ANALYSIS OF THE BENEFITS AND DANGERS OF LSD
A thorough analysis of the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) and its effect on humans are given. The various uses of the drug are also examined throughout several decades, beginning with its first synthesis in 1938 as well as first use by humans five years later to its current usage today by young adolescents. Various myths have also surrounded the capacity of the drug. For example early users believed that it could alter your personality and way of thinking or pave the way toward spiritual enlightenment, while in later decades, anti-drug campaigns led people to believe that the drug could cause insanity or genetic damage. The realities associated with the drug are that it can be used for psychoanalysis and other studies of the mind. Yet there is always the possibility the user may undergo panic attacks and hysteria from the inability to cope with the intense cortical overload. In the end it seems that our understanding of the properties of LSD are still very limited and it would be hard to proclaim judgment over whether or not the drug would be more harmful or beneficial in our current applications of it in scientific research.
Drug use has been an undeniable factor in human life. From Aspirin and Caffeine to Cannabis Sativa and Opium, its uses vary widely from medical purposes to substance abuse. History has also forced our society to cope with the reality that the problem will always exist as long as people can find ways to synthesize and obtain them. Even so, an effective way of combating this problem is to have a thorough understanding of how these drugs work, and how they affect the user. One type of drug that has created much controversy over its possible benefits and/or dangers would be the psychoactive drug Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD).
The Psychoactive Drug Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
The drugs that have won the greatest attention in today’s drug abuse problems fall under the category of psychoactive drugs, or drugs that can alter ones perception, way of thinking, and behavior. Of these, hallucinogens have the ability to “alter [the] consciousness in profound ways.” (Williams & Knight, 1994) They have also been labeled illusionogenic, psychedelic, and mind-expanding, depending on whether scientists or users are talking about them. They include mescaline psilocybin-psylocyn (“magic mushrooms”), phencyclidine (PCP) and methylenedioxamphetamine (MDA). Of this group, however, LSD, commonly known as “acid,” is by far the most potent; it is approximately 100 times stronger than psilocybin and 3,000 times stronger than mescaline. Having been synthesized in the Laboratory in 1938 for the first time, LSD use largely grew over the years. By the 1960’s many people had already tried the drug and the numbers continued to rise with the onset of the hippy movement. Today its use has even spread to the club and rave scene (a seeming modern derivative of the hippy movement), to house parties, and even to recreational use. However the use of LSD was deemed illegal in 1965 under Schedule H of Canada’s Food and Drugs Act shortly after it had gained worldwide popularity. As a result its possession is only allowed to qualified laboratory and research personnel conducting approved clinical and experimental investigations. Consequences of possession include a maximum penalty of $1,000 and six months imprisonment, for subsequent offenders there is a maximum penalty of $2,000 and imprisonment for a year, and if tried by indictment, LSD possession can carry a maximum penalty of $5,000 and three years imprisonment. (DEA Publications, 2001)
It might seem strange that with the strict penalties and anti-drug campaigns during recent years LSD is still around and so widely used today. Even so, many of the effects of LSD on the human body are still unknown. So what do we know of the effects of LSD? Well, when ingested, LSD is absorbed easily from the gastrointestinal tract, and rapidly reaches a high concentration in the blood. It is circulated throughout the body and, subsequently, to the brain. After two hours, less than 10 percent of the drug is still active; the rest is broken into inactive by-products by the liver. Even though only a small portion of each dose stays biologically active (and even less—only 0.01 percent—ever crosses into the brain), that tiny amount is plenty. How LSD produces its effects is still only partially understood, but we do know that it alters the action and supply of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to make sense of all the scents and sights and sounds that we perceive from the world around us. Because LSD is structurally similar to the serotonin molecule 5-HT, it is believed that LSD’s affinity to 5-HT2 receptors causes the mediation, not modulation (what 5-HT does), of specific functions. (Kawasaki & Purvin, 1996) One doctor described that once LSD is inside the body, it interacts with the “deepest biological circuits and engines of human consciousness” (Stoneman, 1998). The result is a temporary overload of the central nervous system circuitry. The user may experience sensory crossovers such as the visualization of sound or the hearing of colors, often referred to as synesthesia.
