In 1943, Dr Albert Hoffman left his laboratory for a world completely different from that of his morning commute. His bicycle ride home was arduous, and peculiar shapes and colours transformed his town, stirring in him an overbearing anxiety that something was wrong.
When he arrived home, his neighbour had turned into a witch and the furniture in his house had taken on different forms. Apart from these unsettling metamorphoses, Hoffman gradually settled in to what was the first ever LSD trip.
April 2018 marked 75 years since Hoffman first synthesised LSD in what is now celebrated as Bicycle Day. He impulsively sent LSD to scientists around the world hoping that someone would find a use for it. He never managed a scientific breakthrough, however, and LSD trickled down into the counterculture movement through the lax hands of sixties science. The War on Drugs ensued – discouraging the production, distribution and consumption of psychoactive drugs – and scientific research into psychedelics broke down.
Things changed in 2006 when Dr Francisco A. Moreno lead a study that found psilocybin – the active chemical in magic mushrooms – to have the therapeutic potential to ease the symptoms of OCD. For Jonathan Ilif, president of the UCL Society for the Application of Psychedelics, it was a key moment in modern psychedelic research. “It opened up the possibilities,” he says. “Once you do it (practical psychedelic research), you can prove it’s safe.”
Several studies have since taken place with LSD and psilocybin; in 2016, a John Hopkins study found 80 per cent of participants to have less cancer-related anxiety and depression six months after treatment with psilocybin.
“There’s a lot of excitement about what they might do for mental illness,” says Ilif. “But the evidence isn’t solid. There’s a flicker of data that suggests psychedelics could treat these illnesses. We now have to see how this flicker stands up to reality.”
Ilif thinks psychedelics could start being prescribed by psychiatrists in as little as five years. The timescale isn’t definitive, however, and is a long time for those with treatment resistant depression. This has led many to self-medicate, including Louise Stanson who used the psychoactive drug MDMA to help her cope after she was sexually assaulted.
“I was unable to talk about what happened, and would try to forget about it until a flashback or panic attack would bring it all back,” she says. When her friends started using MDMA recreationally, she decided to try it.
“After using MDMA, I felt like I could speak about what happened without feeling scared or embarrassed. It gave me confidence and allowed me to trust others enough to speak to them,” she says. “MDMA at the very least has helped to speed up my recovery process, and made me feel at peace with myself.”
An overwhelmingly large number of psychedelic users report feelings of peace with themselves and their surroundings; and 2006 John Hopkins study with psilocybin found that most of the 36 participants rated it as the most, or one of the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
Yet, this spiritual aspect of psychedelics isn’t a recent discovery. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test famously followed The Merry Pranksters in their LSD fuelled search for personal and spiritual development in 1964. Fifty years on, and groups like The Psychedelic Society are still using psychedelics for these means, all in a slightly more sensible fashion.
“There was a lot of reckless behaviour in the 60s and 70s with LSD,” says Gaia Harvey Jackson, events coordinator for the society. “Part of our job now is to break that taboo.”
Harvey-Jackson believes that psychedelics provide an opportunity to access parts of our unexplored psyche; a significant milestone if we are to understand and treat mental illnesses like schizophrenia where the sense of self can become heavily distorted. She may not be far off either, as in a recent breakthrough study, researchers at the University of Zurich found that LSD can dissolve the ego, and thus perforate layers of the psyche.
It sounds like a terrifying prospect, but Jackson disagrees: “If you’re accessing parts of yourself in a safe environment, it can be a very healing experience. But if you’re in a strange, unfamiliar place, people resist all the stuff that’s coming to the surface. This makes for a bad experience.”
It’s hard to imagine something as powerful as LSD being available through the NHS. As it stands, psychedelics are Class A drugs, with no recognised medicinal values. Even if they became legal tomorrow, public censure and scepticism would be likely to follow the decision of making them medically legal.
“It’s in the public mind that people could abuse these drugs,” says Harry Shapiro, who, as director of DrugWise UK, provides drug information to the public and policy makers. “But if you look at the situation with antidepressants, you can’t say we haven’t got a problem with them too.”
And this is true. Between 2006 and 2016, antidepressant prescriptions increased by 108.5%, and an all-time high of 64.7m antidepressant medicines were prescribed by NHS England in 2016. Mental health is an increasing problem in the UK; in England alone, severe mental illness rose by 2.4% between 1993 and 2014. Yet, the often addictive and damaging medicine hasn’t changed.
However, while it is physically impossible to become addicted to psychedelics, they can trigger illnesses like schizophrenia that sit foggily under the surface of an otherwise healthy person.
“With the wrong people taking psychedelics, you could be looking at some significant mental health problems,” says Shapiro. “The law sends a message that tells people the drugs are dangerous and we shouldn’t have general access to them.”
Shapiro struggles to see a scenario where psychedelics become legal in his lifetime. Yet, Hoffman could. It’s ironic that in his desperate hope to find a purpose for LSD, Hoffman’s generosity and arguable naivety resulted in the substances downfall. But, as psychedelic research grows exponentially, there’s no doubt that Hoffman would be as excited as he was some 75 years ago.