Sidelined for decades by the War on Drugs, LSD and other psychedelics are regaining their original reputation as effective therapies for depression and addiction.
O n April 19, 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25, a chemical compound that he first synthesized back in 1938 from the parasitic fungus ergot. Three days earlier, Hofmann had accidentally absorbed a few drops of the chemical — known by its shorthand LSD — through his skin or eyes, causing odd sensations. But it was nothing compared to what he would experience at a much higher dose.
“I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home,” Hofmann wrote later, describing the effects of the world’s first acid trip as he gingerly rode his bike home from the lab. “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. ”
It’s been 75 years since that fateful spring day, now celebrated by LSD enthusiasts as “Bicycle Day.” And after a decades-long dark age for LSD, in which psychoactive substances were criminalized and dismissed as a dangerous relic of the hippie sixties, psychedelics are coming back into the light. Researchers and recreational users are rediscovering the drug’s curious power to unlock the subconscious and potentially cure intractable psychological conditions like depression, addiction, and even the fear of death.
Although Hofmann’s first trip wasn’t an entirely positive experience — it turns out that 250 micrograms of pure LSD is a whopper of a dose — it was clear to Hoffman’s lab, Sandoz, that LSD had the power to alter consciousness and perception in ways that could be useful to scientists, particularly psychiatrists and psychologists. Unsure how to market the drug, which Sandoz called Delysid, the company gave away massive quantities of LSD to researchers to see what they could make of it.
The result was an LSD research boom that flowered from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the mid-sixties. In the US alone, more than 100 government-funded studies explored the use of LSD in treating depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, with tantalizingly positive results. The US military and the CIA also famously experimented with LSD, the latter as a mind-control weapon to use against the Soviets.