Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, is a lab-created psychedelic drug. It is common for users to have visual or auditory hallucinations.
The possession of LSD has been illegal in the United States since October 1968. However, it hasn’t stopped countless people from using the drug and going on a wild psychedelic adventure.
Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of LSD. This is perhaps an important first step on the road to full decriminalization across the United States.
Users of LSD owe their experiences to a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann, who synthesized it and acted as the guinea pig. This article looks at the history of LSD, including Hofmann’s notorious ‘Bicycle Day’ episode. It also briefly investigates influential individuals who championed the use of the drug and pushed the boundaries of the mind.
Albert Hofmann & Bicycle Day
The origins of Bicycle Day go back to November 16, 1938. This was the day Hofmann synthesized LSD while researching lysergic acid derivatives in Sandoz Laboratories, his employer in Basel, Switzerland.
His goal was to find an analeptic as a result of his work with ergot, a parasitic fungus. He had no clue that the drug has psychedelic effects. However, the LSD discovery was considered ‘unremarkable’ after tests on sedated animals, and a disappointed Hofmann shelved his creation for five years.
On April 16, 1943, Hofmann decided to take another look and changed history. He accidentally absorbed a small amount of LSD while re-synthesizing it. In a report written for a fellow chemist, Albert Stoll, Hofmann described his unusual experience.
He outlined a “stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors” that lasted for a couple of hours. Hofmann had become the first person to trip, and he was only getting started.
In the Name of Science
Hofmann was aware of his LSD exposure and was convinced it caused his strange experience. However, he wanted to make sure, so he decided to consume a larger dose deliberately. In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, Hofmann claimed that “LSD spoke to me.”
On April 19, three days after his first accidental use of LSD, Hofmann used 250 micrograms. For reference, studies such as this one published in Neuropsychopharmacology involve volunteers using up to 200 micrograms. Legend has it that the chemist took the dose at precisely 4:20 pm.
Within an hour, Hofmann experienced significant and rapid changes in perception. It is worth remembering that World War II was still raging. Restrictions imposed at this time meant that cars were not permitted on the streets of Basel. As a result, Hofmann and his assistant cycled home.
Hofmann expected an intense experience, so he asked for help to get home, and it was a wise decision!
The Magical Mystery Tour
The term ‘Bicycle Day’ was not coined until 1985. This was when Thomas B. Roberts, a professor at Northern Illinois University, invented it. Roberts hosted the first celebration at his house on April 19. He originally wanted to have the party on April 16, the day of Hofmann’s accidental exposure. However, it fell on a weekday, so the day of the famous Hofmann bike ride was deemed more convenient.
Back in 1943, Hofmann wasn’t feeling in a celebratory mood. He was consumed with an array of wild, confusing, and terrifying thoughts during his ride. A feeling of intense anxiety followed him home, where the trip only intensified. He alternated between thinking his neighbor was a witch, the drug had poisoned him, and he was going insane.
A doctor came to check on Hofmann and found that physically, the chemist was fine, barring his extremely dilated pupils.
In Hofmann’s mind, time, space, and meaning were distorted. The world was no longer as he once saw it. He was petrified for several hours until he finally got clarity. A doctor came to check on Hofmann and found that physically, the chemist was fine, barring his extremely dilated pupils.
Once he was helped to bed, Hofmann relaxed and finally enjoyed the trip. Now, his sense of fear was replaced by one of wonder. Different shapes and colors danced delightedly inside his mind.
A New Day Dawns
The next day, Hofmann awoke and felt fantastic. Later, he wrote: “The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted the entire day.” He was also surprised that there were no hangover-type effects given the intensity of the experience.
Hofmann believed that LSD could have an important impact in psychiatry, neurology, and pharmacology. However, he couldn’t imagine anyone taking acid for recreational purposes, given his bizarre experience. Over the decades, his attitude towards LSD softened, and Hofmann consumed it on dozens of occasions.
Many other people followed Hofmann’s lead and enjoyed unique experiences. Some of them pushed the boundaries and pushed for the legalization of the drug. Let’s celebrate three of them below.
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert
Sandoz Laboratories brought LSD to America’s attention in 1949. The company believed the drug had potential clinical applications. During the 1950s, researchers published several positive reports on LSD in publications such as Time. However, there was a huge backlash against the drug in the 1960s, where it was considered another means of eroding ‘Western middle-class values.’
On May 30, 1966, Nevada and California became the first states to ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of LSD. Within a couple of years, the drug was prohibited throughout the United States.
The movement against LSD in the 1960s didn’t stop Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert from experimenting with the drug. Both were psychology lecturers at Harvard University.
Leary initially experimented with psilocybin in 1960 and was soon introduced to LSD. He performed experiments using the drug and claimed they produced no suicides, murders, bad trips, or psychotic breaks as claimed by anti-drug campaigners.
Virtually all of the volunteers in his experiments reported feeling positive mystical experiences. Meanwhile, Harvard disapproved of Leary’s work, and the CIA was also closely watching his activities.
Alpert worked at Harvard at the same time. In 1961, he joined Leary in experimenting with LSD, psilocybin, and other hallucinogenic drugs. Together, they founded the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) in 1962. They created the non-profit specifically to conduct studies in the religious use of psychedelics.
Harvard dismissed both men in 1963. Leary was officially fired for leaving his classes without notice or permission. Alpert was accused of giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student.
Continuing the Fight
Unperturbed, Leary and Alpert moved to New York with their IFIF followers. The group was renamed the Castalia Foundation, and at their HQ in Millbrook, they continued to experiment with LSD and other psychedelics. Interestingly, the Foundation hosted weekend retreats where the goal was to experience a psychedelic trip without drugs. Activities such as yoga, meditation, and group therapy were used instead.
