What is LSD? An Overview of the Popular Psychedelic

LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide also known colloquially as acid) is a psychedelic drug and a Schedule I Controlled Substance. Street names include Back breaker, Pane Superman Windowpane Zen, Battery acid, Doses, Dots, Elvis, Loony toons and as made famous by the Beatles Lucy in the sky with Diamonds.

While at low doses effects typically include intensified thoughts, emotions, and sensory perception, at higher dosages LSD manifests primarily visual, as well as auditory, hallucinations There is a significant different between lower and higher dosages, especially in terms of how intense of an experience someone has. Double the dose is often more than twice as strong. 

Physical symptoms can commonly include dilated pupils, increased blood pressure, and increased body temperature, decreased appetite, sweating and insomnia. Again, at higher dosages, these are much more intense. 

The History of LSD

Even though LSD was discovered in 1938, it would be another five years before its psychoactive properties were discovered. Its psychoactive effects were accidentally found in 1943 by Dr. Albert Hoffman who was working for the Swiss firm Sandoz. It all happened on a fateful, random day when some of the chemical was absorbed through his skin causing “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination”  He also experienced “extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

Hofmann continued to experiment on himself using small quantities and experienced anxiety, dizziness, visual distortion. He was hooked after the first trip and began to spend an increasing amount of time exploring both his mind and how the drug made him feel when he was on it. To this end, his accident kicked off the begging of all psychedelic studies in a formal setting.

This work began to get picked up by other people, leading some high-ranking people to take notice. Although many people were interested in how this drug could help people, not everyone was so kindhearted, 

Beginning in the 1950’s and continuing into the sixties the CIA Project MK-Ultra. Sometimes known as part of the CIA’s “mind control program,” LSD was tested on volunteers and non-volunteers in the hope that they could develop a psychological weapon.

Although they ultimately failed in this endeavor, their research deeply betrayed the trust of many and sowed the seeds of paranoia and conspiracy theories that would be applied to other drugs that the CIA did not test on random people, later. 

By the 1960’s, despite some bad actors in the space, the familiarity and love of recreational use of LSD had developed. Parties known as “Acid Tests” in San Francisco were occurring, whereby a bunch of people would take acid together. During these events, people would partake in all manner of activities that were “trippy” but also just communal. After all, LSD was strongly bringing people together.

Also, people were attending concerts like The Grateful Dead on LSD. LSD was picked up by the counterculture movement due to its ability to “expand the mind.” In fact, there were entire trends in music and rock and roll, specifically, where LSD was integral to the appreciation of the music. This theme has not entirely gone away, as there are still types of music where acid usage is very common in activity settings. 

In addition to governmental experiments, in the sixties (until 1968 when it was made illegal) other scientists such as Harvard’s professors of psychology Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert conducted administration of LSD to Harvard students (as well as psilocybin via psychedelic mushrooms). The major issue here was that the scientific review boards of the time were neither comfortable with the drug nor did they want them corrupting the minds of students, or whatever they decried it. 

While Leary and Alpert set out mainly to document the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on the students’ consciousness, there was a concern that their research expanded beyond that in ways that were not good for the students. 

Additionally, due to the manner that they did research on LSD (although the subject matter did not help…) there was a scientific backlash, eventually leading to their dismissal from Harvard. After all, the scientific community did not like the fact that Leary and Alpert were often stoned with the students, as this is a huge breach of ethics. (Although, it was less of one back then.) Still, they went beyond the pale—the scientific community criticized the legitimacy of the studies which Leary and Alpert conducted while also tripping.

How does LSD work?

LSD is a dopamine agonist. This means that is stimulates dopamine produciotn. Dopamine is responsible for some forms of pleasure and many aspects of novel stimuli seeking behavior akak it makes you want to try new things and makes things feel good. That is has dopamine makes it unlike other pscyhdelices that generally only have serotonin effects (e.g. psychedelics such as psilocybin, which is not a dopamine agonist). Serotonin is responsible for mood stability. 

Upon consumption effects typically begin within half an hour and can last for up to 24 hours.[15][17] LSD is also capable of occasioning mystical experiences and ego disillusion, albeit less frequently than compounds such as psilocybin.

It is usually taken orally and the chemical itself is a white crystal.

Is LSD addictive or dangerous?

LSD is considered to be both non-addictive and have a low potential for abuse and animal studies show that animals fail to self-administer LSD in laboratory settings. However tolerance to LSD does build with usage – thereby requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects. Research shows tolerance returns to baseline after two weeks of not using psychedelics. That said out of the 20 drugs ranked in order of individual and societal harm by David Nutt, LSD was third to last, or approximately 1/10th as harmful as alcohol. 

Overdose from LSD (like cannabis) is not known to occur even in cases of extremely high doses – but while the chemical is not toxic in that regard – death and injury can occur due to the adverse psychological reactions including paranoia and delusion is unknown, despite there being various case studies of individuals taking extremely high dosages,[11] LSD can cause injury and death as a result of accidents stemming from psychological impairment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

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