LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938 from ergotamine, a chemical derived by Arthur Stoll from ergot, a grain fungus that typically grows on rye. The short form “LSD” comes from its early code name LSD-25, which is an abbreviation for the German “Lysergsäure-diethylamid” followed by a sequential number. LSD is sensitive to oxygen, ultraviolet light, and chlorine, especially in solution, though its potency may last for years if it is stored away from light and moisture at low temperature. In pure form it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless solid. LSD is typically delivered orally, usually on a substrate such as absorbent blotter paper, a sugar cube, or gelatin. In its liquid form, it can also be administered by intramuscular or intravenous injection. LSD is very potent, with 20–30 µg (micrograms) being the threshold dose. New clinical LSD experiments in humans started in 2009 for the first time in 40 years.
Introduced by Sandoz Laboratories, with trade-name Delysid, as a drug with various psychiatric uses in 1947, LSD quickly became a therapeutic agent that appeared to show great promise. In the 1950s, officials at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) thought the drug might be applicable to mind control and chemical warfare; the agency’s MKULTRA research program propagated the drug among young servicemen and students. The subsequent recreational use of the drug by youth culture in the Western world during the 1960s led to a political firestorm that resulted in its prohibition. Currently, a number of organizations—including the Beckley Foundation, MAPS, Heffter Research Institute and the Albert Hofmann Foundation—exist to fund, encourage and coordinate research into the medicinal and spiritual uses of LSD and related psychedelics.
LSD can cause pupil dilation, reduced or increased appetite, and wakefulness. Other physical reactions to LSD are highly variable and nonspecific, some of which may be secondary to the psychological effects of LSD. Among the reported symptoms are numbness, weakness, nausea, hypothermia or hyperthermia, elevated blood sugar, goose bumps, heart rate increase, jaw clenching, perspiration, saliva production, mucus production, sleeplessness, hyperreflexia, and tremors. Some users, including Albert Hofmann, report a strong metallic taste for the duration of the effects.
LSD is not considered addictive by the medical community. Rapid tolerance build-up prevents regular use, and cross-tolerance has been demonstrated between LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. This tolerance diminishes after a few days after cessation of use and is probably caused by downregulation of 5-HT2A receptors in the brain.
LSD’s psychological effects (colloquially called a “trip”) vary greatly from person to person, depending on factors such as previous experiences, state of mind and environment, as well as dose strength. They also vary from one trip to another, and even as time passes during a single trip. An LSD trip can have long-term psychoemotional effects; some users cite the LSD experience as causing significant changes in their personality and life perspective. Widely different effects emerge based on what Timothy Leary called set and setting; the “set” being the general mindset of the user, and the “setting” being the physical and social environment in which the drug’s effects are experienced.
Some psychological effects may include an experience of radiant colors, objects and surfaces appearing to ripple or “breathe”, colored patterns behind the closed eyelids (eidetic imagery), an altered sense of time (time seems to be stretching, repeating itself, changing speed or stopping), crawling geometric patterns overlaying walls and other objects, morphing objects, a sense that one’s thoughts are spiraling into themselves, loss of a sense of identity or the ego (known as “ego death”), and other powerful psycho-physical reactions. Many users experience a dissolution between themselves and the “outside world”. This unitive quality may play a role in the spiritual and religious aspects of LSD. The drug sometimes leads to disintegration or restructuring of the user’s historical personality and creates a mental state that some users report allows them to have more choice regarding the nature of their own personality.
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 he or she is in a comfortable environment and has a relaxed, balanced and open mindset.
LSD causes an altered sensory experience of senses, emotions, memories, time, and awareness for 6 to 14 hours, depending on dosage and tolerance. Generally beginning within thirty to ninety minutes after ingestion, the user may experience anything from subtle changes in perception to overwhelming cognitive shifts. Changes in auditory and visual perception are typical. Visual effects include the illusion of movement of static surfaces (“walls breathing”), after image-like trails of moving objects (“tracers”), the appearance of moving colored geometric patterns (especially with closed eyes), an intensification of colors and brightness (“sparkling”), new textures on objects, blurred vision, and shape suggestibility. Users commonly report that the inanimate world appears to animate in an unexplainable way; for instance, objects that are static in three dimensions can seem to be moving relative to one or more additional spatial dimensions. Many of the basic visual effects resemble the phosphenes seen after applying pressure to the eye and have also been studied under the name “form constants”. The auditory effects of LSD may include echo-like distortions of sounds, changes in ability to discern concurrent auditory stimuli, and a general intensification of the experience of music. Higher doses often cause intense and fundamental distortions of sensory perception such as synaesthesia, the experience of additional spatial or temporal dimensions, and temporary dissociation.
LSD has been used in psychiatry for its perceived therapeutic value, in the treatment of alcoholism, pain and cluster headache relief, for spiritual purposes, and to enhance creativity. However, government organizations like the United States Drug Enforcement Administration maintain that LSD “produces no aphrodisiac effects, does not increase creativity, has no lasting positive effect in treating alcoholics or criminals, does not produce a ‘model psychosis’, and does not generate immediate personality change.”
