LSD history, LSD discovery, early LSD use till now.
Early history: synthesis
LSD was first synthesised by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the
Sandoz (now Novartis) laboratories in 1938. The laboratory had undertaken
a research program aimed at isolating the active constituents of medicinal
plants so that they could be produced in the laboratory and later precisely
dosed for accurate administration to patients. Dr. Hofmann eventually began
researching the ergot fungus and alkaloids which could be derived from it.
Ergot was traditionally used by midwives as an ecbolic, a medication used
to induce childbirth, and early 20th century research indicated that the
various compounds in ergot had other effects on the body as well, prompting
After Dr. Hofmann succeeded in synthesizing ergobasine (which became
the preeminent uterotonic), he began experiments with other molecules
based around the central lysergic acid component shared by ergot alkalines.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, the 25th synthesized molecule (hence the name
LSD-25) was developed initially as a probable analeptic, a circulatory
and respiratory stimulant, based on its structural similarity to another
known analeptic, Coramine (nicotinic acid diethylamide). However, no extraordinary
benefits of the compound were identified during animal tests (though laboratory
notes briefly mention that the animals became “restless” under
its effects), and its study was discontinued.
The hallucinogenic effects of LSD were unknown for the next five years.
Dr. Hofmann writes in LSD: My Problem Child that a “peculiar presentiment”
prompted him to revisit LSD-25. While re-synthesizing the compound for
further study, he became dizzy and was forced to stop work:
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.
Three days later, April 19, 1943 (known as Bicycle Day), Dr. Hoffman
intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, which he hypothesized would
be a threshold dose, based on other ergot alkaloids. Hoffman wrote:
By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the
remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for 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 we had traveled very rapidly.
Dr. Hofmann summoned a doctor, who could find no abnormal physical symptoms
other than extremely dilated pupils. After spending several hours terrified
that his body had been possessed by a demon, that his next door neighbor
was a witch, and that his furniture was threatening him, Dr. Hofmann feared
he had become completely insane.
[The doctor] saw no reason to prescribe any medication. Instead he conveyed
me to my bed and stood watch over me. Slowly I came back from a weird,
unfamiliar world to reassuring everyday reality. The horror softened and
gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions
and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of
insanity was conclusively past. Now, little by little I could begin to
enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind
my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating,
variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals,
exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves
in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception,
such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed
into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image,
with its own consistent form and color … Exhausted, I then slept, to
awake next morning refreshed, with a clear head, though still somewhat
tired physically. A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through
me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When
I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a
spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world
was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest
sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day. This self-experiment
showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary
properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance
that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses,
that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience
of the inner and outer world.
Interest in the drug was revived after Dr. Hofmann’s experiment, and
the University of Zurich began conducting systematic human trials on both
normal participants and psychiatric patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In both cases, the predominant reaction was euphoria. Sandoz began producing
LSD under the trade name Delysid for research, suggesting that the drug
might be useful “to elicit release of repressed material and provide
mental relaxation, particularly in anxiety states and obsessional neuroses”
and also for self-experimentation by psychiatrists, “to gain an insight
into the world of ideas and sensations of mental patients”.
LSD Psychiatric use
LSD was introduced into the United States in 1948. Sandoz Laboratories
(now Novartis) marketed LSD as a psychiatric cure-all and hailed it as
a remedy for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, sexual
perversions and alcoholism. In psychiatry, the use of LSD by students
was an accepted practice; it was viewed as a teaching tool in an attempt
to enable the psychiatrist to subjectively understand schizophrenia. It
was also showed great promise as a facilitating agent in psychedelic psychotherapy.
In one study in the late 1950’s, Dr Humphry Osmond gave LSD to alcoholics
in Alcoholics Anonymous who had failed to quit drinking. After one year,
around 50% of the study group had not had a drink — a success rate that
has never been duplicated by any other means.
