The Sordid and True Story of LSD

The twisted history of LSD involves an accident, a war of cultures, mind control, and the secrets of both the CIA and the Salem witch trials. It’s a tale stranger than fiction, and it’s all true.

In 1938, while working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz Laboratories (now a subsidiary of Novartis), researching a possible painkiller for childbirth, Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (his 25th synthesis), from ergotamine, a chemical derived from the fungus ergot.  Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye and related grains.

Little did he know, he stumbled upon a chemical with a haunted past and sordid future.

Cursed by a Witch

Ergot poisoning, from consuming breads or grains contaminated with the fungus, “can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms.” If that list sounds a bit like being “possessed by a devil” or “cursed by a witch,” it may indeed be responsible for the famous dark spot in early American history - the Salem witchcraft trials.

While the trials were hundreds of years before Hofmann’s research, the data connection was not known, only recently having become the leading theory for that early American horror story that led to the execution of 20 innocent townspeople.

The First “Trip”

Back in Switzerland, Hofmann shelved LSD-25, as it did not work as effectively for the pains of birthing as other emerging analgesics.  In 1943, he decided to reexamine the chemical and accidentally touched it.  He later described the experience, in his memoir LSD My Problem Child:

“I became affected by 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, Hofmann intentionally took 250 micrograms of LSD.  He continued to use the drug throughout his lifetime and also continued to research hallucinogens such as psilocybin and mescaline.  After he retired from his career as a chemist, he continued to speak about LSD until his death in the year 2008, at age 102.

Of his “problem child,” he eventually said, “I don’t need to take it anymore.”

The Russians are Coming

The next proponents of LSD-25 had a decidedly different purpose for its use than “an extremely stimulated imagination” - mind control.  Though it’s difficult to confirm which drugs and techniques were being researched by the Russian government around 1950, the US got word of their efforts and quickly jumped into the game.

The two named primary goals for US government experimentation with hallucinogens included: a desire to create a “truth serum,” and suggestibility.  To the general public, the concepts became popularized in books, tv and movies, where the emergence of lie detector machines, injection with drugs, and fears of a “Manchurian Candidate” all actually had a basis in reality.

It is likely that Russia used many of the same tactics as the CIA: “electro-shock therapy, hypnosis, polygraphs, radiation, and a variety of drugs, toxins and chemicals,” LSD being primary among them.

MKUltra and the Ultimate Hypocrisy

News about MKUltra reads like a clever science fiction story or outrageous conspiracy theory, and although the files associated with the experiments under that name were purged, many surprising details have emerged.

In 1953 the then director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, approved a project to research drugs and “mind control” tactics that could “promote the intoxicating effects of alcohol,” “render the induction of hypnosis easier,” “enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion,” “produce amnesia, shock and confusion” and other outcomes deemed desirable by the CIA.  What made the project even more alarming was the fact that the experiments were conducted without the permission of the subjects in many cases.  Ironically, in the aftermath of WWII, just as Project MKUltra started to take off, the US had been heavily involved in the Nuremberg Trials, the famous war tribunal against those involved in Nazi war crimes.  One of the outcomes of the trials became known as the Nuremberg Code: the absolute requirement for consent in human experimentation.

Not surprisingly, the hypocrisy of that double standard (conducting unauthorized human experimentation whilst damning that same practice) was not the only strange fact or twisted irony associated with the MKUltra experiments.  Here are some other little-known facts and coincidences:

