Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 50. How LSD was popularized, 1962-1969

The creation of an LSD black market. Prior to 1962, LSD was a little known drug, available only on a small scale, and used by relatively few people. Substantially all of the LSD and psilocybin available in the United States and Canada was produced by Sandoz Laboratories and legally distributed by them to psychiatrists, psychologists, and others who certified their qualifications to use it. Each LSD container was labeled, as required by FDA regulations: "Caution: New drug–– limited by Federal law to investigational use." Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the supply of LSD for informal use had been uncertain. Sometimes Sandoz LSD was available; sometimes it was not. When it wasn't, users turned to psilocybin, mescaline, peyote, and other LSD-like substances.

In 1962, a new tranquilizing drug, thalidomide, was also distributed for testing under the FDA's IND (investigational new drug) regulations to 1,267 American physicians, and reached hundreds of pregnant women. In other countries it was distributed on a far larger scale. A worldwide epidemic of deformed babies followed. During the next few years, the FDA tightened up its IND regulations, many states outlawed LSD, and Congress passed a new law further restricting the use of investigational drugs–– including LSD. Sandoz responded by sharply limiting LSD distribution.

The new laws, the new FDA regulations, and the Sandoz restrictions were followed by a marked  increase in the availability of LSD. The drug is only moderately difficult to synthesize in a modest chemistry laboratory. The formula can be secured from the United States Patent Office for fifty cents, and the precursor chemicals are not hard to acquire. The quantities producible are very great; million-dose batches of clandestine LSD were in fact produced. * (A million 250-microgram doses weigh about nine ounces.) The clandestine supply soon exceeded the domestic demand, and the American blackmarket thereupon became a large-scale exporter of clandestinely manufactured LSD to Canada and Europe.

* In fiscal 1967, government agents seized clandestine laboratories said to have a production capacity of more than 25,000,000 doses of LSD and LSD-like drugs per year. In fiscal 1968, the production capacity of the clandestine laboratories seized was reported to be more than 40,000,000 doses per year. 1 Consumption, of course, fell far short of this production capacity. No estimate is available of the production capacity of the clandestine LSD labs that  escaped seizure. 

In 1970, the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence of the United Kingdom Home Office reported: "Probably the bulk of [British LSD] is smuggled in from the USA. We are told that users preferred the American [black-market] LSD and regarded the English product as inferior." The LSD smuggled into Britain from the United States was originally "impregnated into innocent objects such as sugar cubes, sweets and blotting paper. More recently it has been coming in in tablet or capsule form under such exotic names as 'cherry top,' 'purple haze,' and 'blue cheer.' " 2 Canada's Le Dain Commission similarly reported in 1970 that Canadian black-market LSD was coming "mainly from clandestine factories in the United States." 3 Since LSD is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, weighs only a trifle and occupies a negligible volume, few shipments are intercepted.

Thus, by shutting off the relative trickle of Sandoz LSD into informal channels, Congress and the Food and Drug Administration had unwittingly opened the sluices to a veritable LSD flood. By 1970 it was estimated that between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 Americans had taken an LSD trip. 4

In 1964, Drs. Arnold M. Ludwig and Jerome Levine, then at the United States Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, investigated the beginnings of the LSD black market by talking with drug users from all over the country. They reported their findings in the  Journal of the American medical Association in 1965: 

The drug, as obtained through illicit, channels, is usually deposited on sugar cubes. It has also been obtained in liquid form in small ampules, in crystalline form (in capsules or by the spoonful), or as a small white pill. The drug was also distributed on animal crackers when certain enforcement agencies declared sugar cubes to be contraband. 

In the Boston, Mass. area the drug was purchased for $1 per sugar cube, whereas in New York, N.Y. and Miami, Fla., a cube might cost from $2 to $7. In Harlem, gelatin capsules containing powdered LSD were bought for $2 to $10 depending on the size of the capsule. One quarter of a teaspoon of [diluted] LSD (equivalent to seven to ten capsules) sold for $35....

