Acid flashback: LSD's clinical comeback

Acid flashback: LSD's clinical comeback

CultureMay 09, 2014

We’ve replaced the witty, attention-grabbing opening sentence we spent hours crafting with a question for you about drugs — acid, specifically.

What what the world look like with LSD as a prescription medication? What if doctors could dose you with LSD to lighten your anxiety and banish your depression? What if prisons could use it to trick prisoners into thinking they’d been imprisoned for 1,000 years in eight hours? What if one particularly hearty trip could convince you to trade whiskey for water or cocaine for a slightly less habit-forming cola?

We’re not talking about what kind of batshit visuals you’d get or whether everyone would glob together in some kind of peaceful aura orgy and end world hunger with song and chill vibes. What if we could improve mental health, reduce prison populations and roundhouse kick addiction in the face just by making people hallucinate little green men?

Those were the kinds of questions researchers asked six decades ago when LSD was a favorite, if not bastard, son of psychological research. Poised to take over the mental-health world as a cure-all as effective as it was fun to take throughout the ’50s and ’60s, its clinical capabilities have been repeatedly confirmed.

And explored. Acid’s rampant recreational use and subsequent classification as a Schedule 1 substance put a global damper on clinical studies for nearly four decades, ushering in a standstill in the arena of psychedelic research. Haven’t been prescribed acid for your ADD or made-up erectile dysfunction lately? That’s why.

But today, that’s changing. Fueled by a host of promising studies of psilocybin (mushrooms’ psychedelic compound) and MDMA (molly’s psychoactive compound) as well as an upswing in funding from private sources, our dear friend acid’s making a clinical comeback.

Slowly but surely, the drug is making its way back into laboratories as pioneering researchers consider it as a way to treat health problems legal pharmaceuticals don’t treat well.

How LSD got banned in the first place is actually kind of a funny story. 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 he worked for didn't have any interest in the compound, Hofmann fucked around with it to no end, accidentally dosing himself in the process. 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 goddamned mind, unaware his happy accident would yield a compound that would change the face of mental health research.

Thinking that it could have medical uses, Hofmann began testing LSD in animals, and in 1947, the first paper looking at psychiatric LSD use 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. As time went on, it became seen as an “invaluable weapon to psychiatrists,” as Time Magazine reported in 1955, and the drug was tested on more than 40,000 people between 1950 and 1963.

Through the mid-1960s, more than 1,000 scientific publications chronicled the ways that LSD could be used as an aid to make psychotherapy more effective. A slew of clinical LSD trials revealed it to be a viable treatment for depression, autism, anxiety, schizophrenia and chronic pain in cancer patients too.

During LSD’s bustling research era, even the CIA wanted some. The government saw a more insidious potential in acid, hoping it would turn out to be a truth serum or a route to mind control they could use to get info out of commie bastards and the like. For the next 10 years, the CIA and U.S. Navy conducted top-secret trials on LSD’s mind control potential, which while inconclusive and shrouded in mystery, were a testament to the feverish amount of high-level research going on about the drug.

Then, as quickly as it appeared in the research world, LSD disappeared. Following an outbreak of recreational use, fueled by (and we’re not kidding) The Beatles, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and other cultural icons, LSD became sensationalized as a fatally dangerous hippie drug that would fuck you up for good if you got your grubby, virgin hands on it. Its rampant recreational use concerned the era’s conservative elite, who hemmed and hawed at its association with free love and flower children.

National laws and international conventions put a stop to all of that. LSD research ground to a standstill after the substance was outlawed in the United States in 1966 in response to soaring recreational use and a tainted image. Before long, LSD was classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it had "no known medical use,” an outcome which seemed to be overwhelmingly political rather than scientific.

The Schedule-1 classification of LSD and other hallucinogenic substances in 1970 was a huge blow to research. During the "Just Say No" campaigns of the 1980s, researchers weren’t willing to jump through all of the hoops necessary to study stigmatized drugs. But by the ’90s, attitudes had begun to change, and there was a flurry of studies on psychedelic drugs.

By the 2000s, a small but growing community began to venture into psychedelic research. One study showed psilocybin from mushrooms eased anxiety and depression in patients with cancer, while another proved MDMA to be an effective therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. These studies, backed by support from the FDA, piqued a resurgence in clinical interest in using psychedelics to treat mental illness.

Even with renewed interest in tripping in the name of science, LSD remained absent from the party … until about a month ago. This March, researchers in Switzerland published a study about how LSD influences end-of-life-anxiety in cancer patients in the Journal of Nervousand Mental Disease. It was the first of its kind in 40 years, and the first study to slice through the bureaucratic red tape, secure private funding, and flip the bird to governmental agencies who tried to inhibit its aspirations.

In the study, researchers tested the effect of LSD on the end-of-life anxiety of 12 terminally ill cancer patients. Eight of the 12 patients were given a full dose of LSD, while the other four were given a placebo. They would then sleep on a couch in an office and trip balls while lead researcher Peter Gasser recorded their reactions. The effects of the acid lasted up to 10 hours, and while some patients reported distressful trips, others had "mystical experiences."

One even reported meeting his long-dead father in the cosmos of another dimension. His father nodded at him approvingly, like some sort of dreamy sequence out of Contact.