While most of the specifics of LSD’s actions on the brain are still a mystery, its effects on perception and thought have been documented in numerous studies. LSD begins to affect the body 30 to 90 minutes after ingestion and lasts six to nine hours. Initial effects are mostly physical such as dilated pupils, increased body temperature, muscular weakness, rapid reflexes, decreased appetite and increased blood pressure. Later effects are concentrated mainly on thought and sensory processes. As the drug begins to take its effect on the user’s neurochemistry, visual, auditory, and tactile sensations mix and match in synesthesia. During the “peak,” perceptions and thoughts can take on the “fluidity of dream states.” Other common effects include distractibility, rapid mood swings, depersonalization, and distortions in the user’s perception of their own body. In addition there have been many scare stories of “bad trips” on LSD and the subsequent damage to the body. Still, the drug rarely causes serious physical problems. Users may suffer a “crash” period, though, which can lurk in the background of everyday consciousness for a few days after the effects of LSD wear off.
Truths Behind LSD
Many myths have also surrounded the use of LSD. In the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, an article describes how one patient developed catatonia one week following the consumption of LSD. While being the only case of reported catatonia psychosis developing after the ingestion, the fact that it happened was enough to suggest the need for a new diagnostic category for the pathology. It was also initially believed that LSD could “‘open the doors of perception’ or [lead the way to] spiritual enlightenment…” but these ideas were quickly dispelled following the subsequent rumors of permanent insanity, over-dosage and deaths relating to the use of the drug. (Williams & Knight, 1994) Studies have shown that LSD does not cause cancer, brain damage, or chromosome breakage as confirmed by several studies. For example in one study in Mutation Research, tests revealed that “in those experimental organisms tested, using accepted techniques, LSD proved to be, at best, a weak mutagen, if mutagenic at all.” (Cohen & Shiloh, 1978) The doctors therefore ruled out chromosomal breakage, and regarded the cases of Leukemia in relation to 3 LSD users as being entirely coincidental. Furthermore, despite the potency, it is virtually impossible to overdose on it. Yet that does not in any way mean that the drug is safe for regular usage. LSD can (and does) cause severe psychological discomfort, in some cases even trauma as was confirmed by the studies of Abraham and Alderidge in their journal Adverse consequences of LSD. “Evidence supports the association of LSD use with panic reactions, prolonged schizoaffective psychosis and post-hallucinogen perceptual disorder, the latter being present continually for as long as five years…. [And so]. A hypothetical long term molecular mechanism of adverse effects is proposed.” (Abraham & Alderidge, 1994). It is likewise noted in Problems of toxic psychosis as illustrated on the example of the so-called LSD psychosis, that there were observations of several forms of psychosis in LSD users. In several case studies in another journal by Heniy David Abraham MD and Anitra Mamen MD, the doctors observed hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), which “is a chronic, continuous, and possibly permanent disorder of the visual apparatus after the use of LSD.” (Abraham & Mamen, 1996) HPPD is otherwise known as “flashbacks” or the reemergence of effects that the user experiences awhile after the use of LSD has discontinued. Since LSD is not retained in the body, they conclude that these flashbacks are probably psychological rather than physical in origin. Triggers can include stress, drug use, or cues associated with a past “trip.” In one study the symptoms of HPPD frequently occurred after an LSD user smoked cannabis. Likewise in another Journal found within Psychiatry Research, 44 LSD-induced HPPD subjects were observed. Results indicated that the subjects had a “shorter VER (visual evoked response) latency, consistent with prior animal and human data on response to acute LSD administration which suggest LSD-induced cortical disinhibition…” confirming the disruption of the sensory pathways. (Abraham & Duffy, 1996) Further still, there was another study where several young people who occasionally taken LSD had developed palinopsia, a condition under HPPD where damage to the nondominant parietooccipital cortex can cause prolonged after images even after the cessation of LSD usage. In the case of the three young people, their palanopsia was induced by reaction to medication containing clomiphene citrate. The first case involved a 21 year old college female who had occasionally taken LSD. Though she had never experienced flashbacks, symptoms of palanopsia occurred after the use of anesthetics prior to the extraction of the patient’s wisdom teeth. Even after a 4 month period of abstinence from the drug, the subject noted the visual preservation of after images for as long as 20 seconds. In a similar case, the doctors reviewed the case of a 17 year old boy who began to experience symptoms of palinopsia 2 months after his last ingestion of LSD. He experienced the prolonging of after images for up to a minute. In the last case study a 15 year old boy who had a history of narcotic usage began using LSD exclusively in 1992. He saw what he described as “ghost trails” left in the wake of an image in motion. Various other findings from electro physiologic studies “support the notion that LSD may cause permanent alterations of the visual pathways.” (Kawasaki & Purvin, 1996)
