Hallucinogens are a group of drugs that produce very vivid changes in sensory perceptions. LSD is a hallucinogen, meaning that it is similar to drugs like mescaline, psilocybin, and even PCP. The use of LSD produces feelings of euphoria, marked alterations in sensory perception (particularly hallucinations), dissociative experiences in some individuals (alterations of a person’s sense of being real or that other things are real), and emotional changes that can include feelings of wellbeing, empathy, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
People who obtain LSD often get it in tablet or liquid form that is added to some form of paper that can be ingested. The drug is taken in very small doses (microdoses), but the effects are typically long-lasting, often lasting 12 hours or even longer. Standard dosages are reported as being around 100-200 micromilligrams.
The literature often reports that individuals who suffer fatal overdoses when using LSD had combined LSD with some other drug of abuse. In addition, many claims of individuals suffering fatalities as a result of overdosing on LSD are actually wrongly attributing LSD overdose to some other drug.
The case studies of individuals who are known to have taken extremely high amounts of LSD only do not report fatalities. Typically, the effects of LSD overdose are reversible. The effects of overdose include:
- Hyperthermia (increase body temperature)
- Gastric bleeding, in some cases
- Issues with breathing
- Comatose states (that were resolved)
The documented cases of LSD overdose did not result in any long-term effects. In addition, while there are some physical and psychological effects of chronic LSD use (see below), most individuals do not suffer serious effects.
History of the Development of LSD
A Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hoffman was researching potential medications that could be used in facilitating childbirth and stopping the bleeding that occurs during the birthing process. In 1938, Hoffman was researching the potential of the fungus ergot to be used as an aid to childbirth. Hoffman had developed a number of compounds from this fungus, and the 25th compound he developed (lysergic acid diethylamide-25) was one of these. It was found not to have any significant stimulant properties; therefore, it was not believed to be useful in speeding up the childbirth process. As a result, research with this particular compound was abandoned.
- Five years later, Hoffman began working with some of these abandoned compounds again and decided to investigate potential uses of LSD-25. He began synthesizing the compound, and as he was working with it, he began to feel dizzy and mildly euphoric, experienced a heightened perception of color, and had mild hallucinations. Hoffman believed that he somehow may have touched the compound and it was absorbed through his skin, but later it was determined that he must have ingested it into his mouth. In any event, he was impressed by the effects of the drug.The following day, Hoffman administered 250 micrograms of the drug to himself in order to determine if the effects that he had experienced previously were real and repeatable. This is an extremely large dose of the drug, and he became euphoric with an experience of anxiety and even panic. He began to experiment with the drug on himself and others in his laboratory. The drug was eventually marketed as an aid to psychotherapy and became popular with psychiatrists.
- LSD became extremely popular in the turbulent era of the 1960s, and it helped to produce a countercultural movement based on hallucinogenic drug use. During this time, LSD was referred to as acid, blue dots, blue cheer, etc. The 1960s produced a number of drug counterculture icons, such as Timothy Leary (a Harvard-trained psychiatrist). LSD was associated at that time with the counterculture and hippies. The counterculture use of LSD resulted in its tarnished reputation, and the drug was eventually associated with individuals who were subversive or irresponsible.The drug was eventually made illegal and currently remains a Schedule I controlled substance per the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This indicates that, according to government agencies, the drug has no significant medicinal uses, and it is extremely liable to produce psychological or physical dependence. The drug can only be legally obtained for research purposes with special permissions. Any private individual possessing the drug is breaking the law. Despite this designation, there are a number of research studies that support its use in the treatment of various mental health disorders, and there are several books touting its potential medicinal purposes.
Changes in Views of LSD
- Since the 1960s, the attitude regarding LSD has changed despite the designation of the drug as having a high potential to result in the development of psychological or physical dependence and being without any medical utility. While the compound remains the same, the medical viewpoint of the utility of the drug is sharply contrasted with older notions of the drug’s potential for the development of a significant addiction in individuals who use it.
