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LSD and the Search for Therapeutic Drugs

Chapter 3
LSD and the Search for Therapeutic Drugs

During the first half of the twentieth century, doctors began to recognize the enormous potential for creating drugs that could cure many common ailments. Pharmaceutical companies expanded their facilities and hired scientists to join in the search for new medicines. One such company was Sandoz, headquartered in Basil, Switzerland, which saw promise in chemicals that are produced by molds called ergot, which are commonly found on grains such as wheat and rye. These compounds, known as ergot alkaloids, were already known for a number of effects, including inducing uterine contractions, stopping bleeding, and relieving migraine headaches.

In 1938, a Sandoz research chemist, Dr. Albert Hofmann, was experimenting with ergot because he believed that the alkaloids it produced might also be an effective medicine for people with breathing and circulation problems. Hofmann knew that the naturally occurring active component of the ergot alkaloid was lysergic acid, and he believed that he might be able to combine it with diethylamide, a synthetic compound, to develop a medicine that would stimulate breathing for asthma sufferers. The combination of these two compounds created lysergic acid diethylamide, which Hofmann named LSD-25 because it was the twenty-fifth compound developed in a systematic study of combining various chemicals with lysergic acid.

After LSD-25 had been synthesized, it was subjected to pharmacological testing on laboratory animals. One of the secondary effects of the drug that researchers noted was an unforeseen excitement in the movements of the animals. Scientists observed the animals in their cages and noted the nervous twitching and erratic movements. At the time, however, these effects were not considered to be of any interest to the pharmaceutical company; since the new compound turned out not to be effective in treating breathing or circulatory problems, further research on LSD-25 was discontinued.

Hofmann, however, continued to be interested in LSD-25, and in 1943, when he again reviewed the results of pharmacological tests on LSD-25, he decided to investigate the stimulating effect that he had noted the drug had on lab animals. While conducting early experiments, he made an accidental and remarkable discovery. As he was transferring LSD-25 from one glass beaker to another, a small amount of the chemical spilled on his bare hand and as a consequence was absorbed into his body. At this serendipitous moment, Dr. Hofmann discovered the curious properties of LSD, which he later described in a letter to a colleague:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, 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 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.15

Dr. Hofmann was intrigued by the strange sensations that came over him, although he did not immediately understand what had triggered them. He assumed, however, that it had something to do with the experiments he was conducting in his lab. Hofmann vaguely remembered having spilled the LSD on his hand, and knowing the potency of the ergot compounds, he concluded that his distorted perceptions might be related to the LSD. Hofmann decided to conduct a series of experiments on himself with the most minute quantities of LSD that could be expected to produce some effect. He began with what he thought would be a safe dose of 250 micrograms.

Three days after his first contact with LSD, Dr. Hofmann summoned his assistant to observe his behavior after he swallowed the dose. The two men remained in Dr. Hofmann's laboratory, and as evening approached, they rode their bicycles home. Dr. Hofmann reported this historic bicycle ride:

The altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.16

As a result of this and many additional experiments, Dr. Hofmann and his colleagues became convinced that they had made an extraordinary discovery, although they did not yet understand the significance that it would have.

The LSD Experience

LSD's major effects, Hofmann and subsequent researchers found, are both emotional and sensory. Initially, there is a slight feeling of anxiety as the user begins to recognize that things are changing from the usual to the unusual. As the effects intensify, emotions may shift rapidly, going from concern, to fear, to euphoria, to meditation, and possibly back again. Sometimes when emotional transitions occur too quickly, the user may seem to experience several different emotions simultaneously.

LSD is best known for its ability to dramatically alter perceptions. Tastes, colors, smells, sounds, and other sensations seem greatly intensified. In some cases, sensory perceptions may blend in a phenomenon known as synesthesia, in which a person seems to hear or feel colors and sees sounds. As with other hallucinogens, the perception of time can also be altered. Some people feel that the hours fly by like minutes, while others feel minutes drag by like hours.

Most users report that they do not find these simple perceptual alterations alarming, but as the LSD trip progresses, the benign altering of the senses often escalates to hallucinations. Cartoon characters painted in whimsical colors may float over imaginary forests or fields, or objects such as automobiles feature laughing human faces in place of the headlights and grill.