The drug is usually referred to as LSD but has also been called "25" (apparently from LSD-25). In the Boston area the designation "crackers" (from animal crackers) was used, and when people considered obtaining the drug they often stated, "Let's get some coffee," because the drug was frequently acquired in coffee houses. 5 

The first clandestinely synthesized LSD, according to knowledgeable sources, was of excellent purity and quality. Excellent black-market LSD is also available today. But in addition, the market since 1963 has been flooded with adulterated LSD, contaminated LSD, improperly synthesized LSD containing a variety of related substances whose effects are little known, and LSD of unknown dosage. It is impossible to determine how many of the adverse reactions noted after 1962 were traceable to these factors.

LSD publicity. Glue-sniffing, it will be recalled (Chapter 44), was popularized by antiglue warnings emanating from medical and law enforcement authorities and widely publicized in the mass media. LSD was similarly publicized by anti-LSD warnings; but, in addition, praise of LSD by its proponents was also widely publicized. It is impossible to determine which contributed more to the growth of the demand for blackmarket LSD between 1962 and 1969: the warnings or the praise. The combination of warnings and praise triggered a publicity barrage that grew far out of rational proportion. The net effect was to make LSD familiar to everyone in the land, and to arouse nationwide curiosity. From curiosity to experimentation is only one short step.

There were many propagandists for LSD before 1962, but no one paid much attention to them, and they had little effect. This was still true when Timothy Leary, an instructor at Harvard University's Center for Research in Human Personality, first started work with LSD. Leary had been much impressed by the effects of some Mexican psilocybin mushrooms that he had tried in the summer of 1960. "It was the classic visionary voyage and I came back a changed man," he wrote in 1967. "You are never the same after you've had that one flash glimpse down the cellular time tunnel. You are never the same after you've had the veil drawn." 6

At Harvard that fall, Dr. Leary and an associate, Dr. Richard Alpert, secured a supply of psilocybin from Sandoz for use in an experiment with prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord. The first results seemed promising: prisoners released from the institution following a psilocybin trip seemed less likely to be rearrested and returned for parole violation than other parolees. Critics of the experiment noted, however, that it might have been association with the two charismatic young instructors, Drs. Leary and Alpert, rather than the drug that produced the favorable results. In addition, Leary continued to take trips himself, to confer with other psychedelic enthusiasts such as Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg, and to gather around him a clique of Harvard young people dedicated to the LSD-like drugs. He remained little-known outside his small Cambridge circle.

In 1962, however, Leary's activities attracted the attention of the FDA and Massachusetts law-enforcement officials, who made inquiries. Harvard and the Harvard Crimson responded by warning students against taking LSD. The warnings were picked up by the mass media–– and were among the first nationally circulated publicity for LSD. As the FDA and state officials continued their investigation, a scandal broke. Leary, the focus of the scandal, became a national figure overnight. He used his new eminence to propagandize for LSD on a national scale. 

Leary and Alpert left Harvard under fire in the spring of 1963–– to the accompaniment of more nationwide publicity. Leary was thereafter harassed by both local and federal law-enforcement authorities, imprisoned for violation of the Marijuana Tax Act, released when the United States Supreme Court found portions of that Act unconstitutional 7 arrested again, reindicted, retried, and reimprisoned for the same marijuana offense. He escaped to Europe, avoided United States attempts to extradite him, and at this writing is living in Switzerland. Each stage in his strange odyssey, and each crackdown by law-enforcement authorities, added to his status as a martyr and culture hero–– and served to publicize LSD even more widely.

Medical authorities also contributed to the inflation of publicity with exaggerated and unsubstantiated reports of LSD effects, such as that it rotted the mind and destroyed motivation. The chairman of the New Jersey Narcotic Drug Study Commission in 1966 called LSD "the greatest threat facing the country today... more dangerous than the Vietnam war." 8

Confusing marijuana with LSD. The use of LSD was further encouraged and advertised by the antimarijuana publicity of the 1960s. Marijuana and LSD were constantly (and mistakenly) bracketed together in government and medical statements. Official pronouncements repeatedly labeled marijuana, like LSD, a "hallucinogen," leading people to conclude that the effects were similar. The fact that many of the warnings against marijuana were patently false (see Part VIII) helped destroy the credibility of LSD warnings from the same sources.

