A Brief History of LSD

Paul Austin · October 13th, 2015


LSD’s history has been brief but tumultuous.

Underlying each of these ‘bullet points’ is a story with many words and many pages. In this article, we will unveil part of the known history of LSD, including famous figures, research breakthroughs, various abuses in the 1960s, and the recent resurgence of interest, specifically in microdosing.


We wrote about the entire story of LSD’s invention in another article, but we’ll summarize again. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss pharmacological researcher, accidentally invented LSD in 1938 while trying to develop medicine for giving birth. He derived it from the ergot fungus.

After its invention, LSD was shelved because it was comparatively ineffective for its intended use. However, its observed side effects, including general restlessness in animal subjects, stuck in the back of Hofmann’s mind.

In 1943, he pulled LSD-25 back off the shelf to re-test it. In this process, he accidentally spilled a bit on his skin. He had a minor trip.

Three days later, he self-administered the very first dose of LSD. Hofmann took way too much, not aware of the effective dose size. He had a bad trip experiencing demons and the total dissolution of his ego. Although intense, he recovered.

After his boss had confirmed Hofmann’s observations, LSD-25 was re-admitted for experimental observations.


Once Hoffman discovered LSD’s magical effects, Sandoz carried out animal trials to determine tolerance and toxicity. Once all was given the OK, Sandoz carried out the first systematic investigation of LSD on human beings, at the psychiatric clinic in Zurich.

The year was 1947. The research involved healthy subjects as well as schizophrenic patients. The term ‘Psychedelic’ had yet to be invented, so the head of the research, Werner A. Stoll, labeled LSD as a phantasticum.

In the experiments, subjects consumed micro to moderate dose amounts of LSD – anywhere from 20 micrograms to 130 micrograms. Although this first experiment did not measure LSD’s therapeutic ability, it did mention the possibility of LSD directed psychotherapy.

Fast-forward three years to 1950.

Because of its psychoactive effects, LSD was thought to replicate schizophrenia. In fact, much of the beginning research carried out in American medical centers focused on LSD’s ability to replicate the effects of mental illness.

In the late 1950s, research began to expand outside of mental illness and delved into assisting psychotherapy pursuits. Psychedelic therapy, defined as therapy in which hallucinogenic drugs are used to facilitate the final goal, became increasingly mainstream.

In one study, Dr. Humphrey Osmond gave LSD to Alcoholics Anonymous, who had failed to quit drinking. In total, LSD psychotherapy was administered to approximately 1000 patients. Around 50 percent of the subjects completely quit or seriously reduced consumption.

This fifty percent success rate was approximately ten times as effective as AA without psychedelic therapy.

Throughout the 1950s, mainstream media reported on LSD research. These reports included undergraduate psychology experiments, articles describing the effects of the drug, and its growing use in psychiatry.

In fact, Time Magazine published six positive reports on LSD between 1954 and 1959.

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.

“Psychedelic therapy, defined as therapy in which hallucinogenic drugs are used to facilitate the final goal, became increasingly mainstream.”



In the 1950s, the CIA became interested in the use of psychedelics as a truth serum.

Inspired by the Nazis use of mescaline in concentration camps during WWII, the CIA carried out these top-secret studies by administering LSD to uninformed 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 without consent.

These experiments went on until the mid-1970s. Eventually, the CIA shut the program down due to the wild variability of LSD.



Then came the 1960s. Dr. Sidney Cohen, who carried out measured, well-controlled experiments to test the psychoanalytical capabilities of LSD, warned of LSD’s widespread use 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 defined the differences between the 1950s and 1960s. While the 50s focused on the medical use of LSD, the counter-cultural movement of the 60s became a breeding ground for the abuse of a potentially harmful drug.

There were two primary parties promoting LSD within the counter-cultural movement: Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery (Richard Alpert, later renamed Ram Dass, was also a member), focused on academic-like experiments related to mystical experiences and the raising of consciousness. While the League for Spiritual Discovery encouraged the widespread use of LSD (Tune in, Drop in, Drop out), they took few steps to ensure responsible use by those who used it.

Ken Kesey encouraged public use of LSD through a grassroots approach. He led the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country bus trip fueled by large amounts of LSD.

Kesey and the Merry Pranksters aimed to confront the banality and conformity of American society with psychedelic-inspired spontaneity. During this experiment, Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters had no boundaries with the use of psychedelics and abused LSD to a previously unheard of degree. Tom Wolfe wrote an excellent account of this ‘experiment,’ which he published as ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

The Merry Pranksters visited Leary and Alpert while on the cross-country bus trip. Leary, Alpert, and co. were holed up in a Victorian mansion in Millbrook, New York, conducting experiments in raising consciousness with LSD.

The Merry Pranksters expected a hearty reception. Instead, the Pranksters got nothing but a cold shoulder. While the Merry Pranksters perceived it as an opportunity for two great worlds to collide, the League for Spiritual Discovery viewed the Merry Pranksters as nothing but jokesters. Leary, immersed in a 3-day experiment, even refused to meet Kesey.

The gap between the League for Spiritual Discovery and the Merry Pranksters defined LSD use in the 1960s. Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery operated within the walls of an academic ivory tower. By encouraging the mainstream public to ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out,’ without providing structure and guidance, Leary influenced many of the horror stories associated with LSD.

The Merry Pranksters lived out such stories on their cross-country bus trip. Representing the symbol of LSD proliferation in the 1960s, the Merry Pranksters used LSD without regard for its powerful effects. In effect, Leary’s proseltyzing created Kesey’s Merry Pranksters movement. By encouraging the public to use LSD, no matter the situation, Kesey shouldered Leary’s advice and brought it to the mainstream public.

“By encouraging the mainstream public to ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out,’ without providing structure and guidance, Leary influenced many of the horror stories associated with LSD.”

As LSD grew in popularity, horror trips became the publicized norm. People jumped out of 10th story windows, tried to stop moving cars, and inflicted self-harming casualties. 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 counter-cultural movement blossomed, it died. In 1968, the U.S. government declared possession of LSD illegal. In 1970, it declared LSD a Schedule 1 drug. When a drug is declared Schedule 1, it has, according to the government, ‘a high potential for abuse’ and was without ‘any accepted medical use in treatment.’

Although there had been a myriad of positive results when used under controlled circumstances, the dissemination of LSD into the hands of mainstream USD caused its eventual prohibition.



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, the association MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) 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 90s or 00s. 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 ‘Psychedlic 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 According to its ‘About’ section,, “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 we highly recommend is Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.

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