On April 16, 1943, a Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested a drug he created five years earlier while working at Sandoz Laboratories (now a subsidiary of Novartis) and began to experience very unusual sensations and hallucinations. He later described this altered state of mind as “a not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.”
While I am sure Dr. Hofmann realized that he discovered something worthy of further investigation, he could not have possibly imagined that his drug—lysergic acid diethylamide, popularly known as LSD or acid—would eventually become our best hope for solving the opioid epidemic and the global mental health crisis.
When most of us think of LSD, we are immediately transported to the 1960s—the era of the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the 60s without the freedom-loving hippie counterculture that challenged an otherwise extraordinarily conservative nation. However, few people know that during the 50s and 60s, scientists began to explore the potential uses of psychedelic substances, including LSD, for therapeutic purposes.
What eventually came to be known as psychedelic or psychedelic-assisted therapy was first pioneered in Canada by Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond roughly a decade after Dr. Hofmann’s accidental LSD trip. Humphrey Osmond initially speculated that, by giving a high dose of LSD to individuals suffering from alcoholism, he could frighten them to the point where they would want to quit drinking. However, much to Osmond’s surprise, all of the patients’ experiences on LSD were pleasant and, most importantly, transformative. Between 1954 and 1960, Osmond and Hoffer treated about 2,000 alcoholics with LSD and reported that 40-45 percent of them did not return to drinking after a year. Similar positive results were achieved by a Czech-born psychiatrist by the name of Stanislov Grof, who used LSD to treat heroin addicts in Prague (During this same timeframe, the CIA conducted hundreds of cruel and unethical experiments on unwitting subjects using LSD in the attempt to develop a “truth serum” for interrogations).
The groundbreaking research in the nascent field of psychedelic therapy came to a halt in 1970 with the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act, which not only made the manufacturing, sale, and possession of LSD illegal, but categorized it as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it had no “currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”
In June of 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” which further vilified LSD and other psychedelic substances to the point where most people considered them to be as addictive and deadly as heroin (In actuality, heroin is currently ranked as the second most harmful drug after alcohol, while LSD and psychedelic mushrooms occupy the eighteenth and the last spot, respectively, in a list of twenty drugs).
The 80s weren’t any better. They brought us Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the infamous “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” public service announcements. With billions of dollars of government money being pumped into the War on Drugs, the number of people being imprisoned for drug law violations ballooned from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by the mid 1990s.
Increasing evidence suggests that psychedelic medicines, such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin (the main psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms), can serve as a sort of “reset button” for the brain
At the same time, the rates of opioid addiction and overdose have continued to rise year after year. Today, roughly 1 percent of our nation’s adult population—2.4 million people—has an opioid-use disorder. Further, virtually every statistic on mental health points to the fact that the US is facing a mental health crisis of unprecedented scale, and yet we have not seen any more breakthrough medicines in the psychiatric-drug industry since Prozac arrived on the market more than 30 years ago.
It is clear that we are desperately in need of something better, and it may as well be LSD.
So what makes LSD, and psychedelics in general, so special? Increasing evidence suggests that psychedelic medicines, such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin (the main psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms), can serve as a sort of “reset button” for the brain that gives individuals the tools they need to face and address their struggles in a constructive way. As Julie Holland M.D. points out in her book, Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics,
[Psychedelics] are growth promoters and life shifters, in part because they’re meaning makers. The resetting is part of a resettling. First, the default mode network is quieted, then there is a hyperconnection of nearly every other area of the brain. After all these areas communicate, things are never quite the same. The brain may have been “shaken up” a bit, and old ruts and trenches may have been smoothed over in the process. The most impressive resetting occurs with some of the strongest psychedelics.
More recently, Silicon Valley has started a trend of microdosing LSD and other psychedelic substances (i.e. taking less than a tenth of a recreational dose of a drug). Those who partake in this practice have reported an increase in energy and creativity, improved overall well-being, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved sleep without adverse side effects. The vast array of prescription medications currently on the market still cannot consistently accomplish this.
The general public is starting to warm up to the idea that psychedelics, just like marijuana, should be legalized, or, at the very least, removed from the Schedule I list.
During the last decade, a number of biopharmaceutical start-ups, such as COMPASS Pathways PLC and Mind Medicine Inc. (MindMed), have been working on developing psychedelic-inspired medicines through clinical trials. Presently, MindMed is collaborating with the University Hospital of Basel on a Phase 2 Clinical Trial of LSD for cluster headaches and the Maastricht University in Netherlands on a Phase 2 LSD Microdosing Trial for adult ADHD. (In addition to LSD, other psychedelic substances currently are or have been tested in clinical trials, including 18-MC for treatment of opioid addiction, MDMA for treatment of severe PTSD, psilocybin for alleviating depression and anxiety in patients with terminal cancer, and many others).
Given the success of the early research into LSD, as well as the growing body of anecdotal evidence confirming its safety and efficacy, it is extremely likely that the various clinical trials currently in the pipeline will produce life-changing medicines. It is also clear that the general public is starting to warm up to the idea that psychedelics, just like marijuana, should be legalized, or, at the very least, removed from the Schedule I list.
Albert Hofmann used to call LSD his “problem child.” But shortly before his death in 2008, Dr. Hofmann learned that a medical trial of LSD was approved in his native Switzerland. He was truly overjoyed that, after three and a half decades, LSD was once again being recognized for its tremendous potential as a medicine. Eager to share his excitement with his friends, he told one of them that his "problem child had come home, [and] had become a wonder child.”
Indeed, it seems it has.