Bicycle Day 2019 – 76 Years Since Albert Hofmann’s LSD Discovery

Bicycle ride pov acid colors psychedelic painting

Eight years before Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938, Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the founding commissioner of the U.S. Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. While both men were of Swiss descent and their life’s work centered around public drug use, their paths couldn’t have been more divergent. And now for this year’s Bicycle Day, as the tides of drug policy are shifting quicker than ever, their stories are increasingly relevant.

While most consider the United States’ war on drugs to have started with the Nixon or Reagan administrations, author Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, urges our reconsideration of the country’s infamously failed attempt at drug prohibition to an earlier date.

Hari argues that based on racism, classism, and other prejudices, Anslinger was largely responsible for creating a zeitgeist of public misconception about nearly every drug, without regard to therapeutic applications or larger societal implications.

And though Anslinger’s tenure ended just before the criminalization of LSD, it was the foundation he set in place that widely villainized the chemical for decades.

But with the recent relaxation around psychedelic substances and the recognition of their potential as powerful healing modalities, Hofmann’s radical discovery may finally be realized for what he envisioned it could be.

The History of LSD

Albert Hofmann laid out his serendipitous discovery of LSD in the autobiographical account LSD: My Problem Child, prefacing his breakthrough with an ineffably spiritual and prophetic walk in the woods as a young boy:

“One enchantment of that kind, which I experienced in childhood, has remained remarkably vivid in my memory ever since…. As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Was this something I had simply failed to notice before? Was I suddenly discovering the spring forest as it actually looked? It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness, and blissful security.”

“I have no idea how long I stood there spellbound. But I recall the anxious concern I felt as the radiance slowly dissolved and I hiked on: how could a vision that was so real and convincing, so directly and deeply felt—how could it end so soon?  It seemed strange that I, as a child, had seen something so marvelous, something that adults obviously did not perceive – for I had never heard them mention it,” Hofmann wrote.

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Psychedelic Society

It’s hard to read Hofmann’s account and not feel an eerie, mystical sense of foreshadowing, as if the universe had given him an early glimpse into the profound sensation of his most famous discovery.

Many are familiar with the rumored story of Hofmann’s breakthrough, which claims he accidentally dosed himself with LSD before taking his famous bicycle ride home as the first person to experience the drug’s hallucinatory effect. Though the story is only partially true, as Hofmann intentionally synthesized LSD-25, but didn’t realize its potential as it sat on a shelf for five years.

Hofmann named his compound LSD-25 because it was his 25th iteration isolating the compound from ergot fungus, one of three organic plant substances he was tasked with studying. Ergot fungus was known in times of antiquity as being poisonous in large doses, but certain synthetic variants were found to be effective treatments in obstetrics.

So, when LSD-25 only produced 70 percent of the expected hemostatic (blood coagulating) effects of similar ergot derivatives, it was shelved for its inferiority. Little did Hofmann, or his colleagues, know the potent psychedelic effects it held — at least not yet.

But something in Hofmann’s subconscious did know. Despite the fact that when a compound was shelved it was typically never tested again, Hofmann felt an uncanny desire to give it another look.

The solution of the ergotoxine problem had led to fruitful results, described here only briefly, and had opened up further avenues of research. And yet I could not forget the relatively uninteresting LSD-25. A peculiar presentiment—the feeling that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations—induced me, five years after the first synthesis, to produce LSD-25 once again so that a sample could be given to the pharmacological department for further tests,”

— Albert Hofmann

Hofmann convinced his superiors to let him test the compound one more time, despite what he described as a frugality in these types of situations at Sandoz, due to a lack of resources.

But this time, after he once again synthesized a tartrate solution of LSD-25, Hofmann suddenly reported “dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, and a desire to laugh.” He realized that during the compound’s crystallization, he had accidentally absorbed a trace amount through his skin.

Hofmann rode his bicycle home, accompanied by his lab assistant, seeing the world through wavering, kaleidoscopic vision. But after just a few hours he found his trip starting to wear off, due to the relatively small dose he unknowingly took. So, he decided the only logical next step was to “self-experiment” again a few weeks later. This time with a larger dose.

Hofmann convinced his colleagues of the magnitude of his discovery and soon they were “self-experimenting.” And the rest, as they say, is history…

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Psychedlics and Consciousness

Sandoz patented and distributed LSD for psychotherapy under the pharmaceutical name Delsyid, even recommending psychiatrists take the substance themselves to better understand their patients’ headspace when it was administered to them.

According to documents published by Sandoz, “in minute doses” LSD had the ability to “produce changes in emotional behavior, hallucinations, depersonalization, and reliving of repressed memories.”

Hofmann and his colleagues believed it was a useful treatment for confronting and working through psychological trauma. But soon enough LSD’s potent psychoactive effects were noticed and subsequently weaponized by the CIA for the notorious Project MKUltra, which looked to employ the substance as a tool for mind control.

Conversely, LSD also became a tool used by the hippy generation of the 60s to spread love and peace, extolled by notable counter-culture leaders, including Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and Ken Kesey.

But the US government quickly perceived the use of LSD and other psychedelics as a threat which debased social and political hierarchies that kept people divided by race, gender, and class in order to maintain power.

Albert Hofmann with model of LSD

Instead, psychedelics gave people a sense of oneness and unity that was palpable in an era of war and division.

Hofmann even noticed this effect when he administered LSD to monkeys in clinical studies:

“A caged community of chimpanzees reacts very sensitively if a member of the tribe has received LSD. Even though no changes appear in this single animal, the whole cage gets in an uproar because the LSD chimpanzee no longer observes the laws of its finely coordinated hierarchic tribal order,” he wrote.

