The History of Acid or LSD

Four caps of acid, or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)

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Acid, or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), is an illegal recreational drug derived from a parasitic fungus that grows on rye, or ergot. Acid is the most well-known hallucinogenic drug. It distorts and alters a person's perceptions of reality.

LSD is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is illegal in the U.S. due to its high potential for misuse.

Initially created in the late 1930s, there was an early interest in the substance's potential psychiatric uses. This abruptly stopped when the drug was made illegal in 1970. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in LSD's possible therapeutic effects.

Research on the use of LSD in psychedelic-assisted therapy is ongoing and still in the early stages. LDS cannot be legally prescribed and is restricted to limited research settings.

The Discovery of LSD

The psychoactive properties of acid were discovered almost by accident by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a research chemist working for the Sandoz Company, in 1943. Dr. Hofmann had been synthesizing LSD-25, and some crystals made contact with his fingertips and were absorbed through his skin, resulting in symptoms of LSD intoxication.

Hofmann experimented on himself and took a small quantity of the drug. Believing that lysergic acid had potential use in neurology and psychiatry, he proceeded with animal experimentation and further human studies. Such early experiments suggested the potential for people with mental health issues.

LSD also appeared to release long-forgotten memories and traumas into consciousness. Some suggest that this could allow such memories to be worked through therapeutically.

LSD Research During the 50s and 60s

The pharmaceutical company Sandoz marketed LSD under the brand name Delysid. In one 1964 catalog, the company described the substance for use "in analytical psychotherapy to elicit release of repressed material and to provide mental relaxation, particularly in anxiety states and obsessional neuroses."

LSD was used in European psychotherapy clinics in an approach called psycholytic therapy—meaning the dissolution of tension or conflicts in the human psyche. In this approach, people took lower doses of LSD over a series of sessions.

After each session, the patients would rest, then have a period where they would paint or work with clay to depict the visions they saw while hallucinating. After the art session, the patients would have a therapist-led group discussion about their experiences.

Another approach, known as psychedelic therapy, involved people taking a single high dose of LSD, after a period of intensive psychological preparation to attempt to restructure and cure the patient's personality problems. LSD was also explored as a model for psychosis and a treatment for severe pain associated with cancer.

During this period, as many as 40,000 people were treated with LSD for various mental health conditions.

Risks and Legal Restrictions

During the 1960s, LSD became heavily associated with counterculture activities. This contributed to stigma about the drug, and reports of adverse events linked to LSD use resulted in a wider recognition of its potential risks.

Recognizing the dangers of the drug, the pharmaceutical company that was then producing it stopped LSD production and distribution in 1965. Psychotherapists then abandoned its use in therapy.

In 1970, LSD was classified as a Schedule I drug. These substances are known to have the highest potential for abuse.

While LSD is not addictive, it can produce tolerance and psychological dependence. Tolerance means people must take more substance to achieve the same effects. Tolerance builds quickly, and the effects of the drug can be risky and unpredictable. 

Treatment for LSD misuse can involve inpatient, residential, or outpatient therapy. While there are no medication to treat LSD problems, different types of psychotherapy can help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, family therapy, and motivational enhancement therapy (MET).

Growing Interest in Therapeutic Uses

There has been a resurgence of interest in the therapeutic potential of LSD and other psychedelic substances such as MDMA and psilocybin. Modern research has taken a more empirical, scientific approach than the early experiments of the 1950s and 1960s.

Clinical trials have demonstrated that MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) can help treat depression, and psilocybin may help treat depression and alcohol use disorders. In 2019, psilocybin was granted breakthrough therapy status by the Food and Drug Administration. This status is intended to help fast-track interventions with great potential for treating serious illnesses.

Research also indicates that LSD may have potential as a therapeutic medication in psychiatry. The most robust results suggest it might help treat alcohol use disorders. However, more research is needed to understand how this substance might be used in treatment settings.

Psychedelic therapy continues to gain growing acceptance. One Verywell Mind survey found that half of Americans support the legalization of psychedelics to treat mental health conditions. Ongoing research may help mental health professionals better understand how to use such substances best to alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions.

The FDA has now approved Spravato (esketamine) nasal spray, a drug made from the dissociative anesthetic ketamine, for use along with antidepressants for treatment-resistant depression. And clinical trials on MDMA for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are underway.

Psychedelic substances should only be used in medical settings under the direct supervision of a trained medical professional.

LSD remains illegal and should not be used to treat mental health conditions. If you are experiencing symptoms of a condition such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or substance use disorders, there are effective treatments available that can help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

13 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.