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DRCNet Response to the
Drug Enforcement Administration
LSD in the United States

LSD: The Drug

Background D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD01) is the most potent hallucinogenic substance known to man. Dosages of LSD are measured in micrograms, or millionths of a gram. By comparison, dosages of cocaine and heroin are measured in milligrams, or thousandths of a gram. Compared to other hallucinogenic substances, LSD is 100 times more potent than psilocybin and psilocin and 4,000 times more potent than mescaline.02

The dosage level that will produce an hallucinogenic effect in humans generally is considered to be 25 micrograms. Over the past several years, the potency of LSD obtained during drug law enforcement operations has ranged between 20 and 80 micrograms per dosage unit. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recognizes 50 micrograms as the standard dosage unit equivalency.

LSD is classified as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. As a Schedule I drug, LSD meets the following three criteria: it is deemed to have a high potential for abuse; it has no legitimate medical use in treatment; and, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision.

LSD was synthesized in 1938 by a chemist working for Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. It was developed initially as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. However, no extraordinary benefits of the compound were identified and its study was discontinued.03 In the 1940’s, interest in the drug was revived when it was thought to be a possible treatment for schizophrenia. Because of LSD’s structural relationship to a chemical that is present in the brain and its similarity in effect to certain aspects of psychosis, LSD was used as a research tool in studies of mental illness.

Sandoz Laboratories, the drug’s sole producer, began marketing LSD in 1947 under the trade name “Delysid” and it was introduced into the United States a year later.04 Sandoz marketed LSD as a psychiatric cure-all and “hailed it as a cure for everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, ‘sexual perversions,’ and alcoholism.”05 In fact, Sandoz, in its LSD-related literature, suggested that psychiatrists take the drug themselves in order to “gain an understanding of the subjective experiences of the schizophrenic.”06

In psychiatry, the use of LSD by students was an accepted practice; it was viewed as a teaching tool in an attempt to understand schizophrenia. From the late 1940’s through the mid-1970’s, extensive research and testing were conducted on LSD. During a 15-year period beginning in 1950, research on LSD and other hallucinogens generated over 1,000 scientific papers, several dozen books, and 6 international conferences, and LSD was prescribed as treatment to over 40,000 patients.07 Although initial observations on the benefits of LSD were highly optimistic, empirical data developed subsequently proved much less promising.

As enthusiasm for the untested assumptions became tempered by the findings of actual experiments—and as less scrupulous professionals in the industry relaxed supervision and control of experiments—LSD emerged as a drug of abuse 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.08

During the early 1960’s, this first group of casual LSD users evolved and expanded into a subculture that extolled the mystical and pseudo-religious symbolism often engendered by the drug’s powerful effects. The personalities associated with the subculture, usually connected to academia, and the propaganda they circulated soon attracted a great deal of publicity, generating further interest in LSD.09

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the drug culture adopted LSD as the “psychedelic” drug of choice. The infatuation with LSD lasted for a number of years until considerable negative publicity emerged on “bad trips”— psychotic psychological traumas associated with the LSD high—and “flashbacks,” uncontrollable recurring experiences. As a result of these revelations and effective drug law enforcement efforts, LSD dramatically decreased in popularity in the mid-1970’s. Scientific study of LSD ceased circa 1980 as research funding declined.

As a casual drug of abuse, 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 1960’s, also still use LSD.

LSD most often is found in the form of small paper squares or, on occasion, in tablets. On occasion, authorities have encountered the drug in others forms—including powder or crystal, liquid, gelatin square, and capsule—and laced on sugar cubes and other substances. LSD is sold under more than 80 street names including acid, blotter, cid, doses, and trips, as well as names that reflect the designs on sheets of paper (see Appendix 1). More than 200 types of LSD tablets have been encountered since 1969 and more than 350 paper designs have been acquired since 1975. Designs range from simple five-point stars in black and white to exotic artwork in full four-color print. Inexpensiveness (prices range from $2 to $5 per dosage unit or “hit,”; wholesale lots often sell for as little as $1 or less), ready availability, alleged “mind-expanding” properties, and intriguing paper designs make LSD especially attractive to junior high school and high school students.

LSD has been available—at first legally, then on the illicit market—for over 40 years. 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.10

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.


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