LSD - lysergic acid diethylamide - was first isolated in 1938 by Albert Hofmann while studying unstable alkaloids of the ergot fungus. It was five years later when he accidentally absorbed the liquid through his fingers. Feeling light-headed, he went home and lay down on the sofa where ‘the world exploded, dissolving into a kaleidoscope of colours, shapes, spirals and light.’
The following Monday he deliberately took 0.25 milligrams of LSD diluted with 10cc of water. The lab was soon distorting and his limbs were stiffening. The last words he managed to scrawl in his lab journal were ‘desire to laugh’. Famously, he then cycled home with a colleague but had no sensation of moving. At home, his trip culminated in him feeling threatened by his mutating and spinning furniture and by his neighbour – who he saw as a ‘witch with a coloured mask’ – bringing him milk in the hope that it would help. Hoffman thought that he was going to die. Of course, he didn’t (he actually lived to be 102). And he spent the next few decades conducting experiments with the drug, often on himself, to find uses for it in psychiatry.
Dr Timothy Leary (1920-1996) who advised people to ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ saw LSD as a way for people to experience the divine – soon turned it into the drug of choice for a generation. In 1966, Leary founded the League for Spiritual Discovery. He maintained that it was a valid religion that used LSD as its holy sacrament and he attempted to have it recognised in law. The government’s response was to declare LSD illegal a month later. It became so strictly controlled that, not only were possession and recreational use made criminal offences, but all lawful scientific research programs involving LSD were shut down. Leary would later be named by President Nixon as ‘the most dangerous man in America’.
LSD? Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.
LSD achieved a second flourishing in popularity during the 1980s when LSD-impregnated stickers were distributed during ‘Acid House’ parties and illegal raves. The term ‘Acid House’ allegedly didn’t have anything to do with the drug; House music had been around for a while but DJs in Chicago developed a repetitive, almost trance-like version of it that they called Acid House because, they claimed, it had a ‘deeper sound’ and ‘took you to new levels of sub-consciousness’. The use of the term ‘acid’ and the smiley button logo led people to believe that LSD was part of the experience and increasing press coverage of the rave scene cemented the connection to LSD and to other newer ‘club drugs’ such as Ecstacy (MDMA). Consequently, much Acid House music was banned from radio, television, and retail outlets in the United Kingdom.
LSD is now an illegal Class A drug. The maximum penalty for possession is seven years in prison and life for supply. You can get an unlimited fine for both. During a 12 month period ending in 2007, 0.2% of 16-59 year olds were reported using LSD in the UK (12,400 people).
LSD, and some other hallucinogens such as Psilocybin (from ‘Magic Mushrooms’), work by fooling the body into mimicking the effect of excess serotonin – the so-called ‘happiness chemical’. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behaviour.
There is no evidence that LSD is addictive.
In 1951 it was alleged that the CIA spread LSD over a French village called Point Saint Esprit using crop-dusters. It is certainly true that members of the village were mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were interned in asylums and hundreds afflicted – but it may just have been a case of ergotism (caused by a hallucinogenic mould found on cereal crops) or perhaps even mass hysteria – rather than a mind control experiment at the height of the Cold War.
Doctor Who's regeneration scenes were modelled on bad LSD trips.
In 2011, Alex Pfeffer of Fehmarn, Germany, paid £20,000 to ‘shaman’ Patrick Baecker to cure his blindness. The ‘cure’ was gherkins laced with LSD. Baecker served 8 months in jail. 'You are a hairdresser, not a shaman,' Judge Faerber ruled.
Timothy Leary, the ‘LSD guru’, was one of 24 people who were first to have their ashes shot into space on April 21st 1997.
LSD can stimulate uterine contractions.
Since 2008 there has been ongoing research in Switzerland into using LSD to alleviate anxiety for terminally ill cancer patients.
LSD has been used as a treatment for cluster headaches.