If Albert Hofmann ever dreamed
of achieving fame or notice beyond the respect of his peers in
the research community, it didn’t show.
In fact, Hofmann was just another
9-to-5 organic chemist in the research lab of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals
in Basil, Switzerland until April 16, 1943. That’s when he happened
onto a most momentous discovery — or, more precisely, when a
momentous discovery happened into him.
While testing a compound he’d
discovered five years before, a member of an ergot alkaloid chain
named d-lysergic acid diethylamide, traces of the chemical soaked
into his body through his fingertips.
What followed was the world’s
first LSD trip.
Eight or ten hours after that,
after Hofmann negotiated the mind-bending complexities of a bicycle
ride home from work and drifted back into good old consensual
reality for the first time, the Psychedelic Revolution was born.
And it was — and continues to
be — a real revolution. It’s changed the way writers write and
philosophers philosophize and pop music pops.
It’s altered physics and fashion,
art and spirituality, and reshaped the lives of people who never
took it by morphing the mental maps and social consciousness
of those who did.
It’s been hailed as a chemical
bullet into the white-light zone of pure understanding and blasted
as a blueprint for personal disaster.
Who’s right? Well, that depends
— as Dr. Hofmann probably could have told you 60 years ago —
on how you look at it.
And lots of people have looked
at it. In a 2010 survey, 4 percent of U.S. high school seniors
admitted trying it, and an estimated 22.7 million Americans say
they’ve experimented with it, at one time or another.
That’s why we put together this
Because LSD remains the cheap-thrill
of choice for many in today’s alternative culture and since the
drug is as potent — and potentially risky — as ever, a progress
report on Hofmann’s chemical baby is clearly due.
Because even after 60-plus years
on the job — and in our collective consciousness — LSD is as
mysterious today as it ever was. And for people who don’t know
what they’re getting into when they get into acid, it can be
a lot more than that.
,,A Little Dab’ll Do Ya: Doses and Forms
Once they got used to the onslaught
of imagery and perceptual distortion that LSD evokes (if anybody
ever really gets “used to it”), Hofmann and early researchers
were still amazed by the drug’s potency.
That’s because LSD is one of
the most potent drugs ever discovered — so powerful that it’s
measured in micrograms (or millionths of a gram), instead of
the more common, thousandths-of-a-gram unit known as milligrams.
In fact, LSD (or “acid,”
as it’s commonly known) is so strong that an effective dose (about
30 mcg) is virtually invisible.
For underground chemists who’ve
churned out the drug since 1966 (when possession was banned in
the U.S.), measuring doses of the colorless, odorless, tasteless
drug can be a lot like guessing the weight of a person you’ve
never met by means of a telephone.
They found a solution in the
solution itself — diluting liquid LSD, then dripping it onto
an absorbent medium.
And since almost anything will
do, LSD has made the scene in a variety of formats over the years.
Sugar cubes were an early favorite, but they had drawbacks —
crumbling in pockets, for example, or being stirred into coffee.
Tablets, capsules, mini-tablets, and gelatin chips (“windowpane”)
followed, but today, the most common form is “blotter”
— LSD-soaked paper.
Blotter has become so popular
in recent years that it’s gone Hollywood, sporting imprints of
such cultural icons as Bart Simpson and Beavis & Butt-head.
Dosage has stabilized, too, with
acid’s renewed pop-culture appeal. Today’s acid averages 20-80
mcg, contrasted to 150-250 mcg doses common in the ’60s.
,,Inner Actions: LSD and the Brain
No matter how it gets in there,
once it’s inside the body, LSD sets out on an incredible microscopic
rip of its own, interacting with the deepest biological circuits
and engines of human consciousness.
The drug itself is quickly absorbed
and almost as quickly eliminated from the body. After two hours,
less than 10 percent of the drug is still active; the rest is
broken into inactive by-products by the liver.
Even though only a small portion
of each dose stays biologically active (and even less — only
0.01 percent — ever crosses into the brain), that tiny amount
How acid produces its effects
is still only partly understood. But among its other effects,
acid alters the action and supply of serotonin, a neurotransmitter
that the brain uses to make sense of all the scents and sights
and sounds that filter into us from the world out there.
The result is a lowered threshold
for sensory stimulation, and a temporary overload of central
nervous system circuitry.
And when CNS circuits overload,
sensory signals flood in and normal thought processes float (or
fly) out the window.
,,Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Body/mind Effects
While most of the specifics of
LSD’s actions on the brain are still a mystery, its effects on
perception and thought are anything but. They’ve been the subject
of serious scrutiny since Albert Hofmann started babbling about
them in April 1943.
A “normal” acid trip
(if anything about LSD can be called “normal”) starts
30 to 90 minutes after ingestion and lasts six to nine hours.
Initial effects are mostly physical:
dilated pupils, muscular weakness, rapid reflexes, decreased
appetite and increased blood pressure and body temperature.
