The story of LSD is historically intertwined with two unlikely figures from a topmost Ivy League school, Harvard University. In the 1960s, Professor Richard Alpert and instructor Timothy Leary, of the psychology department, famously had their ties to the university severed for reasons related to their pro-LSD stance. According to the Harvard campus paper, the Crimson, Alpert and Leary ran afoul of the university’s safety policies when, from 1960 to 1962, they tested psychedelics, including LSD, on students. Alpert and Leary wanted to know the effects of the drug, and it appears they believed that LSD could open the door to a mystical experience in those who consumed it. Alpert went on to become the spiritual leader known as Ram Dass (a disciple of a guru in India named Neem Karoli Baba) and Leary remained in the spotlight, continuing to be loyal to his pro-psychedelic drug beliefs. Leary’s name is likely to be synonymous with LSD among those who know of him, particularly members of the baby boomer generation.
The Alpert and Leary story is one that was driven mainly by these academics’ curiosity about LSD (and other psychedelics) and desire to have mystical or spiritual experiences. But LSD had, and still continues to have, a dark side. As the Crimson reports, Allan Y. Cohen (Harvard class of ’61) was one of the undergraduates who participated in the Alpert-Leary psychedelic drug trials. Cohen recalled for the paper that back in the 1960s he observed strange and dangerous behavior in other trial participants on campus at Harvard. For example, one night a professor was driving him and some other people home. The professor, who had participated in the psychedelic drug trials at some earlier point in time, suddenly had a flashback and believed he was driving a sleigh of horses, not the Volvo he was actually driving. Everyone in the car arrived home safely, but the experience was, for obvious reasons, memorable for Cohen.
The Alpert-Leary aspect of the LSD story puts one key point in context: Early advocates likely did not have a full appreciation for the dangers of using and promoting use of this drug. The lack of awareness helped this drug, and other psychedelics, to proliferate. Alpert and Leary were not psychiatrists or medical doctors. The history of LSD may have been very different if they had been.
What Is LSD, and How Does It Impact the Brain?
LSD, known commonly as acid, derives from lysergic acid diethylamide, a powerful psychoactive chemical that can be found in the ergot fungus that grows on grains, such as rye (a type of wheat). The following are some basic informational points about of this drug:
- This drug was first created (legally) in a lab in 1938.
- In 1968, Congress declared LSD to be illegal.
- In illegal laboratories, mainly in the US, lysergic acid diethylamide is produced in a crystal format, and then melted into an odorless and colorless liquid that has a mildly bitter taste.
- LSD liquid can be used to create different formats. On the street, LSD is available as gelatin square (called window panes), capsules, tablets (called microdots), or dropped on blotter paper, which is then cut into small squares (usually with cartoons or designs on the paper (called loony tunes). Sometimes, LSD is sold as a liquid.
- The most commonly reported experience on LSD is feeling disconnected from one’s everyday reality.
- Known as a trip, the LSD experience can last for about 12 hours. In some instances, a person can be on a bad trip (which can feel and look like a nightmare) for the full 12 or so hours.
Admittedly, researchers do not know exactly why LSD has the side effects it has. However, research continues in this area. Recently, the Imperial College of London completed a study that provided a breakthrough in this area. As Business Insider explains, researchers injected 15 study participants with LSD. Another group was given a placebo. After 70 minutes, the researchers scanned the brains of all study participants.
The researchers found that the biggest difference between the LSD group and the placebo group related to the visual cortex. The visual cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for what humans see. Researchers found that LSD temporarily improved the highway of communication between the visual cortex and the rest of the brain. In addition, the researchers observed that the type of communications were more novel. The researchers believe that this heightened communication makes the brain more flexible. It also explains, at least in part, why people experience intense hallucinations on this drug.
Recent Statistics on LSD Use
Though it seems incomplete to talk about LSD without looking to its past, particularly the 1960s, this drug is still in circulation and gaining new users each year. The best way to recognize that LSD is still a drug of abuse today is to consider recent statistics on LSD use.
- In 2010, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NHSDA) revealed that an estimated 6.4 percent of Americans in the 18-25 age group had used LSD at least once in their lifetime. This estimated percent was down from the survey results from 2002 (15.9 percent).
- According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 377,000 Americans in the 12 and older age group tried LSD for the first time in the past year. This number was similar to the 2009 survey findings but higher than the estimates from the 2003-2007 survey years (ranged in number from 200,000 to 270,000).
- Per the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the prior-year use rate of LSD was 0.6 percent, and the prior-month rate was 0.2 percent among youths. These rates were similar to those from the 2009 survey.
