LSD, or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, is a psychoactive compound that has a long, intense and rather strange history among mankind. Most of that history occurred in the years since 1938, but some people have reasonably theorized that the main component of LSD – a naturally occurring fungus sometimes consumed in wheat and rye bread – is at least partly responsible for the werewolf hysteria in medieval Europe and possibly the witch panic that followed hundreds of years later. But while these mass hallucinations were unintentional, the development and use of LSD as a military application, a psychiatric treatment and a recreational drug has been anything but unintended. And although its heyday has long since passed, it was only very recently that some of the most powerful and influential people in the world were experimenting with LSD.
Albert Hoffman Discovered LSD in 1938
While employed by Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland in 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann sought to synthesize an analeptic – a circulatory and respiratory stimulant – from various organic materials. This included the squill plant and the fungus ergot. (1) Whether Hofmann recognized the ergot fungus as a potential hallucinogen or understood its implication in the werewolf and witch hysteria of history is questionable, but what is known is that the development of LSD as we know it was an accident.
According to the Botany Department of the University of Hawaii;
“Hofmann was searching for an analeptic compound (a circulatory stimulant) and was testing extracts from ergot. One of the extracts tested was the twenty-fifth extract from ergot that was designated LSD-25. After unsuccessful preliminary studies with laboratory animals, LSD-25 was put aside. It would be five years later, on April 16, 1943, before he would work with this particular isolate of LSD again.” (2)
Hofmann’s experiments with LSD-25 in 1943 led to his inadvertent ingestion of the substance. While it’s still unknown for certain how this ingestion occurred, Hofmann theorizes that he absorbed a small amount of LSD through his fingers while handling the compound. What happened next was unprecedented, as Hofmann accounts in a 1943 report to his supervising professor at the laboratory:
“Last Friday, April 16, 1943, 1 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. After some two hours this condition faded away.” (3)
LSD Used Heavily in Psychiatric Therapy and Experiementation
This incident led Hofmann to continue to experiment with LSD, and his descriptions and reports of these profound psychological effects rippled throughout the scientific community. By the end of the decade and throughout the 1950’s, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide was hailed as one of the most promising drugs in the treatment of a wide variety of psychiatric disorders – especially schizophrenia. Psychoactive.ORG, a website in the United Kingdom dedicated to education about drugs, reports the following:
“LSD was introduced into the United States in 1948. Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) marketed LSD as a psychiatric cure-all and hailed it as a remedy for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, sexual perversions and alcoholism. In psychiatry, the use of LSD by students was an accepted practice; it was viewed as a teaching tool in an attempt to enable the psychiatrist to subjectively understand schizophrenia. It was also showed great promise as a facilitating agent in psychedelic psychotherapy.” (4)
LSD was easily available, cheap and powerful. It was put through an astonishing number of clinical trials and used in a surprising number of psychiatric applications. According to the Shaffer Library of Drug Policy, these included;
*Shock-inducing properties of LSD and its effect on personality structure
*Therapeutic use of the abreactive effect of LSD
*Use of the activating effect of LSD on Chronic and Fixated Symptoms
*Use of Small Doses of LSD in Intensive Psychotherapy
*Use of Small Doses of LSD in Group Psychotherapy
*Occasional Use of LSD Sessions in Intensive Psychotherapy
*Psycholytic Therapy With LSD
*Psychedelic Therapy with LSD
*Anaclitic Therapy With LSD (LSD Analysis)
*Aggregate LSD Psychotherapy (5)
LSD as a Military-Grade Weapon
Unfortunately, researchers of the time often used unscrupulous methods of testing their various LSD theories, often involving unwitting participants such as psychiatric patients or prisoners in trials that were poorly controlled and offered little merit. Reports that LSD was being used in a similar way by the United States military soon surfaced, and many professional civilian psychiatrists, physicians, researchers and chemists were said to have collaborated with the armed forces in the development of LSD as a military weapon.
LSD as a military application sought to accomplish a number of objectives; primarily the control of information through couriers and in some counterintelligence applications. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act have confirmed that the CIA did conduct significant research on the use of LSD in certain mind control experiments. Mindspring.COM reports on the motivation for this on the part of the CIA;
“Hypnosis, drugs, and psycho-surgery; separately and combined, were the tools of this quest for the ultimate truth serum on the one hand, and the capability to create an agent who could not have his or her mission tortured out of them, or even be aware that they were carrying secret information given to them in an altered state of consciousness. More and more sophisticated drugs were experimented with, such as LSD, Ketamine, and Psilocybine. Lobotomy and the implantation of electrodes were considered as methods for creating a compliant agent. Electro-Convulsive Shock, combined with LSD, sedation for days at a time, and constantly replaying the patient’s own voice through helmet-mounted headphones . . .” (6)
This CIA program was called MK-ULTRA, and the exact extent of it is still being researched today. MK-ULTRA continued into the early 1970’s, despite the fact that possession of LSD had been made illegal 2 years earlier, based on public fears of its effects. Nevertheless, the CIA continued to explore the drug’s potential military uses;
“LSD was the original centerpiece of the United States Central Intelligence Agency‘s top secret MK-ULTRA project, an ambitious undertaking conducted from the 1950s through the 1970s designed to explore the possibilities of pharmaceutical mind control. Hundreds of participants, including CIA agents, government employees, military personnel, prostitutes, members of the general public, and mental patients were given LSD, many without their knowledge or consent. The experiments often involved severe psychological torture.” (1)
LSD in Music and Pop Culture
While LSD was the focal point of psychiatric, psychological and military efforts into controlling various aspects of the mind, it was also widely used recreationally by the general public. Acid distributors and advocates like Dr. Timothy Leary, Owsley Stanley III and Ken Kesey set about to purposefully “dose” the world. At the time there was a growing movement that believed the use of LSD could create profound epiphanies that would change people for the better. Therefore, they also believed that spreading the drug to as many people as possible – often for free – was a righteous thing to do.
The recreational use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide was also made vastly popular by the music culture of the time, including by bands like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and others who advocated the use of acid in conjunction with music and spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that was used to push this drug on people did not generally disclose the potentially dangerous side effects. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, these side effects can include:
“. . . thought disorders, temporary psychosis, delusions, body image changes, and impaired depth, time and space perceptions. Users may feel several emotions at once or swing rapidly from one emotion to another. “Bad trips” may consist of severe, terrifying thoughts and feelings, fear of losing control, and despair.”
Fortunately, dependence and addiction to LSD is rare, although tolerance does develop after numerous repeated uses. Today this drug is not commonly sold on the street and can be difficult to obtain. It is associated with gothic, club and rave groups and may be used in place of or in conjunction with ecstasy or MDMA, mescaline and PCP. All of these drugs have the potential to produce dangerous behavioral side effects that might put a person’s life or livelihood at risk, despite widespread claims that these substances can and should only be used as tools of spiritual and psychological enlightenment.
(1) Wikipedia History of LSD
(2) Skeptically.ORG LSD Discovery – Albert Hofmann
(3) Grof, Stanislav M.D. History of LSD Therapy Chapter 1 of LSD Psychotherapy, ©1980, 1994 by Stanislav Grof. Hunter House Publishers, Alameda, California, ISBN 0-89793-158-0 Shaffer Library of Drug Policy