Cocaine is a drug for bankers and cabinet ministers. Ketamine is a drug for horses and students. Marijuana seems to be a drug for just about anyone. Is LSD-25, more commonly 'acid' still a drug associated with Beatniks and Hippies scatting blank verse at Happenings?
In comparison to other Class-A substances like cocaine and ecstasy, LSD use in the UK remains relatively small; according to the Home Office’s 2018-2019 Drug Misuse survey, only 0.4% of 16-59 year olds declare using the substance in the past year. However, usage has increased heavily during the covid lockdowns, and one survey showed one in five young people micro-dosed acid to cope with lockdown.
LSD remains one of the most culturally stigmatised substances in circulation. The drug itself is religiously linked with the counter-culture movement and figurehead artists and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. Over time, It became intrinsically associated with the radical left, a political synecdoche for the kickback against conservatism.
"a dreamlike state, […] an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”.
The first-ever ‘trip’ was taken by the chemist who synthesised the substance. In 1943, Swiss Chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally absorbed an amount of the substance and experienced “a dreamlike state, […] an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”. A few days later, on 'Bicycle Day', he purposefully took a controlled dose to further investigate the effects of the drug.
Over the next three decades, LSD exploded in popularity and endured an array of purposes: from early experimentation on the mentally ill during the 50s, to the CIA’s notorious Project MKUltra from 1953 to 1973 to its recreational use popularised by the hippies. The substance was eventually criminalised in 1966 but use for recreational and research purposes has never quite slid to a complete halt, and medical research on it has picked up this century.
There are zero deaths linked directly to LSD overdose – this is a fact. In January 2017, the Drug Policy Alliance (a New York-based non-profit whose aims are the legalisation of illicit drug use) published an “LSD Fact Sheet” that stated “Risk of fatal overdose is nonexistent with LSD, but risky behaviours sometimes occur”. Still, stories of psychedelic-induced mania and generally risky behaviour are commonly reported. The general consensus in communities of acid freaks is that careless usage of the drug combined with already existing mental health conditions can be dangerous, but as long as people are careful and smart with their usage, it is a force for unmitigated good.
Regardless of your personal thoughts on this psychedelic substance that has rippled through generations of hippies, artists, and Silicon Valley micro-dosers, the scientific world is looking back to LSD and other psychotropic drugs as viable treatments for pain relief, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. These substances, like any other, are not devoid of risk; according to Statista, the number of UK deaths from drug poisoning by even paracetamol was 211 in 2019.
We cannot deny that we are living through a mental health crisis: it is still thought that one in four people experience mental health issues each year. According to an NHS report on mental illness in children in July 2020, one in six children aged 5-16 were reported as having a probably mental health disorder. These figures are only increasing.
The medical use of psychedelics seeks to redefine how we treat depression; instead of seeing depression as a lack of serotonin, the basis of psychedelic treatment is to reduce the sense of self.
The most common treatment for depression in the UK remains SSRIs – the most common form of antidepressant – but SSRIs are effective for just one in five people, with severe side effects ranging from weight fluctuation, erectile dysfunction, and even hallucinations (although this is less common). The medical use of psychedelics seeks to redefine how we treat depression; instead of seeing depression as a lack of serotonin, the basis of psychedelic treatment is to reduce the sense of self. In practical terms, psychedelic treatments work by interrupting the negative thought spirals that often occur in people suffering from depression: removing you from yourself.
It seems almost a certainty that psychotropic substances will eventually be integrated into medical practices. A country is only as strong as its allies; in a post-Brexit UK, one might hope that our closest friend will be Biden’s USA. If the recent decriminalisation of recreational marijuana, followed by the passing of the Drug Decriminalisation and Addiction Treatment Initiative in Oregon is any decent indicator of a Western swing to progressive drug politics, then perhaps we should anticipate the decriminalisation of substances like LSD sooner than anyone expected.