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Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and Psychedelics

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and Psychedelics

Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, is a powerful hallucinogenic drug. When an individual uses a hallucinogenic drug, he or she experiences hallucinations—vivid sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or other sensations that are occurring only within the user's mind but seem to be real. LSD is also sometimes called a psychedelic drug because of its ability to cause hallucinations and to make the user lose touch with reality. In fact, LSD can sometimes have such profound effects on a user's ability to distinguish what is real from what is happening inside his or her own head, that it can make the user appear to be suffering from psychosis, a state of mind that robs an individual of the ability to think clearly, reason effectively, exercise good judgment, and understand reality.

The History of LSD

LSD was originally synthesized at a Swiss pharmaceutical company in 1943. Chemists were working on a project to develop medicines from a fungus that infects grasses. Some of the compounds they created are useful for the treatment of migraine headaches and for certain problems of childbirth. These medications do not have hallucinogenic properties.

The chemist in charge of this drug development project was Albert Hofmann. He called the compound he formed in the lab LSD-25. Hofmann accidentally swallowed some of the substance, and within forty minutes he had the first LSD "trip." Later, he carefully described the vivid flood of perceptions that a person experiences when taking a psychedelic drug.

The drug and various versions of it were tested for medical uses in the late 1940s and in the 1950s. After World War II, some professionals became excited by LSD's potential uses for psychiatric patients. However, no specific medical use for LSD, or the psychedelic drugs related to it, has been found.

In the nineteenth century, artists and writers such as the French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud smoked hashish, a potent form of the hallucinogen marijuana, to enter altered, dreamy, states of consciousness and euphoria (an intense feeling of well- being). In the 1960s, LSD became the drug of choice for those searching for meaning and insight by way of altered states. Those who participated in the "acid culture" in the 1960s believed that LSD could help them unlock the mystery and power of the human mind.

Then Timothy Leary, a young psychology instructor at Harvard, explored the uses of LSD, claiming that criminals who took it be- came loving and peaceful and others more creative. After he promoted this idea on campus, the college decided not to keep him as a faculty member. Leary called himself a martyr to his cause and became famous for his views on LSD. Increasing numbers of people began experimenting with LSD and other psychedelics such as mushrooms, mescaline, and peyote. Rock musicians, hippies, flower children, and many in the various protest movements against the "establishment" and the Vietnam War joined with Leary in trying to attract upper- and middle-class youth to the drug scene. Leary's challenge was for youth to "turn on, tune in, and drop out" with acid.

More and more youth were curious to try experiences their parents had never dreamed of. They not only experimented with LSD but tried many other drugs as well, especially marijuana. Hundreds of so-called designer drugs, such as MDMA (ecstasy), were synthesized as the desire for new and different drugs increased. Users of psychedelics often had "bad trips" (these were usually panic reactions to the drug's effects) and were rushed to emergency rooms. Public concern grew that American youth would all become "acid heads." In 1966, the Swiss laboratory stopped distributing the drug because of public concern. No evidence was ever found to support the claim that LSD produced lasting insights, and research with LSD in humans ended.

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, in 2000 an estimated 1,749,000 people 12 and older used LSD within the past year. The same survey found that in 2000, 0.8 percent of people 12 and older and 2.2 percent of people aged 12 to 17 reported having used LSD in the past year. A survey of high school students found that in 2001, 6.6 percent of 12th graders and 4.4 percent of 10th graders reported having used LSD within the past year.

How is LSD Taken?

LSD is one of the most potent hallucinogens. One-billionth of a gram of LSD per gram of brain produces profound mental changes. The typical street dose of LSD ranges from 10 to 300 micrograms. LSD can be taken in pill form. It can also be applied to paper blotters, then dissolved and swallowed. Some drug sellers take grocery store mush- rooms and sprinkle them with LSD, selling them as "magic" mush- rooms. LSD can also be taken by accident. For example, a drug seller may offer a substance as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, when it is really LSD. The user then faces the danger of an unexpected acid trip.

The Effects of LSD

LSD is quickly absorbed into the brain and all body tissues from the gastrointestinal tract and other mucous membranes. The psychological and behavioral effects occur approximately 30 minutes after the drug is swallowed. The effects peak in the next 2 to 4 hours, de- pending on the dose, with gradual return to normal by 10 to 12 hours. The first 4 hours after a 200-microgram dose are called a "trip." In the next 4 to 8 hours, when over half the drug has left the brain, the most intense effects appear to end, and users think the drug is no longer active. However, they later realize that certain effects—the feeling of being at the center of things and being extremely alert— lingered in the last 4 to 8 hours of the trip.

