LSD Drug of the Month: download
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Episode 1: Introduction
And now it’s time for the Drug of the Month, where we take a closer look at the background, science, history, and recent trends in a different drug each month. For our last drug of the month, we talked about PCP, a drug that is often surrounded by fear and stereotypes in the public mind, but that’s not actually that commonly used nowadays. This month, we’ll be examining a drug that Erowid calls “the best known and most researched psychedelic,” that features prominently in 1960s counterculture lore, and that, these days, is gaining wider acceptance and scientific support as having therapeutic potential. This month, we’ll be discussing lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known by its acronym LSD or “acid.”
LSD is a psychedelic drug known for its psychological effects, which include altered thinking processes, closed- and open-eye visuals, synesthesia, an altered sense of time, and spiritual experiences. It is used mainly as a recreational drug, as well as for spiritual reasons. LSD is considered an entheogen because it can act as a catalyst to intense spiritual experiences, during which users may feel they have come into contact with a greater spiritual or cosmic order. Users also sometimes report out of body experiences. LSD is typically either swallowed or held under the tongue, most often in the form of blotter paper. LSD is not physically addictive. However, adverse psychiatric reactions such as anxiety, paranoia, and delusions are possible. These negative experiences are often known as “bad trips.”
LSD’s psychological effects vary greatly between persons and places. If the user is in a hostile or otherwise unsettling environment, or is not mentally prepared for the powerful distortions in perception and thought that the drug causes, effects are more likely to be unpleasant than if the user is in a comfortable environment and has a relaxed, balanced and open mindset. These factors are what is known as “set and setting,” a concept popularized by avid LSD researcher and user Timothy Leary.
In its pure, chemical form, LSD is a white, odorless powder. Most commonly, however, LSD is sold and used in the form of tabs, which are small pieces of blotter paper that have been soaked in a solution of liquid LSD. LSD is extremely potent, with 20–30 micrograms being the threshold dose. Its effects normally last from 6–12 hours depending on dosage, tolerance, body weight and age.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss research chemist Albert Hofmann. However, its psychedelic properties were not discovered until five years later, on April 16, 1943, when Hoffman accidentally dosed himself with an unknown quantity of the drug, a career-defining discovery that Hoffman eloquently documented in his book, “LSD, My Problem Child.” Three days later, he intentionally repeated the experiment, this time ingesting a quarter milligram, about ten times the threshold dose. That date, April 19, is still celebrated to this day as Bicycle Day by members of the psychedelic community, and we’ll talk more about that on the History segment in two weeks.
Despite an enormous amount of research generated in the ensuing two decades, including over 1000 scientific papers, several dozen books, 6 international conferences, and LSD being prescribed as treatment to over 40,000 patients, because of its inextricable ties to 1960s counterculture, LSD was categorized as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance in the 1970s, where it remains to this day.
Nowadays, LSD is mostly produced in illegal labs in the United States. It is converted from its crystalline, powder form into a liquid for distribution. The liquid is then absorbed into perforated sheets of blotter paper, which are divided into tabs about the size of a quater of a postage stamp, containing a dose each. The tabs are then placed under the tongue, where the LSD is quickly absorbed the tongue’s mucosal membrane into the bloodstream. Tabs can also be swallowed, but effects may take longer and be less effective as it travels through the intestinal tract and is digested.
So that’s it for our Introduction on LSD, also known as “acid.” Next week we’ll be diving into the science of LSD: its medical potential, side effects, and how it interacts with the human body.
What is the science behind how it interacts with the body? What receptors does it influence? What are the medical effects of it, potential side effects?
Now it’s time for the drug of the month, where we bring you an overview, the science, history, and recent trends on a different drug each month. For April, that drug is lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD, acid, or many other nicknames; for this, the second installment, I’ll be going over the science of what is arguably the most heavily researched psychedelic on the planet, going over what it is, how it works, and its positive and negative effects.
