The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 46. LSD is discovered

On the afternoon of April 16, 1943, Dr. Albert Hofmann, a chemist working at Sandoz Laboratories-a pharmaceutical firm in Basel, Switzerland-fell ill; and a few days later he recorded the curious nature of his illness in his notebook:

Last Friday ... I had to interrupt my laboratory work in the middle of the afternoon and go home, because I was seized with a feeling of great restlessness and mild dizziness. At home, I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant delirium, which was characterized by extremely excited fantasies. In a semiconscious state, with my eyes closed (I felt the daylight to be unpleasantly dazzling), fantastic visions of extraordinary realness and with an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors assaulted me. After about two hours this condition disappeared.1

At the time of this curious experience, Dr. Hofmann had been working with two chemicals, both derivatives of ergot, whose effects were well known; they could not have produced his symptoms. In addition, however, he had manufactured that morning a few milligrams of a third ergot derivative, d-lysergic acid diethylamide, which he and a Sandoz associate, Dr. W. A. Stoll, bad discovered five years before. Since this was the twenty-fifth compound in the lysergic acid series synthesized at Sandoz, it had been nicknamed LSD-25. When preliminary tests on animals revealed nothing of interest in LSD-25, it bad been put aside without human testing.

To find out if this relatively untested drug, unwittingly ingested, could have caused his strange symptoms, Dr. Hofmann administered to himself the following week what he thought would be a trifling amount-one quarter of a milligram-of LSD-25. Then he sat down with his notebook to await developments. After forty minutes be noted "mild dizziness, restlessness, inability to concentrate, visual disturbance and uncontrollable laughter." 2 There the notebook entry abruptly came to an end. A quarter of a milligram of LSD, we now know, is a very substantial dose. Dr. Hofmann had embarked on his second LSD "trip," and was in for a rough six hours.

"The last words were written only with great difficulty," Dr. Hofmann noted after be had recovered.

I asked my laboratory assistant to accompany me home as I believed that I should have a repetition of the disturbance of the previous Friday. While we were cycling home (a four-mile trip by bicycle, no other vehicle being available because of the war), however, it became clear that the symptoms were much stronger than the first time. I had great difficulty in speaking coherently and my field of vision swayed before me and was distorted like the reflections in an amusement park mirror. I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant later told me that we had cycled at a good pace....

By the time the doctor arrived, the peak of the crisis had already passed. As far as I can remember, the following were the most outstanding symptoms: vertigo, visual disturbances, the faces of those around me appeared as grotesque, colored masks; marked motoric unrest, alternating with paralysis; an intermittent feeling in the head, limbs, and the entire body, as if they were filled with lead; dry, constricted sensation in the throat; feeling of choking; clear recognition of my condition, in which state I sometimes observed, in the manner of an independent, neutral observer, that I shouted half insanely or babbled incoherent words. Occasionally I felt as if I were out of my body.

The doctor found a rather weak pulse, but an otherwise normal circulation. . . . Six hours after the ingestion of the LSD, my condition had already improved considerably.

Only the visual disturbances were still pronounced. Everything seemed to sway and the proportions were distorted like the reflections in the surface of moving water. Moreover, all objects appeared in unpleasant, constantly changing colours, the predominant shades being sickly green and blue. With closed eyes multihued, metamorphizing fantastic images overwhelmed me. Especially noteworthy was the fact that sounds were transposed into visual sensations so that from each tone or noise a comparable colored picture was evoked, changing in form and color kaleidoscopically.

The next day, Dr. Hofmann added, he felt "completely well, but tired." 3 During the years since April 16, 1943, hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other professionals have taken LSD themselves, and have observed the effects in others. Dr. Hofmann's accounts of his trips have been repeatedly confirmed and in many respects expanded. His initial accounts are of particular interest, however; for it is now known that the nature of an LSD trip is profoundly affected by the expectations of the person taking the LSD, and of the persons administering the LSD and observing the effects. Dr. Hofmann's LSD experiences were not only the first; they were also among the few not contaminated by expectations on the part of the experimenter, the observer, or the subject.

Psychiatrists at the University of Zurich and elsewhere to whom Sandoz initially supplied experimental quantities of LSD soon established that very small doses have profound effects. Most drug doses are measured in milligrams, or thousandths of a gram; LSD doses are measured in micrograms-millionths of a gram. As little as twenty-five micrograms, it was learned, produces noticeable psychological effects in some people; 100 micrograms produces a full-scale LSD trip in most people .4 An amount of LSD weighing as little as the aspirin in a five-grain tablet is enough to produce effects in 3,000 people.

The early experiments promptly established the fact that LSD is not addicting; and experience since then has uniformly confirmed this finding. The LSD experience is so massive that very few people want to experience it oftener than once a week-and longer intervals between trips are the common pattern.5

Because it was thought to produce hallucinations, LSD was soon classified (along with mescaline) as a hallucinogen. This label, however, has been questioned. A true hallucination is something you see and think is there but that really isn't-like the snakes and green elephants seen by an alcoholic during delirium tremens. The LSD user for the most part sees what is there, but be sees it in distorted, wavering, or kaleidoscopically changing forms-and he misinterprets what he sees. He may also see patterns, geometrical figures, or in rare cases even panoramas that aren't there; but unlike the true victim of hallucinations, be does not ordinarily accept them as real. He remains aware that what he is experiencing is a drug-induced phenomenon, and so experiences for the most part what Dr. Jerome Levine has labeled pseudo-hallucinations.6 Exceptions to this rule are discussed below.

Still later, when LSD came into use as an adjunct to psychotherapy, it was dubbed a psycholytic drug because it was thought to dissolve or ease a patient's resistance to therapy. The term psychedelic also came into common use; it was coined by Dr. Humphrey Osmond 7 to indicate that LSD is "mind-manifesting" or "mind-expanding." And the term psychotomimetic was introduced because LSD was thought to induce symptoms mimicking those of psychosis." All of these terms, of course, indicate a point of view. In this Report we shall for the most part use a more neutral terminology: "LSD and LSD-like drugs."