The Peril of Working with Psychoactive Drugs Is Accidentally Tripping

When working with potent psychoactive drugs, whether in a professional or illicit setting, you are likely to experience accidental exposure on occasion.

Feb 3 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr

When working with potent psychoactive drugs, whether in a professional or illicit setting, you are likely to experience accidental exposure on occasion. Although in retrospect these are often avoidable with proper safety precautions, hindsight is 20/20, and accidental exposure still occurs even among the most cautious.

Accidentally dosing oneself with psychoactive chemicals has rich historical roots. For example, accidental ingestion by Albert Hofmann led to the discovery of the psychoactive action of LSD-25 (LSD).1 (LSD remains one of the most potent psychoactive compounds discovered to date, and continues to prove itself an invaluable tool for scientific research.) Clandestine chemists have similarly described accidental dosing while handling psychoactive compounds including LSD in the laboratory. So great are the risks of accidental dosing with LSD that Uncle Fester, author of numerous clandestine chemistry manuals, warns prospective clandestine LSD chemists several times about the risk of accidental LSD ingestion in his book Practical LSD Manufacture.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III, an early American clandestine LSD chemist, described an accidental dosing occurring during the synthesis of LSD, stating, "I've had accidents in a lab that splashed 2000 micrograms into my mouth. Enough time to walk over to the couch and sit down."

Albert Hofmann's first trip was not a smooth one.

I have even come across unsubstantiated accounts of some LSD chemists preparatively ingesting LSD prior to working, to build tolerance and thus minimize the impact of accidental exposure. In her book Lysergic, Krystal Cole recounts an experience in which her partner Gordon Todd Skinner and some friends moved the glassware from a large LSD laboratory.

Cole describes Skinner stating, "It was a wild ride though, driving those big trucks when I was tripping that hard!" "So you got dosed when you were taking it apart?" Cole asks. "Oh of course," replies Skinner. "The LSD crystals were everywhere."

Skinner also describes a helper named Gunnar getting dosed from picking up a flask which presumably contained LSD. Gunner was allegedly intoxicated for several days.2 Leonard Pickard, the alleged owner and chemist of this LSD laboratory, was said to have had several accidental dosing exposures while working with LSD. One of the alleged conspirators in the case, Alfred Savinelli, testified during the 2003 trial of Leonard Pickard that Pickard had told him he accidentally dosed himself with LSD on at least two occasions.

There is a rumor that those who purchase and handle large quantities of crystalline LSD from "the family," a now semi-mythical group of LSD distributors, have to undergo a thumbprint ritual to prove their "karma," or more likely an ability to handle a potential accidental overdose while laying large amounts of blotter. Accounts of thumbprints and accidental exposure while laying blotter are common on internet drug discussion forums, including and Grateful Dead concert parking lots. During a thumbprint, an individual allegedly dips a thumb into a pile of LSD crystal, resulting in several milligrams attaching to the skin, which they then ingest by licking their finger. Assuming 5-10 mg is ingested, this can be equivalent to 50 to hundreds of doses of LSD (assuming a liberal 50-100 µg dose). Quite the trip!

Raiding clandestine laboratories carries its own occupational hazards, and many law enforcement officers have unfortunately been accidentally dosed during raids on clandestine labs. In fact, an extensive body of forensic science literature exists on the topic. Occupational exposure to methamphetamine is a particularly hot topic to study likely due to the large number of methamphetamine laboratories, but exposure has occurred with other clandestine labs as well.

In one report, officers responding to a clandestine PCP laboratory experienced a number of symptoms during the lab raid, including drunkenness, headaches, skin rashes, tachycardia, confusion, and hallucinations. Another officer, speaking at the California Narcotics Officers' Convention, warned his fellow narcotic detectives about the potential of accidental dosing, stating "Wash thoroughly after leaving the site and don't even pick your nose." This officer also warned never to underestimate the "glass of water" in the hand of a clandestine chemist, explaining they've had too many officers hit in the face with hydrochloric acid, methylamine or PCP!

Similarly, an officer was exposed to LSD and potentially other compounds during the 1988 raid on convicted LSD chemist Leonard Pickard's Californian laboratory. According to Peter Wilkinson's "The Acid King" article on Pickard in Rolling Stone, "When agents first encountered Pickard in the warehouse, he warned them not to dismantle the lab. This is all bad stuff, Pickard advised. If I were you, I'd burn this place to the ground. I wouldn't process the scene. Somebody'll get hurt."

The officers understandably disregarded this warning, likely assuming this was a poor attempt by Pickard to destroy evidence. However, the warning turned out to be correct, and Max Hauser, a Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agent, ended up getting exposed despite using a protective suit and respirator, resulting in convulsions and hospitalization. Houser survived, although allegedly he suffered permanent brain damage.

"I regret his difficult moments although I suffered the same effects without the benefit of protective suits," Pickard told Rolling Stone, adding that "sustained exposure to unknown but massive dosages of LSD as experienced by the few unknown individuals worldwide who are responsible for its distribution, has no parallel in clinical setting. I understand various psychiatrists and pharmacologists would like to interview them, but they are necessarily unavailable."

Of course, accidental exposures do not only involve psychoactive chemicals and occur with a variety of biologically active compounds including radioactive materials, heavy metals, and various toxins, with sometimes lethal consequences. For example, accidental exposure to dimethylmercury led to the tragic death of prominent chemistry professor and researcher Karen Wetterhahn in 1997 at Dartmouth College. It is said one or two drops of the chemical fell from her pipette onto her gloves, a smaller quantity of which penetrated the latex and entered her system via her skin. Within five months Wetterhahn began to show neurological symptoms and soon after slipped into a coma. She died within a year.

