Acid Test


LSD: Still with Us After All These Years, edited by Leigh A. Henderson and William J. Glass, New York: Lexington Books, 163 pages, $22.95

In June 1993 Ann Landers ran a letter from a reader who had recently seen an article "about how LSD is making a big comeback among the youth of America"—the kind of story that has appeared in newspapers and magazines with some regularity during the past few years. "I was a teenager in the 1960s," he wrote, "and although I was never involved in the drug scene, I remember hearing a lot of horror stories about young people jumping in front of trains, off roofs, and out of windows while under the influence of LSD. I am very concerned for this new generation of LSD users." The reader urged Landers to publish accounts by former acid users of "how this drug ruined their youth and possibly their adult years as well," along with letters from people who had "lost loved ones because of LSD."

Landers agreed there was cause for alarm. "The prospect of this dangerous drug making a comeback is bone-chilling," she replied. "This mind-altering drug has been responsible for many deaths. Flashbacks, which can occur years after the user has sworn off the drug, can be frightening."

This exchange illustrates how the conventional wisdom about LSD is propagated: People who don't know what they're talking about pass on hearsay and misinformation, blithely reinforcing each other's ignorance. As Leigh A. Henderson, an epidemiologist, and William J. Glass, a drug-abuse treatment specialist, note in their introduction to LSD: Still with Us After All These Years, this ignorance is all the more remarkable given half a century of experience with the drug, including more than a decade of legal use in psychotherapy, hundreds of clinical studies, and recreational use by millions of Americans since the early 1960s. This fascinating book summarizes that history and describes the findings of research on the current LSD scene sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Ann Landers ought to read it.

If she did, she would learn that the "big comeback" of LSD looks more like a blip. "After the intense interest and experimentation it generated in the late 1960s and early 1970s," Henderson writes, "LSD use has settled into an entrenched pattern among a limited population….The level of LSD use has varied little between the late 1970s and early 1990s." Past-month use of LSD by high-school seniors, for example, has been around 2 percent since 1975. (In the general population, the corresponding figure is less than 0.3 percent.)

Landers might also reconsider her assertion that LSD "has been responsible for many deaths." In general, Henderson writes, "LSD appears to pose few if any risks to physical health….Severe adverse reactions to LSD are rare, and death due to an overdose of LSD is essentially unknown." Fears that the drug might cause brain damage, genetic abnormalities, or insanity have not been substantiated. And while LSD can impair judgment, thereby contributing to accidents, so can other, more popular drugs, including alcohol.

As for the LSD flashback, it can probably best be understood as a sudden, vivid recollection of a dramatic, emotional experience—a phenomenon that is not limited to drug users. Contrary to popular belief, flashbacks are not caused by brain damage or LSD residue, and they are generally quite brief. Pace Ann Landers, Henderson reports that flashbacks "seldom occur more than a few months after the original trip." Furthermore, "a large proportion of those experiencing flashbacks (35 to 57 percent) have reported finding them pleasant (a 'free trip')." It's hard to imagine Landers noting that "flashbacks can be enjoyable."

Which is precisely the point. Even when anti-LSD propagandists are not spouting nonsense, they talk only about the drug's potential drawbacks, creating the impression that LSD generally leads to bad trips, horrible accidents, and scary flashbacks. Clearly, this cannot be true. If it were, personal observation and word of mouth would long since have eliminated LSD use, and the drug warriors would have nothing to worry about. So LSD begins with an obvious yet frequently overlooked point: Taking LSD is fun. True, it's a kind of fun that many people (not just Ann Landers) do not understand, which is one reason LSD use remains concentrated among a small percentage of middle-class white males in their late teens and early 20s. But by and large, the pleasure that people get from LSD is worth the cost involved.

The initial cost is quite low, especially compared to other drugs. A dose sufficient to produce a trip of five to seven hours can be had for a few dollars. But despite the low price, there is little risk of compulsive use. You have to set aside a significant block of time for each trip, and tolerance develops quickly (if you take the drug every day, it stops having the desired effect). Which is not to say that people never take LSD more often than is prudent. The book describes users who became obsessed with the drug, spending most of their time tripping or recovering from trips. But this pattern is rare. Indeed, most people who try LSD use it only a few times.

Although LSD is a very powerful substance—less than 100 micrograms is enough for a trip—the user's state of mind and environment can have a decisive impact on the drug experience. Bad trips generally result from taking the drug in the wrong mood, the wrong setting, or the wrong company. In Chapter 1, "What Is a Trip—And Why Take One?," James MacDonald and Michael Agar describe several bad trips, all of which were characterized by a loss of control caused by unexpected developments (an argument, the arrival of police). Experienced users learn to drop acid with friends in secure, predictable situations. MacDonald and Agar speculate that this requirement may help explain why LSD is not popular in the inner city. A threatening, chaotic environment is not conducive to a good trip.

"The irony," note MacDonald and Agar, "is that one objective of a trip is to lose control, but loss of control is the cause of a bad trip." LSD users seek a controlled loss of control, an experience something like a roller-coaster ride, where there is a predictable beginning and end, where the sense of danger is part of the thrill but the true risk is minimal. The best cure for a bad trip is the simple reassurance that the experience will pass.

As Henderson notes, the term hallucinogen is something of a misnomer, since neither LSD nor the other drugs classified under that label produce true hallucinations. The user is aware that the distortions and illusions triggered by LSD are not real. In this respect, an LSD trip is analogous to a lucid dream.

On the other hand, dream images are generally more vivid and complete than LSD images. In this sense, what you see on an acid trip pales in comparison with what you see every night when you go to sleep. And LSD trips are tied to reality in a way that dreams are not. The wall is not really undulating, but the wall is there; the light is not really dancing, but the light is there. LSD lets the user see familiar things in a new and interesting way. It's not hard to understand why this would appeal to a bored teenager.

And it's not hard to understand why it would frighten people like Ann Landers. Dreams, after all, are restricted to sleep. Even if they can be more convincing and dramatic than an acid trip, they do not reach out and grab reality. Still, in trying to fathom the LSD experience, it's worth reflecting on the fact that dreams, for all their irrationality and frivolity, appear to be indispensable. Subjects deprived of REM sleep (the phase in which dreams occur) start to get loopy pretty quickly. To keep our sanity, it seems, we need to lose our minds now and then.