From the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, extensive research and testing
were conducted on LSD. During a 15-year period beginning in 1950, research
on LSD and other hallucinogens generated over 1000 scientific papers,
several dozen books, and 6 international conferences, and LSD was prescribed
as treatment to over 40,000 patients. Film star Cary Grant was one of
many men during the ’50s and ’60s who were given LSD in concert with psychotherapy,
in an effort to overcome ‘homosexual tendencies’. Many psychiatrists began
taking the drug recreationally and sharing it with friends. Dr. Leary’s
experiments (see below) spread LSD usage to a much wider segment of the
Sandoz halted LSD production in August of 1965 after growing governmental
protests at its proliferation among the general populace. The National
Institute of Mental Health in the United States distributed LSD on a limited
basis for scientific research. Scientific study of LSD ceased circa 1980
as research funding declined, and governments became wary of permitting
such research fearing that the results of the research might encourage
illicit LSD use.
The United States Drug Enforcement Agency claims:
Although initial observations on the benefits of LSD were highly optimistic,
empirical data developed subsequently proved less promising … Its use
in scientific research has been extensive and its use has been widespread.
Although the study of LSD and other hallucinogens increased the awareness
of how chemicals could affect the mind, its use in psychotherapy largely
has been debunked. It produces no aphrodisiac effects, does not increase
creativity, has no lasting positive effect in treating alcoholics or criminals,
does not produce a ‘model psychosis’, and does not generate immediate
personality change. However, drug studies have confirmed that the powerful
hallucinogenic effects of this drug can produce profound adverse reactions,
such as acute panic reactions, psychotic crises, and “flashbacks”,
especially in users ill-equipped to deal with such trauma.
Renowned British Author and playwright Aldous Huxley was one of the
most important figures in the early history of LSD. He was a figure of
high repute in the world of letters and had become internationally famous
through his novels Chrome Yellow, Antic Hay and his dystopian novel Brave
New World. His experiments with psychedelic drugs and his descriptions
of them in his writings did much to spread awareness of psychedelic drugs
to the general public and arguably helped to glamorise their recreational
use, although Huxley himself treated them very seriously.
Huxley was introduced to psychedelic drugs by a friend, psychiatrist
Dr Humphry Osmond. Osmond had become interested in hallucinogens and their
relationship to mental illness in the 1940s and during the 1950s he made
extensive studies of a number of drugs including mescaline and LSD. As
noted above, Osmond had some remarkable success in treating alcoholics
In may 1953 Osmond gave Huxley his first dose of mescaline. Huxley subsequently
recorded his experiences in the landmark book The Doors Of Perception;
the title was drawn from a quotation by British artist and poet William
Blake, and Huxley’s book in turn was the source of the name of American
rock band The Doors. Huxley tried LSD for the first time in 1955, obtained
from “Captain” Al Hubbard.
Hubbard is a remarkable and controversial figure in his own right and
is almost equally important to the history of LSD as Huxley or Leary.
Hubbard had become a ‘freelance’ apostle for LSD in the early Fifties
after supposedly receiving an angelic vision telling him that something
important to the future of mankind would soon be coming. When he read
about LSD the next year, he immediately sought and acquired LSD, which
he tried for himself in 1951.
Although he had no medical training, during the Fifties Hubbard worked
at the Hollywood Hospital with Ross McLean, with psychiatrists Abram Hoffer
and Dr. Humphry Osmond, with Myron Stolaroff at the International Federation
for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, and with Willis Harman at Stanford Research
Institute (SRI) running psychedelic sessions with LSD.
At various times over the next twenty years, Hubbard also reportedly
worked for the Canadian Special Services, the U.S. Justice Department
and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. It is also rumoured
that he was involved with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project. How his government
positions interacted with his work with LSD is unknown.
Hubbard is reputed to have introduced more than 6,000 people to LSD,
including scientists, politicians, intelligence officials, diplomats,
and church figures. He became known as the original “Captain Trips”,
travelling about with a leather case containing pharmaceutically pure
LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.
Dr. Timothy Leary
A significant number of researchers disagree with the government’s
assessment of LSD. Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychology professor at Harvard
University, was the most prominent pro-LSD researcher. Leary claimed that
using LSD with the right dosage, set (what one brings to the experience),
and setting, preferably with the guidance of professionals, could alter
behavior in dramatic and beneficial ways.
Dr. Leary began conducting experiments with psilocybin in 1960 on himself
and a number of Harvard graduate students after trying hallucinogenic
mushrooms used in Native American religious rituals while visiting Mexico.