Although users may find these outlandish images entertaining, hallucinations may also be disturbing. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg described one such hallucination he experienced under the influence of LSD:

I had the impression that I was an insignificant speck on a giant spider web, and that the spider was slowly coming to get me, and that the spider was God or the Devil—I wasn't sure—but I was the victim. I thought I was trapped in a giant web or network of forces beyond my control that were perhaps experimenting with me or were perhaps from another planet or were from some super-government or cosmic military or science-fiction Big Brother.17

LSD trips may also evolve into intensely personal spiritual experiences. In fact, many writers who explored the effects of LSD explained their principal interest in the drug as being based in a search for spiritual guidance. Psychiatrist W. V. Caldwell defined his LSD-inspired experience this way: "It comprises a religious sense of atoneness, a resurgence of faith and hope, and a radiant affirmation of the value of life."18

As is the case with entheogens, no researcher to date has been able to explain such LSD-induced religious experiences. Psychologist Stanislav Grof, however, observes,

Some subjects [on LSD] had profound religious and mystical experiences that bore a striking similarity to those described in various sacred texts and in the writings of mystics, saints, religious teachers and prophets of all ages. Despite the fact that many leading scientists, theologians and spiritual teachers have discussed this theme extensively, the controversy about "chemical" versus "spontaneous" mysticism remains unresolved.19

Physical and Mental Effects

The effects of LSD typically begin within twenty to sixty minutes following ingestion and may last as long as twelve hours; however, hallucinations generally last about six hours. As with most hallucinogens, the most common physical effects are increased blood pressure and heart rate, dizziness, loss of appetite, dry mouth, sweating, nausea, numbness, and occasionally tremors. In general, these effects disappear once the drug has been eliminated by the body.

Of far greater interest to researchers than the physical effects were the effects on users' mental state. Hofmann and others who experimented with LSD recognized the similarities between its effects and the symptoms of acute mental disorders such as schizophrenia. They both include perceptual distortions and extreme hallucinations. Because of these similarities, Hofmann and his colleagues believed that further research with LSD might provide more clues to understanding and treating a variety of mental disorders.

In addition to providing insight into the nature of mental illness, Hofmann hoped that LSD would prove to be an effective treatment for disorders like schizophrenia. At the time, the only three treatment options available to physicians were antipsychotic drugs, electroshock therapy, and a surgical procedure called a prefrontal lobotomy. Each of these therapies had major side effects that made them undesirable, however.

The antipsychotic drugs used during the first half of the twentieth century were powerful sedatives. Since these had to be administered on a regular basis, patients often languish in a drugged state, unable to function outside of their homes or psychiatric hospitals.

Nefarious Testing of LSD

Long before most civilians or medical researchers heard that LSD had been discovered by Albert Hofmann, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) expressed an interest in this new drug. One of the CIA's many concerns when gathering information was determining when spies or informants were lying and when they were telling the truth. During the 1950s, the CIA believed that LSD might be an effective "truth serum." One of the first experiments that the CIA performed was secretly slipping a dose of LSD into a drink of a biochemist named Frank Olsen who had agreed to discuss the chemical properties of LSD with the CIA. Two weeks later, Olsen was found dead from a fall from a hotel room that the CIA had rented for him. The newspapers reported his death as a suicide, but some who knew Olsen's work for the CIA claimed the CIA agents had pushed him to prevent anyone from learning about the agency's experiment. In 1976, President Gerald Ford publicly apologized to the Olsen family. The president's apology, carried in the New York Times, characterized the incident as inexcusable and unforgivable. In addition to the apology, Congress passed a bill in 1976 to pay $750,000 in compensation to Mrs. Olsen and her three children.

Between 1956 and 1967, the CIA and the U.S. Army conducted LSD experiments on more than fifteen hundred subjects, many of whom, like Olsen, had the drug slipped into their drinks without their knowledge. The CIA also gave doses of LSD to prisoners in state penitentiaries to see if they would confess their crimes.

In addition to the CIA's interest in LSD as a truth serum, it, along with the army, was also interested in it as a potential chemical weapon. During the 1950s, Dr. Hofmann was repeatedly approached by the army about synthesizing huge quantities that could be used to disorient entire armies on the battlefield.

The electroshock therapy involved administering a high-voltage shock to the patient's brain, causing convulsions. Patients suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts tended to improve temporarily following this therapy, but doctors never fully understood how the convulsions brought on the improvement. This treatment had the drawback of memory loss and brain-tissue scarring. Moreover, patients required repeated treatments since their symptoms always reoccurred.

