On LSD's Medical Potential

On LSD's Medical Potential

This article originally published at the-libertarian.co.uk.

As I mentioned in a recent article, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is funding MDMA PTSD research as its top priority. However, the organization also seeks to allow the medical use of certain other Schedule I drugs. These include the well-known psychedelic drug LSD, so called as an abbreviation for its German name, Lysergsäure-diathylamid (in English, lysergic acid diethylamide). This substance was largely popularized by former Harvard University psychology professor Timothy Leary, and the resulting hysteria and prohibition has stifled its legitimate medical use for years.

Leary was expelled from the Harvard faculty for his increasingly unscientific experiments with the drug, which disregarded the restrictions imposed by the university. He aggressively proselytized for its use among all people, including those under 18. He famously advised his listeners to “turn on, tune in” (i.e. take LSD in order to alter their understanding of reality), and “drop out,” which many took to mean rejecting mainstream activities such as education and employment.

LSD molecule

Image credit: www.gilles-arnaud-sphere.com.

The substance, though, originated with someone who never shared Leary’s views. Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was both the first to synthesize the substance in 1938 and, five years later, the first to consume it. He recounts his accidental discovery of the drug’s effects in his book LSD: My Problem Child. Sandoz Laboratories, Hofmann’s employer, began distributing the drug for medical and scientific use in 1947.

Hofmann characterizes Leary, whom he met in Switzerland in 1971, as “a man who truly soared high in the clouds,” and because of this “tended to underrate or completely overlook practical difficulties, unpleasant facts, and dangers.” Leary, however, felt that “it had been his fateful historic role to make LSD known worldwide,” and thus minimized any problems he might cause in pursuing his mission.

The drug caught the attention of some psychoanalysts, who believed that it allowed the release of repressed thoughts and memories in their patients, as well as reducing general anxiety. Some modern therapists will testify to the capacity of high doses of the drug to temporarily eliminate the ego, leading to a fundamental shift in attitude.

Early studies on more concrete problems showed promising results as well. Studies in the 1960s concerning alcoholism, for example, have recently been formally re-analyzed. Fifty-nine percent of patients who were given LSD showed a reduction in alcohol abuse, compared with 39% who were not. These benefits were maintained for at least six months from a single dose.

Hofman himself cautioned against the use of LSD without medical supervision, or by those in a depressed or generally unstable state of mind. The customary use of the substance which soon developed in psychotherapy was limited to adults, which Hofmann agrees was a wise restriction, and required the therapist to prepare the patient thoroughly for the experience beforehand.

However, such precautions were often not taken by the general public, who in the mid- 1960s increasingly used the drug recreationally. Thus LSD began to accumulate bad publicity and negative myths surrounding its use. Many publicized cases involved accidents apparently caused by the user’s belief that they were invulnerable or could fly. Numerous people were admitted to hospitals after taking LSD and apparently having panic attacks.

So-called “bad trips,” involving paranoia and/or panic attacks, were actually, as Hofmann put it, not as common as one might think “on the basis of reports that were sensationally exaggerated by the mass media.” One survey estimated that only 24 percent of LSD users ever had what they considered a bad trip, and 50 percent of these actually saw the “bad” experience as beneficial. Adverse reactions were particularly common in people who already suffered from psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

Further, some alleged horrors of LSD were baseless claims. LSD was for example accused of being responsible for chromosome damage and birth defects. Upon closer investigation, these claims proved to be unfounded.

Sandoz Laboratories responded to the negative publicity by ceasing production of LSD in August 1965. In the United States, LSD has been federally prohibited since 1968. Under federal law, the possession of any amount of LSD is now punishable by up to a year in prison for a first offense. The sale, or possession with intent to sell, of less than 1 gram of LSD is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Since 1970, the drug has been classified in Schedule I. This means that as far as the law is concerned, it has absolutely no accepted medical uses, no potential for safe use even with medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.

However, no one seriously claims that the drug is addictive. Taking LSD on multiple days in a row would actually have very little effect after the first dose, because a single dose produces a high tolerance for the drug. Further, there is no known lethal dose of LSD in humans, which is very unusual for a mind-altering drug.

As Hofmann put it, the restrictive laws “had little influence on LSD consumption in the drug scene, yet…continue to hinder medicinal-psychiatric use and LSD research in biology and neurology, because many researchers dread the red tape that is connected with…a license for the use of LSD.” He adds that many doctors rejected the psychiatric use of LSD thanks to “its depiction as an “insanity drug.”

Scientific interest in LSD has finally increased again in recent years. Along with the already mentioned application for alcoholism, the drug has shown positive results in the treatment of anxiety in the terminally ill. A Swiss study of LSD for this purpose was just completed in 2011, and was the first such study done on the drug in at least 35 years. Earlier research, which Hofmann makes reference to, had showed potential for LSD as a treatment for pain in terminal patients.

The drug also shows promise for treating the excruciating condition known as cluster headaches. The headaches have no clear physical cause, but have been characterized as the greatest pain human beings are capable of experiencing. Current evidence suggests that even doses significantly lower than those taken recreationally can relieve cluster headaches for months at a time.

The drug’s legal status, though, continues to make its medical use a crime, and to make research into it difficult. Reconsideration of these laws is long overdue.