His group began conducting experiments on state prisoners, where they
claimed a 90% success rate preventing repeat offenses. A student introduced
Leary to LSD, and he then incorporated that drug into his research as
his mental catalyst of choice. His experiments produced no murders, suicides,
psychotic breaks, or bad trips. On the contrary, almost all of Leary’s
participants reported profound mystical experiences which they felt had
a tremendous positive effect on their lives.
By 1962, faculty discontent with Leary’s experiments reached critical
mass. Leary was informed that the CIA was monitoring his research (see
Government experiments below). Many of the other faculty members had harbored
reservations about Leary’s research, and powerful parents began complaining
to the university about Leary’s distribution of hallucinogenic drugs to
their children. Further, many undergraduate students who were not part
of Leary’s research program heard of the profound experiences other students
had undergone, and began taking LSD (which was not illegal at the time)
recreationally. Leary described LSD as a potent aphrodisiac in an interview
with Playboy magazine. Leary and another professor, Richard Alpert, were
dismissed from the university in 1963.
DEA agents Don Strange (R) and Howard Safir (L) with Leary in custody
(1972).Leary and Alpert, unfazed by their dismissals, relocated first
to Mexico, but were expelled from the country by the Mexican government.
They then set up at a large private mansion owned by William Hitchcock
in New York, known as Millbrook, where they continued their experiments.
Their research lost its controlled scientific character as the experiments
transformed into LSD parties. Leary later wrote, “We saw ourselves
as anthropologists from the twenty-first century inhabiting a time module
set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were
attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”
A judge who expressed dislike for Dr. Leary’s books sentenced him to
30 years in prison for possession of half a marijuana cigarette (which
was later reversed by the Supreme Court). Publicity surrounding the case
further cemented Leary’s growing reputation as a countercultural guru.
Around this time, President Richard Nixon described Leary as “the
most dangerous man in America.” Repeated FBI raids instigated the
end of the Millbrook experiment. Leary refocused his efforts towards countering
the tremendous amount of anti-LSD propaganda then being issued by the
United States government, coining the slogan, “Turn on. Tune in.
Many experts blame Leary and his antics for the near-total suppression
of psychedelic research over the last thirty years.
LSD was the original centerpiece of the United States Central Intelligence
Agency’s top secret MK-ULTRA project, an ambitious undertaking conducted
from the 1950s through the 1970s designed to explore the possibilities
of pharmaceutical mind control. Hundreds of participants, including CIA
agents, government employees, military personnel, prostitutes, members
of the general public, and mental patients were given LSD, many without
their knowledge or consent. The experiments often involved severe psychological
torture, and many victims committed suicide or wound up in psychiatric
wards. The researchers eventually concluded that LSD’s effects were too
varied and uncontrollable to make it of any practical use as a truth drug,
and the project moved on to other substances. It would be decades before
the US government admitted the existence of the project and offered apologies
to the families of those who had died during the experiments. See MK-ULTRA.
The role of ‘middle-men’ like Al Hubbard (see above) is still little
understood and it is likely to be many decades (if ever) before information
about their activities is declassified. The precise relationships between
government projects like MK-ULTRA and academic research is not yet known,
but it is highly probable that agencies such as the American CIA were
closely monitoring non-government research in this area. Hubbard is known
to have had direct connections to several medical programs during the
1950s, gave LSD to literally thousands of people, and is known to have
worked (possibly simultaneously) for a number of Canadian and American
Although the subject is highly contentious, there are those who argue
that, whilst LSD eventually proved too unpredictable to be useful as a
chemical weapon, it may have found another intelligence use. It is claimed
that government agencies such as the CIA may have covertly promoted LSD
among American youth, seeing it as a means of undermining and destablising
the emerging alternative / underground culture and the growing anti-war
It is also interesting to compare the fates of high-profile LSD advocate
Timothy Leary and that of the notorious but elusive LSD chemist Augustus
Owsley Stanley III. Leary was hounded by the police, the FBI and possibly
also the CIA and was given a draconian prison sentence for possession
of a minuscule amount of marijuana. It is generally accepted that much
of the best ‘street’ LSD that circulated in the western United States
and beyond in the late 1960s was manufactured by Owsley, who was immortalised
in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
When he was apprehended by police in California in late 1967, Owsley
was reportedly found in possession of enough LSD to make at least 250,000
trips; notwithstanding his reputation as the world’s top illicit LSD chemist,
he attempted to argue that this huge quantity was for personal use! After
being found guilty, Owsley was given a relatively light sentence of two
years, and despite his international reputation and his criminal record,
he was subsequently allowed to emigrate to Australia, where he now lives.
