Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD or “acid”, famous for its role in the 1960’s counterculture movement, is a colorless, odorless, and slightly bitter tasting drug. It goes by many names including Acid, Trips, Uncle Sid, Blotter, Lucy, Alice, back breaker, battery acid, doses, dots, Elvis, loony toons, lucy in the sky with diamonds, lazy sunshine dust, pane, superman, windowpane, Zen, microdots, sugar cubes, tabs. During the 1960’s, LSD was the drug of choice during the counterculture (hippy) movement. It was estimated that 20.2 million U.S. residents had used LSD at least once.
Dr. Albert Hofmann invents LSD
Dr. Albert Hofmann worked for Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) in Basel, Switzerland when he first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. Ergotamine, derived from the ergot fungus that often infects rye grain, was used as the base to synthesize the new drug (morning glory seeds and Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds can also be used). Hofmann was working with Professor Arthur Stoll studying the medicinal properties of the plant Squill and fungus ergot. After other laboratory assignments were given precedence, the project was set aside for several years.
On April 16, 1943, Hofmann began to reexamine the synthesis of LSD. During a laboratory session, Hofmann accidentally absorbed an unknown quantity of the drug through his fingertips. Hofmann was stunned at the “trip” that resulted. As Hofmann described the first LSD experience:
“… 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.”
Three days later Hofmann performed another self-experiment purposefully ingesting about .25 milligrams of the new drug, and amount he believed to be the maximum safe level. After several hours of hallucinations, Hofmann had to have a laboratory assistant help him get home. Since the use of cars was restricted during these wartime years, they rode together on a bicycle. Hofmann began to experience extreme feelings of anxiety, even believing that his next-door neighbor was a malevolent witch and that the LSD had fatally poisoned him. A doctor was summoned to examine him and could find nothing wrong. The date of this first infamous LSD trip became known as “Bicycle Day” and was grandly celebrated during the 1960’s hippies’ movement.
LSD is released to the public
By 1947, LSD was introduced to the public sector by the Sandoz Laboratories under the name Delysid. Sandoz’s stated purpose for the introduction of the drug was to investigate its use as a possible treatment for psychiatric patients. Sandoz Labs, believing Delysid could have clinical applications, felt the drug could be useful in helping patients “unblock” repressed subconscious thoughts during psychiatric treatment. It was also felt that Delysid (LSD) could be useful in treating alcoholism. The use of LSD gained acceptance during the 1950’s as psychologists began using it in patient therapy. As a result of the new availability (and popularity) of the drug, many psychiatrists began taking the drug recreationally and sharing it with their friends.
A few years after its introduction, the CIA began experimenting with the drug. The CIA thought Delysid could be useful for mind control and the use of LSD became a critical part of the MKULTRA project (discussed in more detail below) which further spread use of the drug through servicemen and student researchers.
In 1963, the US Food and Drug Administration classified LSD as an “investigational new drug”. Several people, including Aldous Hoxley, Timothy Leary, and Al Hubbard, began advocating use of LSD in the general public. LSD quickly became central to the 1960’s counterculture (hippy) movement.
The rapid spread of the drug alarmed government officials and by August 1965, Sandoz halted production of the drug amid government complaints about its spread throughout the general population. By 1968, possession of LSD was made illegal.
How LSD is made (and no, you can’t do it at home)
Although it can be stored away for years if kept away from light and moisture and is stored at low temperatures (it can also be stored in solid salt or dissolved in water), LSD is sensitive to oxygen and ultra-violet light and hence, manufacture of the drug is exceedingly difficult and requires tightly controlled laboratory environments. It is strongly fluorescent and will glow bluish white under UV light. Interestingly, a pure salt of LSD will emit small white flashes when shaken in the dark.
Manufacture of the drug requires expensive and complex laboratory equipment and broad experience and knowledge in organic chemistry. It takes two to three days to produce 30 to 100 grams of the pure LSD compound. The LSD base product is produced in crystalline form and then mixed or dissolved for production into ingestible forms.
The synthesis of LSD is not to be taken lightly. It is extremely difficult to make and requires an expert chemist. The process of converting ergot, morning glory seed, or Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds into LSD can be dangerous and lethal. In addition, the potency is such that even a small amount absorbed into the skin can kill a person if accidental contact is made with the drug or the chemical solvents that are required to make it.
