General Facts About LSD
LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is a psychedelic drug of the ergoline family. It is best known for its use during the counterculture of the 1960s and has been demonized by the political establishment as a result.
In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a Swiss scientist, synthesized LSD in his laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland. He discovered its hallucinogenic effects in 1943.
From Wikipedia: LSD “...also known as acid, 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 and for spiritual reasons. LSD is typically either swallowed or held under the tongue. It is often sold on blotter paper, a sugar cube, or gelatin.”
Acid, L, Tabs, Blotter, Doses, Trips
Chemical name and structure
Lysergic acid diethylamide/Lysergic acid diethylamide-25
Can it be detected in a drug test?
The short answer is yes, but there are a few caveats.
Excretion through urine reaches a peak about 4 to 6 hours after administering a dose in humans, but even then, the amounts are quite small. There are four known major metabolites of LSD in humans that are excreted and can be detected in urine for up to 4 to 5 days after ingestion, with observed inter-individual variation.
There are several criteria that determine how long LSD can be detected in the body:
the test being used;
the detection limit placed on the test;
the point of collection;
the type of sample fluid;
the amount of LSD that was ingested.
The average time LSD can be detected in blood is 6-12 hours and in urine is 2-4 days. However, one metabolite (2-oxo-3-hydroxy-LSD) is typically present in higher concentrations and can be detected for longer periods of time in urine.
Tests for LSD (but not its metabolites) in hair samples are also available and they’re good for detecting both low doses and single uses, apparently for an underdetermined but long period of time after dosing.
However, for now, LSD is not typically included in standard drug screens.
A Brief History of LSD
Invented in 1938.
First trip experienced in 1943.
Discovered by mainstream American in the 1950s.
Widely used in therapy throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Abused by the counterculture of the 1960s.
Declared an illegal drug in 1968. All related therapy research stops.
Used by about 10% of Americans and Europeans throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
A resurgence of interest in the information age of the Internet.
Invention of LSD
Albert Hofmann, a Swiss pharmacology researcher, accidentally invented LSD in 1938 while trying to develop a drug derived from a rye fungus called ergot to aid uterine contractions during childbirth. It was the twenty-fifth substance in a series of lysergic acid derivatives, and hence, its official name was lysergic acid diethylamide — abbreviated LSD-25.
LSD-25 turned out to be a less effective childbirth aid than other drugs at the time, so Hoffman shelved it for years. However, in 1943, he re-synthesized LSD-25 so that a sample could be given to the pharmacological department for further tests. At some point during the synthesis, a small drop of LSD landed on Hoffman's skin. In the final stage of the synthesis, he was interrupted by a strange sensation in his work. As Hoffman described it:
"Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being 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 found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away."
Hoffman experienced the world's first LSD trip.
LSD Use in the 1950s - Focus on Medical Science
After discovering LSD's potent effects, Hoffman and other researchers at Sandoz, the Swiss laboratory where Hoffman worked, carried out animal trials to determine tolerance and toxicity properties. Shortly thereafter, they carried out the first systematic investigation of LSD on human beings at a psychiatric clinic in Zurich in 1947.
The first studies involved healthy subjects as well as schizophrenic patients. In the experiments, subjects consumed micro- to moderate-dose amounts of LSD — anywhere from 20 to 130 micrograms (µg). Although this first experiment did not measure LSD's therapeutic ability, the researchers did speculate about the possibility of LSD-directed psychotherapy.
In the late 1950s, research expanded outside of mental illness into assisting psychotherapeutic pursuits. Psychedelic therapy — that is, therapy in which hallucinogenic drugs are used to facilitate the final goal — became increasingly mainstream.
Between 1950 and 1965, research on LSD and other hallucinogens generated over 1000 scientific papers, several dozen books, and six international conferences. In total, LSD was prescribed as a treatment for over 40,000 patients.
MKULTRA, the CIA, and The 1960s Counterculture
In the 1950s, the CIA also became interested in the use of psychedelics as a truth serum and began experimenting with it in their illegal mind control division named Project MKULTRA.
Inspired by the Nazis use of mescaline in concentration camps during WWII, the CIA carried out these top-secret studies by administering LSD to experimental subjects. Hundreds of participants, including CIA agents, government employees, military personnel, prostitutes, members of the general public, and mentally ill individuals, consumed varying amounts of LSD, often unknowingly and without consent.
These experiments went on until the mid-1970s. Eventually, the CIA shut the program down due to the wild variability of LSD.
In the 1960s, Dr. Sidney Cohen, who carried out measured, well-controlled experiments to test the psychoanalytical capabilities of LSD, warned of the coming widespread use of LSD by the mainstream public. In congressional hearings on LSD in 1966, Cohen told Congress that LSD was safe only if administered under strict medical supervision and that, if in the wrong hands, it was a “dangerous drug.”
His statement characterized the turning point in the public’s perception of LSD that occurred from the 1950s to the 1960s. While the 50s focused on the medical use of LSD, the counterculture movement of the 60s became a breeding ground for the abuse of a potentially harmful drug.