Later effects zero in on thought
and sensory processes. As the drug scrambles neurochemistry,
visual, auditory, and tactile sensations can collide in a form
of sensory crossover (in which sounds can appear as colors or
smells as touch) called synesthesia.
During a trip’s “peak,”
perceptions and thoughts can take on the plastic fluidity of
Other common effects include
distractibility, rapid mood swings, depersonalization, and distortions
in body image.
,,Helter Skelter: Flashbacks & Bad
Scare stories about LSD are legendary.
Still, the drug rarely causes serious physical problems.
Users may suffer a “crash”
period, though, which can lurk in the background of everyday
consciousness for a few days after the LSD wears off.
Users also typically become much
less sensitive to LSD’s effects for several days after use —
a condition known as tolerance.
Studies show that LSD doesn’t
cause cancer, brain damage, or chromosome breakage. And despite
its potency, it’s virtually impossible to overdose on it.
That doesn’t mean it’s good
for you, though.
LSD can (and does) cause severe
psychological discomfort — even trauma. In fact, one bad trip
can quickly outrank dozens of hearts-and-flowers trips.
When bummers do occur,
they tend to take two main forms —panic attacks and psychotic
- Panic. The most common adverse reaction to LSD, panic
usually centers on a fear of dying or going crazy.
- Psychotic Reactions. Serious breaks with reality, psychotic
episodes usually include hallucinations and delusions.
LSD-fueled psychotic episodes
are like bad trips that don’t end when the drug wears off. Such
reactions may be linked to the “unmasking” of pre-existing
problems and may require professional intervention.
Another occasional effect of
LSD are flashbacks: the reemergence of effects — usually panic
— days or weeks later. Since LSD is not retained in the body,
flashbacks are probably psychological rather than physical in
origin. Triggers can include stress, drug use, or cues associated
with a past trip.
Although acid flashbacks — like
other anxiety reactions — seldom last longer than 90 minutes,
they can seem unendurable, since they tend to focus on unpleasant
aspects of bad trips.
Flashing back to the here-and-now,
it might seem strange that LSD is still around and so widely
used today. But it probably shouldn’t be that surprising.
Because LSD and drugs like it have been tickets to ride on the
Grand Tour of human consciousness for eons.
They’ve guided the visions of
shamans and seers and helped shape philosophies and cosmologies
across the world and throughout history.
That’s one reason LSD still fascinates
us (and still attracts willing new test subjects) today. Because
it promises — in a single, paradigm-busting session inside a
user’s own head — a journey filled with awe and mystery to people
whose lives have been bleached white with conformism and consumerism
and every other kind of -ism, except self-determinism and love.
Not much wrong with that
— or there wouldn’t be if the awe from acid didn’t so often
turn awful. When that happens, the only real mystery is
why we ever feel the need to get away from the only place we
Perhaps the best final word on
LSD today is simply this: It takes users to places that aren’t
on maps, where self-examination is unavoidable and passengers
double as both navigator and pilot, with each accountable
for the trip.
And if you’re not aware of the
risks of the ride and comfortable with the rules of the road,
you really don’t have any business going there at all.
..Sidebar 1 | Set and Setting: Expectations and Environment
Since LSD radically alters normal
mental and emotional processes, issues of “set” and
“setting” can be critical in determining the outcome
of a trip.
- Set refers to a user’s mind-set — such factors
as experience, expectations, and emotional state.
- Setting involves physical surroundings. A chaotic
environment (say, a rave or a dance club) can trigger a way
different trip than a night at home.
That’s why using LSD in an unpleasant
or unfamiliar setting (or during a funky, temporarily-toxic,
stressed-out frame of mind) is like asking for trouble — 3-D,
stereo, Sensurround™ trouble.
And if you’re not expecting it,
that type of trouble that can be Big Trouble — bigger than anybody
ever wants to handle.
..Sidebar 2 | Acid Test: Pushing Past Panic
For many users, staring down
a full-blown LSD panic is one of the most mind-numbing times
they’ll ever spend with themselves. That’s why bad trips have
inspired such fear and loathing over the years — and so many
approaches for pulling the plug on panic. If you ever need them,
here are a few that work:
- Stay calm. If you’re scared, the tripper will know
it — and feel even more panicky.
- Be supportive. Define reality. Remind the person that
they’re experiencing drug effects that will go away.
- Use distractions. LSD users are distractible, so
help focus their attention on something more pleasant.
- Change the setting. Sometimes, simple changes in setting
— dimming lights or turning down music, for instance — is all
it takes to calm an anxious, prospective acid casualty.
Reassurance from a friend can
make a big difference — all the difference, in fact, between
a passing thought (Okay, a “passing thought” dressed
up like one of the bad kid’s tormented dolls in “Toy Story”)
and a full-tilt bad trip with lasting psychological scars.
Just staying calm (and being
patient) could earn your place as a friend, indeed, to a friend