Just like PCP which we covered last month, LSD is a synthetic drug, meaning it does not occur in nature and must be created in a laboratory setting. It’s classified as a psychedelic, and its chemical structure is C20H25N3O. In pure form, it’s a colorless, odorless, tasteless solid, but it is almost always dissolved in liquid before being consumed.
The most common method of administration for LSD is orally, but it can also be injected. When taken orally, the liquid LSD is most often put on blotter paper, a highly absorbent type of paper that is also used for ink blotting and clearing excess liquid from microscope slides. This paper, which is usually plain but can come with LSD-inspired designs or prints on them known as “blotter art”, is then cut up into little squares referred to as “tabs.” Alternatively, liquid LSD can also be added to other absorbent edible items such as sugar cubes. When taken orally, the effects begin about 30 minutes after ingestion, peaking for 2-5 hours, and concluding in a total of 8-12 hours.
No matter how it is administered, LSD works by binding with a large number of receptors in the brain. This includes G-protein-coupled receptors, some of which release dopamine; it also works as an agonist to D2 receptors, which produces some of its psychoactive effects. LSD binds to nearly all of the serotonin receptors, also known as 5-HT receptors, which are responsible for many of its psychedelic effects.
The biological half-life of LSD is about 5 hours, and its threshhold dose is very low, at only 20-30 micrograms. For reference, a microgram is one millionth of a gram, so you only need an incredibly small amount of LSD to feel an effect. This makes dosage very difficult if you have it in liquid form, and if you have it on blotter paper, it’s also impossible to weigh and figure out the dosage from that, kind of like having a marijuana edible that you want to figure out how many milligrams of THC are in it — if you want to know the precise potency, that has to happen at the source. This makes consuming LSD a bit unpredictable, as a tab from one batch could very greatly in potency from a different tab.
Luckily, it is impossible to fatally overdose on LSD. Like marijuana, the LD-50 is so high that it’s only hypothetical and has never actually been reached, with most estimating it at about 10,000 to 12,000 micrograms – hundreds of times what a normal user would consume. Of course, it is certainly possible to consume too much and have a really rough trip, with possibly long-lasting damage to your mental health. Tolerance also builds somewhat quickly with consistent use, and there is a cross-tolerance with psilocybin and mescaline, meaning if you take mushrooms or peyote and then consume LSD the next day, you will feel less of an effect. LSD is also not addictive at all, and no research has found any positive reinforcement in humans or animals.
When you are consuming the threshold dose or a bit above, there are many varying but well-known effects. What most people using LSD recreationally are seeking is the characteristic closed and open eye visuals, which become more notable with larger doses. LSD can also cause synesthesia, defined as “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.” While an oversimplification, this basically means that you can, for example, feel like you “see” sounds or “hear” colors. Many people enjoy this effect because it can make an activity like listening to music much more engaging or even enveloping. LSD also causes an altered sense of time, and many users also report having spiritual experiences both inside and outside of traditional religious contexts. One really important thing is that all of these psychological effects are influenced heavily by “set and setting,” meaning the user’s state of mind and the environment around them can have a big impact on the experience.
There are many other effects of LSD that are not really sought after, ranging from neutral to potentially harmful. Physically, users’ pupils will dilate, have decreased appetite and sometimes nausea, an increased heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure, and dry mouth. If someone has underlying mental health problems such as schizophrenia, LSD has been known to act as a sort of trigger, bringing those issues to the surface or exacerbating known ones. And of course, there is the infamous so-called “bad trip,” where a user either takes too much or is in a negative set or setting. Our friends at the Zendo Project, who practice psychedelic harm reduction, prefer to call these “challenging trips” because they are not inherently bad and, when handled properly, can be become significant learning experiences. No matter what you call them, they are most associated with anxiety, paranoia, confusion, and in some cases delusions.
Currently, the United States government does not recognize any medical effects of LSD, and it is therefore classified as a Schedule I drug. However, in the drug’s early days, it was used in medical settings and was marketed under the trade name Delysid beginning in 1947. There was also a significant amount of research done on it in the 60s by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and others before it was made illegal. Recently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies completed the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the therapeutic use of LSD in human beings since the early 1970s, and is doing more research on the potential for LSD-assisted therapy to reduce anxiety, alleviate cluster headaches, or treat alcoholism.