The prefrontal lobotomy was a surgical procedure in which the nerves connecting the prefrontal lobes with the rest of the brain would be severed. The prefrontal lobes are responsible for controlling a person's ability to initiate action, so for patients unable to control themselves, especially those prone to violence, the surgery at least rendered the patients docile and unable to initiate aggression. Unfortunately, the surgery left the patient in a permanent semivegetative state—quiet but unable to function normally.

Against this grim background of medical treatments, researchers hoped that LSD could truly help patients with severe mental illnesses. In particular, scientists hoped that LSD might chemically improve the brain's function in patients suffering from various psychoses—particularly schizophrenia.

LSD and Psychotherapy

Since it had repeatedly been observed that extremely small doses of LSD were sufficient to produce changes in perception and behavior that resembled symptoms of schizophrenia, researchers concluded that the brain, under certain circumstances, might produce small quantities of a substance identical or very similar to LSD, and that this could be the explanation for at least some psychoses. If this could be proven, scientists hoped, then schizophrenia and other psychoses could be considered physical, not mental, disorders. The idea that chemicals could alter the brain's chemistry and possibly cause mental illness was revolutionary. Moreover, if this was the case, blocking abnormal mental states by administering medications might be possible. In effect, this could provide a cure for many psychiatric disorders.

In 1953, the German psychiatrist Walter Frederking, in conjunction with several colleagues, was the first to use low doses of LSD in standard therapy sessions to relieve anxiety in patients and to cure various mood disorders such as depression, manic depression, and an assortment of phobias. Frederking and others reported remarkable results from this new therapy, and by the end of the decade, many articles describing LSD therapies claimed various degrees of success. One of the most attractive properties of LSD was that its hallucinogenic effects were not permanent and there appeared to be no other lasting side effects.

In the early 1960s, as LSD research flourished, doctors looked into the possibility that LSD could be a cure for patients with certain mental disorders who were usually considered poor candidates for treatment with psychoanalysis or any other type of psychotherapy. Many individual researchers and therapeutic teams tried treating alcoholics, drug addicts, sociopaths, criminal psychopaths, and subjects with various character disorders with LSD.

One of the first studies on alcoholism focused on administering LSD to alcoholics to see if it could cure their cravings for alcohol. The study found that 53 percent of 135 alcoholics who received a high dose of LSD abstained from alcohol six months after treatment, compared with 33 percent of a low-dose group. Alcoholics receiving conventional therapy had only a 12 percent improvement rate. As research continued, some therapists reported dramatic improvement in patients' symptoms and personalities, sometimes even after a single dose of LSD. Early research also seemed to indicate that the strange and sometimes wrenching effects of LSD amounted to emotional shock therapy with a therapeutic potential similar to electroshocks or other drug therapies.

Other psychiatrists thought that taking LSD themselves might help them better understand their schizophrenic patients and thereby allow them to provide treatment that was more meaningful. Because the hallucinations caused by LSD were nearly identical to those experienced by schizophrenics, researchers also believed that trying the drug could somehow help them learn more about the basic nature of this mysterious mental disorder. Dr. Abram Hoffer, a psychiatrist working in Canada, used LSD and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. Despite such experimentation, Hoffer was never able to correlate his own experience with LSD to any improvements in the therapies he provided to patients.

Even doctors who worked with cancer patients found a possible use for LSD. Although it was never considered as a cure for cancer, LSD was used to ease the suffering of patients with incurable cancer by relieving the anxiety, depression, and acute pain. The treatments seemed to be helpful. In a study of thirty-one cancer patients, 71 percent showed improvement in their emotional outlook after each of several LSD sessions. Researchers also observed that many cancer patients receiving LSD reported that their desire for addictive painkillers, such as morphine, had diminished or even vanished. Researchers believe the success was a result of the brain's ability to disassociate itself from the pain following the initial sensation.

From the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, extensive research and testing were conducted on LSD. During a fifteen-year period beginning in 1950, research on LSD generated more than one thousand scientific papers, several dozen books, and six international scientific conferences. LSD was prescribed to more than forty thousand patients for various reasons.

LSD and Chromosome Damage

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a serious new medical debate was added to the LSD controversy. A number of scientific studies were published indicating that LSD might cause structural changes in the chromosomes, genetic mutations, and disturbances of embryonic development.