From 12 to 24 hours after the trip, the user sometimes feel a slight letdown or feeling of fatigue—as if he or she had been on a long, steep roller coaster ride. After these intense and even frightening moments, the ordinary world might for a time seem drab. There is no craving to take more LSD to relieve this boredom, although some may want to repeat the experience. People remember the trip very clearly. Despite promises that LSD inspires creativity or lasting pro- found thoughts, no evidence has ever shown that this is true. When people recall their experiences and perceptions while they were on LSD, they conclude that the drug did not offer any lasting insight or creativity.

All drugs, including alcohol, make a person feel different. Some people become livelier, more talkative, less inhibited, and more daring. Others may become more reserved or withdrawn after using alcohol or another drug. What people expect from the drug experience, and where and when they take the drug, influence the kind of effects they feel. This is especially the case with psychedelics. For some, the trip may simply be funny and odd. For others it will have special meanings related to events in their lives. Taking the drug in an insecure or tense environment can produce a bad trip. Some users are aware that the trip is not quite real and feel as if they are watching their own experiences. The kind of trip varies greatly depending on the person who takes the drug and in what situation.

LSD produces a sense of clarity and awareness of sensory signals—of sights, sounds, touch, lights, and colors. Thoughts, memories, or conversations take on special significance. For example, gestures or the tone of someone's voice appear to be more important than what a person is saying. Small background details that people normally ignore suddenly capture their attention.

As the person's awareness increases, the sense of control decreases. The user may panic at this loss of control. It is impossible to predict who will have an LSD panic experience. One trip without panic does not guarantee that the next trip will also be without panic. Often, people take LSD in groups or with a guide to help lessen the feeling of losing control.

Some effects of LSD are alike in every user. The first sign of feeling different is like butterflies in the stomach or slight nausea. Some describe it as the moment before a roller coaster ride. Parts of the body simultaneously feel strange or different. The cheeks become slightly flushed and pupil size begins to increase. The person feels that things to the side of his field of vision become as clear as things at the center. The user becomes tense and laughs or cries as a way to reduce the tension. Next comes the period of intense and changing perceptions and feelings. People describe having several feelings simultaneously. A common observation is, "I don't know if I'm anxious, thrilled, or terrified." Throughout the trip, people feel as if they are on the brink of an exciting but also dangerous experience. This intensity dies down about 4 hours after the usual dosage.

In some cases, people on LSD have acted out dangerous or strange impulses and even committed suicide. Any kind of trip, good or bad, can result in dangerous behavior. For example, users have reported that while on LSD, they believed they could fly off buildings or walk in front of cars without getting hurt, sometimes acting on these beliefs. Also, LSD may cause a lack of muscle coordination, which can combine with distorted perceptions to make normally safe behaviors, such as driving, much more dangerous. Bad trips can make the user feel terror, panic, or despair. For example, one user described her be- lief that she was in someone else's dream and would fade away when that person awoke. Some users have described a feeling of being in an unending maze or hall of mirrors. Terror can lead to unpredictable and dangerous behavior.

There is no way to know that a bad trip will occur. It may hap- pen at any time when LSD is taken. Effects depend very much on the mood of the users, where they are, and who they are with, as well as the dose taken. Large doses are more likely to produce bad trips. Because the amount of LSD needed to produce an effect is very small, it is difficult to control or predict the dose in any preparation.

The Aftereffects of LSD Use

Some LSD users experience aftereffects, or drug effects that occur days, months, or years after the trip. These LSD aftereffects are called "flashbacks." During flashbacks, people suddenly and without warning feel that they are back on the drug. They also may see flashing lights and other optical illusions. These flashbacks may be very disturbing. Flashbacks can occur after only a single drug experience. Scientists do not know why or how flashbacks occur.

Another aftereffect is a change in perception that occurs long after the person has taken the drug. One scientist who took LSD described an aftereffect that lasted for several months. He noted that, while riding a train to work, he was unable to concentrate on reading his newspaper because of the telephone poles the train was whizzing past. The telephone poles were normally outside the center of his attention as he was reading. But after LSD, he could no longer avoid paying attention to them.

LSD Tolerance

People who take LSD, mescaline, and other psychedelic drugs can develop tolerance to the drugs' effects. After daily doses of 200 micrograms of LSD, the person feels its effects less intensely and for a shorter period. However, after three or four days without LSD, the person can again achieve the full effects of that dose. Thus tolerance both develops and disappears quickly. A common sign of tolerance is when the person's pupils do not enlarge after taking the drug. Stopping LSD after several days of use does not produce withdrawal symptoms.

The Long-Term Risks of LSD Use

For people at risk for mental disorders, hallucinogenic experiences may lead to some form of mental illness. For others, the experience may lead to "dropping out"—becoming unconcerned with the real world rather than trying to cope with its challenges. There is no evidence that LSD causes permanent damage to brain cells. However, the drug does have risks. The major risks are the unpredictable effects of intense, uncontrollable perceptions and feelings, and how people will manage the memory of the drug experience in their subsequent life.

see also Creativity and Drugs; Designer Drugs; Hallucinogens; Marijuana.

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