Why Doctors Can’t Give You LSD (But Maybe They Should)

First published on http://www.popsci.com, by Shaunacy Ferro April 16, 2013

“When David Nichols earned a Ph.D in medicinal chemistry from the University of Iowa in 1973 by studying psychedelics, he thought he would continue studying hallucinogens indefinitely. “I thought I would work on it for the rest of my life,” he says.

His timing was less than fortuitous. In 1970, the year after Nichols started grad school, Richard Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act, designed to clamp down on the manufacture and distribution of drugs in the U.S. The act classified hallucinogenic substances like LSD, DMT, psilocybin (the psychedelic alkaloid in mushrooms) and mescaline as Schedule I substances–the most restrictive use category, reserved for drugs with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Marijuana was also placed in this category, and 15 years later when ecstasy came onto the scene, MDMA was emergency-classified as a Schedule I substance as well. By contrast, cocaine, opium and morphine are Schedule II substances, meaning they can be prescribed by a doctor.

Despite some promising results from trials of psychedelics in treating alcoholism, psychiatric conditions and modeling mental illness, by the early ’70s, the government had tightened control of Schedule I substances, even for research. It’s only now that we’re starting to return to the notion that these drugs could be medicine.

If you wanted to kill your career, you did research on psychedelics.
Starting in the early ’90s, and as more scientists prove it’s feasible, increasingly in the last decade, researchers have been approved to conduct clinical trials with human subjects, and there are promising results showing that substances like MDMA could be useful in treating depression and curing PTSD, and that classical psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD could be a way to soothe anxiety in the terminally ill, treat alcoholism and more. But it’s still far from an easy field to break into.


In 1938, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD for the first time while studying ergots, a type of fungus. Though the pharmaceutical company that he worked for, Sandoz, didn’t have any interest in the compound, Hofmann found himself inexplicably drawn to it. Five years later, in the spring of 1943, he synthesized it again, noticing that it seemed to have unusual properties: After accidentally absorbing small amounts through his fingertips one day in the lab, Hofmann had to leave work early, under the effects of what he called “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition.” A few days later, he experimented with taking what he thought was a small dose of LSD, about 250 micrograms (a common dose now is more on the order of 100 micrograms), and proceeded to trip out of his mind, an experience he describes in his book LSD: My Problem Child.

Thinking that it could have medical uses, Hofmann and fellow researchers at Sandoz research laboratories began testing LSD in animals, and in 1947, the first paper looking at psychiatric LSD use in was published. Researchers saw in acid the potential to model psychotic disorders in healthy brains–a way for psychiatrists to induce in themselves the kinds of sensations their patients experienced as a result of mental illness. It could also be a way to break down boundaries, freeing the mind so patients could open up in psychotherapy.

Despite its current reputation, LSD wasn’t just for the Beatles and California hippies, it was seen as “an invaluable weapon to psychiatrists,” as Timemagazine called it in 1955. Research varied widely in legitimacy, but LSD was tested on an estimated 40,000 people around the world between 1950 and 1963.

The CIA saw insidious potential in LSD: They thought it could be a route to mind control.
In 1953, a pair of Canadian researchers tried to use high doses of LSD to scare alcoholics into sobriety, but discovered it instead produced a kind of mystical, near-religious experience for them that convinced them to stop drinking. They were onto something: A 2012 meta-analysis of LSD-alcoholism trials found though many of the trials from the late 1960s were too small to produce statistically-viable results on their own, in conjunction, they showed consistent, positive results.

At the same time, the government was also dipping its toes in an acid-filled pool. The CIA saw a more insidious potential in LSD: They thought it could be a truth serum or a route to mind control. Josef Mengele and other Nazi doctors had experimented on concentration camp prisoners with mescaline and other psychotropic drugs.In the midst of Cold War paranoia, the U.S. Navy thought mescaline could be used to get people to reveal information against their will. When the experiments ultimately proved unsuccessful, the government turned to Albert Hofmann’s new wonder drug, already beginning to emerge as a psychiatric juggernaut.” CLICK THE LINK BELOW TO READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE>>>>