- Starting in 1975, the Monitoring the Future Study (MTF) research project has surveyed nearly 17,000 high school students annually to learn about their drug use. Per the 2010 survey year, 2.4 percent of high school seniors reported that they had used LSD at least once in their lifetimes. This number was down from 2002, when 3.8 percent of this group reported use.
- The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also collects information on teen attitudes toward drugs. In that survey year, researchers found that 71.5 percent of Americans in the 12-17 age group thought that there was a great risk entailed in taking LSD once or twice each week. This percentage was slightly down from 2002, when 76.2 percent perceived a threat.
- Per the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 12.9 percent of youth surveyed thought LSD would be fairly easy or very easy for them to get. Compared to 2002, this number is lower. In 2002, a greater number of teens thought getting LSD would be fairly easy or very easy (19.4 percent).
As these statistics reflect, the US is not facing an LSD epidemic. However, people continue to initiate into this drug. It simply has not disappeared from the landscape, despite numerous publicized personal accounts of its negative effects, including bad trips and flashbacks. Public education may be responsible, in part, for any decline in use rates indicated above (e.g., 2010 versus 2002 statistics). But there may be another contributing factor: the availability of newer generation drugs, ones that are particularly attractive to youth. These newer drugs included synthetics, such as the marijuana knockoffs known as Spice, K2, or fake weed. The trend to abuse drugs has not abated, though individuals (of all ages) may be naturally transitioning over to what’s newer, though these new drugs are no less dangerous.
The LSD Trip and Its Side Effects
Individuals who have taken LSD often report common experiences, such as the perception of time slowing down, seeing kaleidoscopic imagery, feeling a powerful spiritual or mystical dimension, and having positive feelings about their being and body. Although these experiences are out of the norm and can be seen as desirable by some people, there are numerous dangerous side effects associated with LSD use. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World identifies the following negative side effects:
- Dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Low or high body temperature
- Increased or decreased heart rate and blood pressure
- Loss of appetite
- Changes in the perception of reality
- Fixation on a certain image or color
- Going from feeling bliss to extreme terror
- Severely frightening thoughts and feelings
- Perceiving shapes, sounds, or images as distorted
- A fear of losing control
- A fear of going insane or dying/death
- Sensations associated with colors or sounds
LSD belongs to the class of drugs known as hallucinogens. This group of drugs causes a person’s perception of reality to be altered. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is little information available about the long-term effects of hallucinogenic drug use. It is known that LSD can cause flashbacks well after the last use of this drug.
Research on PCP, also a hallucinogenic, shows that over the long-term, individuals may have memory problems, weight loss, speech problems, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Since PCP and LSD are in the same drug class, there is a chance that over the long-term, LSD users may experience one or more of these side effects.
Getting Help for LSD Abuse
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, there are two main components to substance abuse treatment: medications and therapy. Medications that target substance abuse are limited to certain drugs of abuse, which are opioids (e.g., prescription pain relievers such as Percocet), opiates (e.g., heroin), benzodiazepines (e.g., sedatives such as Xanax), and alcohol. At present, there are no FDA-approved medications to specifically treat LSD or other hallucinogenic abuse.
Therapy is a main treatment service for individuals who are seeking to stop abusing LSD or any other drugs of abuse. Rehab programs provide therapy on an individual and group basis. There are many therapy approaches, but some have been tested for use in the drug treatment context and known as research-based therapies. The following are some of the most commonly available research-based therapies in drug rehab centers:
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy
- 12-Step-based therapy
- Contingency Management
- Family therapy
In addition to these therapies, which can only be provided by a trained, qualified, licensed therapist, there are a host of supportive services available (depending on the rehab’s specific programming). Supportive therapies include but are not limited to:
- Recovery group meetings
- Expressive therapy (e.g., art therapy, music therapy, etc.)
- Animal therapy (e.g., equine-assisted therapy)
- Drug education for the recovering person
- Drug education for the recovering person’s loved ones
- Exercise programming
- Wellness-oriented services, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture
- Aftercare plan creation
- Case management services (e.g., help navigating the local, state, and federal benefits available for individuals in depressed economic situations; help finding housing; job training and placement assistance; help with childcare; and assistance with transportation needs, especially to get to and from recovering meetings or an outpatient rehab program).
This broad overview of the treatment landscape conveys a key point: The rehab process not only helps people to stop abusing drugs and maintain abstinence, but also helps them to rebuild their lives. Rehab programs provide guidance on the skills and tools necessary to lay a new, drug-free foundation in life. With the support of the professionals and other stakeholders in the recovery process, the recovering person has the opportunity to build an entire new framework for living.