An overview history of the use of LSD

ARTICLE BY Cam Duffy for the Australian Psychedelic Society.
Originally presented at the 2017 Melbourne Bicycle Day event.

In 1938 Albert Hoffman, who had earlier isolated and discovered the psychoactive effects of LSD, became the first person in history to purposefully ingest the substance, all 250 mcg of it. After establishing that he was physically stable and having a nonetheless intense psychological experience, Hoffman realized that the substance could be utilized for its psychological effects.

Sandoz laboratories began marketing and distributing the substance to researchers and psychiatrists around the world. What resulted was an interesting period in the history of psychiatry, one in which psychiatrists were encouraged to explore the novel domains of the unconscious in a similar manner to the efforts of modern day psychonauts.

In the early to mid-1950s, LSD experimentation in mental health settings became particularly interesting.

The term ‘psychedelic’ was first used in 1956 by Canadian psychiatrist and LSD researcher Dr Humphrey Osmond. It translates as “mind manifesting”.

Dr Osmond collaborated with notable historical figures that include English novelist and writer of the highly influential book about the significance of the psychedelic experience ‘The Doors of Perception, Heaven & Hell’, Aldous Huxley, as well as government officer and scientific reader, Al Hubbard. Like Huxley, Hubbard became highly interested in the effects of LSD and he reportedly introduced more than 6,000 people to it in total, including scientists, politicians, intelligence officials, diplomats, and church figures.

The military began experimenting with LSD, and the CIA in the U.S. had started to explore its potential utility as a tool for psychological warfare and manipulation. The result was a considerable period of research and infamous projects such as ‘MK-ULTRA’.

Ken Kesey of ‘Merry Pranksters’ fame was a notable volunteer for one MK-ULTRA study:

LSD became utilized for its apparent ability to reform alcoholics and treat a variety of mental health conditions. Clinics all over the U.S., the UK and Europe, were involved in researching the efficacy of LSD for improvement in mental health symptoms. In the UK, 683 patients were treated with LSD in over 13, 785 separate sessions. In one study conducted under the supervision of aforementioned Canadian, Dr Humphrey Osmond, a year after their supervised LSD experience, almost 50% of the study group had not consumed alcohol, a result that 21st century clinics would consider difficult to achieve with a combination of pharmacotherapy and counselling.

Co-founder of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, Bill Wilson, tried LSD with the assistance of Dr Sidney Cohan and British-born American intellectual, writer, and mentor Gerald Heard. He was said to have felt that it helped him to eliminate many barriers erected by the self/ego that stand in the way of one’s direct experience of the “cosmos and of god”.
Gerald Heard himself referred to the LSD experience as unique in its inspirational value, see:

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Psychiatrist and contributor to the development of modern transpersonal psychology, Dr Stanislav Grof, realized that the scope of potential experience when under the influence of LSD involved the transcendence of ordinary boundaries and ideas about the nature of consciousness.

This came after making the following observation during his first experience with LSD in 1956 in which a stroboscopic light was the additional applied stimulus during a research experiment (scroll down to first mentioning of “Grof”).

Grof has described psychedelics like LSD in his books as ‘non-specific amplifiers of consciousness’.

In late 1961, infamous Harvard personality psychologist, Dr Timothy Leary, who had been involved in setting up the ‘Harvard Psilocybin Project’ along with Dr Richard Alpert (now known as ‘Ram Dass’) and Dr Ralph Metzner, first tried LSD. Leary had previously been unmotivated to try LSD having already experienced profound effects from a psilocybin mushroom experience, considering it redundant to try another seemingly generic stimulus. Five years after his first LSD experience, Leary described the impact it had on him on page 256 of his book ‘High Priest’:

This was is an understandable precursor to the subsequent change in Leary’s behaviour that eventually led to him being labelled, hyperbolically, as “the most dangerous man in America” by later impeached president and notable establisher of the “War on Drugs”, Richard Nixon.

At Harvard, the three psychologists became fascinated by the insights and personality transforming tendencies of LSD. So impressed by its effects, widespread use amongst the researchers and their friends in the academic, artistic, and socialite community commenced.

After the period of dissonance with the scientific community and university officials that resulted, Leary went rogue and began to promote the mainstream use of LSD, becoming a political figure in this regard. What resulted largely from Leary’s promotion was an almost unprecedented social movement the momentous effects of which are still realized to this day.

Art, music, technology, fashion, sexuality, and social identity became revolutionized through the widespread use of LSD in the 1960s, though political backlash and paranoia led to media coverage that highlighted generally rare instances of LSD causalities.

Meanwhile, Eastern spirituality and topics relating to psychological death and rebirth became a new focus for the former Harvard researchers.

The importance of mindset and physical setting as contributing factors to the experience eventually became a tough lesson for promoter, Leary, and many less educated users of LSD. LSD use was common amongst Vietnam war protesters, part of Nixon’s initial motivation for the “War on Drugs”.

However, there is no dusk without a dawn, thanks to the efforts of the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies led by Dr Rick Doblin, psychiatrist Dr Rick Strassman in the 1990s, as well as select European research groups, psychedelic therapy and research has been kick-stated in recent years. This may be likened to a new renaissance of discovery regarding the utility of LSD and other psychedelics, making use of new technologies and carefully designed scientific protocols. Albert Hoffman’s “problem child” is being rediscovered as the “wonder drug” of the past.

Despite the challenge of government or institutional barriers, as long as we respect the power of mind set and physical setting variables, the future of research and potential applications of LSD is vibrant and open to whatever our innovative tendencies may make of it.

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Posted in Science.