  • MKUltra was not a single event, but actually, at least 162 different secret projects directly or indirectly financed by the CIA over the course of two decades.
  • While the CIA did drug prisoners, prostitutes, cancer patients and many other unsuspecting or nonconsenting people, many of the projects were actually contracted out to “various universities, research foundations, and similar institutions.” At least 80 institutions participated, in all, and many did not know the CIA was funding the research.
  • Experimentation began in New York but then moved to San Francisco. Not only did the CIA give LSD to individuals in those experiments, but they also were known to pay participants with heroin, possibly the first distributed heroin program in the US.
  • One famous participant, Timothy Leary, then a Harvard research psychologist, became known as the father of the counterculture movement.
  • Another famous participant came in as a volunteer while a student at Stanford University, Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also an inspiration for the counterculture movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • The band the Grateful Dead is synonymous with the soundtrack of the counterculture/psychedelic movement. Songwriter and Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter was apparently an unwitting participant in MKUltra.
  • Though there’s a great deal of information about MKUltra available, it is only a tiny fraction of what must have existed. In 1973, then CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all of the files that could be rounded up destroyed. When queried by a congressional hearing, he claimed that the file purge protected the privacy of Americans - privacy apparently being more important than consent!
  • The inspiration lives on - even the hit series “Stranger Things” was in part inspired by MKUltra. As if that isn’t strange enough, here’s another odd plot twist: star of the series, Winona Ryder, is goddaughter to Timothy Leary.

All of these very strange connections have led many people to deduce one extreme hypocrisy: the US government essentially started the drug movement and counterculture movement in the United States with MKUltra and heroin payments, but then went on to persecute and imprison users and sellers of these drugs.

Mind Control Serum

So how does LSD work?

After it is synergized from ergot, LSD has a complex chemical structure, which can be toxic.  It absorbs through the skin, through inhalation, orally, or (most potently) through injection.  As an illegal substance, it is unregulated, but most commonly is soaked onto “blotting papers” which are themselves edible.  LSD is also called lysergamide, acid, blotter, dots, tabs, tickets, trips and any number of other names based on the images on the paper (color name, cartoon character name, etc).

The exact mechanisms of LSD are not fully understood.  It does seem to work as both an agonist (activating receptors) and antagonist (blocking receptor function) of serotonin receptors in the brain (the “mood neurotransmitters” of the brain). It also appears to interact with dopamine, another neurotransmitter in the brain.  Effects begin within 30 minutes of oral consumption (the most common method) and can last up to 12 hours.

Hallucinogens like LSD can also stimulate synesthesia, a breakdown of sense differentiation (i.e. “hearing” smells or “tasting” color).

Side effects also include:

  • Suggestibility
  • Dilated pupils
  • Mild hypertension
  • Raised body temperature
  • Visual disturbances
  • Hallucinations (both visual and auditory)
  • Tremors
  • Sleeplessness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Dry mouth

A Bad Trip

Though stories exist from the CIA experimentation days of people overdosing on LSD, instances are virtually unheard of.  More commonly, individuals may experience what has become known as a “bad trip,” which can lead to death by suicide.  Warnings about the drug include:

"Panic reactions (‘bad trips’) may be sufficiently severe to require medical support.  Patients usually recover within a few hours but occasionally hallucinations last up to 48 hours and psychotic states for 3-4 days.  The effects are greatly affected by the set (an individual's mental state) and the setting (surroundings) in which the drug is taken.  Sensory disturbances are known as ‘flashbacks’ sometimes occur.  Serious side effects often attributed to LSD such as irrational acts leading to suicide or accidental deaths, are extremely rare."

A bad trip is believed to occur under three primary conditions 1 - when taken in high quantity, 2 - when mixed with other substances (such as when combined with lithium) or 3 - when causing a psychotic break.

While no one knows for sure what causes some people to experience a psychotic break when taking LSD, even creator Albert Hofmann speculated that the drug potentially revealed “latent psychosis.”  Family history of schizophrenia is thought to possibly play a part. Many would argue that a latent psychosis is best left undiscovered.

The recurrence of flashbacks is known medically as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), lasting weeks, months, or many years.  HPPD is considered virtually untreatable, with those experiencing it often taking many other sorts of medications, such as antidepressants, to attempt to suppress the hallucinogenic effects.

The Persistent Hallucinogen

LSD has always had advocates.  What started as a CIA public experiment became a counterculture movement with such high-profile supporters as Timothy Leary and Cary Grant.  In recent years, microdosing with LSD has taken a hold on Silicon Valley.

While enthusiasts claim LSD is a drug to which it is virtually impossible to become addicted, there’s clearly some sort of persistence going on with this potentially dangerous hallucinogen.