In 1964, Leary and Alpert published a book called The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They argued that the psychedelic experience was akin to how the death/rebirth experience is outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In 1966, they reorganized the Foundation under the name ‘League for Spiritual Discovery’ (LSD). The aim was to legalize the drug under the freedom of religion loophole. However, within a year, Leary was evicted from Millbrook, and the League was closed down shortly after.
Alpert went to India for a while, and Leary received a 30-year prison sentence for the possession of half a marijuana cigarette! However, the decision was reversed, and the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was deemed unconstitutional in 1969. The U.S. Government responded by classifying cannabis, LSD, and other drugs as Schedule I substances under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
Alpert, who later called himself Ram Dass, denounced Leary in 1974. They reconciled at a Harvard Reunion in 1983 and met again before Leary died in 1996. While their LSD research helped popularize the drug, Leary, in particular, is blamed for the suppression of research into psychedelics for the next few decades.
Ken Kesey and the Acid Test
Ken Kesey is another man who helped bring LSD into the public consciousness. He volunteered to be part of a CIA study called Project MKULTRA in 1959. The project looked into the effects of drugs such as LSD, cocaine, mescaline, and psilocybin. This experience inspired Kesey to write his bestselling novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in 1962.
The money generated from the book (and the sale of his house) enabled Kesey to purchase a ranch in La Honda, California.
In June 1964, Kesey began an epic bus journey using a 1939 Harvester School Bus he had purchased. The road trip began at his ranch with half a dozen passengers. They included Neal Cassady as the bus driver. He gained fame for being Jack Kerouac’s character, Dean Moriarty, in On the Road. They were armed with a sense of adventure and a whole lot of LSD!
Apart from attempting to publicize Kesey’s new work, Sometimes a Great Notion, the journey was also designed to transform America into a specific form of enlightenment. The bus ride became popularized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. For many people, this journey marked the starting point of the psychedelic 1960s.
Upon his return, Kesey hosted LSD-fueled parties that were nicknamed ‘Acid Tests’ at his ranch. Officially, the first Acid Test occurred on November 27, 1965. Members of the Grateful Dead likely attended the party. The final Acid Test probably happened on March 16, 1967.
This series of parties were designed to advocate for the continued legality of the drug LSD. Alas, the movement against psychedelics and other intoxicating drugs was too strong. On October 24, 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Staggers-Dodd Bill, which criminalized the recreational use of LSD-25.
LSD in the Modern Era
The LSD movement went underground but made its return in the 1980s along with recreational MDMA use. The acid house scene of the 1990s further revitalized interest in psychedelics.
Research into hallucinogens began in earnest in the late 1980s and has escalated in recent times. However, American research into such drugs remains limited. For instance, the FDA hasn’t approved a study of LSD on human patients in over 40 years.
In the modern era, a growing number of young professionals, especially in California’s Bay Area, microdose LSD. Each dose is around 10 micrograms. The belief is that using small amounts of LSD can heighten creativity and innovation without causing a problematic trip.
An increasing number of countries around the world are decriminalizing drugs such as psilocybin. However, LSD is tolerated in few countries. It remains a Schedule I drug in the United States, for example. Portugal is a rare example of a country that has decriminalized LSD use. Indeed, the European nation decriminalized small amounts of all formerly illegal drugs in 2001.
Oregon was the first American state to follow Portugal’s lead in 2020. It is fascinating to see what will happen next.
Using and Misusing LSD
If you’re considering the use of LSD, please remember that it remains a federally illegal drug. Indeed, it is illegal in almost every country in the world. Therefore, we can’t recommend its use and must warn you that being caught in possession of the drug could result in a prison sentence.
However, in the past, the drug was used as part of psycholytic therapy. Switzerland briefly legalized the use of small LSD and MDMA doses for ‘therapy’ between 1988 and 1993. The government shut down the program, and therapists have tried to continue their work ever since.
If you insist on proceeding, make sure you don’t take the trip alone. As Hofmann discovered, LSD has unpredictable and sometimes frightening effects. It is also important not to use any other drugs, such as alcohol or marijuana, in concert with LSD or any other hallucinogenic. Here is a quick overview of some pertinent facts:
- The standard dose of LSD is 100-200 micrograms. However, first-time users should ‘microdose’ with 10-15 micrograms to get acquainted with the effects. Gradually increase the dose ONLY if you feel nothing on the first day.
- It typically takes 30-60 minutes for the drug to take effect.
- The LSD ‘high’ generally reaches its peak in 2-3 hours.
- Overall, the trip can last 8-12 hours, though this can vary.
When using LSD, make sure you have nothing planned for the next day. There is no guarantee that you’ll wake up full of joy as Hofmann did.
Final Thoughts on the History of LSD
Lysergic acid diethylamide therapy began with a bad trip in Basel that became a mind-altering experience for Albert Hofmann. Incidentally, the Swiss chemist became the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the compounds psilocin and psilocybin. After an initial terrifying experience on his legendary bicycle trip, Hofmann soon felt reborn. He could see the beauty of nature and life.
After an initial terrifying experience on his legendary bicycle trip, Hofmann soon felt reborn.
Unfortunately, governments worldwide don’t see it this way, and LSD remains banned in all but a handful of places. Pioneers such as Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ken Kesey tried to promote the drug. However, their efforts were in vain, as the drug became illegal in the U.S. in 1968. Most countries around the world followed America’s lead.
LSD research is ongoing and has produced some fascinating results. Perhaps one day, it will become a legal drug for adults who can experience a change in perception. Maybe you’ll see the world as Albert Hofmann did on that glorious Spring morning in 1943.
If you decide to use LSD, approach with caution and use a small amount at first. Also, bear in mind that you could be prosecuted if caught.