Since LSD is so popular and well-researched, there is far more to explain than we’re able to fit in here, but if you’re interested in learning more, there are plenty of great books and journal articles written about it. So that’s all for this segment, and next week we’ll be back with a glimpse at the equally expansive history of this incredibly well-known drug.
When did people start using it? Who uses it now? How have the laws and societal attitudes about it evolved over time?
And now it’s time for Drug of the Month, where we take a closer look at a different drug each month. For April, we’ve been learning more about lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD or acid, and last week, Sam talked about the science behind LSD and how it interacts with the human body. On today’s episode, I’ll be discussing its quirky and lore-filled history, the origins of its use, and evolving social attitudes towards LSD users.
If you’re a regular listener, you know by now that LSD does not exist in nature, and was synthesized for the first time in a Swiss lab by chemist Albert Hoffman, while studying the fungus ergot for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz Laboratories.
But ergot does exist in nature, and has a pretty fascinating history itself! Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye, and regular consumption of it by humans and animals can cause ergotism or ergot poisoning. Symptoms of ergotism include painful seizures and spasms, itching, the feeling of “pins and needles,” like when your foot falls asleep, headaches, nausea and vomiting, as well as mental effects including mania, melancholia, psychosis, or delirium. Before humans discovered that ergot growing on their rye was the cause of these symptoms, there were regular epidemics throughout history describing ergotism, dating as far back as 857. An outbreak of ergot is possible whenever there is a combination of moist weather, cool temperatures, delayed harvest of lowland crops, and heavy rye consumption.
One of the best-known episodes of potential, accidental widespread ergot poisoning were the Salem witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. The theory is based on the symptoms of “bewitchment” being quite similar to the symptoms of ergotism, considering both the compulsive and psychological effects. This theory was first published in Science magazine in 1976 and then raised again in 1982, but many historians and anthropologists say it does not take into account all factors, including that ergotism epidemics were a well-known phenomenon by then, and should have been recognized if that were the case.
In less wealthy countries, ergotism still occurs; an outbreak in Ethiopia occurred in mid-2001 from contaminated barley.
Back to Albert Hoffman and the discovery of LSD. As we’ve said, Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD by accident while researching some other uses of ergot. It apparently didn’t do what he was looking for, because after creating it, he put the drug aside for five years before reviving his interest. In this second time experimenting with the drug, Hoffman came into contact with an unknown quantity, absorbing a small amount through his fingertips. He described his experience as “… affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed , I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away.”
Of course, after that, he wanted to try again. Being only able to guess how much was needed to feel similar effects, Hoffman three days later on April 19, dosed himself with 250 micrograms, an amount he predicted was the threshold dose (but which is actually about 10 times higher). Less than an hour later, Hofmann experienced sudden and intense changes in perception. He asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home and, as use of motor vehicles were prohibited because of wartime restrictions, they had to make the journey on a bicycle. On the way, Hoffman’s condition rapidly deteriorated as he struggled with feelings of anxiety, alternating in his beliefs that the next-door neighbor was a malevolent witch, that he was going insane, and that the LSD had poisoned him. When the house doctor arrived, however, he declared Hoffman physically fine, save for a pair of incredibly dilated pupils. The events of the first LSD trip, now known as “Bicycle Day”, after the bicycle ride home, proved to Hofmann that he had indeed made a significant discovery: a psychoactive substance with extraordinary potency, capable of causing significant shifts of consciousness in incredibly low doses. Hofmann foresaw the drug as a powerful psychiatric tool. Because of its intense and introspective nature, he couldn’t imagine anyone using it recreationally. The events of that first day are now celebrated annually in the psychedelic community as Bicycle Day on April 19.