In addition, the shortage of marijuana around September 1969, when Mexican border crossings were closely screened for drugs in "Operation Intercept," caused many marijuana users who had no particular interest in LSD to turn to that drug in place of marijuana (see Page 442). This occurred in Canada as well as the United States; Canada's Le Dain Commission commented in 1970: "We have been told repeatedly that LSD use increased rapidly during periods when cannabis [marijuana] was in short supply. Drug users and non-users alike have suggested that the effectiveness of Operation Intercept in the United States in reducing the supply of marijuana available in Canada was a major cause of the increase in the demand for 'acid.' " 9

The period following Operation Intercept also brought stories of LSD use among "square" young people who hardly could have been attracted to the drug a few years earlier–– such as military personnel manning American missile defenses. United Press International reported one such instance in October 1969: 


MIAMI, Oct. 3 (UPI)–– At least 10 Army missile men manning Nike-Hercules batteries near Miami have been arrested on drug abuse charges in a joint crackdown by Army and civilian authorities.

Details came to light today when two enlisted men appeared in court on charges of possession or sale of LSD, a hallucinatory drug.

An Army spokesman at the 47th Artillery Brigade said the arrests took place over a four-month period with the Army's Criminal Intelligence Division working closely with civilian authorities. There were reports that other arrests were expected.

The information officer said elaborate security measures would prevent a "turned-on" GI from triggering a missile.

"No one man can work alone near the weapons which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads," the spokesman said. "And it takes roughly 15 men working in unison to accomplish a launch." 10 

LSD legislation. The barrage of publicity that popularized LSD was intensified by a wave of prohibitive legislation. New York's 1965 penalties for the "possession, sale, exchange, or giving away" of LSD or LSD-like drugs without a special license provided for a maximum of two years' imprisonment. Sponsors of a bill to increase the penalties cited two newspaper stories as illustrations of the LSD menace: one reported that a five-year-old Brooklyn girl had swallowed an LSD-impregnated sugar cube left in the refrigerator by her young uncle. 11 Her stomach was pumped–– a useless measure which, several physicians noted, was probably more traumatic than the drug effect–– but she recovered. The other newspaper story reported that a thirty-two-year-old ex-mental patient charged with the brutal murder of his mother-in-law claimed to have been "flying" on LSD, and to remember nothing about the homicide. 12 Law-enforcement officers promptly labeled this case an "LSD murder." (At the man's trial, psychiatrists testified that he suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity; the issue of insanity due to LSD was not raised.) 13 These two incidents–– the accidental poisoning and the homicide–– were interpreted as reasons to increase LSD criminal penalties in 1966 to a maximum of twenty, years imprisonment. The Speaker of the New York State Assembly, A. J. Travia, announced that the LSD problem was so urgent, be would defer hearings on the law increasing penalties until  after the law was passed. 14

The same year, Donald Grunsky introduced a bill in the California State Senate prohibiting the possession as well as the manufacture, sale, or importation of LSD and DMT. The same New York "LSD murder" case was referred to, and lurid color photographs of a psychotic reaction to LSD were circulated by the state attorney general's office. 15 Four witnesses testified against the bill in the California House of Representatives: a Jesuit priest, a psychologist, and two physicians. "They agreed that controls on LSD manufacture and distribution were needed," an observer later noted, "but argued that outlawing use and possession would result in the prosecution of young persons whose intentions were not antisocial; that its use was often nothing more than youthful adventure; and that some of the most creative students were among those experimenting with the drug. They further argued that fear of arrest would discourage users from seeking psychiatric aid should they need it." 16 I Convinced by these arguments, the House committee voted–– not to report out the bill. This action was promptly labeled "irresponsible" by some state senators; the state attorney general added that LSD and LSD-like drugs "present the most crucial drug problem which the U.S. has faced." Governor Pat Brown, gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan, and other candidates for office announced that they favored the bill; and a  Los Angeles Times editorial expressed amazement that the House committee was unaware of the LSD menace. The committee stood firm for a time, but as political pressure mounted, it compromised and ultimately yielded. The Grunsky bill became law in 1966. 

