The History of LSD

It is said that the relationship between non-ordinary states of consciousness and mind-altering plants has had an integral role within our cultures and societies. According to Terrence McKenna in his seminal book Food Of The Gods, plant medicines have defined human culture just as much as our use of fire, communal dance, and music. There are 9,000-year-old cave paintings depicting images of rituals with ‘magic’ mushrooms, and it’s known that divination, healing, and rites of passages have often included what we now refer to as psychedelics. This is our legacy. We are wired to transcend. The history of LSD has a place within our transpersonal traditions.

As far as I can tell, we live in a modern era that is defined by science. All our creative energy and innovations have led us to the study of how our brain, mind, and body integrates our internal and external worlds. Neuroscience has become one of the standard ways of unraveling the inner-workings of the brain and mind. It is the intersection of biology and psychology, physiology and the mystical-spiritual-emotional junctions. Beseel Van Der Kolk M.D., renowned for his work on PTSD, recounts; 

“In the nineteenth century, when medicine first began the systematic study of mental problems…” mental health and mental illness and their cure had become a preoccupation of doctors and healers. 1

These mysteries have been difficult to navigate and ambitious pharmaceutical companies have always been motivated by breakthroughs in mental illness that can be marketed and sold. Keep in mind, scientists are motivated to find solutions to suffering while companies want to make a profit.

In this context, it makes sense that pharmacology would put their energy and best scientists towards the quest for chemical solutions for mental health issues as the advances in neuroscience became known. 

LSD was discovered by accident in a lab in 1943 in Switzerland. Albert Hofmann, a young scientist working for Sandoz in their pharmaceutical lab, was trying to find a new type of stimulant using lysergic acid. This is how psychedelic science began and the story of how Albert Hofmann discovered his “Problem Child.” It is a legendary origin story that is a darling of the psychedelic movement.

The story actually starts in 1929 when Hofmann, a young research chemist who had just graduated from the University of Zurich, began working at Sandoz. He was hired to find a chemical compound to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. He was experimenting with new ergot alkaloids. These compounds were originally identified in ergot, a fungus that naturally occurs on rye and that had been used as a folk medicine for generations. It was known to midwives that in small doses, ergot acted as an agent in constricting muscle and blood vessels and was reported to have properties useful to hasten childbirth and staunch bleeding after delivery. 

These folk remedies inspired Hofman’s scientific research into the use of ergot compounds as a way to manage bleeding associated with childbirth. This was a huge problem as maternal mortality rates were high and tragic. Today, modern medicine can boast that the most common preventable causes of maternal deaths include hemorrhage, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and sepsis. Before the 20th century, any of these meant certain death. By 1938, Hofmann had worked on the chemical structure of the active compounds in ergot and synthesized more than twenty-five substances in a series of compounds. The 25th compound was named lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. This is the substance we simply refer to today as LSD.

“In a sense Hofmann was playing God, combining lysergic acid with various other organic molecules just to see what happened. He created 24 of these lysergic acid combinations. Then he created the 25th, reacting lysergic acid with diethylamine, a derivative of ammonia. The compound was abbreviated as LSD-25 for the purposes of laboratory testing.” 2

The discovery of LSD was not straightforward. As Hofmann was keeping track of each derivative of lysergic acid, the molecular core of ergot, he kept a record of each derivative as they were introduced to the uterine tissue of various animals within the ​​pharmacological laboratory. Some animals became restless as a side effect but the physicians and pharmacologists of Sandoz were only interested if medicinal properties could be proven. Due to poor initial findings, they eventually discontinued all preclinical trials. 

One day in 1943, five years after the discontinued preclinical trials and at the height of World War II, Albert Hofmann had what he described later as a “hunch.” He remembered the restlessness side effects of LSD-25 and surmised the substance could possess worthwhile properties though perhaps outside the scope of the initial research. The legend around Hofmann’s story is partially due to the fact that he went against protocol (usually research scientists do not revisit old experiments) and listened to his intuition. While handling the sample, he accidentally absorbed a minute amount from LSD-25. He felt so strange that he had to leave the lab and go home. When he returned to work the following Monday, this is what he wrote to his supervisor: 

“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 dream-like 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.” 3

When he recovered, Hofmann was determined to discover the scientific cause for what he experienced. 