As LSD grew in popularity in the counterculture, publicized horror trips were commonplace. People jumped out of 10th story windows, tried to stop moving cars, and even inflicted casualties in some cases. When people paid no attention to set and setting, panic and disorientation soon followed. And with panic and disorientation came accidents and even crime.
As Albert Hofmann wrote in his book, ‘LSD: My Problem Child,’ “Publicity about LSD attained its high point in the years 1964 to 1966, not only with regard to enthusiastic claims about the wondrous effects of LSD by drug fanatics and hippies, but also to reports of accidents, mental breakdowns, criminal acts, murders, and suicide under the influence of LSD. A veritable LSD hysteria reigned.’
And then, as quick as the counterculture movement blossomed, it died. In 1968, the U.S. government declared possession of LSD illegal. In 1970, it declared LSD a Schedule I drug, meaning that government considered it to have ‘a high potential for abuse’ and was without ‘any accepted medical use in treatment.’
Although there had been myriad of positive results when used under controlled circumstances, the dissemination of LSD into the hands of mainstream USD caused its eventual prohibition.
Use From the 1970s to Today
Use of LSD dropped off in the late 60s and 70s. In the 1980s, as MDMA became increasingly popular, recreational and psychotherapeutic use of LSD increased. In 1986, Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was founded by Rick Doblin. Doblin carried out studies on the benefits of MDMA for treating PTSD. Because of MDMA's success in treating psychological issues, more psychotherapists turned to LSD in their sessions.
Another Association, the Guild of Guides, was founded at some point in the 1990s or 2000s. According to the guild's website, the mission of the Guild of Guides is, "to support a category of profound, prized experiences becoming more available to more people...The Guild also encourages its members and friends to find or create and to develop social contexts that will contain those experiences and help them yield lasting benefits.” Entheogens, which are also called psychedelics, remain the principal tool used by the Guild of Guides.
In more current news, MAPS hosts a yearly conference called ‘Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century.” Over 1200 people showed up to the conference in 2010, including legal researchers and not-yet-legal guides. This massive turnout for a conference about largely illegal substances showcased the increased interest in psychedelic therapy going forward.
Additionally, with the information age of the Internet, several resources and websites have focused content on the benefits of psychedelics. One such website is Reset.me. According to its ‘About’ section, Reset.me, “provides accurate journalism on natural therapies and medicines to enhance the mind, body, and spirit. Reset strives to help expand consciousness and spread more love around the world.”
One other resource that has helped to popularize LSD use specifically within entrepreneurial circles is Tim Ferriss’s podcast with James Fadiman, author of the Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. While the podcast discusses all aspects of psychedelics, it also dives into the use of sub-perceptual doses (also called ‘microdoses') for enhanced productivity and creativity.
For additional reading on the History of LSD, please refer to the resources section. One book I highly recommend is Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.
Effects of LSD
Portions of this section are summarized from an excellent review from 2008 on the pharmacology of LSD by Torsten Passie and colleagues.
LSD is highly potent as small-to-moderate doses of 75-150 micrograms (μg) produce significantly altered states of consciousness. The minimum perceptual dose in humans is about 25 μg. Anything below that is typically considered a sub-perceptual “microdose.” An optimal dose for experiencing the typical range of psychedelic experiences with LSD is usually between 100-200 µg.
Pupil dilation, reduced appetite, and wakefulness are the three main physical side effects of LSD.
Other physical reactions to LSD are highly variable and nonspecific, some of which may be secondary to the psychological effects of LSD.
These physical side effects include:
Hypothermia or Hyperthermia
Elevated Blood Sugar
Heart rate increase
Many of these side effects depend on dose size and Set and Setting. Also, many of them do not affect a trip as one would expect. Instead, they are secondary to the overwhelming psychological effects present in an LSD trip.
LSD appears to activate both branches of the autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic changes — related to the “fight or flight” response — manifest in dilated pupils and mild increases in heart rate and blood pressure. A few people experience slight increases in blood sugar and, sometimes, a slight increase in body temperature.
Parasympathetic changes are evidenced by sweating, salivation, flushing of the face and, in a few cases, nausea with vomiting. Abnormal heart rhythms are sometimes experienced but occur rarely.
A common neurological effect is an exaggerated patellar reflex — the reflex that’s tested when a doctor taps below your kneecap and your leg kicks up involuntarily. Instability while walking, altered gait, and tremors are somewhat common as well.
Changes in Sleep Related to LSD Use
Low doses of LSD can lead to prolonged first or second REM sleep cycles and generally shortens subsequent cycles, with an overall net increase of REM sleep. No qualitative changes during sleep after taking LSD have been found in EEG measurements.
Toxicology of LSD
Numerous studies have found no evidence of chromosomal damage or developmental defects in humans. However, in mice, LSD administered during pregnancy did cause some developmental damage in rat pups at extraordinarily high doses (up to 500 µg/kg).