Three years later, Maryland's legislature, considering anti-LSD legislation, beard an hour of testimony by Dr. Charles Savage, director of medical research at Spring Grove State Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, whose experience with LSD in psychotherapy covered nineteen years. Dr. Savage stressed, as had other witnesses, that the nonmedical use of LSD constituted a serious problem, but he pointed out numerous reasons for concluding that making possession a criminal offense would exacerbate the problem. LSD distribution in Maryland, he testified, was still on a small-scale, amateur basis with low prices. When the California legislature outlawed LSD, the immediate effect was a trebling of the cost (from $3 to $10 per trip); this price increase had attracted additional LSD distributors. The same would no doubt happen in Maryland. "When you make it illegal, you make it more lucrative for sellers," Dr. Savage said. Nor would the law significantly interfere with LSD distribution. "It's... easily concealed. The law would be very difficult to enforce. Prohibition did not stop drinking and the marijuana laws have not stopped kids from smoking marijuana." Finally, Dr. Savage testified that the people likely to be imprisoned under such a law "are largely normal adolescents that are attracted to LSD... essentially good kids, the future leaders of our society. If they are picked up and charged, they become criminals.... The passage of more and more legislation creates more and more criminals. [The LSD user] gets the idea that the law is just one more silly game he has to play and he loses respect for it. 17

Nevertheless, the law was passed. 

The passage of federal and state anti-LSD laws was followed (a) by an increase in the availability of LSD, and (b) by an increase in the demand. The increased availability can be explained in part by the higher prices which law enforcement engendered, and which attracted more distributors. The increased demand can similarly be explained in part by the LSD publicity that legislative action engendered. As in the case of the opiates, the barbiturates, the amphetamines, glue, and other drugs, the warnings functioned as lures.

Curtailment of LSD research. From 1962 on, Sandoz distributed LSD with caution to qualified investigators. In 1965, as anti-LSD sentiment rose to new peaks and as laws against LSD were pending both in Congress and in the state legislatures, Sandoz decided to stop distributing the drug altogether. It recalled the supplies outstanding and turned them over to the National Institute of Mental Health, which doled out small quantities to a few researchers–– many of whom were experimenting only on animals. Dr. Harold A. Abramson, director of research in a large New York State mental hospital, cited the result at a 1965 LSD conference: 

It's virtually prohibited now for a private physician to use LSD unless his patient buys it on the black market and comes in with the drug. That is, unfortunately, the situation in the United States today. I must say that I have had patients who tell me, "If you won't give me LSD, I'll get it and then come in." Naturally, I disapprove of this.... I must say that some of these people had had LSD under suitable medical auspices. They are very intelligent, capable people, and it has helped them so much to find themselves. It has given them a sense of being somebody." 18 

Dr. Abramson summed up: "Everybody seems to be able to get LSD and similar drugs except physicians." 19

In Britain, when the Sandoz LSD supply was cut off, the medical profession took effective measures to secure an alternative supply; LSD of pharmaceutical quality was legally secured from Czechoslovakia, 20 and it is still in legal use, as the Malleson survey noted, by 37 British therapists. When the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence of the United Kingdom Home Office investigated this use in 1970, it concluded that LSD psychotherapy should continue: "There is no proof that LSD is an effective agent in psychiatry. Equally there is no proof that it is an exceptionally hazardous or prohibitively dangerous treatment, in clinical use, in the hands of responsible experts and subject to appropriate safeguards. We see no reason to recommend arrangements which would prohibit the continued careful clinical and experimental use of LSD by approved and responsible practitioners." 21

The Advisory Committee further concluded: "The supply of LSD for use in clinical practice should not be withheld from any doctor, whether in National Health Service or private practice, who can establish a claim to its legitimate use, and can show he has the proper facilities available for the care of a patient who is undergoing treatment, and for the storage of the drug." 22

The LSD chromosome scare, 1967. 1967. A wide variety of agents–– including X rays, virus infections, fever, caffeine, and in some studies aspirin have been shown to damage white-blood-cell chromosomes either in animals, in humans, or in test tubes. In March 1967, Dr. Marion Cohen of the State University of New York at Buffalo reported that LSD damaged white-blood-cell chromosomes in test tubes. 23 Unlike earlier chromosome studies of other agents, the LSD finding made front-page headlines from coast to coast. Reporters (and physicians as well) speculated in print and on television and radio that LSD, like thalidomide, might cause a vast epidemic of tragically malformed babies. *

* A relatively restrained and qualified warning entitled "LSD: Danger to Unborn Babies," which appeared in McCall's magazine for September 1967, was written by the senior author (E. M. B.) of this Consumers Union Report.

