Science busts some of the myths that spread around the drug in the 60s.
A unicorn-themed art car at Burning Man. Image: Michael & Sandy/Flickr
A handful of individual drug experiences are known to millions. Aldous Huxley's mescaline dose, recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954), is one. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 opium visions, enshrined in his poem "Kubla Khan," is another.
But one high is so famous it has a birthday: Bicycle Day, April 19, 1943. The world's first acid trip.
You know the gist: Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, tinkering in the labs of Sandoz Chemicals, accidentally absorbs LSD-25 through his fingers. Later sold as "Delysid" by Sandoz, it was one of many synthetic molecules created in Hofmann's quest to prevent post-partum haemorrhaging. (The man who created the world's best-loved hallucinogen was only trying to prevent the death of women in childbirth. And he succeeded in both respects.) Hours later, cycling home, the world shimmered.
Entirely inexperienced with recreational drugs, the Hofmann was befuddled, and decided on a "self-experiment" to delve further. On April 19, he slugged 250 micrograms at 4:20pm—surely one of history's most trippy coincidences.
The world's first trip was far from fun. "A demon had invaded me, taken possession of my body, mind and soul," Hofmann wrote in his book. Though the after-glow was pleasant, Hofmann hated the initial jolt. "The last thing I could have expected was that this substance could ever find application as anything approaching a pleasure drug." Instead, he hoped LSD "could be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and the telescope for astronomy." A tool to probe the mind. A task, not a treat.
Much to Hofmann's dismay, acid "spread with epidemic-like speed as a sensational inebriant." His "wonder child" had become a "problem child." LSD was everywhere, bringing with it a bad rep.
Lysergic acid was vilified: the three letters LSD became synonymous with psychosis, suicide, and brain damage. But did the scientific evidence match the public perception?
Mass media reports set the tone. Time magazine screamed America was suffering "An Epidemic of Acid Heads" in 1966, reporting that LSD casualties were "flocking" to UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. Other publications parroted "15 percent of patients in psychiatric wards" were victims of acid-induced psychosis. Parents worried their child would become one of those jumping out of windows because they "thought they could fly." Studies claimed LSD caused "chromosomal damage." Isolated case reports suggested acid could lead to leukemia.
Psychedelic fears mushroomed from physical harms to social chaos. "Arty" types were especially at risk. Hallucinogens "possess a particular attraction for certain psychologically and socially maladjusted persons," including "'arty' people such as struggling writers, painters, and musicians," scowled a World Health Organisation bulletin.
"If anybody died falling out of a window while on LSD, the urban myth was that they were 'trying to fly.'"
If anything speaks to how dangerous LSD was considered to be, it is Operation Julie. The culmination of two and a half years investigation, on March 26, 1977, 120 people and 6.5 million doses of LSD were seized. Sold for £1 a hit, "microdots" were disseminated allegedly for philosophical and not financial purposes. "I considered LSD a valuable tool in helping people really see the transcendental beauty of our home," wrote Leaf Fielding, one of those arrested and imprisoned, in his memoir To Live Outside The Law. "Trippers wouldn't trash the planet." Bless.
On one occasion, Fielding accidentally took a monumental amount after spilling thousands of crystals and trying to collect them by hand. "I went down on my knees and sank down into them, unable to move for over four million years," he wrote.
It's impossible to say how much acid he took, "but certainly thousands of trips," he told me from his home in southern France. Did the experience irreparably alter him? "I was a bit wrecked for a week or so," he laughed. "But no I wouldn't say I suffered any sort of permanent change." To be fair, from my perspective over the phone, he was perfectly lucid.
Statistically speaking, argued Fielding, if LSD has the capacity to cause permanent brain damage, far more people would have wound up in mental institutions.
Today we not only have hindsight (spoiler alert: hallucinogens did not lead to world peace), but large sets of data to analyze. So what do the numbers tell us?
