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How LSD Works

LSD History

Dr. Albert Hofmann in 1967
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Dr. Albert Hofmann in 1967

­A Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann was employed in a laboratory at Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company, when he first synthesized LSD. Sandoz was working on a research project involving a parasitic fungus called ergot that grows on rye, known as Claviceps purpurea. In the Middle Ages, it poisoned thousands of people who ate rye bread infected with it. Ergot had also been used by midwives, who sometimes gave it to pregnant women to bring about and speed up labor. In the 19th century, most physicians deemed the practice too dangerous because high dosages lead to strong contractions and endanger the baby, although physicians sometimes still used ergot to stop a woman's bleeding after childbirth.

In the 1930s, researchers at the Rockefeller Institute in New York isolated lysergic acid from an ergot compound. This research was the basis for Hofmann's work at Sandoz. While deriving different compounds from lysergic acid, Hofmann developed several medicines, including drugs that lowered blood pressure and improved brain function in the elderly. In 1938, Hofmann derived the 25th in a series of these derivatives. It was lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. He thought that LSD-25 might stimulate breathing and circulation. But tests didn't show anything special, and Sandoz abandoned further study.

Five years later, Hofmann's thoughts returned to LSD-25's potential. He felt that it hadn't been fully explored, so he took the unusual step of synthesizing another batch for further testing. During the process, however, Hofmann began to feel strange. He stopped his work and went home early, "being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness." While at home, he was in a "dreamlike state" and "perceived an uninterrupted steam of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors" [source: Hofmann]. At the time, Hofmann decided that he must've gotten some of the solution on his finger. (Later it was determined that he must have touched his finger to his mouth, as LSD can't be absorbed through the skin.)

The next day, Hofmann purposely dosed himself with LSD. He took 250 micrograms, 10 times more than today's typical minimum dose. Hofmann became delirious and could barely speak. Initially he panicked and asked his laboratory assistant to call a doctor. The doctor could find nothing wrong with Hofmann other than the fact that his pupils were dilated -- he had normal blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. Soon his panic gave way to euphoria, and Hofmann once again saw beautiful shapes and colors. The next day, he told others at Sandoz about what had happened, and they experimented with similar results. No other drug had been known to have such strong effects in such small doses.

After trials on animals, Sandoz gave LSD to research institutes and doctors to use in psychiatric experiments on both healthy and mentally ill subjects. The research was compelling enough to convince Sandoz to patent LSD and market it as Delysid in 1947. It was sold in 25-microgram tablets for use in analytical psychotherapy. Sandoz also suggested that psychiatrists take the drug themselves, so that they could better understand their patients. Two years later, doctors at the Boston Psychotropic Hospital were using it on their own patients. By 1960, there had been hundreds of papers published in scientific and medical journals on the various uses of LSD -- it was the talk of the psychiatric community. But by 1966, Sandoz had stopped making it altogether. Let's see how LSD is made illegally.