The early disturbing research on LSD's effects prompted additional clinical research that contradicted the earlier studies. The new research determined that the first reports of chromosomal damage were the result of studies of illicit LSD users. Some of the subjects did not know the doses of LSD that they had taken, and some later admitted that they had been taking other illicit drugs in addition to LSD. These ambiguities meant that there was no way of knowing whether LSD causes chromosomal damage.

Subsequent studies have failed to find any links between average LSD use and chromosomal damage. Researcher Stanislav Grof, in his book LSD Psychotherapy Appendix II: The Effects of LSD on Chromosomes, Genetic Mutation, Fetal Development, and Malignancy, summarized the controversy:

Two-thirds of the existing in vitro studies have reported some degree of increased chromosomal breakage following exposure to illicit or pure LSD. With one exception, these changes were observed with concentrations of LSD and durations of exposure that far exceeded the dosages commonly used in humans. In none of the studies was there a clear dosage-response relationship. Since similar findings have been reported with many commonly used substances, including artificial sweeteners, aspirin, caffeine, phenothiazine tranquilizers and antibiotics, there is no reason why LSD should be singled out and put in a special category.

LSD Beyond the Laboratory

During the 1950s and '60s, LSD research began to move from pharmaceutical laboratories to the private offices of an ever-widening circle of psychiatrists. Within a growing number of settings, psychiatrists were administering LSD to patients in hopes of observing their reactions to the drug and thereby deepening their understanding of its therapeutic effects. Psychiatrists who administered LSD to their patients reported optimistic results. This triggered a variety of therapies involving LSD combined with hypnosis, group sessions, multiday marathon sessions designed to wear down patients' defense mechanisms, toys, and isolation rooms.

At the same time, there were obvious problems with using LSD this way, regardless of the results. Because of the unpredictable nature of the drug, medical professionals consider it unsuitable for therapeutic use. Moreover, LSD advocate Timothy Leary's sideshow-like antics, along with unscientific LSD experimentation by many psychiatrists, turned the government against any kind of research on LSD. In 1974, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reviewed all LSD research and declared that the drug had no therapeutic value. In the opinion of the NIMH, many of the hundreds of clinical tests conducted since the late 1950s lacked scientific rigor. The NIMH cited the lack of control groups in many studies and the lack of long-term follow-ups of test subjects. When these conclusions were reported to the DEA, that agency ended the use of LSD for research purposes.

Although initial observations on the benefits of LSD were highly optimistic, empirical data developed subsequently proved much less promising. Dr. Robert E. Mogar made the case that LSD may not be all that it appeared to be when he reported,

Although clinical evidence and testimonial reports indicate that LSD promises to be a valuable tool for both the study and enhancement of cognitive and perceptual functioning, such claims have been neither supported nor refuted by means of controlled studies.20

What Mogar was saying, and what some other psychiatrists were suspecting, was that reports about enhanced creativity under the influence of LSD were not supported by objective evidence or scientifically valid research.

Other doctors studied similar claims regarding the use of LSD. Two doctors in Los Angeles, Oscar Janiger and Sidney Cohen, administered LSD to large numbers of patients for the purpose of examining its effects on creativity and personal insight. Janiger sought to explore the relationship between LSD and creativity. He had become convinced that the vividly altered visual perceptions that people experienced under the influence of LSD were the result of a boost in their creative powers. Janiger believed that if he could correlate LSD to creativity, he would be making one of the most profound breakthroughs in history.

To test his theory, Janiger invited numerous painters to his office to work on canvases while under the influence of LSD. After the painters completed several works, a panel of art experts reviewed them to determine whether they could detect an increase in creativity. The experiment yielded no definite answers. After the experts compared notes, there was no consensus one way or the other. When the study ended, Janiger concluded, "Whether or not LSD increased creativity is an open question. Certainly no systematic research to date has been available to help find an answer."21

Sidney Cohen went even further, trying to determine whether using LSD could assist people in the intuitive process of applying creative insight into their own lives, personalities, and behavior. Again, the results were ambiguous at best. Cohen concluded that LSD's usefulness might be apparent one session but not the next. Still, he encouraged everyone to try the drug. Cohen's office became a dispensary for LSD; he gave the drug to hundreds of psychologists and psychiatrists, many of whom began boasting of all sorts of psychic revelations, from exploring past lives to conversing with Jesus. LSD experimentation, it seemed, was running out of control.

