A trancelike, slow-motion state envelops most people on an LSD trip, although in their own minds their thoughts seem to race with fantastic speed and clarity. They will stare at the most trivial objects for minutes at a time, transfixed by the sudden beauty and significance they find there. A sculptor attending an LSD party in Detroit (above left) is so moved by the pattern of a shabby chair covering that he spends half an hour trying to take a picture of it. A young boy in Los Angeles (left) drifts off into a dreamy euphoria. In San Francisco (below) a girl stares in wonderment at a bare light bulb against the background of a gilded ceiling. A half hour after taking the drug, a girl (right) begins to feel its effects. She crouches in a kitchen corner to begin a typical withdrawal into self-contemplation.
The Vital Facts about the Drug and Its Effects
by ALBERT ROSENFELD
LIFE Science Editor
Ignorance about LSD is almost universal. Here is a medical report on the risks and benefits insofar as they are known.
What is LSD?
It is a relatively simple chemical compound, lysergic acid diethylamide. It is easily synthesized from lysergic acid, which comes from a parasitic fungus that grows on rye heads. It is called a hallucinogen and is similar in its effects to marijuana, peyote and certain "magic" mushrooms.
How potent is it?
A single ounce of it would provide an average dose for some 300,000 people. A few pounds of it dumped into the water supply of a major city would be enough to disorient millions.
How does it work?
This is only partially understood. It seems to affect those parts of the brain (the forebrain, midbrain, hypothalamus and hippocampus) where the input of information from the senses is decoded and processed. A substance that plays an important role in organizing and channeling this sensory information is serotonin. LSD is known to inhibit serotonin activity. But other substances inhibit serotonin function without producing the effects of LSD, so this cannot be the whole story.
What is the state of LSD research?
It is still primitive. Although the drug has been known for 28 years, it has attracted really intensive research interest only during the past few years. Medical science is still trying to determine just what it does to different people under different circumstances.
What are the physiological effects of LSD?
These are surprisingly mild, considering the monumentally disruptive nature of the psychic effects. There is an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, but not enough to be alarming. The blood sugar also goes up slightly. There may be other sporadic symptoms: nausea, chills, flushes, irregular breathing, sweating of palms, trembling of extremities. These manifestations are all transitory. Appetite is affected, but mainly because the subject is too enthralled by his own sensations to be interested in food; later he is ravenously hungry. Sleep is virtually impossible until at least eight or 10 hours after the whole LSD episode is over. The pupils of the eyes are widely dilated so that dark glasses are often worn even at night for protection against the light. With an average dose, .0001 of a gram, the effects begin within an hour and last for eight to 10 hours. A bigger dose speeds up and intensifies the experience, increasing the possibility of panic.
Does LSD cause hallucinations?
No. A true hallucination has no existence except in the imagination, yet the person experiencing it believes implicitly in its reality. The visions conjured up under LSD are usually based on something real. A stick may become a writhing snake, for example, and though the person may be frightened by the snake, he realizes that it is not a real snake but an illusory one.
Might there be long-range adverse effects on the brain?
Yes. In a small number of cases people under LSD, even people with no prior history or suspicion of epilepsy, have been seized with violent epileptic convulsions. A young bull elephant in an Oklahoma zoo was shaken with gigantic fits and died an hour and 40 minutes after the administration of what was mistakenly considered to be a moderate dose of LSD. Cats on high dosages of LSD for a three-week period underwent significant changes in their brainwave patterns, changes that persevered for six weeks after LSD was discontinued. No one knows what long-term changes would occur in the human brain as a result of sustained dosage, and no responsible scientist would dare carry out the experiments necessary to find out.
Is LSD habit-forming?
No. At least, it is not an addictive narcotic in the sense that heroin and morphine are. But the body builds up tolerances to it. Taken on successive days, larger and larger doses have less and less effect. Conversely, someone who has once been on LSD may, in the company of someone else who is on a "trip," undergo the experience on a very small dose-or even on none at all. Moreover, the psyche can build up a subtle dependence upon it.
Are there bona fide medical uses and benefits?
Yes, though these remain to be proven by further research. LSD may be extremely useful in psychotherapy. Some psychiatrists, using LSD in conjunction with hypnosis and standard psychiatric techniques, believe it has helped give their patients astonishing insights into themselves, thereby accelerating their recovery. LSD has been helpful in the treatment of alcoholism. It has also been used as "death therapy," to help dying people face the end more serenely and with less pain. Aldous Huxley, a dedicated advocate of such drugs, is reported to have taken LSD in his last days.
Are there really major risks?
Yes. They stem mainly from the bizarre psychic effects. A person whose sanity may be more precarious than he realizes can become permanently deranged through a single terrifying LSD experience. Hospitals report case after case where people arrive in a state of mental disorganization, unable sometimes to distinguish their bodies from their surroundings. To calm such patients, large doses of tranquilizers and barbiturates are usually given. There have been instances where LSD symptoms have recurred weeks after taking it, leading the victims to believe they were losing their sanity. A policeman took home some confiscated sugar cubes he did not realize were saturated with LSD. His 10-year-old son ate a sugar cube by accident, and it took weeks of treatment before he recovered his mental balance. People on LSD sometimes believe they have the power to fly, or to walk on water. One young Californian walked in front of a speeding car, convinced it could not harm him-and was killed. A woman in Europe, into whose drink a prankster dropped some LSD, thought she was going crazy and committed suicide. For these people and others like them, LSD was not merely dangerous-it was lethal. Anyone who drops LSD into someone's drink and thinks it is fun should not be surprised if the jury thinks it is murder.
Who should never take LSD?
People with any kind of heart trouble or liver malfunction, as well as epileptics or suspected epileptics, are routinely screened out of serious LSD experiments. LSD is especially risky for anyone with an unstable personality, and certainly for anyone who, knowingly or unknowingly, might harbor preschizoid tendencies. LSD can encourage weak and irresponsible people to even further irresponsibilities, and it can convince those with criminal propensities that they are above the law.
How important are setting and circumstances?
"Their importance," says Dr. Joel Elkes of Johns Hopkins University, "can hardly be overemphasized." Even when conditions are carefully controlled, mishaps occur. All the risks are intensified whenever LSD is used by an amateur. The appalling fact is that for every legitimate LSD experiment, a thousand or more probably are carried out by people experimenting on themselves, either alone (the most perilous circumstance) or in groups.
When will LSD be legally and generally available?
Perhaps never. LSD is considered so dangerous that its sole legitimate manufacturer, Sandoz Inc., has commendably limited its distribution even beyond government requirements. Even with a prescription it is not legally available over the drugstore counter. Whether it should ever be so available is considered questionable by Dr. Jonathan 0. Cole of the National Institute of Mental Health. Anyone who has a strong desire to try the LSD experience is urged to seek professional assistance from a qualified scientist. Taking LSD, Dr. Elkes warns, "is not minor surgery."
Should everybody have the right to try LSD?
Emphatically not. Those who are vociferously pushing this point of view think of themselves as courageous, pioneering individuals. But an LSD trip is not always a round trip. What the LSD user may be buying is a one-way ticket to an asylum, a prison or a grave.