No matter the momentary reaction, all of the participants who received a full dose of LSD improved by about 20 percent on standard measures of anxiety. The mental adventures they went on appeared to ease the existential malaise of their last days. The improvements in anxiety levels held up for about a year while the patients survived. The patients uniformly reported a reduction in anxiety.

More surprising are the patients who received the placebo dose and became more anxious than before. After the trial, those patients were allowed to “cross over” and try the full dose, after which the sparkly portals their mind traveled through appeared to ease their anxiety. “Their anxiety went down and stayed down,” said Gasser, who conducted the therapy.

But following the trial, a reduction in anxiety wasn't the only thing people felt. “I will say I have been more emotional since the study ended, and I don’t mean always cheerful,” said one of the participants after the trial. “But I think it’s better to feel things strongly— better to be alive than to merely function.”

Researchers reported neither the experimental dose (200 µg of LSD) nor the active placebo (20 µg of LSD) "produced any drug-related severe, adverse events. That is, no panic reaction, no suicidal crisis or psychotic state, and no medical or psychiatric emergencies requiring hospitalization." That’s promising news for future LSD research, which has battled decades of anti-psychedelic hysteria claiming the drug is unsafe for clinical trials.

To be fair, that study took place in Switzerland, land of limited government involvement in individual biochemistry. (Switzerland has some of the most liberal laws regarding both assisted suicide and drug trials in the world). So far, no clinical trials on LSD have taken place on U.S. soil since the drug’s classification as Schedule 1.

We’re getting there though. In 2012, researchers from Harvard performed a meta-analysis of LSD-alcoholism trials from the decades of yore and found consistent, positive results suggesting the drug might be useful in helping people put down the mango Burnett’s and pick up the pieces of their lives. In fact, the analysis showed a whopping 59 percent of the time, LSD was successful in helping people kick their booze habit cold turkey. “There is evidence for a clear and consistent beneficial effect of LSD for treating alcohol dependency,” wrote the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which published the study.

Sobering up wasn't the only thing acid helped with, analysis concluded. "It was not unusual for patients following their LSD experience to become much more self-accepting, to show greater openness and accessibility, and to adopt a more positive, optimistic view of their capacities to face future problems,” the author of one of the studies said.

Surprised? Well, given how LSD works, you shouldn’t be. LSD binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, and by doing so, alters imagination and perception. If you want to know what that feels like without launching into hyperspace yourself, just ask George Harrison, who described his first acid trip to Rolling Stone in 1965.

“Dave Crosby and Jim McGuinn of The Byrds had also come up to the house, and I don't know how, but Peter Fonda was there. He kept saying, 'I know what it's like to be dead, because I shot myself.' He'd accidentally shot himself at some time and he was showing us his bullet wound. He was very uncool.”

Well said, George.

So far, we’ve covered the past and present of LSD research, but what about the future? The future, it would seem, places LSD back in the role of psychological bully, a part it hasn’t played since the CIA tried to use it as a mind-control serum in the ’50s and ’60s.

A team of Oxford scholars recently proposed using LSD, along with futuristic technologies such as mind-transfer, to trick prisoner’s brains into thinking they’ve been in prison for 1,000 years, even if it’s really only been few hours. In essence, it would be a way to get people in and out of prison quicker. They propose LSD be used to solve the overcrowding problem in today’s prisons.

With 2.4 million people behind bars in the U.S. alone, many of them for non-violent offenses that cost taxpayers $51 billion a year for drug-related offenses alone … the argument in favor of forced drug trips exists. The ethical considerations around this proposal are staggering.

This begs the question as to why so few clinical LSD studies occur. We can think of a few people who would willingly volunteer (shoutout to our interns).  

The answer, unfortunately, is a tangled orgy of bureaucratic red tape. In U.S. universities, for studies involving people, not only does the research have to be approved by the university's institutional review board, as do most clinical trials, but it also has to be approved by the FDA and the researcher must be licensed to store and work with the drug by the DEA. The DEA requires intense security when it comes to storing the drugs, lest any entrepreneurial college student elect to partake, and the licenses are specifically issued to one researcher in one lab. If you move rooms, you need the DEA's approval.

In clinical work, the drugs have to be manufactured in a specific pharmaceutical-grade manner to ensure quality. All that, and we haven’t even mentioned the extraordinary difficulty of getting public funding for trials of Schedule 1 drugs. Researchers rely almost exclusively on private funding from the rich and famous to conduct their studies.

So, you can see how hard it is to push something like an LSD trial through the maze of bureaucracy … but not hard enough to keep today’s researchers from trying. That, ladies and gentleman, is why we’re going out on a limb and calling it: Acid is back.

Although today’s LSD research is in forced infancy, when combined with decades of prior trials, an encouraging picture of acid’s clinical comeback emerges. With the support of recent clinical efforts at elucidating the effect of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA on mental illnesses, it would seem it’s only a matter of time before research points your doctor toward prescribing you LSD for your “shit knees” or “frequent anxiety about fuzzy white things.”

It might be too early to tell how far this goes, but one thing’s for sure … we’re really looking forward to treating our “crippling menu anxiety” in the future.