Much of the problem in trying to demonstrate that LSD enhances creativity is the problem of measuring creativity in the first place. All the studies performed were highly subjective and failed to prove or disprove the claim that LSD had an effect on the creative process. Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, who have written extensively on the history of hallucinogens in their book Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, argue that, although some interesting and highly original works of art have been produced during LSD trips, how the drug affected the creative process cannot be measured. Their belief was shared by many artists, including the "beat poets" of the 1950s and '60s such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. These men, who tried LSD and other hallucinogens, agreed that LSD's creative effects are not measurable in a laboratory setting; however, they continued to believe the effects were very real nonetheless.

Even as the controversy over LSD's effects on creativity continued, others began promoting LSD's use simply as a release from the boredom of everyday life. Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary publicly advocated the use of LSD and other hallucinogens for anyone who was interested in experiencing their effects. Leary described hallucinogens as recreational drugs and spent years urging Americans to have fun with them. He also claimed to teach his followers how to use drugs safely, but authorities saw him as a destructive influence: At one time, President Richard Nixon labeled Leary the most dangerous man in America.

Bad Trips

Despite the contentions of Leary and other advocates of LSD use, the unpredictable nature of the drug's effects means that not all LSD trips are filled with spiritual awakenings and entertaining hallucinations. According to LSD researchers, "The most common complaint [about LSD] was an overwhelming state of panic, sometimes involving terrifying hallucinations."22 This type of panic attack, known among users as a bad trip, is a temporary condition, but for those who experience them, the consequences can be serious.

Occasionally, those suffering panic attacks can become aggressive, and on rare occasions violent. Even if the person experiencing the bad trip remains calm, confused behavior, fearfulness to the point of paranoid withdrawals, and even attempted suicide are possible. Bad trips can last as long as twenty-four hours, although there are undocumented reports of bad trips lasting much longer.

Experts believe that the principal cause of a bad trip is overdose. Most bad trips occur when people take more than 250 micrograms, which produces an overwhelming level of serotonin in the brain.

The second cause of a bad trip is environmental. Bad trips often occur if the drug is taken in unfamiliar or frightening surroundings in the company of strangers. If people on LSD begin to experience frightening hallucinations and cannot find a friend or familiar setting to calm them, the fear can escalate to a panic attack, in which the sufferer believes that the experience may never end or that he or she might suffer permanent insanity.

Timothy Leary

The most celebrated and flamboyant proponent of psychedelics from the 1960s was Timothy Leary. Born in 1920, Leary grew up with an interest in psychology and worked professionally as a psychologist, emphasizing the importance of human interaction in therapy. During the 1940s and '50s, Leary tried to revolutionize psychology by proposing radical ideas for the time such as group therapy, which was later recognized as a significant achievement.

When Leary was introduced to psychedelics in 1960, he saw them as a new form of chemical therapy that could possibly change the functioning of the brain in a positive way. While on the faculty of Harvard University, he set out to explore the effects of LSD on the human nervous system. After experimenting with LSD on himself and with friends, he carefully designed and observed laboratory experiments studying the emotional, physical, and social effects on volunteer graduate students. With a large stack of positive results, he believed he was ready to experiment on prison inmates who volunteered to take the drug. However, before these experiments could be concluded, LSD made the headlines as a dangerous new drug and was declared illegal, forcing Leary to abandon his experiments.

Still believing that LSD had great potential, he continued to publicly advertise what he believed to be the beneficial aspects of LSD. As the '60s began to take shape, Leary was cast by the mainstream media, and by himself, as the "LSD Guru," the "High Priest of LSD," and the "Pied Piper of LSD." As the drug gained popularity, he was happy to tour college campuses providing encouragement and instruction manuals for safe usage. He replied to the criticism that LSD was used indiscriminately and for kicks by writing that it should be used indiscriminately and for kicks. As he encouraged people to try LSD, he coined one of the most famous slogans of the '60s: "Turn on, tune in, and drop out," meaning take LSD, experience its spiritual benefits, and drop out of the mainstream culture. In 1966, Leary was arrested on drug charges, and in 1968 Harvard University fired him. He remained in jail until 1976. Subsequently, he moved to California.

In 1996, Leary died of cancer in his Los Angeles home among close friends. According to the Timothy Leary website, Leary's death was videotaped, but the tape has never been publicly broadcast. Surrounded by friends, his last spoken works were "Why not?" which he repeated many times with varying intonations.