In addition, LSD molecules are very fragile and easily destroyed by light, air, or heat. Professional laboratory equipment is required – it cannot be manufactured in a basement. Equipment such as vacuum desiccator to dry the lysergic compounds without burning the compound, is expensive and difficult to purchase.
The easiest way to explain the difficulty in LSD production is by examining the very first step – obtaining the ergot material that will be chemically synthesized into the LSD compound.
Ergot infested rye is the best base organic substance to start with. Ergot is the deep brown to purplish black growth sometimes found between the healthy grains in the head of an infected rye plant. It is very toxic. Many years ago, poisoning epidemics often occurred when ergot infected rye grains were distributed and consumed by the public.
A small amount of ergot (about a dozen heads of infected rye grain) is collected from infected rye grains and used to “grow” the additional quantities needed to make LSD. The ergot is then refrigerated for one month at a temperature just above freezing. This makes the ergot think that it has gone through winter and is ready to germinate. Next, a terrarium is cleaned with bleach and thoroughly rinsed. One inch of sterile sand is placed along the bottom of the terrarium and ergot sprinkled on top of the sand. Then another layer of sand is placed over the ergot. The terrarium is kept at room temperature with an occasional misting to keep the sand moist. After a month, the ergot will begin to sprout mushroom like growths. These individual grains of ergot will not ripen at the same time so each ripened grain must be removed individually for harvest. The ripe ergot must be handled carefully, or the ripe head will pop releasing the spores into the air. Next, the spores must be placed in a sterile culture – everything must be perfectly sterile from this point on.
Up until this point, the ergot has not even germinated. Beyond these steps, the ergot must be processed chemically to synthesize the LSD and it must be processed quickly as the components begin to rapidly degrade. A partial list of chemicals required (hundreds of gallons in some cases) includes:
- hvsAnthranilic acid
- Benzyl cyanide
- N-Acetylanthranilic acid
- Norpseudoephedrine, its salts, optical isomers, and salts of optical isomers
- Phenylacetic acid
How LSD is taken
LSD is typically consumed orally, on something like a small blotter paper, a sugar cube, or in gelatin. The tablet form of the drug became briefly popular in the 1960’s. LSD can be injected in liquid form too but this method of delivery is rare.
The most common form is blotter paper, small pieces of absorbent paper with LSD dropped and absorbed into the paper. The blotter papers are typically imprinted with cartoons or logos and sold under unique names related to the design of the blotter (e.g., Daffy Duck).
LSD is extremely potent, with 20-30 micrograms (about 1/10 the mass of a grain of sand) being the threshold dose. The effects begin in about 30-90 minutes after ingestion with the “trips” lasting six to twelve hours depending on the dosage taken.
The effects of LSD “tripping”
LSD is not addictive. Its effects on the user vary widely. Many experience several different emotions at once with emotions swinging rapidly from one to another. The combination of emotions experienced is unique for each user, making a description of a typical LSD trip difficult to ascertain.
Physical effects include pupil dilation, reduced appetite, and wakefulness. Some users report a strong metallic taste (Albert Hofmann himself reported this effect). Users of LSD may experience numbness, weakness, nausea, hypothermia, elevated blood sugar, goose bumps, increased heart rate, perspiration, saliva production, mucus production, sleeplessness, and tremors.
The psychological effects vary from person to person and even from “trip” to “trip”. Most experience vivid visual hallucinations and altered thinking. Objects and surfaces may appear to ripple or breathe. Moving objects may leave image-like trails (called tracers). Inanimate objects that are static in three dimensions can seem to be moving relative to one or more additional spatial dimensions.
The user may see very bright radiant colors (called sparkling). Sensations seem to “cross over” giving the user the feeling of hearing colors or seeing sounds. Some have described seeing Escher type patterns breathing over their skin and altered sense of emotions and memories.
It is quite common for LSD users to experience an altered sense of time. Time while tripping may appear to be stretching, repeating itself, changing speed, or stopping altogether. Some report a loss of sense of identity or ego, known as “ego death”. Often this feels extremely depressive and panics the LSD user.
Dangerous effects of LSD
LSD impairs the user’s ability to make sensible judgments and understand common dangers. Hence, the common stories of users killing themselves in bizarre ways such as jumping off buildings or bridges (many of which were urban legends).
There have also been documented occurrences of LSD introducing psychosis. Moses of these cases were short in duration but in some cases the psychosis was chronic. Long lasting effects such as schizophrenia or severe depression have been documented too.