"The evening was spent staring at a wall while periodically monitoring my vitals and keeping the 5-HT2a antagonist ketanserin on hand"

Far from being an isolated case, dimethylmercury has claimed the lives of numerous chemists throughout history including two English chemists in 1865 and a Czech chemist working with dimethylmercury in the 1970s. Occupational exposure to chemicals is a large and well-documented topic with numerous examples occurring in industrial, mining and trade work throughout history. One particular series of poisonings involved chronic exposure to tetraethyl lead from industrial laboratory work. This led to psychotic responses including hallucinations and later death of a number of workers at a New Jersey Standard Oil laboratory. The workers began to call the material "looney gas" due to the strange behaviors of those who had high exposure. Finally, the interested reader should look up "popcorn lung" for an additional interesting example of chemical exposure.

Although I have been fortunate enough to avoid dimethylmercury exposure to date,3 I have experienced what I believe to be accidental altered states of consciousness a handful of times while working with psychoactive compounds as a graduate student. Usually this occurred with classical hallucinogens, but a few times it has involved dissociative arylcyclohexylamines, which are represented by PCP and ketamine.

A close colleague of mine has also experienced this on several occasions. "Mostly these events were completely unprovoked, for example occurring during work-up of a several gram reaction with 5-MeO-AMT which led to a mild altered state and trouble sleeping," he told me. "In other cases, exposure occurred following smelling or tasting a compound4 which led to unexpected responses to LSM-775 and 25N-NBOMe. With the former, I began to notice something wasn't right on my walk home from the lab for a dinner break. The people across the street took on the appearance of a Mexican day of the dead festival. While Dock Ellis may be able to pitch a no hitter while under the influence of LSD, I was not as confident in my abilities to work on LSM-775 and rather than returning to the lab I decided to take the evening off."

"The evening was spent staring at a wall while periodically monitoring my vitals and keeping the 5-HT2a antagonist ketanserin on hand," he continued. "I was fortunate there were not serious consequences and although [they were] interesting experiences, I now implement extra precautions when working with potentially potent compounds."

While many of the accidental dosing reports leave little doubt that drug exposure occurred, I have to point out that sometimes, especially during the milder responses, one can't help but wonder if the effects experienced are all just placebo. Given the fact that a substance often wasn't intentionally or even obviously ingested, knowing with certainty may be impossible. In his book PIHKAL, Alexander Shulgin, the brilliant chemist and discoverer of hundreds of scientifically and therapeutically valuable psychoactive drugs, describes an experience where he thought he was dosed with a novel amphetamine, ALEPH. Shulgin described a "strange manic excitement that occurred at the time of the isolation and analytical characterization of the final product in the laboratory."

Based on follow-up work with ALEPH, Shulgin concluded "It was certainly all placebo response," although not before first washing the lab down just to make sure. Of course, placebo responses are bound to happen, and the fact a compound can affect your state of mind without entering the body only makes it all the more fascinating.

While researching for this article, I spoke with former clandestine chemist Casey Hardison, about his experiences making psychoactive compounds including LSD and 2C-D. Although Casey does not believe he ever accidentally dosed himself, he described a few close calls involving LSD "mists or vapors" and described experiences where he could feel some effects, which he assumed to have been placebo, although we may never know. When asked about placebo effects, he said, "sometimes if I'm standing around a pile of it I feel it." Casey then wittily followed up with "spooky action at a distance." I couldn't have said it better. Be careful!

Jason Wallach has his PhD in pharmacology and toxicology. He conducts research primarily on the analytical characterizations of novel psychoactive substances and investigations into the pharmacology of psychoactive drugs.


[1] Interestingly, LSD does not seem readily absorbed through the skin, suggesting Hofmann may have ingested LSD by touching contaminated fingers to his lips [Henderson 1994]. A friend has partially tested the theory that lysergamides are active via transderamal ingestion, finding 100 µg AL-LAD to be completely inactive via this route—although it may be possible that larger mg quantities can lead to psychoactive effects or that certain solvents could assist absorption. In the film "Dirty Pictures," the exceptional chemist, pharmacologist and LSD expert David Nichols puts forth a theory that Hofmann actually did not ingest any LSD at all that first time. Rather, Nichols speculates, he experienced a spontaneous mystical experience (to which he was prone having these as a child) which, because he had been working in the lab, he assumed was caused by accidental ingestion. In this version of events, the discovery of LSD's activity was just an incredible coincidence or, as Nichols said, a "cosmic conspiracy".

[2] In her book Lysergic, Cole also describes an accidental dosing with the classical hallucinogen 4-AcO-DIPT, which she calls "foxy," a term usually used for the more potent 5-MeO-DIPT. Cole states she experienced a strong psychedelic response from touching oily crystals of the drug with her fingers.

[3] In fact, I recently met a bright young chemical engineer who was not so fortunate, requiring hospitalization and chelation therapy with N-acetyl cysteine following exposure to a small amount of dimethyl mercury that someone had not properly stored.

[4] Although many today would say that tasting a new chemical is irresponsible, this was once standard practice and has led to many very important discoveries, including local anesthetics and artificial sweeteners. In the case of the former, isogramine was serendipitously discovered to act as a local anesthetic when tasted. Follow-up synthetic work led to the development of xylocaine (lidocaine), an important local anesthetic still used today. Although there is some risk, I honestly feel the practice is relatively safe as long as the individual has some understanding of the pharmacology and toxicology of the chemical class. In this sense it would be low risk to taste a novel tryptamine compound whereas it would be moronic to taste some new derivative of methyl mercury. Still, I would of course not recommend anyone do this.