There have been no documented deaths from LSD overdoses in humans. Even while “supra-heroic” doses can be dangerous, the risk of death or serious harm is still minimal for healthy individuals. There’s one report of eight people who had between 1000-7000 µg of LSD per 100 mL of blood plasma (that’s an extremely high concentration) from snorting LSD after mistaking it for cocaine. They suffered comatose states, hyperthermia, vomiting, light gastric bleeding, and respiratory problems, but all of them eventually recovered with hospital treatment and without any residual effects.
Tolerance, or a decrease in the responsiveness to a drug, occurs with LSD after a few moderate daily doses. After about 3 days of abstinence, the typical range and intensity of the effects of LSD will return.
LSD Interactions with Other Substances
Early studies found that the antipsychotic medication chlorpromazine (brand names Thorazine and Largactil) diminishes many of the physical effects of LSD at moderate to high doses without significantly altering its hallucinogenic effects.
Chronic use of the antidepressant medications that employ selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs; e.g., Prozac) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs; e.g., Marplan) also appear to diminish the effects of LSD. Some tricyclic antidepressants (e.g., Anafranil) have been reported to increase the the effects of LSD
Lithium, often prescribed for treatment of bipolar disorder, has been reported to greatly increase the effects of LSD and increases the risk of temporary comatose states
Psychological and Emotional Effects
The psychological effects of LSD can be divided into three main categories: positive, neutral, and negative. At low to moderate dose amounts, the positive and neutral effects predominate. However, as the dose size increases, negative psychological effects begin to increase.
Increase in associative and creative thinking
Closed and open-eye visuals
Sense of unity and connectedness to other life forms
General sense of euphoria
Life-changing spiritual experiences
Change in consciousness
Lost track of time
Lack of focus
Unusual thoughts and speech
Range of emotions
Negative (many of these are associated with a 'bad trip'):
Fear of death
One of the primary effects of LSD is an increase in sensory perception. Users report an enhanced appreciation for music, reporting that they 'heard' music for the first time. Others report a sharper sense of smell and more developed sense of taste.
Touch becomes a necessity when on LSD. Users experience a strong desire to touch soft items as well as other human beings.
One unique property of both LSD and other psychedelics is synesthesia. Synesthesia is when users associate different feelings with each other. For example, a user might hear music and feel like he or she can 'hold' the music. Other users might 'taste' the music. More on synesthesia here.
The most common reports of complications outside of controlled lab settings are related to “bad trips” — anxiety and panic with the fear of the loss of control or even death, temporary paranoia, mood swings following a trip, and an increase in mental instability. “Flashbacks” are very, very rare with LSD, but when they do occur, they can be relatively pervasive (months to a year, typically).
Importantly, there’s a lack of evidence suggesting persistent and pervasive complications in healthy individuals who take LSD. That is, any undesirable side effects experienced during or after taking LSD are virtually always short-lived in healthy people. Several studies totalling more than 10,000 participants have found few, if any, complications from LSD use.
Effects on the Brain
LSD and Serotonin
The relationship between classic hallucinogens (like LSD and Magic Mushrooms) and the neurotransmitter serotonin has been established in several studies.
When ingested into the human body, LSD acts as 5-HT (serotonin) autoreceptor inhibitor, thus it is a 5-HT agonist (which is a fancy-schmancy way of saying that LSD, in some way, activates serotonin receptors).
Furthermore, LSD increases the level of active 5-HT molecules by deactivating their autoreceptors (a safeguard type feature in the brain which reduces levels of certain neurotransmitters and the like).
There are 15 different serotonin receptors, but LSD specifically activates the 2A subtype (5-HT2A). The HT2A receptor is involved in cognitive processes in the prefrontal cortex.
And this is an important point, for this is where many of LSD’s benefits come from: its involvement in the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is thought to be active in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behavior.
It also plays a key role in a human’s ability to process information from all other brain systems, and make goal-directed decisions as a result.
If users understand the role of the prefrontal cortex in human thought, and compare the urges one has after an excellent psychedelic trip, it makes sense why psychedelics can be such powerful tools for transformative change.
One of the benefits I always experience from a psychedelic trip is an urge to reflect on life and figure out how I can improve it through practical, goal-oriented behavior.
LSD and Neuro-Integration
Recently, researchers at the Beckley Foundation began to investigate the specific effects of LSD on the brain. The research is led by a group of neuroscientists at the Imperial College of London. They raised money for the research through a crowd-funded campaign.
These same researchers previously conducted studies with psilocybin, the primary ingredient in magic mushrooms.
They found psilocybin suppresses activity in certain "hub" areas of the brain that normally play a constraining/inhibitory role.
In suppressing activity in certain areas, psilocybin helps brain regions that are normally distinct begin to communicate with one another, which could be why we see an increase in creativity with the use of this substance.
Beckley's latest study involved giving 20 volunteers a small dose of LSD and then using MRI and MEG imaging to show how LSD affects brain processes.
What was the primary hypothesis?
The researchers believe LSD may behave in a similar way to psilocybin, reducing blood flow to the control centers of the brain and thus dampening their activity, which ultimately enhances brain connectivity.
