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How LSD Works

LSD as Medicine: Opening the Doors of Perception

A group of people under the effect of LSD-25
John Loengard/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
A group of volunteers under the effect of LSD-25 during an experiment conducted by the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF)

Before it was a recreational drug, LSD was used in psychiatric therapy. In the beginning, psychiatrists hoped that LSD would prove to be a cure for some forms of mental illness. It was thought that giving a patient LSD would remove the need for years of psychotherapy and bring about permanent changes in behavior and personality. Between 1950 and 1965, approximately 40,000 patients were given Sandoz's Delysid tablets [source: Henderson]. These included schizophrenics, obsessive-compulsives, depressives and autistic people. It was also administered to people considered mentally ill with sexual perversions, such as homosexuality.

There were two main types of therapy that incorporated LSD usage. In Europe, psycholitic therapy was common. Psychiatrists gave patients low doses of LSD (50 micrograms or less) over several sessions and encouraged them to focus on their childhood and subconscious. American psychiatrists were more likely to use psychedelic therapy. They gave their patients high doses of about 200 micrograms over just a few sessions. Instead of bringing out childhood memories, these doctors hoped the high doses of LSD would elicit a positive spiritual awakening and encourage patients to find meaning in their lives and want to better themselves.

The spiritual awakening approach was also used on ­alcoholics, who were difficult to treat through other types of therapy. Some psychiatrists attempted to induce a form of delirium tremens, which might scare alcoholics into reforming themselves. LSD was also given to criminals in the hopes that they could be reformed. Although many psychiatrists reported good results, there were few large studies. The small-scale studies are often considered flawed today because they didn't employ controls.

Sandoz recommended very specific doses of LSD and stated it should only be administered by a psychiatrist in a controlled medical setting. Of course, there was a black market for the drug by 1962. As recreational use grew, the federal government became increasingly concerned about LSD's effects and took steps to restrict its official use. Many researchers felt that their studies were terminated before they could reach a definite conclusion about LSD's therapeutic effects. By 1965, very few researchers in the United States were still allowed to possess LSD. There were only six projects conducted in 1969, and by 1974, the National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH) declared that LSD had no real therapeutic value.

The last therapeutic LSD study in the United States took place in the 1980s. The researchers believed that LSD could be beneficial to terminally ill patients because it helped them to stay aware of their surroundings, relieved their pain and made them feel more connected to their families. The study ended, however, before the idea could be completely explored.

There are currently studies using LSD in humans in other countries, such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In September 2008, the Food and Food Administration (FDA) opened the door once again for end-of-life clinical research using LSD. This may signal a renewed interest in other therapeutic uses for the drug.

On the next page, we'll look at the group of people most often associated with LSD: hippies.