There have also been persistent claims of connections between the CIA
and members of the so-called “Brotherhood of Eternal Love”,
most focussing on the mysterious figure of Ronald Stark, a reputed criminal
who was alleged to have links to both the CIA and to terrorist organisations
including the PLO, as well as allegedly overseeing one of the world’s
largest LSD manufacturing and distribution rings, which operated in Italy,
France and Belgium.
Though no evidence has yet come to light in the West, it is presumed
likely that the Soviet government conducted its own experiments on the
properties of LSD during the Cold War.
LSD began to be used recreationally in certain (primarily medical)
circles. Some psychiatric and medical professionals, acquainted with LSD
in their work, began using it themselves and sharing it with friends and
associates. Among the first to do so was British psychologist Humphry
Osmond, who first gave the drug to author Aldous Huxley and who coined
the term “psychedelic” to describe its effects.
LSD historian Jay Stevens, author of the book Storming Heaven: LSD and
the American Dream, has said that, in the early days of its recreational
use, LSD users (who were at that time mostly academics and medical professional
people) fell into two broadly delineated groups. The first group, which
was essentially conservative and was exemplified by Huxley, felt that
LSD was too powerful and too dangerous to allow its immediate and widespread
introduction, and that its use ought to be restricted to the ‘elite’ members
of society — aritsts, writers, scientists — who could mediate its gradual
distribution throughout society. The second and more radical group, typified
by Richard Alpert and Leary, felt that LSD had the power to revolutionise
society and that it should be spread as widely as possible and be available
During the 1960s, this second ‘group’ of casual LSD users evolved and
expanded into a subculture that extolled the mystical and religious symbolism
often engendered by the drug’s powerful effects, and advocated its use
as a method of raising consciousness. The personalities associated with
the subculture, gurus such as Dr. Timothy Leary and psychedelic rock musicians
such as the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane soon attracted
a great deal of publicity, generating further interest in LSD.
The popularization of LSD outside of the medical world was hastened when
individuals such as Ken Kesey participated in drug trials and liked what
they saw. Tom Wolfe wrote a widely read account of these early days of
LSD’s entrance into the non-academic world in his book The Electric Kool
Aid Acid Test, which was written as he traveled around the country in
a psychedelic bus with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and which chronicled
the famous ‘Acid Test’ dances in San Francisco.
LSD became a headline item in early 1967, largely thanks to The Beatles.
Paul McCartney made highly publicised admissions about his and the group’s
LSD use in press and TV interviews; earlier in the year, British tabloid
News of the World ran a sensational three-week series which claimed to
blow the lid on ‘drug parties’ hosted by rock group The Moody Blues and
attended by leading stars including Donovan, The Who’s Pete Townshend
and Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Largely as a result of collusion between
News of the World journalists and the London Drug Squad, many pop stars
including Donovan, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones
were busted for drug possession, although none of the arrests involved
The music of groups including The Beatles had also begun to show the
obvious influence of their experiences with LSD. John Lennon wrote a song
which many assumed referred to LSD, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”
although John Lennon always dismissed the connection as coincidence; the
source of the title (which has been confirmed by others in the group)
was Lennon’s son Julian, who described the subject of a drawing he had
made of a school friend (one Lucy O’Donnell). Lennon and Harrison, however,
had been experimenting with the drug since early 1966 — they were given
their first trips by their dentist at a party. The songs “She Said
She Said” (the line,’I know what it’s like to be dead’ is from an
LSD trip that the Beatles took with Peter Fonda. Peter kept saying that
to John Lennon) and “Tomorrow Never Knows” from the album Revolver
were clearly about LSD trips. During that same time, bands such as Pink
Floyd, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead helped give birth to a
genre known as “psychedelic rock” or acid rock.