Three days later on April 19th, commonly referred to as “Bicycle Day,” he and his lab assistant took what they thought was a minute amount (250μg, now considered more than twice a normal recreational dose) and intentionally ingested LSD-25; hence this has come to be known as “the First Trip.” At that time, it was common for experimenters to participate in their experiments. 

At 4:20pm in the afternoon of April 19, without informing anyone at Sandoz except his lab assistant, Hofmann dissolved 250 millionths of a gram of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate—the crystallized salt form of the compound—and drank it.

“Hofmann was dealing with the LSD as if it might be deadly poison. This is why he began his tests with such an infinitesimal dose, a thousand times less than the active dose of any other physically active compound he knew of. He had planned to increase the dosage by tiny increments until he got the first inkling of a reaction and expected it to take many dose increases before that happened.

But just 40 minutes after that initial dose, he wrote the one and only entry describing his experience in his lab journal:

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” 4

The interesting part of this story is that Hofmann claims LSD-25 found him because he was not intentionally looking for it and refers to his discovery as “divine providence.”

Hofmann continued his research to determine if this compound was toxic by experimenting on animals, including spiders. 

“Of the remaining animal species on which LSD was tested, only aquarium fish and spiders need be mentioned here. In the fish, unusual swimming postures were observed, and in the spiders, alterations in web building were apparently produced by LSD. At very low optimum doses the webs were even better proportioned and more exactly built than normally: however, with higher doses, the webs were badly and rudimentarily made.” 5

None of the animals seemed to suffer lasting ill effects and this encouraged him to continue, if informally, with friends.

Hofmann: “Around 1949 to 1951, I arranged some LSD sessions at home in the friendly and private company of two good friends of mine: the pharmacologist Professor Heribert-Konzett, and the writer Ernst Jünger. 6

The other interesting side note is how Sandoz promoted LSD.

“Once Europe emerged from World War Two, Sandoz marketed their new compound to researchers worldwide under the brand name Delysid. And for more than two decades, LSD was revealed as something of a wonder drug to treat anxiety, depression and psychological trauma. Between 1943 and 1970, Oxford University Press estimated it generated almost 10,000 scientific publications, earning the tag of the most intensively researched pharmacological substance ever.” 7

Albert Hofmann stumbled onto something that we now know is a hallmark of the psychedelic ‘trip’. “In some of my psychedelic experiences I had a feeling of ecstatic love and unity with all creatures in the universe,” he later said in a High Times interview. “To have had such an experience of absolute beatitude means an enrichment of our life.” 8

Albert Hofman wasn’t alone in his conviction that this was an important discovery. The scientific community believed it could have broad clinical applications. By the early 1950s Sandoz gave LSD-25 to scientists around the world with the idea that mental health and neuroscience could make use of this promising molecular miracle. It was new, shiny, exciting, and had potential pharmacological applications within the realm of schizophrenia and other mood disorders.  

“Schizophrenia is considered a mental disorder defined by continuous or relapsing episodes of psychosis. Major symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking.” They thought this is what being on LSD resembled and so the Science of Psychedelics went out into the world with clinical aspirations. 

   LSD was originally perceived as a psychotomimetic capable of producing model psychosis” 9

Our understanding of neurotransmitters, receptors, and the development of psychiatric drugs was enhanced because of the study of LSD. During the 1960s, clinical studies were focusing on depression, alcoholism, addiction, anxiety, and LSD became an acceptable tool in psychotherapy. It is a well-known fact that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a participant in some of these medically supervised clinical trials. The story of his belief that this would help his cause in curing alcoholism based on these trials is legendary because he was ridiculed and famously kicked out of the association he started. The science was promising but the conservative mindset, wary of the potential abuse and afraid the ridicule would harm their cause. AA  was not open or ready for such a shift in perception and thinking. 

Unfortunately, there was also a darker side to research developments with LSD. The US Army and the CIA began conducting their own “brand” of clinical trials, sometimes without the consent of the people involved. There was speculation that LSD had the potential to be a mind-control substance or truth serum. It may sound absurd now but this preoccupation had very serious consequences. The CIA had initiated a program called MK Ultra. In an interview with Journalist Stephen Kinzer by NPR’s Terry Gross called The CIA’s Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A ‘Poisoner In Chief’ it’s revealed how “ the CIA worked in the 1950s and early ’60s to develop mind-control drugs and deadly toxins that could be used against enemies.” 10

Meanwhile, the wider population in the 1960s had discovered psychedelics and LSD had begun to define a generation that was ready to break free of old thinking into a new way of being. 