- Rumors that LSD is more or less potent now than it was in the 1960s or at some other time are unfounded. LSD is not like marijuana. The potency of marijuana has changed over time; however, LSD is manufactured in the laboratory, and it is the same chemical substance as it was when it was originally manufactured. Better methods of measuring the amount of the drug in a specific dose may lead to the amounts being more accurate; however, LSD today is not “more potent” or “less potent” that LSD was in the past.
- Perceptions regarding LSD use have evolved. For example, LSD use has been associated with the development of different forms of mental illness, including the development of psychosis. This depiction has been enduring even in the popular media where individuals who use hallucinogens like LSD are depicted as potentially developing severe psychotic disorders.Nonetheless, there are numerous research studies that find no relationship between use of LSD and the development of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, other psychotic disorders, major depression, anxiety disorders, etc. These studies suggest that when LSD use is associated with the development of these forms of mental health disorders, the person most likely suffered from these disorders prior to their use of LSD. Thus, LSD is no longer believed to be a significant independent risk factor in the development of mental health disorders. This is not to suggest that there are no risks from chronic use of hallucinogens like LSD. There may be rare cases in which individuals develop issues with anxiety, depression, etc., associated with their use of LSD (see below).
- Despite the governmental designation of LSD as a substance that has no medicinal uses, there are numerous studies that indicate that when the drug is administered by trained professionals for specific medicinal uses, it does have some benefits. It should be noted that the treatment potential of LSD needs to be researched further. Any specific potential therapeutic effects of the drug are only speculative, and the findings are only preliminary at the current time. In addition, LSD is not a panacea.The actual list of potential therapeutic uses of LSD is extensive; a few examples are:
- The treatment of cluster headaches (headaches that occur in patterns where numerous back-to-back headaches are experienced)
- Anxiety associated with having a life-threatening disease
- Alcohol abuse
- Psychological trauma
Attitudes towards the use of hallucinogenic drugs have slightly shifted. For example, the notion that individuals can develop physical dependence on hallucinogenic drugs has changed even in clinical circles. Even though it is recognized that individuals may develop tolerance to some hallucinogenic drugs, there are no reliable reports that individuals develop physical dependence on them (experiencing both tolerance and withdrawal). In addition, the notion that individuals are extremely susceptible to developing an addiction (hallucinogenic use disorders) has also changed. It is generally considered unusual for individuals to develop an addiction to hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, although the American Psychiatric Association does still list hallucinogen use disorders in its current diagnostic manual.
Despite the evolving attitudes toward the use of LSD, there are still recognized potential drawbacks to using hallucinogenic drugs like LSD.
- There is a potential for individuals to harm themselves or others while under the influence of LSD. Because individuals experiencing hallucinations are prone to making poor judgments, individuals may inadvertently become involved in accidents or be more prone to self-harm under the influence of the drug.
- Some individuals experience “bad trips” that may be emotionally distressing.
- Some individuals may experience changes in their mood as a result of long-term hallucinogenic use.
- A small percentage of chronic LSD users develop a disorder known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (about 4 percent). This disorder occurs when individuals have not taken LSD for some time but begin to repeatedly experience the effects that are associated with LSD use. These experiences were commonly referred to as LSD flashbacks at one time. The experiences typically consist of alterations in the perception of color, mild dissociative experiences, dizziness, mild confusion, and, in some cases, hallucinations. These symptoms can be very distressing for individuals, and the disorder can only be diagnosed if the experiences cause the individual significant distress or interfere with their functioning. There is no cure for this disorder; however, individuals can receive treatment to help them adjust.
Despite some evidence regarding changing attitudes related to LSD, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that first-time use of hallucinogens has remained relatively stable from the years 2000 to the present time. This suggests that even though use of drugs like LSD remains problematic for younger individuals, changing attitudes regarding the drug have not resulted in a significant “epidemic” in the same way that the abuse of prescription drugs has increased. Nonetheless, any individual who abuses LSD and meets the criteria for a hallucinogen use disorder should seek formal treatment.