Although “acid flashbacks”—like other anxiety reactions—seldom last longer than 90 minutes, they can seem unendurable, since they tend to focus on unpleasant aspects of bad trips. Many users experience similar unpleasant reactions to LSD. Fear, anxiety, and depression may occur, even with experienced users who have had no prior adverse reactions. Going through a “bad trip,” users feel that they are losing their identity, disintegrating into nothingness, and that there is no reality. “Pseudo-hallucinations give way to terrifying true hallucinations, sometimes resulting in violence, homicide, or suicide.” (DEA Publications, 2001) In some cases, this psychotic state lasts several days or even longer. Because adverse effects are particularly common among new users, early LSD trips are usually taken in the company of experienced users who can often help curb acute panic reactions. No deaths resulting exclusively from LSD overdose have ever been reported. Dosage has also stabilized too. Today LSD averages 20-80 micrograms in contrast to 150-250 microgram doses common in the ’60s. Cases of suicide, however, have occurred during or following LSD intoxication. Other results of violent or hazardous behavior include accidental (sometimes bizarre) fatalities, homicides, and self-mutilations. Unlike most other drug users such as those who use crack cocaine, a large amount of users who try LSD, take the drug occasionally and refrain from using it too often. There seem to be no forms of physical or psychological dependence to the drug. Several factors provide LSD with a virtually inherent regulator to its regular use. First, the duration of the effects, which may persist for up to 12 hours or more, ensures that the user will not need to purchase the drug on a rapidly recurring basis. Second, tolerance to the drug develops rapidly if used daily, rendering its repeated ingestion useless, and cannot be overcome by ingestion of increased dosages. Third, the uncertain and mixed effects, especially adverse reactions, lead to erratic instances of LSD use. Finally, the extremely powerful and intense hallucinations often prompt users to abstain from using LSD, especially when users experience a bad trip. When a bad trip does occur, they tend to take two main forms – panic attacks and psychotic reactions. The most common adverse reaction to LSD, panic usually centers on a fear of dying or going crazy. Serious breaks with reality; psychotic episodes usually include hallucinations and delusions. LSD-fueled psychotic episodes are like bad trips that do not end when the drug wears off. Such reactions may be linked to the “unmasking” of pre-existing problems and may require professional intervention. (DEA Publications, 2001) As a result chronic LSD use may result in prolonged depression and anxiety.
The Benefits of LSD
While a great deal of literature tends to focus on the negative aspects of LSD use, many ignore the more practical uses it serves along the lines of psychoanalysis and therapeutic value. In the Journal of Asthma Research, an article documents an LSD study of sexual conflicts in eczema and asthma. In it they use LSD as an adjunct to psychoanalytic therapy in order to ascertain the value of a key dream that the subject had. In the case study, the subject had bouts of severe eczema and asthma, which were accompanied by depression. The subject also experienced a recurring dream that bothered her. Upon use of LSD, the subject was able to identify the meaning behind the beetle bug within her dream. The findings revealed the female patient’s fear of lesbianism. Further study associated a second beetle bug dream with her father who was a quite person. The two associations revealed a “psychological struggle for femininity, induced by the confused identification led to a threat of penetration by the sting of the beetle bug and, where a man was involved, penetration by the penis.” (Abramson, 1976) Subsequent testing under the influence of LSD led to more discoveries about the patient’s life and helped to resolve her fear and conflicts involving her sexuality. In another study within Acta Psychiatrica Scandinaviea, “a detailed account is given of the course and outcome of the treatment with LSD of an incapacitating compulsive-neurotic condition in a 30 year old male.” (Brandrup & Vanggaard, 1977) According to the study, treatment with LSD took place over 18 months from 1962, and the patient has since been cured symptomatically of the disorder. In addition the psychologists noticed “a fortunate change in his general personality” (Brandrup & Vanggaard, 1977). However the two also discussed how important constant supervision, observation and caution were, especially when using LSD on certain types of patients.
Albert Hofmann while testing a compound he’d discovered five years before, was accidentally contaminated when the chemical soaked into his body through his fingertips. What followed was the world’s first LSD trip. Soon after its popularity waxed worldwide, the Psychedelic Revolution was born. Since then it has been said to have changed the way writers write, philosophers philosophize and pop musicians pop. It is also said to have altered art and spirituality. While it has been hailed as a guide to the innermost recesses of pure understanding, at the same time it has also been vilified as a recipe for personal disaster. Well whoever’s right all depends on how you look at it? And many people have had the opportunity to look at it. In a 1999 survey, 12.2 percent of U.S. high school seniors admitted using it during the previous year, while an estimated 16.4 million Americans have tried it at least once. Since the drug is as potent and potentially risky as ever, a resurgence of LSD research is definitely needed. Because even after 50 – plus years LSD is still as mysterious today as it ever was. And for people who don’t know what they’re getting into when they try LSD, it can just as easily transition from a pleasurable new experience to the horror trip of one’s life.