In a recent post on the subreddit ‘Explain Like I’m Five’, a reddit user with the username ‘Gaywallet’, who works as a neurobiologist, gave the following explanation for LSD’s effects on the brain:
“LSD happens to be even better at activating serotonin receptors than serotonin itself, so it essentially increases the normal levels of signaling by serotonin (it does this through a variety of mechanisms, not just limited to better binding - it actually releases extra serotonin, changes the lock to accept keys more readily, etc.).
He then goes on to explain, in simple terms, what the researchers at Beckley Foundation are attempting to prove through research:
“Through a relatively unknown mechanism, LSD increases 'cross-talk' between areas of the brain. That is to say, it helps stimulate areas of the brain that don't normally talk to each other, to start talking to each other. Over the long term, it can even help create connections that previously didn't exist - much like putting up extra telephone or internet lines. This increased cross-talk while under the influence of LSD (combined with the increased sensory input) often results in something known as synesthesia, or a mixing of the senses.”
Brain Network Connectivity and Ego Death
A study published in 2016 in the journal Current Biology was the first to successfully use modern neuroimaging techniques to observe brain activity patterns in healthy, experienced psychedelic users after taking intravenous LSD.
The main goal of the study was to identify which brain regions, if any, experience changes in “functional connectivity” when a person takes LSD.
We’ll cover three main questions they asked and answered:
Is there greater functional connectivity (i.e., synchronized activity with the rest of the brain) in certain brain regions when a person takes LSD?
Are there areas of the brain that synchronize during LSD trips that aren’t synchronized under ‘normal,’ non-drugged conditions?
Do changes in functional connectivity in certain brain regions correlate with subjective perceptions of ego dissolution (i.e., the sense of the loss of self people often report when they take psychedelics) when a person takes LSD?
Answers: Yes, yes, and yes.
First, they found that areas associated with high-level, associative functioning showed greater functional connectivity (i.e., synchronized activity) when subjects took LSD compared to a placebo.
These regions included areas of the default-mode network (i.e., areas associated with states like wakeful daydreaming and thinking about oneself or others), salience, attention, and sensory modalities.
Next, neural networks that normally show distinct activity patterns showed greater levels of coordinated activity with the rest of the brain when the subjects took LSD compared to placebo.
So, LSD appears to strengthen synchronized activity between brain regions that are already synchronized under normal conditions and it functionally “connects” areas of the brain that don’t normally show coordinated activity.
These patterns were very similar to patterns observed in previous studies by the same research group on psilocybin, suggesting that different psychedelics have similar functional connectivity effects in the brain.
Of course, for our purposes, the most interesting question is the last one: Do changes in functional connectivity in certain brain regions correlate with subjective perceptions of “ego death”?
The graph below shows that, indeed, greater functional connectivity in two brain regions — the angular gyrus (Ang) and the insula (Ins); both right (R) and left (L) sides — are correlated with a higher degree of reported ego dissolution.
This graph shows the correlations between the degree of self-reported ego dissolution (i.e., loss of the sense of self) as a function of functional connectivity density (FCD) in two bilateral brain regions — the angular gyrus (Ang) and the insula (Ins). People with greater FCD in the angular gyrus and insula reported a greater sense of a loss of self. Image source: Current Biology
So, people who experienced greater synchronized activity in these two (bilateral) brain regions with respect to global brain activity also reported a greater loss of their sense of self during their trips.
These two brain regions have previously been implicated in processes related to self-awareness, including phenomena like out-of-body experiences.
According to the authors, the increased “cross talk” between these brain regions (and others) and sensory regions leaves open an intriguing possibility: ego death and expanded consciousness frequently reported by psychedelics users could be a result of a breakdown in the “normal” organization of brain activity when a person is on LSD.
So, it’s possible that, during psychedelically altered states of consciousness, sensory information from the physical world is that is typically kept separate from higher cognitive functions is “blurred” and an integrated experience ensues.
Although scientific research has been limited on LSD due to its prohibition as a Schedule 1 drug, much of the research carried out in the 50s and 60s show no long-term damage to the brain as a result of LSD consumption.
‘Long-term damage’ is a vague definition, however, and doesn’t address the biggest concern users have before taking LSD:
“Will it cause me to go crazy?”
The answer? Extremely, extremely unlikely.
As mentioned above, LSD can only initiate latent mental health issues, specifically schizophrenia, in individuals.
Schizophrenia, however, is rare, only affecting 1 in 100 people.
This means LSD is safe for most people to take, as long as certain precautions are taken.
It is critically important to pay attention to set and setting when taking any psychedelic, as this will often dictate the actual journey while tripping. For more on set and setting, and the other 4’s (and how you can create an excellent environment for your first trip), check out this article on the 6 S’s.
Let’s get to the next big concern: Does LSD, or any other psychedelic, cause long-term addiction?
No. And this is what sets psychedelics apart from almost every other scheduled drug available today (including the legal ones like Adderall, Valium, Oxycontin)
LSD, and other psychedelics, cause no long-term physical dependency or addiction. Although science has yet to establish the exact reasons why this is the case, it is assumed this occurs because of the manner in which psychedelics act on serotonin and dopamine receptors.
