History of Psychedelic Use

Psychedelics Are Seeing a Research Renaissance—Here's a Look at How It All Began

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Psychedelics belong to a class of drugs known as hallucinogenics. Hallucinogens are drugs capable of altering your sense of reality. They can warp your sense of taste, smell, sight, and even time. The modern era of psychedelic use can be traced back to Albert Hofmann, a scientist and researcher who first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD, in 1938. Five years later, in 1943, he became the first person to try LSD.

Since this landmark discovery, the use of LSD and other psychedelics has had a long and complicated history. There seem to be polarizing opinions on the benefits and pitfalls of these drugs. On one end of the spectrum are people who think psychedelic drugs might hold the key to treating conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On the other end of the spectrum are people who think the dangers of using psychedelics far outweigh any benefits they might pose. 

This article looks at psychedelics' fascinating history since Albert Hofmann first tried LSD in 1943. 

Before Albert Hofmann 

Albert Hofmann's research signified a breakthrough in the scientific use of psychedelics with the discovery of LSD. However, the use of psychedelics for its purported medical and spiritual benefits long preceded him. In ancient Aztec culture, people took psychedelics in the form of psilocybin mushrooms known as Teonanácatl.

They did this in religious ceremonies to alter their minds and communicate with their gods. In South American culture, psychedelic use has historically been encouraged with the help of a shaman whose role is to guide you through the psychedelic experience. 

The 1950s and 1960s 

Research into the use of psychedelics was at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, right after the discovery of LSD. Scientists and researchers were curious about the supposedly wondrous drug. Ten years after Albert Hofmann tried LSD, in 1953, a psychiatrist called Humphrey Osmond began prescribing LSD to people diagnosed with alcoholism (now known as alcohol use disorder or AUD). He triggered the use of psychedelics for treating AUD among a crop of psychiatrists well into the 1960s. 

In that era, scientists believed that the experience of psychedelic therapy could catalyze a rapid and deep change in a person's relationship to their symptoms, value system, and sense of self. Some estimates reveal that psychedelics may have been administered to as many as 40,000 people with varying mental health conditions between 1950 and 1965.

By the mid-1960s, LSD had become a trendy recreational drug used casually for its mind-altering effects. Fearing its potential for misuse, governments issued bans and prohibitions by the decade's end. 

The 1970s and 1980s

Government intervention into psychedelics in this era brought research into the drug to a near halt. Although the research carried out in the '50s and '60s revealed that serious adverse effects were relatively rare and some positive results were observed, issued bans, and restrictions.

LSD had become widely available for recreational use, and people feared its potential for abuse. The government also argued that it was an experimental drug with unknown pitfalls. In 1970, the United States Congress passed an act that classified LSD as a schedule one drug.

Schedule I drugs are drugs determined to have the highest potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use; other examples are heroin and ecstasy (MDMA). Of note, marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug on a federal level, although legal for recreational use in many states.

Use of Psychedelics Today 

Research into psychedelics is enjoying another boom these days, spearheaded by scientists and researchers in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States. Though not as widely researched as during the boom in the 1950s and 1960s, researchers are making strides in their progress. Research today has been more in-depth than the research carried out in the past.

Clinical trials have assessed the benefits of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a synthetic stimulant and psychedelic, in treating depression and PTSD. There's also research into the use of psilocybin (mushrooms) for treating major depressive disorder, addictions, and end-of-life mood disorders. 

Some argue that the restrictions that remain in place on the drug's use are hampering research. In contrast, others say that its essential to ensure the safe exploration of the drug's potential benefits. The '50s and '60s may still be seen as the peak of psychedelic research. However, there's increasing research progress into these drug. In March 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved using ketamine, an anesthetic agent with some psychedelic properties, to treat depression.

Also, a phase 3 clinical trial into the use of MDMA to treat severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms was completed in 2022. These phase 3 trials are believed to be a step away from approval for prescription use. 


There remains a lot we don't know about how psychedelics work as well as their potential benefits and risks. Taking these agents unsupervised can result in severe and sometimes fatal side effects. As research into these drugs progresses, scientists believe that psychedelics may become a medical mainstay for treating several medical conditions.

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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.