LSD was brought to the attention of the United States in 1949 by Sandoz Laboratories because they believed LSD might have clinical applications. Throughout the 1950s, mainstream media reported on research into LSD, and undergraduate psychology students actually took LSD as part of their education, describing the effects of the drug, and its growing use in psychiatry. Time Magazine published 6 positive reports on LSD between 1954 and 1959. One of the leading authorities on LSD research was psychoanalyst Sidney Cohen, who introduced Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) to the drug, and believed that it might have psychotherapeutic benefits, including curing alcoholism and enhancing creativity. Two very different effects.
For about 15 years, from the 60s to mid-70s, LSD research was generated at a tremendous rate, and was being diverted into the mainstream college population through its wide availability to university researchers. Dr. Timothy Leary, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, was the most prominent pro-LSD researcher. Leary strongly believed that using LSD with the right dosage, set, and setting, preferably with the guidance of professionals, could alter behavior in dramatic and beneficial ways.
By 1962, faculty discontent with Leary’s experiments reached critical mass. Leary was informed that the CIA was monitoring his research, and parents had started complaining to the university that Leary was distributing hallucinogenic drugs to their children, which admittedly, he was. Further, many undergraduate students who were not part of Leary’s research program heard of the profound experiences other students had undergone, and began taking LSD for recreational purposes, which was not illegal at the time. Leary described LSD as a potent aphrodisiac in an interview with Playboy magazine, which obviously riled some people up. When Leary went AWOL during the following spring semester, thus failing to fulfill his duties as professor, that was the last straw for the university. Leary and another Harvard psychologist, Richard Alpert, were dismissed in 1963.
Leary and Alpert were unfazed though, relocating first to Mexico to continue their experiments, before being expelled from the county by the Mexican government. They then set up at a large private mansion in New York, known as Millbrook, where they continued their experiments. Their research lost its controlled scientific character and transformed into LSD parties. Leary later wrote, “We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the twenty-first century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the Dark Ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.” Which okay, that is one of the hippiest lines I’ve ever read, but now we know that we are 21st century anthropologists on a space colony, and maybe one day, you too can become a Harvard professor. Around this time, President Richard Nixon described Leary as “the most dangerous man in America.” Repeated FBI raids instigated the end of the Millbrook experiment, and Leary refocused his efforts towards countering the tremendous amount of anti-LSD propaganda that was being issued by the United States government, coining the slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Many experts blame Leary and his activism for the near-total suppression of psychedelic research over the next thirty five years.
By the mid-sixties the backlash against the use of LSD and its perceived corrosive effects on the values of the Western middle class resulted in governmental action to restrict the availability of the drug by making any use of it illegal. Despite a history of positive results of judicious use under controlled circumstances, LSD was declared a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and removed from legal circulation.
Overlapping with this time period, the US government was actually conducting its own experiments on the uses of LSD, but for them, it was to study the possibility of using LSD in chemical warfare. LSD was the original centerpiece of the top secret MK-ULTRA project, an ambitious undertaking conducted from the 1950s through the ’70s designed to explore the possibilities of pharmaceutical mind control. Hundreds of participants, including CIA agents, government employees, military personnel, and members of the general public,were given LSD, many without their knowledge or consent. The experiments often involved severe psychological torture. The researchers eventually concluded that LSD’s effects were too unpredictable and uncontrollable to make it of any practical use as a truth drug, and the project moved on to other substances.
During the 1960s, Leary and Alpert’s group of LSD users evolved and expanded into a subculture that extolled the mystical and religious symbolism often engendered by the drug’s powerful effects, and advocated its use as a method of raising consciousness. The personalities associated with the subculture, gurus such as Dr. Timothy Leary and psychedelic rock musicians like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles soon attracted a great deal of publicity, generating further interest in LSD.
In 1968, Tom Wolfe wrote a widely read account of these early days of LSD’s entrance into the non-academic world in his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which documented the cross-country, acid-fueled voyage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on the psychedelic bus “Furthur” and the Pranksters’ later ‘Acid Test’ LSD parties, solidifying LSD’s prominence and cultural importance to 1960s counterculture.
So that’s all for a very lengthy segment on the history of LSD. Thank you for sticking with us, and next week, we’ll be back with some current news, trends, and events surrounding lysergic acid dythilemide, also known as acid or LSD.