This of course didn’t happen by accident. Professor Timothy Leary of Harvard, before he was fired, released; The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (commonly referred to as The Psychedelic Experience) and collaborated with Richard Alpert in releasing “The Politics of Consciousness Expansion.” Once he left Harvard, he began a mission to have people “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.” At the same time, psychedelic therapy was being practiced in clinical settings by mental health professionals all over the world. But the Nixon administration considered this new field a threat and called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” 11

It is worth noting that between the 1950s to the 1970s, before the prohibition of psychoactive substances, LSD was prescribed as treatment to over 40,000 patients in the US alone. Many people, including the actor Cary Grant, were prescribed LSD while undergoing psychotherapy. But as history suggests, many professionals who began using LSD recreationally also began sharing it with friends and colleagues. This proliferation was a factor in the hippy and peace movement, representing a revolution of altered states of mind. As far as direct conflicts go, this paradigm shift and new perspective threatened the status quo of a culture steeped in conformity and conservatism. 

The propaganda targeting the emergence of psychedelics framed them as a threat to established society. In this way, it was correct. People who took LSD often found they could not return to being good little soldiers and obedient housewives, sedate students and worker bees. The emerging counter culture was gaining momentum and anti-war sentiment was high. These developments culminated in the signing of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.

Drugs are very dangerous was the mantra and by the early 70s the research into psychedelics stopped as laws were passed. The global “war on drugs” was the new “law and order” agenda pushed by the US and funded to the nth degree. 

“Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion. In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people charged with drug-related offenses—that’s more than $3.3 billion annually.” 12

The policy stated that psilocybin, cannabis, and LSD among others had no medical benefit. The research of the previous two decades was discarded and the science didn’t matter.  People being helped didn’t matter. This war was ruthless in its criminalization of consciousness and addiction. 13

The prohibition of these compounds prevented 30 years of research from taking place under the guise of public safety. Ultimately, these were politically and racially motivated agendas. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for minority groups do not reflect an increased usage of these drugs among these populations but instead demonstrate how law enforcement’s focus on poor, urban, and minority communities are disproportionately targeted.

“Disparities in arrests and incarceration are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own drug use may go to jail for decades. This unequal enforcement ignores the universality of drug dependency, as well as the universal appeal of drugs themselves.” 14

So here we are in 2021 and so much has changed. More and more states and countries are now decriminalizing and legalizing certain plant medicines and psychoactive substances. Research is booming, therapeutic use is now becoming widely accepted and punitive laws and attitudes are changing. Welcome to the psychedelic renaissance. 

Carrie Katz works with individuals and also offers workshops on coaching, creativity and recovery. Her fascination with personal transformation through non-ordinary states of consciousness has informed her work with psychedelics/entheogens and other modalities. Her focus is on transformational recovery, facilitation and integration of psychedelic experiences. Since 2019, Carrie has been a clinical research team member of the Stage III Clinical MAPS’ trial in Montreal for MDMA and PTSD. She is an executive board member of the Montreal Psychedelic Society (MPS) and leads their monthly community integration circles.

References:

1 The Body Keeps The Score: Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. 
2 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-accidental-discovery-of-lsd/379564/
3 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-accidental-discovery-of-lsd/379564/
4 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-accidental-discovery-of-lsd/379564/
5 LSD-My Problem Child (1979) Albert Hofmann 
6 https://hightimes.com/culture/albert-hofmann-lsd-interview/
7 https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200713-basel-the-birthplace-of-hallucinogenic-science
8 https://hightimes.com/culture/albert-hofmann-lsd-interview/
9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_lysergic_acid_diethylamide
10 https://www.npr.org/2020/11/20/937009453/the-cias-secret-quest-for-mind-control-torture-lsd-and-a-poisoner-in-chief 
11 https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/president-richard-nixon-and-lsd-guru-timothy-leary-crazy-in-their-own-ways/2018/01/12/76220fa4-ebf2-11e7-b698-91d4e35920a3_story.html
12 https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/Jun. 27, 2018
13 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-war-on-drugs-how-president-nixon-tied-addiction-to-crime/254319/
14 https://drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war