Most initial fears were laid to rest. Does LSD damage DNA? A 1971 review in the journal Science debunked the evidence. Can LSD lead you to believe you can fly? Probably not—but without question lysergic inebriation can lead to idiotic injuries. Drugs counsellor Lisa Zimmerman from Ottawa, Canada, witnessed a girl nearly break her legs on a giant unicorn. Caveat: the unicorn was real, roaming the desert at Burning Man 2014 as an art car based on the feted net-toon "Charlie The Unicorn."
"Our car 'The Bleachers' [sports stadium seating on a flat bed truck] nearly collided with the unicorn in the middle of the night—it was difficult for the drivers to navigate in the dark. Everyone in the front row pulled in their legs as Charlie came near," recalled Zimmerman. "Except for one girl, who enthusiastically stuck her legs out and nearly had them crushed between two trucks. Because she was on acid and thought Charlie was made of pillows."
Most people would probably not dispute that acid—just like alcohol and marijuana—can make people do stupid things. "People have died while on LSD—but you have to remember that people have used at least half a billion doses over the years, so of course it would happen," said Teri Krebs of the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
"If anybody died falling out of a window while on LSD, the urban myth was that they were 'trying to fly'," says Pål-Ørjan Johansen, a clinical psychologist and research partner of Krebs. "The flying myth was pure speculation—today we know, that serious injuries associated with LSD are extremely rare."
Krebs and Johansen are pushing to increase controlled access to psychedelics, and have started a fundraising campaign to create a reliable source for medical grade psilocybin.
The ultimate question, said Krebs and Johansen: Are people who take psychedelics overall more likely to develop psychosis, suicidal tendencies, or other forms of mental illness? The pair analysed surveys from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)—an annual sample of Americans—between 2008 and 2011, covering more than 135,000 people. Their study, published last month, found "no link" between having used psychedelics such as LSD and subsequent mental health problems. Another study in the same issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology also found no increased risk of suicidality in those who had used psychedelics.
But do psychedelics never result in psychosis?
MD Dr Henry David Abraham began documenting cases of "hallucinogen persisting perception disorder"—incessant, long-term visual disturbances—in 1971. He wrote the criteria for "HPPD" for the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (psychiatry's bible). Some researchers dispute the validity of the condition, including Krebs and Johansen, who point to other studies that find symptoms of HPPD—termed "visual snow"—in people who have never used psychedelics. Abraham in turn points to other studies that found more than four percent of people who had used psychedelics experienced persistent visual symptoms.
"Though reports of 'flashbacks' and so on were greatly exaggerated in the 1960s, LSD is not without risks."
But Krebs, Johansen and Abraham share some common ground. "Fundamentally I am on the side of everyone leading the sea-change to explore the positive aspects of these drugs after so many years of draconian suppression of legitimate research," said Abraham, who is all for good studies investigating the potential medical benefits of illegal narcotics. But psychological ill-effects are not to be trivialised. "Many new researchers in the field are not being thoughtful about the side effect profiles," he said. In other words: any drug—pharmaceutical or otherwise—can harm as well as heal.
"Though reports of 'flashbacks' and so on were greatly exaggerated in the 1960s, LSD is not without risks, particularly for people with a predisposition for psychosis," said Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation. She has spearheaded research into the medicinal benefits of controlled substances for decades, such as cannabis for pain, or LSD for anxiety in terminal stage cancer patients. "But it's undeniable that LSD is a very powerful substance and unless it's used in a responsible way it can disturb mental stability, especially if taken in unsuitable conditions. Such casualties can take a long time to recover," she said.
Albert Hofmann, by the way, took LSD in minute doses until the age of 96 and lived to be 102.
"Albert was the most charming and possibly the happiest person I've ever met. Even at the age of 100, he had a twinkle in his eye—probably because he knew what a wonderful gift he had given to mankind," said Feilding. "For a time he was filled with sorrow at his 'wonder child' becoming a 'problem child' through its misuse, but hopefully now we are entering a new era which will be more careful in the use of his elixir."