In short, every drug man has some sort of addiction to increases the concentration of dopamine released.
Why is this?
Because when a higher concentration of dopamine is released, it acts on the ‘reward centers’ of the brain.
And as the ‘reward centers’ get hit with more and more dopamine, it feels really good. And this keeps addicts coming back for more and more (whether the drug is alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or a prescription drug).
Psychedelics do NOT increase the amount of dopamine available. Instead, they only act on certain dopamine receptors.
What about serotonin?
Although moderate LSD use temporarily reduces the relative levels of serotonin available, it does not have a long-term effect on serotonin levels. If intermittent abstinence is practiced, serotonin levels will return to normal within 1-2 weeks.
One long-term effect users of psychedelics should be aware of is hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). Although this condition is extremely rare, it does happen from time to time. HPPD is characterized by a continual presence of sensory disturbances, most often visual.
Statistics on LSD Use
In many research reports, hallucinogens are often lumped together as a single class of drugs, so, unfortunately, LSD statistics are not as informative as statistics on other non-hallucinogenic drugs.
That said, here are a few stats on LSD use:
An analysis of data collected in 2010 for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that between 22 and 25 million people in the US have used LSD at some point in their lifetimes. The highest usage rates reported were among 30 to 34 year olds: about 20% people in this age group are estimated to have used LSD at some point in their lives. An estimated 15-18% of people ages 21-64 had used LSD at some point in their lifetimes.
LSD is one of the most commonly used psychedelics. Psilocybin is used more often, but this is only primarily the case among age groups 26-29 and younger. Males across age groups consistently use LSD — and psychedelics in general — more often than females.
Another report from data collected in the 2010 NSDUH study show that, compared to other drugs, hallucinogens — which, according the NSDUH, includes LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and MDMA — were used by about 1.2% of the population of people 12 years of age and older within the past month. Interestingly, prescription “psychotherapeutics” are reportedly used illegally at a rate nearly 6 times that of hallucinogens.
Data collected from 2002 to 2010 by the NSDUH show that first-time LSD use in people 12 years and older steadily increased from 2003 to 2008 and then plateaued in 2009 and 2010. That year, an estimated 377,000 people 12 years of age or older tried LSD for the first time.
In Europe, up to 4.2% of those aged 15 to 24 have taken LSD at least once. In fact, seven countries have a user rate of over 1%: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Hungary and Poland.
In America, since 1975, researchers funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have annually surveyed nearly 17,000 high school seniors nationwide to determine trends in drug use and to measure the students’ attitudes and beliefs about drug abuse (for a graph chart depicting this survey, please refer to this Erowid Resource)
From this research, it was determined the lowest period of LSD use was reported by the class of 1986, when 7.2% of high school seniors reported using LSD at least once in their lives.
The percentage of seniors reporting LSD use at least once over the course of the prior year nearly doubled from a low of 4.4% in 1985 to 8.4% in 1997. In 1997, 13.6% of seniors had experimented with LSD at least once in their lives.
LSD Myths and Misinformation
Because of LSD's widespread use in the 1960s counterculture, scare tactics and propaganda were used by governments and law enforcement to spread misinformation about LSD and other drugs that persists to this day. Other responsible parties include the media and individuals within the street-user subculture.
There are many different LSD myths. Here, I outline the four most common LSD myths and provide reasons why each is untrue.
MYTH 1: LSD Is Often Laced with Strychnine and Other Adulterants
Adulteration happens with every well-known drug: cocaine, heroin, marijuana, LSD, to name a few. But the extent to which contamination occurs must be analyzed.
According to the Psychedelic Explorer's Guide, the definitive text on responsible LSD use, LSD has a reputation of adulteration with toxic substances, but this is largely unsubstantiated. Prominent among this LSD myth is the addition of methamphetamine and strychnine (rat poison).
How did this LSD myth begin?
There are two different sources.
For strychnine, the myth may have been fortified by a report filed by the inventor of LSD, Albert Hoffman. Apparently, he analyzed a powder sample purported to be LSD that turned out to be 100% strychnine. This one-off occurrence somehow led to a widespread belief that LSD was commonly laced with strychnine.
For methamphetamine adulteration, the myth is derived from more tangible evidence. Forty years ago, when studies were carried out on adulterant use in LSD, 581 street samples were tested. Of the 581 street samples, 84.5% contained LSD alone, 5% contained LSD and PCP, 1.9% were PCP alone and .9% contained LSD plus amphetamine or methamphetamine. None of the samples contained strychnine.
Even though nearly 15% of LSD was adulterated in this study from the 60s, the possibility of such adulteration today is almost zero. While most LSD came in liquid form in the 60s, making it much easier to adulterate, today's LSD is primarily sold on blotter paper. For blotter paper to properly work, it cannot contain sufficient amounts of adulterants. Otherwise, the substance would not bind to the blotter paper.
So, who still believes these LSD myths?