The third cause relates to the mental health of the user before the drug is ingested. Often, people who are mentally unstable or who have a history of psychiatric problems are at greater risk of having a bad trip. Even among supposedly "normal" individuals, those who are for some reason preoccupied with death or violence are prone to bad trips that focus on death and violent themes.

Occasionally, a bad trip escalates beyond the point where reasonable dialogue can help, and medical attention is necessary. Hospital staff members generally administer sedatives or tranquilizers such as valium or injections of antipsychotic drugs. In almost all circumstances, the person recovers without any long-lasting effects other than the bad memory, although sometimes psychiatric follow-up is required.

Sometimes, bad trips have been known to occur a second time without being induced by a drug. Known as "flashbacks," this phenomenon has recently become the subject of a great deal of debate.


Those who take hallucinogens—primarily LSD users—occasionally reexperience events or sensations from trips long after the effects of the drug have worn off. Such flashbacks may occur many weeks or even many months after the use of the drug. People who have experienced flashbacks describe them as being as vivid as the initial experiences, although they are aware that they are experiencing a flashback, not a real LSD trip.

Several studies focusing on flashbacks experienced by LSD users indicate that between 25 and 30 percent of those who take LSD have experienced flashbacks at least once. Ten percent of those found them frightening, although none felt that they were actually in danger. The majority reported that the flashbacks did not disrupt their normal routines; a few even said they found the flashbacks pleasurable.

No one knows what causes flashbacks. The first attempts to explain them suggested that minute amounts of LSD had somehow been "trapped" unabsorbed in the user's brain and had dislodged. More recently, however, this theory has been undermined by research that suggests that some flashbacks are triggered by the use of other drugs such as alcohol or marijuana. Still other researchers believe that flashbacks are the result of various forms of stress such as sleep deprivation or a traumatic experience such as the death of a family member or loss of a job.

Some researchers, however, believe that flashbacks may not be caused by LSD at all. They assert that almost everyone experiences flashbacks, which are simply vivid memories of intense emotional experiences. Many people who have never used hallucinogenic drugs report having flashbacks of events such as an automobile accident, the funeral of a close friend or relative, or some violent incident in which they were involved. Soldiers who have experienced combat sometimes report the same fear and panic of battle overcoming them many years after returning home from war. Since LSD trips can also generate intense emotions, these researchers conclude that no differences exist between flashbacks of LSD trips and other memories of significant events. The question of flashbacks and many other unanswered questions associated with LSD use lie at the heart of why LSD use continues to be of concern to the medical profession.


The 1960s LSD culture in the San Francisco Bay area produced more than its fair share of cultural icons. One who played a major role was Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Known simply as Owsley to the locals, he was the primary producer of LSD in 1964 before the recreational use of LSD was declared illegal.

During the early '60s when LSD was still legal, few people making it paid careful attention to precisely mixing the chemicals. Many amateur chemists failed to get the mixture right, and the resulting compounds made people very sick or failed to induce hallucinations at all. The other problem was that the doses required to create hallucinogens were so small that precise measurements were hard to perform. As a result, users never knew if the dose was the 200 micrograms advertised or double that amount. Owsley's fame throughout the San Francisco area was based on his precise mixing of the chemicals as well as his accurate dosage.

Owsley hired a chemist from the University of California in nearby Berkeley to make sure his LSD was pure, and he quickly acquired the reputation as a reliable maker of LSD. Many people buying LSD demanded that it be made by Owsley because it was considered reliable. Owsley was the first person to buy a professional press for making pills, and he guaranteed that each pill would contain exactly 250 micrograms of LSD. In keeping with the psychedelic spirit of the times, he manufactured the pills in many different colors and gave each a distinctive name, such as "yellow submarine" and "purple haze."

Owsley charged two dollars a dose, and those prices never changed. Even when LSD was declared an illegal substance, Owsley continued to make LSD. He was not in the business for the money, and everyone respected him for that. Cheryl Pellerin quotes Owsley in her book Trips: How Hallucinogens Work in Your Brain: "I never told anybody to go out and take it . . . but . . . I wanted to take it . . . and I didn't want to poison myself. I didn't like Russian Roulette with chemicals."

LSD also continues to be of concern to law enforcement authorities, yet few people are actually prosecuted for possessing the drug. In part, this is because the small quantities in a dose of LSD make it easy to conceal. In part, too, authorities have made a conscious decision to devote their limited resources to eliminating what they see as a much more serious problem: rave drugs.

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