In the 1950s and 1960s LSD was used in psychiatry to enhance psychotherapy. Some psychiatrists believed LSD was especially useful at helping patients to “unblock” repressed subconscious material through other psychotherapeutic methods, and also for treating alcoholism. One study concluded, “The root of the therapeutic value of the LSD experience is its potential for producing self-acceptance and self-surrender,” presumably by forcing the user to face issues and problems in that individual’s psyche.
In December 1968, a survey was made of all 74 UK doctors who had used LSD in humans; 73 replied, 1 had moved overseas and was unavailable. The majority of UK doctors with clinical experience with LSD felt that LSD was effective and had acceptable safety:
- 56% (41) continued with clinical use of LSD
- 15% (11) had stopped because of retirement or other extraneous reasons
- 12% (9) had stopped because they found LSD ineffective
- 10% (7) had stopped for unspecified reasons
- 7% (5) had stopped because they felt LSD was too dangerous
Since 2008 there has been ongoing research in Switzerland into using LSD to alleviate anxiety for terminally ill cancer patients coping with their impending deaths. Preliminary results from the study are promising, and no negative effects have been reported.
Some studies in the 1960s that used LSD to treat alcoholism reduced levels of alcohol misuse in almost 60% of those treated, an effect which lasted six months but disappeared after a year. A 1998 review was inconclusive.However, a 2012 meta-analysis of six randomized controlled trials found evidence that a single dose of LSD in conjunction with various alcoholism treatment programs was associated with a decrease in alcohol abuse, lasting for several months.
LSD was studied in the 1960s by Eric Kast as an analgesic for serious and chronic pain caused by cancer or other major trauma. Even at low (sub-psychedelic) dosages, it was found to be at least as effective as traditional opiates, while being much longer lasting in pain reduction (lasting as long as a week after peak effects had subsided). Kast attributed this effect to a decrease in anxiety; that is to say that patients were not experiencing less pain, but rather were less distressed by the pain they experienced. This reported effect is being tested (though not using LSD) in an ongoing (as of 2006) study of the effects of psilocybin on anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
LSD has been used as a treatment for cluster headaches, an uncommon but extremely painful disorder. Researcher Peter Goadsby describes the headaches as “worse than natural childbirth or even amputation without anesthetic.” Although the phenomenon has not been formally investigated, case reports indicate that LSD and psilocybin can reduce cluster pain and also interrupt the cluster-headache cycle, preventing future headaches from occurring. Currently existing treatments include various ergolines, among other chemicals, so LSD’s efficacy may not be surprising. A dose-response study testing the effectiveness of both LSD and psilocybin was planned at McLean Hospital, although the current status of this project is unclear. A 2006 study by McLean researchers interviewed 53 cluster-headache sufferers who treated themselves with either LSD or psilocybin, finding that a majority of the users of either drug reported beneficial effects. Unlike use of LSD or MDMA in psychotherapy, this research involves non-psychological effects and often sub-psychedelic dosages.
LSD is considered an entheogen because it can catalyze intense spiritual experiences, during which users may feel they have come into contact with a greater spiritual or cosmic order. Users claim to experience lucid sensations where they have “out of body” experiences. Some users report insights into the way the mind works, and some experience permanent shifts in their life perspective. LSD also allows users to view their life from an introspective point of view. Some users report using introspection to resolve unresolved or negative feelings towards an individual or incident that occurred in the past. Some users consider LSD a religious sacrament, or a powerful tool for access to the divine. Stanislav Grof has written that religious and mystical experiences observed during LSD sessions appear to be phenomenologically indistinguishable from similar descriptions in the sacred scriptures of the great religions of the world and the secret mystical texts of ancient civilizations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, psychiatrists like Oscar Janiger explored the potential effect of LSD on creativity. Experimental studies attempted to measure the effect of LSD on creative activity and aesthetic appreciation. Seventy professional artists were asked to draw two pictures of a Hopi Indian kachina doll, one before ingesting LSD and one after.
LSD was first synthesized on November 16, 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland as part of a large research program searching for medically useful ergot alkaloid derivatives. LSD’s psychedelic properties were discovered 5 years later when Hofmann himself accidentally ingested an unknown quantity of the chemical. The first intentional ingestion of LSD occurred on April 19, 1943, when Hofmann ingested 250 µg of LSD. He said this would be a threshold dose based on the dosages of other ergot alkaloids.
Hofmann found the effects to be much stronger than he anticipated. Sandoz Laboratories introduced LSD as a psychiatric drug in 1947.
Beginning in the 1950s the US Central Intelligence Agency began a research program code named Project MKULTRA. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions, usually without the subject’s knowledge. The project was revealed in the US congressional Rockefeller Commission report in 1975.
In 1963 the Sandoz patents expired on LSD. Also in 1963, the US Food and Drug Administration classified LSD as an Investigational New Drug, which meant new restrictions on medical and scientific use. Several figures, including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Al Hubbard, began to advocate the consumption of LSD. LSD became central to the counterculture of the 1960s. On October 24, 1968, possession of LSD was made illegal in the United States. The last FDA approved study of LSD in patients ended in 1980, while a study in healthy volunteers was made in the late 1980s. Legally approved and regulated psychiatric use of LSD continued in Switzerland until 1993. Today, medical research is resuming around the world.