Drug treatment professionals, government/law enforcement, and drug education textbooks continue to propagate the LSD adulterant myth without reference to any documented cases. Because of their authoritative position within society, the myth of adulteration remains a convenient scare tactic to dissuade users from experimenting with LSD.
MYTH 2: LSD Causes Chromosome Damage and Birth Effects
In 1967, the reputable journal Science published a short study claiming that LSD added to cultured human white blood cells produced chromosomal abnormalities. The results of this study snowballed into an LSD myth of LSD causing 'genetic damage' in grown adults and birth defects in newborns.
Envision the PSA announcement on local news in 1968: "If you take LSD while pregnant, your child might end up popping out with green skin, oval eyes, and a predisposition towards Martian life. That's right, kids. Don't do drugs!”
The fear of permanently damaged chromosomes (I mean, fuck, I'd be scared as well) produced widespread condemnation of a once-loved drug.
It was all bullshit, of course. According to an excerpt from the Psychedelic Explorer's Guide:
"Later and more careful studies demonstrated that the conclusions drawn from the initial research were ill-founded. A comprehensive review of sixty-eight studies and case reports published in the four years following the initial 1967 article appeared as a major article in Science in 1971. The review concluded that 'pure LSD ingested in moderate doses does not damage chromosomes in vivo, does not cause detectable genetic damage, and is not a teratogen or carcinogen in man.'"
Which report should you believe? After all, both were published by the same 'reputable' journal.
Because of the comprehensive nature of the 2nd article (68 studies compared to 1 study), I'm inclined to side with the one published in 1971.
So fear not. If you want to take LSD while pregnant, your child is likely to turn out OK. Another LSD myth disproved.
MYTH 3: LSD Will Make You Go Crazy
One of the most insidious LSD myths is the belief that it causes users to go crazy, activating some sort of mental illness. Or, as my Mom put it, "if you do LSD, you'll turn into a wet noodle!"
When uninformed individuals think of LSD, two thoughts often come to mind:
If I do LSD, I'll go crazy and jump out of a 10th story window (acute insanity).
If I do LSD more than once (or twice), I'll become psychologically insane and never function as a normal human being again (long-term insanity; aka Wet Noodle)
There is a sliver of truth in each of these statements. But the human brain's disposition to jump to impressive conclusions has created pervasive, damaging LSD myths.
Although psychoactive drugs produce a variety of acute behavioral effects, the degree of the effects is directly related to the size of the dose.
I have taken LSD over 20 times and never once had thoughts of jumping out of a 10th story building or stopping a moving car. Many friends of mine have also taken LSD. They have never had these ridiculous thoughts.
Six factors affect a trip on LSD: set, setting, substance, sitter, session, situation. When controlled, these six factors minimize the chance of a bad trip. In fact, the possibility of an individual doing something totally fucking ridiculous is almost zero.
If a person has a bad trip or does something physically harmful to him or herself, he or she did not take responsible steps to control for all 6 S's.
Acute insanity, or 'bad trips', is also susceptible to biased beliefs. As the six S's suggest, the LSD experience is not only determined by the pharmacological effects (substance) but also by beliefs that accompany the experience (mindset).
The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide explains the effect of this bias:
"Because of the highly suggestible nature of the LSD experience, belief in the myths can contribute to [a] self-fulfilling prophecy and increase the likelihood of having an adverse reaction. Cohen [Dr. Sidney Cohen, a researcher from the 1950s] called this the phenomenon of 'excessive initial apprehension' and cited it as a significant factor contributing to bad trips. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the number of reported bad trips increased markedly during the media blitz of the late 1960s. After media coverage died down at the close of that decade, so did the number of negative experiences. This occurred despite the fact that the total number of LSD users was still increasing into the early 1970s."
So, what about long-term psychological effects?
LSD and other hallucinogens have a reputation for causing mental insanity and permanent brain damage. Such legends include egregious statements like 'use LSD seven times and you are legally insane', or 'I know someone who took LSD and felt like they turned into an orange, and they still feel like an orange.'
Is there a kernel of truth in these statements?
Are they outrageously exaggerated?
Lasting adverse effects of LSD use occur in a very few individuals. However, reviews of clinical literature suggest that chronic problematic effects occur because of psychological instability that is present prior to LSD use. For example, individuals with latent mental disorders (like family history for schizophrenia) may experience activation of symptoms from LSD use and chronic problems afterward.
In the 1950s, Dr. Sidney Cohen carried out a comprehensive review of LSD use in psychotherapeutic environments. He administered approximately 25,000 doses to 5,000 recipients and reported that "the incidence of acute and chronic problematic reactions was extremely low when LSD was administered under controlled therapeutic conditions to individuals not having preexisting severe psychopathology."
If you are psychologically stable prior to using LSD, the chances of turning into a 'wet noodle' are about zero. If, however, you have a family history of certain mental disorders, then it is critical to exercise caution in using LSD.