Needless to say, LSD and almost every other known psychedelic was criminalized in a sweeping piece of legislation known as the 1970’s Controlled Substances Act, despite 1000s of scientific publications throughout the ‘60s touting the substance’s psychotherapeutic benefits.

But now after decades of oppressive drug laws that have exacerbated the racism, classism and oppression first initiated by Anslinger in 1930, it seems we may be on the precipice of truly progressive drug reform surrounding psychedelics. Thanks to groups like MAPS, the Beckley Foundation, and clinical studies by researchers at esteemed institutions, significant headway is being made to dissolve the antiquated stigmas and throughly prove their therapeutic elements.

And now, with two U.S. states voting this year to decriminalize or legalize psychedelics for medicinal use, we may be coming full circle in recognizing these substances' true potential.

For more on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics check out the documentary Neurons to Nirvana:

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Psilocybin and Depression; Psychedelics Can Reset Brain Function

Psychotropic plants once considered taboo are now being used as highly effective clinical solutions for treating a number of psychological issues, including depression, PTSD, and end-of-life anxiety. And a recent study has gained the most traction with its successful treatment of depression with psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. The study found evidence of a reset mechanism in the brain that can have lasting effects. But, can psychedelics cure depression?

Psilocybin & Depression

A calm, relaxed feeling in the hours, days, and weeks after using psilocybin is familiar to those who have taken it before. This is sometimes referred to as an “after-glow,” and many attribute this to the sense of profundity or universal insight acquired during the experience. This sensation is often subjective and fleeting – something that would be difficult to measure in a lab.

But now a team of researchers has set out to measure this feeling and the potential it has for use as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety. These researchers believe they have possibly recorded this reaction and noticed a reconfiguration of the pathways that are narrowed down in people who experience severe depression and anxiety. Their research appears to show what they call a disintegration and reintegration in which psilocybin acts as a “reset mechanism.”

 

psilocybin and depression

 

This test, conducted by researchers at Imperial College in London, looked not only at subjective measures of how patients felt in the days and weeks after but also brain scans to monitor cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity. The scientists focused on the amygdala, an area of the brain where emotion, behavior, and motivation is processed, noticing that decreased cerebral blood flow to that particular location correlated with reduced depressive symptoms.

The amygdala is directly connected to the prefrontal cortex, controlling a sort of back and forth process for measuring fear. This is basically where your fight or flight response plays out. The amygdala acts as our alarm system, sending a signal to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn tells it whether that threat is something to actually be concerned about. It’s thought that higher activity in the amygdala leads to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex which causes anxiety and depression.

This has led scientists to see psilocybin as an appropriate medicine for people experiencing anxiety and depression. But psilocybin isn’t the only psychedelic shown to have this effect. And while these material observations seem to correlate things like blood flow and electrical activity with those positive changes, some still maintain that the mystical psychedelic experience rather than the plant is what is so palliative.

LSD for Depression

Similar studies have been undertaken with LSD in place of psilocybin, providing many similar results. The most well-known trials have been conducted by MAPS, the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a group that has been working on advancing clinical research with psychedelic and empathic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

A 2014 study administered LSD to 12 patients experiencing severe depression, anxiety, and end-of-life anxiety, 11 of whom had never taken the drug before. Nearly all who completed the trials expressed the desire to receive more treatments in the future due to their notably positive experiences.

One subject said the experience caused a marked shift in her values to make time for things that were more important in life, like family. Another subject with end-of-life anxiety found that after her LSD experience she found humor in her illness and looked at herself as part of a larger cosmic entity rather than an individual. Meanwhile, all subjects reported no lasting adverse side effects after the experience.

 

lsd therapy

 

While these clinical studies show promise and work well in closely monitored environments with professional psychotherapy sessions to accompany them, many remain unconvinced due to the small set of studies and subject samples. But this is primarily due to strict laws preventing these trials as well as difficulty obtaining these compounds from “legitimate sources.”

However, a recent shift in the public perception regarding psychedelics and cannabis seems to be bucking the trend. Meanwhile, groups like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation are helping to ease the stigma, stating that they believe certain psychoactive drugs will be approved for clinical use within the next several years.

Ketamine Depression Treatment

Clinical trials for treating depression with LSD and psilocybin often lead critics and journalists to harken back to the ’60s and make some clichéd quip about the hippie generation, or their brief stint experimenting with drugs in college. But when it comes to ketamine, personal anecdotes are few and far between. This drug, which tends to also fall into the recreational club-drug scene, has shown some profound results when it comes to its potential for treating severe depression, especially for those who are suicidal.

Though ketamine for treating depression is considered use as an off-label drug, one that is used for a purpose other than what it is labeled for, it has shown unprecedented results. Typically used as an anesthetic, in large doses ketamine is a highly psychoactive hallucinogen, and also an antidepressant.

People who are suicidal and have not had success with typical antidepressants have seen drastic changes within a few hours of ketamine treatment. Researchers believe that ketamine acts on glutamate, rather than serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals most antidepressants focus on. This particular channel can cause drastic changes and overnight transformation in attitudes of people suffering from severe depression.

Of course, doses high enough to achieve this effect are incapacitating and can be difficult to deal with. The psychedelic effect of ketamine can lead to “k-holes” or feelings of intense and sometimes frightening psychedelic experiences often paired with paralysis. This has lead doctors to search for drugs that can target the glutamate in the brain, but skip the burdensome trip.

While these drugs have amazing potential to help solve mental issues that plague large percentages of society, there needs to be a shift in drug policy to allow them to be rescheduled. All of these drugs are Schedule 1, classified as having no medical value, but clearly there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

While their use should be monitored and taken in controlled scenarios, their criminalization prevents people from taking advantage of the positive results scientists are seeing. And when an effective drug is made illegal, it can lead to those who need it seeking it out on the street where purity and quality aren’t guaranteed.

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