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The Politics of LSD and What That Means for the War on Drugs

It is becoming increasingly popular in our day to blame the government’s “war on drugs” as villain rather than savior. The implication and sometimes outright assertion is that legislation outlawing drugs has created the problems we face in our society from them. Libertarians like Ron Paul suggest that legalizing all drugs would virtually eliminate the crime problems we face on our borders. Other go so far as to claim some drugs were actually introduced by clandestine organizations like the CIA.

LSD is a case in point of the way a drug can be politicized. Consider these thoughts from essayist and noted author, Brian M. Thomsen:

The oppressive right-wing backlash against the counterculture movement found LSD an easy target and quickly labeled it demonic and criminal. This was a gross overreaction … LSD, the wonder drug of the mind, had been labeled a demon drug of the soul, and its original acceptance by the mainstream was quickly forgotten in the wake of the newly inaugurated war on drugs.

While acknowledging LSD is dangerous when misused, Thomsen shifted the blame from those who abuse it to a society that tries to determine some way to deal with its effects.

The History of LSD

The following quote appeared in print on May 13, 1957:

The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused. If felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view…

And where did these words concerning the wonders of LSD appear? They were not found in Rolling Stone or Mother Jones. Instead, they appeared in Life Magazine, quoting Gordon Wasson, a banker with the J.P. Morgan firm.

By 1958 many of the elite in New York society were regularly experimenting with the drug. These well-noted users included the founder of Time, Inc. Henry Luce, and his wife Clare Booth Luce. New Yorker magazine reported Mrs. Luce felt LSD should be kept away from ordinary people because as she said, “We wouldn’t want everyone doing too much of a good thing.”

Less than a decade after being celebrated as a wonder drug, Congress passed legislation in 1958 making psychedelic drugs illegal. Congress declared the sale of LSD a felony and its possession a misdemeanor.

Llysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was first produced from a fungus growing on rye grain in 1938. It was patented by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, based on work by its chemist, Albert Hoffman. Its original intended use was to treat circulation and respiratory problems. However, Hoffman accidently ingested a tiny amount of LSD in 1943, and its psychedelic effects became history.

A 1950s study showed that LSD was useful for the treatment of chronic alcoholism, sexual deviations, neuroses, depression, phobias, and compulsive disorders. Other accepted uses for LSD before being outlawed included the treatment of autism and schizophrenia.

As late as the mid 1960s, researchers were still claiming LSD to be more beneficial than harmful. One report stated, “LSD has a wide safety margin and in the hands of experienced investigators does not produce hazardous side effects.” All of these studies stressed the necessity of controlled environments when using the drug.

Why Make It Illegal?

LSD is not classified as an addicting drug because it does not produce the compulsive drug-seeking behavior found with cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, alcohol, or nicotine. So why outlaw it? And why see its legal status as a political issue?

The main reason LSD was banned is its sheer unpredictability. Numerous factors determine how various people react to the drug. This includes the quantity taken, the user’s personality, mood, and expectations, and the setting in which the drug is used.  Physical effects include higher body temperature, sweating, dilated pupils, dry mouth, increased heart rate and blood pressure, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and tremors.

Sensations and feelings change much more dramatically than the physical signs.  The user can experience several different emotions. Rapid mood swings are common. Large doses can produce delusions and visual hallucinations.  The user’s sense of time and self changes.  Sensations may seem to “cross over,” giving the user the feeling of hearing colors and seeing sounds. These changes can cause severe panic.

Some LSD users experience flashbacks, a recurrence of certain aspects of a person’s experience even if the user doesn’t take the drug again. Flashbacks can occur suddenly and without warning. They can occur days, weeks, and even years after last taking the drug.

Why Make It Legal?

“You wanna get rid of drug crime in this country? Fine, let’s just get rid of all the drug laws.” -Ron Paul

A growing number of Libertarians and even conservatives are beginning to side with thoughts like those espoused by Congressman Paul. But what do we do with a drug like LSD that seems so harmless and yet can have devastating effects decades after taking it?

Historically, LSD has not been a big moneymaking illegal drug like cocaine or even marijuana. On average one hit of LSD costs less than the price of admission to a movie. If bought in bulk, it’s much cheaper than that. This is a drug one can take for the experiences and leave alone because it is not addictive. From a profit margin stand point, you aren’t going to see drug cartels killing each other over it. This fact points to the problem with dealing with it.

Legalizing LSD does not take away the profit motive because it doesn’t have that much of one in the first place. If nothing else, this drug that has been around with us for quite a while illustrates that the way to minimize drug use is not always as simplistic as some think. The big question is where that leaves us.

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