MYTH 4: Flashbacks Brought On By Stored LSD Leaking in the Body
About two months ago, I guided a friend on his first LSD trip. We spent a full day outside, hiking in the woods and walking the golden beaches of West Michigan. Two weeks after our trip, I received this text from him:
"I just had a flashback while talking to the head of Chemistry of a [Major Chemical Company]. All the trees turned fo fall colors. Shit was crazy."
My friend, like many before him, had heard of the flashbacks associated with LSD use. This myth comes from claims that LSD lodges itself in the brain, spinal cord, and body fat, and can leak out at later times — even years later — to produce adverse effects.
This myth also prevents college-aged students from trying LSD. If they desire to serve in government after graduating, they worry a spinal tap will reveal their inopportune use of LSD (as outlined in my article on LSD Drug Tests, government and military rarely check for LSD use).
In fact, this assumption is misguided because there is no evidence suggesting that LSD remains in the body for extended periods of time.
Instead, LSD has a short half-life of 3-5 hours and is entirely metabolized within a day after ingestion.
So if people have flashbacks (yes, flashbacks happen), why do they occur?
The concept of flashbacks is a convoluted subject in the literature about hallucinogenic drugs. However, two reasons are often brought up in the discussion about why flashbacks occur:
An easily activated occurrence of memory
The re-emergence of conflictual material released from the unconscious mind during the time of drug action.
One of the leaders in LSD therapy, Stanislav Grof, states in his classic book, LSD Psychotherapy:
"Sessions in which the drug activates areas of difficult emotional material and the individual tries to avoid facing them can lead to prolonged reactions, unsatisfactory integration, subsequent residual emotional or psychosomatic problems, or a precarious mental balance that becomes the basis for later 'flashbacks.'"
By dispelling LSD myths like this, the general public can begin to make informed decisions and hold rationale debates about both the upsides and downsides of psychedelic use.
New Research on LSD Safety
In 2015, a large study (~130,000 people) was conducted in the United States that found no association between psychedelic use and mental health disorders, psychological distress, suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety.
The fact that this study was even published is testament to the backwards perceptions society still holds concerning “drugs of abuse” that aren’t really being abused. Most scientific journals won’t publish studies that basically find, well, nothing. But what gives this study impact is precisely that it found nothing.
So really smart people spent money and time to investigate a supposed problem that just about anyone with even a modicum of experience with LSD could have told them didn’t exist.
Therapeutic Uses of LSD
Studies from the 1950s and 60s
In the 1950s and 60s, more than 1000 academic papers and dozens of books were published on the use of LSD in psychotherapeutic settings. However, following the counterculture backlash in the 1960s and the subsequent classification of LSD as a schedule I drug by the federal government, systematic research in universities and commercial laboratories on the drug became impractical if not impossible.
Nonetheless, two primary and polar forms of therapeutic approaches were used in these initial studies. One focused on the mystical experiences elicited by LSD and the resulting after-effects while the other focused on the use of LSD as tool for exploring the unconscious in psychoanalysis.
Relatively large, single doses (200 µg or more) were used to treat addicts, criminals, or even to help transform the lives of normal, everyday people. Other approaches used small to moderate doses (up to 150 µg) repeated session in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat various neuroses. Therapeutic uses of LSD were especially promising for people with strict super egos and low self-esteem. People with chronic neurotic tendencies, such as major depression and general anxiety, who were resistant to traditional therapy appeared to benefit greatly from LSD’s effects during treatment.
Therapists who used LSD and other psychedelics in their practice noted that one of its greatest advantages was that it allowed the patient to explore their unconscious drives and motives while a part of their adult ego was left intact. This allowed the individual to observe and vividly remember their experience and identify areas where they were previously resistant to change. For example, in therapeutic settings with LSD, people often became acutely aware of the defense mechanisms they most often used.
Some of early therapeutic uses of LSD indicated some promising results in treating phobias, cluster headaches, anxiety, depression, suicide prevention, anxiety/fear related to death.
1980s Swiss Study
From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, research on the therapeutic use of psychedelics was more or less forbidden worldwide. In 1988, however, the Swiss government granted special permission to a select group of therapists to conduct to research the therapeutic uses of MDMA and LSD. This lasted until 1993, when the Swiss government reversed its decision and forbid any and all research with psychedelics.
However, a follow-up study was commissioned by the Swiss government and written by one of the researchers, Peter Gasser, who was involved in the studies.
The study examined patients who were seeking psychotherapy for various mental disorders and issues, but all of them (121 surveyed) were involved in group therapy of some sort in conjunction with their psychedelic dosing treatments. The patients also saw a therapist one-on-one in regular intervals during their treatment. Interpersonal problems, psychological issues, self-exploration, and somatic issues were all cited as reasons for seeking treatment in this sample.
Diagnoses included personality disorders, adjustment disorders, affective disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety), eating disorders, addiction, psychosis, and sexual disfunction.
Overall, about 90% of the patients involved in these studies reported having good or slight improvement on the issues for which they sought therapy. No complications from the study of the treatments were observed, though one patient expressed becoming more depressed during therapy. No suicides were committed, no one was hospitalized, and no one had a psychotic episode lasting more than 48 hours.