LSD was evidently in limited recreational use in Australia in the early
1960s, but is believed to have been initially restricted to those with
connections to the scientific and the medical communities. LSD overdose
was suggested as a possible cause in the still-unsolved deaths of CSIRO
scientists Dr Gilbert Bogle and his lover Dr Margaret Chandler, whose
naked bodies were found beside the Lane Cove River in Sydney after a New
Year’s Eve party in on January 1, 1963.
Large quantities of LSD began to appear in Australia around 1967, and
soon permated the music scene and youth culture in general, especially
in the capital cities. The major source of supply during this period is
believed to have been American servicemen visiting Australia (mainly Sydney)
from Vietnam on ‘rest and recreation’ (R&R) leave, although the growing
connections between American and Australian organised crime in the late
1960s may also have facilitated its importation. Recreational LSD use
among young people was on a par with that in other countries in Australia
by the early 1970s and continued until late in the decade. LSD is not
believed to have been manufactured locally in an significant quantity
(if at all) and most if not all supplies were sourced from overseas.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the drug culture adopted LSD as
the psychedelic drug of choice, particularly amongst the hippie community.
However, LSD dramatically decreased in popularity in the mid-1970s. This
decline was due to negative publicity centered on side-effects of LSD
use (most misleading or patently false), its criminalization, and the
increasing effectiveness of drug law enforcement efforts, rather than
new medical information.
The availability of LSD had been drastically reduced by the late 1970s
due to a combination of governmental controls and law enforcement. The
supply of constituent chemicals (notably ergotamine tartrate) were placed
under tight surveillance and government funding for LSD research was almost
totally eliminated. These efforts were augmented by a series of major
busts in England and Europe. One of the most famous was “Operation
Julie” in Britain in 1978; it broke up one of the largest LSD manufacturing
and distribution operations in the world at that time, headed by chemist
Richard Kemp. The group targetted by the Julie task force were reputed
to have had links to the mysterious Brotherhood of Eternal Love and to
The fifteen defendants included two highly qualified chemists, two doctors
of medicine, a teacher, and the American author David Solomon, a friend
to Timothy Leary and a reputed “walking encyclopedia of drugs culture”.
The defendants were caught by a lengthy operation that involved police
officers — one of them named Julie — who posed as hippies in the Welsh
hills and on London council estates. They eventually located two large
‘acid factories’ in a farmhouse near Tregaron in West Wales and in a house
in Hampton Wick. One of the police who raided the London factory reportedly
ignored warnings from the occupants about a large amount of LSD that had
been spilled in the room, and had to be hospitalised after absorbing the
volatile chemical through skin contact.
Several of the conspirators were reputed to have made more than �1
million each and on their arrest they joked with detectives that their
business acumen merited a Queen’s Award for Exports. Kemp had allegedly
become convinced that LSD could “liberate” people’s minds and
assist harmonious social relationships and it was claimed at the time
of his arrest that Kemp and his associates had stockpiled enough LSD to
make millions of trips and that they planned to put this massive quantity
of the drug into Britain’s water supplies to trigger a supposed social
As a recreational drug, LSD has remained popular among certain segments
of society. Traditionally, it has been popular with high school and college
students and other young adults. LSD also has been integral to the lifestyle
of many individuals who follow certain rock music bands, most notably
the Grateful Dead. Older individuals, introduced to the hallucinogen in
the 1960s, also still use LSD.
LSD made a comeback in the 1990s, especially through the acid house scene
and raver subculture. However, the current average oral dose consumed
by users is 30 to 50 micrograms, a decrease of nearly 90 percent from
the 1960 average dose of 250 to 300 micrograms. Lower doses may account
for the relatively few LSD-related psychiatric emergencies during this
period. LSD use and availability declined sharply following a raid of
a large scale LSD lab in 2000 (see below).
Although retail-level distribution of LSD is known to sometimes take
place at public events that feature music that appeals to users, such
as certain kinds of concerts and all-night raves, users at the fringes
of the distribution chain typically obtain small quantities of LSD from
friends and acquaintances in relatively private exchanges.