successive sessions, involving a variety of debilitating diagnoses including manic-depressive psychoses and schizophrenia, patients regressed through traumatic experiences otherwise inaccessible during conventional therapy.  In the words of Grof: “I realized people were not having LSD experiences; they were having experiences of themselves. But they were coming from depths that psychoanalysis didn’t know anything about.” Many of Grof’s patients had poor clinical prognoses but nonetheless demonstrated remarkably positive outcomes in response to a mode of treatment that was considered much safer than other common alternatives at the time such as electric shock therapy, insulin coma treatment and psychosurgery. 

As interest in LSD peaked within scientific circles, a growing number of artists or religiously-inclined individuals were invited to experience the drug for themselves. If it was possible, LSD was even more of a bombshell in these scenes than it had been in the therapeutic context. Creative individuals declared that LSD opened up entirely novel dimensions of creativity. LSD was also claimed to elicit experiences indifferentiable from the mystical experiences encountered in deep prayer or meditation. When LSD found its way into the growing US counter-culture surrounding civil rights and the anti-war movement, the combination was explosive. Extremely strange things happened around this time: A group of individuals calling themselves the Merry Pranksters converted a yellow school bus into a psychedelic, sonic tank that cruised through the American mid-west. They invited unsuspecting ruralites to proto-raves where they could sample LSD or ‘take the acid test’. LSD ‘prophets’ appeared such as Timothy Leary who invited an entire generation of youngsters to “turn on, tune in and drop out”. Although top-secret at the time, in 1953 the CIA investigated the use of LSD as an espionage weapon in the controversial MK ULTRA mind-control project. The project rapidly got out of hand, with internal operatives repeatedly spiking each other’s coffee with LSD, ostensibly to harden them against the risk of intoxication by foreign agents. Although the influence of LSD was limited to a relatively small population, the mainstream media backlash was ferocious, and the political establishment was not far behind. 

The US government of the 1960s was a government under siege. Racial tensions, the anti-war movement and now an unstoppable wave of incomprehensibly colourful students threatening to ‘drop out’ of consumer society were simply too much for the suited G-men to handle. In 1966, ‘the man’ hit back. LSD was declared a schedule I substance with a “high potential for abuse” and, according to the DEA, was without any “currently accepted medical use in treatment.” The legislation’s impact on the availability of black-market LSD was negligible. The effect on scientific research into LSD and mental health was almost terminal. It became impossible to research LSD without a licence from the DEA and, given that the DEA had declared LSD to be without therapeutic value, it was almost impossible to obtain one of these licences. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ensured that US policy was exported worldwide. Around the world, most research into LSD stopped abruptly, but there remained a stalwart few who were unwilling to give up the fight so easily. 

“Approximately one-third of patients with end-stage-cancer treated with LSD-assisted psychotherapy showed dramatic improvement” – Dr. Peter Gasser 

MAPS, or to give it its full mouthful, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, was founded in 1986 as a “non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.” MAPS is one of the biggest financial contributors to psychedelic research in the world and are currently sponsoring studies for the use of LSD, psilocybin (the primary active component in magic mushrooms) and MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, social anxiety and anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses. In 2007, MAPS funded a Swiss study under the direction of Dr. Peter Gasser for the use of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of patients suffering from anxiety associated with advanced-stage life threatening diseases. The study reported that “approximately one-third of patients with end-stage-cancer treated with LSD-assisted psychotherapy showed dramatic improvement, one-third moderate improvement, and one-third was effectively unchanged.” As a result of this study, Gasser is now legally using LSD-psychotherapy in his practice under the auspices of the Swiss government. 

The ability of LSD to elicit positive therapeutic outcomes amongst treatment-resistant patients suggests that it may only be a matter of time before it becomes part of the mainstream therapeutic toolbox. All of the voices mentioned above are also keen to point out the dangers of unsupervised, recreational use of LSD, but its therapeutic use clearly gives lie to its reputation as an unqualified destroyer of minds. Who knows, maybe next time you visit your therapist with a worry or two, they’ll prescribe you a trip into the Sky amongst the Diamonds, with Lucy. 

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