Recent Therapeutic Research
A recent review of 25 years of research (1990-2015) on LSD, as well as psilocybin and ayahuasca, found that results consistently suggested therapeutic uses for hallucinogens in treating anxiety disorders, depression, and addictive disorders.
In a double-blind study, LSD in combination with non-drug psychotherapy sessions was specifically found to reduce anxiety related to associated with having life-threatening diseases such as cancer, and the effects were sustained in a 12-month follow up interview. Improvements were also seen in a cancer quality of life questionnaire and a hospital anxiety and depression scale.
Addictive disorders, especially alcoholism, have been the target of LSD therapies since soon after its discovery as a therapeutic tool. In 2012, meta-analysis of six randomized control trials including 536 subjects confirmed the efficacy of a single dose of LSD in treating alcoholism. Results of these studies showed that LSD had a success rate for treating alcoholism, defined as the abstinence of alcohol use at first follow up, of 81%-100%.
Outside of strictly therapeutic uses, a 2016 study found that healthy individuals had a more positive outlook on life and more openness two weeks after taking LSD.
As cultural values continue to shift, more and more research with robust modern methods and new technologies will continue to shed light on the various ways psychedelics can be used in therapeutic and nontherapeutic ways.
LSD in Spiritual and Personal Growth
LSD has been as a tool in self-exploration for personal and spiritual growth since its invention. It’s not the be-all, end-all solution to your life’s problems; anyone who claims it is lacks serious perspective. Many of the benefits of LSD from a personal growth perspective can be experienced in one form or another through other means as well, such as with meditation. LSD and other psychedelics, therefore, are simply tools in the larger toolkit of self-exploration and personal and spiritual growth.
Many who have had powerful spiritual experiences (in any sense of the word) often point out out that LSD made them face parts of themselves they didn’t even know existed. This can be incredibly difficult and even terrifying, depending on the person and the personal hurdles and issues they’re facing. Yet virtually everyone who has had difficult yet profound experiences while using LSD claims that they’re better off for it.
However, to date, very little systematic research on representative samples of the population exist on LSD and spiritual experiences. This has caused some to question the direction of the relationship between LSD use and spirituality and personal growth; i.e., is it that LSD aids spiritual growth, or is it that people who are more inclined to seek spiritual growth also end up taking LSD?
The answer is probably a little of both. For now, though, we can look to the anecdotal evidence to begin to uncover how LSD and other psychedelics aid in spiritual and personal development.
Creativity and Innovation
Many famous creative people have credited LSD as their inspiration for some of their most impactful work.
Aldous Huxley is perhaps one of the best known advocates of psychedelic use. He wrote one of his most famous novels, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, after an inspiring LSD experience. LSD’s influence also shows up in his most famous work, Brave New World.
Steve Jobs also dropped acid a few times and credits his experiences LSD for many of his industry-shattering innovations:
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
Francis Crick says he envisioned the double-helix structure of DNA while tripping on LSD. He and Jim Watson won a Nobel Prize for their work and this is now considered to be one of the most important scientific discoveries in history.
Kerry Mullis purportedly told Albert Hoffman that his experiences with LSD played a crucial role in his invention one of the most important DNA research methods ever invented, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), for which he also won a Nobel Prize.
There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that LSD can play a role in enhancing creativity in everyday tasks as well.
Ego Dissolution and Interconnectedness
Ego dissolution occurs when one’s sense of self is either greatly diminished or completely (though temporarily) eradicated. It can have a profound impact on your perspective about life, consciousness, and the world and universe around you, to name a few.
It’s difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced a sense of literal selflessness, but it isn’t something to be feared. It’s a common occurrence with psychedelics, especially LSD. People under the influence of LSD and other psychedelics often report that their sense of self is replaced by sense of beauty and interconnectedness with those around them, with nature, and with the world and the universe at large.
This can be jarring for some, however, especially for many Westerners who are socialized to believe that their core identities are separate, self-contained entities. The idea that you’re not a unique snowflake floating in the midst of the snowstorm can be so foreign to many people that often their initial reaction is to resist it and even fear it. But this is normal.
Most successful methods of personal and/or spiritual growth advocate for a greater focus on others rather oneself. Knowing what it means to be “a part of something bigger than oneself” is often the first revelation people have when starting out on fruitful paths of spiritual development.
Your relationships improve when you’re not so focused on what you get out of them, but rather what you put into them.
You’re more compassionate once you accept that you cannot control certain things in life and that you’re a very real part of something that is much bigger and much more important than your singular, relatively trivial life that you lead every day.
You have less tolerance for suffering and a greater desire to contribute to the good of humanity when you accept that the division between you and those who suffer is essentially arbitrary.
All of this is much easier to do when you realize that your sense of self — that is, your identity — is an illusion and that there is an inherent interconnectedness of everyone and everything around you that creates a shared experience for all of us. In this way, we all share the joy and the suffering of the world.
Psychedelics are a powerful tool by which this interconnectedness and sense of belonging to something greater than oneself can be realized and integrated into your everyday life.