The substances in this class probably have the lowest potential for abuse of any psychoactive drugs. In purely medical terms, they may be the safest of all known drugs. Even in huge overdose, psychedelics do not kill, and some people take them frequently all their lives without suffering physical damage or dependence. In the right hands they can bring about dramatic cures of both physical and mental illnesses. Yet these same drugs can cause the most frightening experiences imaginable, leaving long-lasting psychological scars.
Primitive people discovered hallucinogenic plants and began using them long before recorded history. Though many such plants exist, most are concentrated in North and South America, with heaviest use occurring among Indians of Mexico and Colombia. Very few natural psychedelics are native to the Old World and there is little traditional use of them there. The main Old World psychedelic is a plant called iboga, whose root is made into a drink consumed in religious rituals by a few tribes of west Africa.
By contrast, hundreds of tribes of New World Indians use dozens of different hallucinogenic plants in tropical areas of North and South America. Among these people, the use of hallucinogens is tied to native practices of magic, medicine, and religion, particularly to the primitive religion called shamanism. In shamanism, specially trained individuals called shamans attempt to control the forces of good and evil within the tribal community by communicating between the human world and the spirit world. To contact the spirit world, shamans put themselves in altered states of consciousness, often by consuming hallucinogenic plants. Shamans (or medicine men) also take psychedelics to see visions, and they use the visions to locate missing persons or lost objects and to diagnose illness. They often treat illness by administering psychedelics to sick people. In certain tribes, many people consume the plants at the same time in group vision-seeking rituals.
Most hallucinogenic plants taste bitter and cause nausea, vomiting, or other unpleasant physical symptoms at the onset of their effects. Then they induce unusual states of consciousness and fantastic visions seen with the eyes closed. However, visions and other sensory changes seem to come from taking these plants in particular ways, and are by no means invariable occurrences. Indians who believe in the importance of visions and who eat hallucinogenic plants at night in front of fires while chanting and praying under the direction of skilled shamans are much more likely to have visions than non-Indians who eat the same plants for purely recreational purposes. In fact, the mental effects of psychedelics are completely dependent on set and setting — on who takes them and why, on where and how.
95 Psychedelics, or Hallucinoge
Physical effects are more constant, because all of the hallucinogenic drugs have some common pharmacological actions. All of them are strong stimulants, for instance, causing increased brain activity and wakefulness. And they all stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, usually causing widely dilated eyes, a sensation of butterflies in the stomach, and feelings of cold in the extremities. The various psychedelics differ mainly in their duration of action and how fast their effects come on.
These substances fall into two broad chemical families. The first, called indoles, contain a molecular structure known as the indole ring and are related to hormones made in the brain by the pineal gland. The drugs in the second family lack the indole ring; instead, they closely resemble moleculcs of adrenaline and the amphetamines.
LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, Acid, LSD-25)
LSD is the most famous of the psychedelics, probably the one that has been tried by the most people. It is a semisynthetic drug, not found in nature. A Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, first made it in a laboratory in 1938 from lysergic acid, a chemical in ergot, the fungus that attacks cereal grains, especially rye. At the time, he was interested in developing medical drugs from compounds in ergot. In 1943 Hofmann accidentally consumed some LSD and so discovered its psychoactivity. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Swiss pharmaceutical company he worked for supplied LSD as a research drug to doctors and hospitals throughout the world.
LSD is one of the most potent drugs known, producing its effects in doses as small as 25 micrograms. (A microgram is one millionth of a gram, and there are 28 grams in an ounce. An average postage stamp weighs about 60,000 micrograms.) An LSD trip lasts ten to twelve hours.
Throughout the 1950s, LSD remained mostly in the hands of researchers, especially psychiatrists. But many people who tried the drug found it so interesting that they publicized its effects and began taking it on their own. At first, most of the LSD in circulation was pure pharmaceutical material from the Swiss laboratory that originally made it. In the 1960s, when the psychedelic movement started in Europe and America, black-market LSD began to appear.
For the most part, people who took LSD in the early days had positive trips. They talked about experiencing powerful feelings of love, mystical oneness with all things, union with God, and a
Ergot growing on rye. The hard, black spurs of fungus replace the grains and contain a number of drugs, including lysergic acid, the precursor of LSD. (Sandoz, Ltd., Basel, Switzerland)
From Chocolate to Morphine 96
Pharmaceutical LSH-25. (Jeremy Bigwood)
(Copyright © 1977, G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved)
deeper understanding of themselves. Some described vivid sensory changes, such as seeing flowers breathe, objects shimmer with energy, and mosaic patterns appear on all surfaces. Such descriptions made other people, especially young people, eager to try the drug for themselves.
From the very first, however, it was apparent that not everyone who takes LSD has a good time. Some people had bad trips: they became anxious and panicky, afraid they were losing their minds and would be unable to return to ordinary reality. They almost always did return, when the drug wore off twelve hours later, but some of them remained depressed and anxious for days afterward, and a few had lasting psychological problems.
When people are panicked they often behave in violent and irrational ways. In the 1960s some bad trips on LSD may have led to accidents and suicides. Even though these cases were exceptional, the media seized on them and made it seem as if LSD were a new drug menace that threatened to turn teen-agers into lunatics.
Bad trips are more likely to occur when people take LSD in inappropriate settings, especially if they have never taken it before and if they take high doses. Throughout the 1960s black-market LSD was unreliable, sometimes contaminated with other drugs, and since not many people were familiar with the effects of LSD, bad trips were common. By the 1970s, bad trips were rare, not because fewer people were taking the drug, but because people had learned how to use it intelligently. They took reasonable doses in good settings (such as a familiar room or a peaceful field in the country), with friends who knew what to expect.
Street LSD comes in a bewildering array of forms, from small
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