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LSD turns 75 as scientists again consider medical benefits

Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD’s hallucinogenic properties, once described it as a “problem child” – but 75 years later, its medical benefits are again being investigated.

Dr Hoffman became the first person to ever ingest the drug in 1943 while doing laboratory work for pharmaceutical company Sandoz when he accidentally ingested a small amount.

Now, an exhibition at the Swiss National Library in Switzerland’s capital Bern is marking 75 years since the discovery.

Dr Hoffman would go on to advocate for the use of LSD to treat psychiatric disorders and to help humanity discover the secrets of its own consciousness.

Although the drug quickly became criminalised, by the time Hoffman died in 2008 at the age of 102, increasing support had started to develop for the use of the drug in clinical settings to treat anxiety and depression.

At the time of the discovery, he wrote: “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.

“After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Medication containing LSD was manufactured, and packaging is being displayed as part of the exhibition in Bern, but the drug did not remain on shelves for long.

Packages of medication containing LSD are displayed as part of an exhibition entitled 'LSD, the 75 Years of a Problem Child' at the Swiss National Library on September 21, 2018 in Bern. - Lysergic acid diethylamide was labelled a 'problem child' by Late Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann who accidentally discovered its hallucinogenic properties while doing lab work for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz in 1943. As it turns 75, the drug known as LSD may finally be changing its image. (Photo by Fabrice
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Packages of medication at the exhibition in Bern. Pic: Fabrice Coffrini

Although the chemist initially believed the drug could have medicinal values, including as a psychiatric analysis aid, it would garner a very different reputation during the 1960s.

As the baby boomer generation expressed its political discontent across the world, the hallucinogen became a kind of Eucharist for their counter-cultural movements.

Western countries had almost universally declared it to be illegal a decade later, and in 1979 this prompted Dr Hoffman to publish a memoir calling the drug his “problem child”.

However, more and more researchers are beginning to investigate the clinical benefits of the drug which has been used to treat patients that suffer from cluster headaches in limited trials.

There has been limited testing in the UK however, where scientists have been asking the public to fund a controversial study into the effect of LSD on the brain.

The government’s former drugs tsar, Professor David Nutt, has been a prominent proponent of examining the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and remains a critic of prohibiting them.

Speaking to Sky News in 2015, Professor Nutt said: “Despite the incredible potential of this drug to further our understanding of the brain, political stigma has silenced research.

“We must not play politics with promising science that has so much potential for good.”

Prof Nutt said research in the 1960s suggested LSD could be used to treat addiction, depression and chronic pain.

Yet since being made illegal in 1967 there has only been one clinical study and two neuroscience studies.

“That is an absurd amount of censorship,” said Professor Nutt, who was sacked as the government’s chief drugs adviser after saying ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol.

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