Subsequent chromosome studies produced mixed results; some seemed to exonerate LSD, while others seemed to confirm Dr. Cohen's findings. Only the confirmatory studies received wide attention in the mass media. The stories based on these studies usually failed to mention that damage to white-blood-cell chromosomes is far from a reliable index of genetic damage.

In response to the fear of deformed babies, many young people temporarily stopped taking the drug. Others continued on the theory presented in the mass media that the 'damage had already been done–– that a single dose of LSD is all that is needed to damage chromosomes. Some pregnant young women secured abortions, legal or illegal; some couples refrained from having babies they wanted; and some LSD users switched from LSD to mescaline, psilocybin, or other LSD-like drugs. (Since drugs sold under these names were often in fact LSD, little was accomplished by the switch.)

The facts soon overtook the warnings. All over the country, obviously healthy babies were born. to LSD users. A thorough California study of 120 "LSD babies" (to be reviewed in detail in Chapter 52) showed birth defects no more common than in babies of non-LSD users. Thus the credibility of official and medical pronouncements was once again severely shaken–– and LSD use increased again. 

Much the same sequence of events was experienced in Britain. A United Kingdom Home Office report stated in 1970: 

The possibility of genetic damage from LSD has received a great deal of publicity both here and in the United States, but the presentation has been one-sided. Those findings that suggest danger have had extensive coverage whilst those that did not suggest a hazard have not been noticed. We have little doubt that this has had a major effect in dissuading young people from experimenting with the drug. Witnesses made it clear to us, however, that among young people, particularly among the more sophisticated of those who might be tempted to experiment, any evidence of potential damage is coming to be discounted. It seems probable, therefore, that this risk is ceasing to be a major deterrent. 24

Chapter 50

1. Data supplied by Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, U.S. Department of justice.

2. The Amphetamines and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), Report by the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence, Home Office, Department of Health and Social Security (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970), p. 38.

3. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, p. 141.

4. William H. McGlothlin and David 0. Arnold, "LSD Revisited–– A Ten-Year Follow-up of Medical LSD Use,"  Archives of General Psychiatry, 24 January 1971); 35.

5. Arnold M. Ludwig and Jerome Levine, "Patterns of Hallucinogenic Drug Abuse,"  JAMA, 191 (January, 11, 1965): 93.

6. Timothy Leary,  High Priest (New York: World, 1968), p. 34.

7.  New York Times, May 20, 1969.

8. C. NV. Sandman, Jr., quoted by William H. McGlothlin, "Toward a Rational View of Hallucinogenic Drugs," MR-83, Institute of Government and Public Affairs (University of California, 1966), p. 4.

9. Le Dain Commission Interim Report, p. 139.

10. United Press International, in  New York Times, October 4, 1969.

11. New York Times, April 7, 1966.

12. New York Times, April 12, 1966.

13. James T. Barter and Martin Reite, "Crime and LSD; The Insanity Plea,"  American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 4 (October, 1969): 532.

14. Reported by William H. McGlothlin, "Toward a Rational View of Hallucinogenic Drugs," paper distributed at National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Drug Education Conference, Washington, D.C., November 7-8, 1966; unpublished.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Washington Post, February 12, 1969.

18. Harold A. Abramson, ed., in  The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy and Alcoholism (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), p. 328.

19. Ibid.

20. Home Office Report (1970), p. 41.

21. Ibid., P. 36.

22. Ibid., pp. 41-42.

23. M. M. Cohen, M. Marinello, and N. Bach, "Chromosomal Damage in Human Leukocytes Induced by Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,"  Science, 155 (1967): 1417-1419; and M. M. Cohen, K. Hirschhorn, and W. A. Frosch, "In Vivo and In Vitro Chromosomal Damage Induced by LSD-25,"  New England Journal of Medicine, 277 (1967): 1043-1049.

24. Home Office Report (1970), p. 34.


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