LSD users often experience “bad trips” (On Hofmann’s second use of the drug, he himself experienced a bad trip). Bad trips are akin to nightmares and include devilish hallucinations and horrific visions. Bugs crawling on the user’s skin and loss of self are fairly common. Some users have described the bad trip as “feeling like they had descended into hell.” Others have reported horrific visions such as an ink black sky and deformed friends whose jaws “were dripping off of their faces”.
Many times, the user blacks out or forgets during the trip that they have taken a drug. Often this leads the user to believe that they have gone mad. Some have said the trip was so horrifying that they wanted to stop breathing to make it stop.
One person reported the panic feeling he had while tripping. The LSD user reported that he had a desperate feeling that he had lost himself. He found himself reading a complete book about his life. This “golden book had flowing words in it” contained a complete detail of his life – he could not understand who had spied on him all those years, long enough to completely document his every move. When he came to reality, he realized the book was actually a piece of paper a friend had given him because he had been sitting on the couch asking who he was. The friend had told him to read the paper over and over again and eventually he would recall who he was.
The setting that the trip is taken in can impact the experiences during the trip. In a hostile or unsettling environment, effects are likely to be unpleasant. It is preferable that the LSD trip be taken in a relaxed, balanced environment.
Another negative occurrence with LSD usage is the experience of “flashbacks”. Flashbacks are a psychological phenomenon where the user experiences an episode of some of the LSD effects long after the effect of the drug has worn off. Flashbacks may occur days or even years after the trip ends. About 30% of all LSD users report having flashbacks.
Notorious LSD users and interesting side notes
There are many reports of famous celebrities using LSD. Cary Grant was given LSD during psychotherapy. During the 1960’s counterculture movement many psychedelic rock bands used LSD including the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Beatles.
The Beatles song “She Said She Said”, specifically the line “I know what it’s like to be dead” is from an LSD trip the Beatles took with actor Peter Fonda. Fonda said those words repeatedly to John Lennon during the acid trip.
Probably no celebrity is better associated with LSD usage than Timothy Leary. Dr. Timothy Leary, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, was the most prominent pro-LSD researcher of the 1960’s. Leary claimed that using LSD with the right dosage and setting, preferably with the guidance of professionals, could alter behavior in dramatic and beneficial ways and open people’s eyes to ideas and visions that were not possible without tripping on LSD.
During his tenure at Harvard, Leary experimented with LSD on himself and several Harvard students. Naturally, the university was not pleased. After leaving Harvard for an extended period of time he was fired in 1963. He moved to Mexico but was soon expelled from the country. Leary returned to New York and set up in a large private mansion known as Millbrook where he continued his LSD experiments. Repeated FBI raids eventually terminated Leary’s Millbrook experiments.
Secret government experiments with LSD – Project MKULTRA
In 1975, the project MKULTRA was revealed in the U.S. Congressional Rockefeller Commission report. Project MKULTRA began in the 1950’s and continued well into the 1970’s. The project was initiated because the CIA believed prisoners in the Korean War were being brainwashed with some sort of drug. Project MKULTRA also included research on whether or not LSD could be used in chemical warfare.
During the project, LSD was administered to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the public to study their reactions, usually without the subject’s knowledge. Most of these studies were conducted in hospital settings and were carefully monitored.
Image CreditsJohn Lennon performing Give Peace a Chance with Timothy Leary 1969 via Wikipedia Commons by Roy Kerwood with usage type - Creative Commons License
Crime-scene photos show vacuum flash evaporators via Westworld by Jim Laurita with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
A tenstrip of "Alex Grey" Hofmann LSD blotters, dosed at 100-120 µg each. via Wikipedia Commons by LordToran with usage type - Public Domain
Pink Elephants on Parade printed on LSD Blotter paper via Wikipedia Commons by Psychonaught with usage type - Public Domain
Albert Hofmann via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License
25 LSD blotters Printed Image: 1943 Bicycle day via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BICYCLE_DAY_HOFFMAN_25_TABS.jpg by DarkGreyCat with usage type - Creative Commons License
LSD blotter via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LSD_blotter.jpg by Erik Fenderson with usage type - Public Domain
LSD Blotter via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. Photo taken by DEA employee
Three paper 1P-LSD blotters in a plastic grip bag. via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License
LSD blotters rated at 100 micrograms each. via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License
Psychedelic art attempts to capture the visions experienced on a psychedelic trip via Wikipedia Commons by Nicholas Darinzo with usage type - Creative Commons License