From ‘problem child’ to ‘prodigy’? LSD turns 75

Lysergic acid diethylamide was labelled a "problem child" by the man who discovered its hallucinogenic properties in 1943: as it turns 75, the drug known as LSD may now be changing its image. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018
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From ‘problem child’ to ‘prodigy’? LSD turns 75

  • Through the 1960s, LSD became synonymous with counterculture and anti-authority protests
  • After decades as a medical outcast, it has attracted renewed clinical interest and there has been evidence that it can help treat anxiety and depression

BERN, Switzerland: Lysergic acid diethylamide was labelled a “problem child” by the man who discovered its hallucinogenic properties in 1943: as it turns 75, the drug known as LSD may now be changing its image.
The late Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann famously learned of LSD’s psychedelic effects when he inadvertently took a small dose while doing lab work for pharmaceutical company Sandoz.
He wanted the drug to be medically researched, convinced it could be a valuable psychiatric tool and lead to a deeper understanding of human consciousness.
But through the 1960s, LSD became synonymous with counterculture and anti-authority protests.
By the early 1970s, it had been widely criminalized in the West, prompting Hofmann to publish his 1979 memoir, “LSD: My Problem Child.”
The book, in which Hofmann sought to reassert LSD’s potential medical benefits, is featured in an exhibition at the Swiss National Library in the capital, Bern, to mark 75 years since the discovery.
Hofmann died in 2008 at the age of 102 but he likely would have been pleased by a series of recent developments.
After decades as a medical outcast, LSD has attracted renewed clinical interest and there has been evidence that it can help treat anxiety and depression.
Such developments were what Hofmann was hoping for at the time of writing “My Problem Child.”
“If we can better understand how to use it, in medical practice related to meditation and LSD’s ability to promote visionary experiences under certain circumstances, then I think that this ‘problem child’ could become a prodigy,” he wrote.
He had discovered LSD while working with a fungus called ergot, which attacks cereal grains like rye and had previously been used for a variety of medical purposes. At the time, Sandoz was using it to make migraine medication.
Hofmann unknowingly created LSD when he combined the main active agent in ergot — lyzergic acid — with diethylamide. After accidentally ingesting a trace of LSD, he began to feel strange and later on deliberately took larger amounts to better understand the drug’s effects.
In a bestselling book published in May entitled “How to Change Your Mind,” the renowned American author Michael Pollan notes that LSD was the subject of widespread experimental research through the 1950s and 1960s and attracted the interest of leading psychiatrists.
But the situation changed.
“When Hofmann published his book in 1979, LSD was completely prohibited. There was no research,” said Hannes Mangold, curator of the National Library exhibit called “Problem Child LSD turns 75.”
“What’s interesting is that for the last 10-15 years, research has once again been authorized and LSD as medicine has re-emerged.”
A non-profit organization that has been at the forefront of driving the new wave of research is the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Santa Cruz.
MAPS receives mostly private funding from large and small donors to support medical research into controlled substances.
Brad Burge, director of strategic communications at MAPS, told AFP that the organization had raised nearly $30 million (26 million euros) for further research to build on a Phase II LSD study which, he said, found positive indications that the drug can successfully treat anxiety.
MAPS funded the Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser to conduct the Phase II study, which was published in 2014 and was the first controlled study of LSD in more than four decades.
“We kind of brought it full circle, back there (to Switzerland),” Burge said.
He said that in the early years following Hofmann’s discovery, Sandoz had sent out batches of LSD to any interested researcher, hoping someone would define a clear, marketable purpose for the drug.
“It was 1950s crowdsourcing,” Burge said.
In 1970, the administration of former US president Richard Nixon listed LSD as a “Schedule 1” narcotic, a classification given to drugs that Washington considers highly dangerous with no medical benefit.
MAPS and others have argued that the decision was more about politics than public health as Nixon was interested in cracking down on various groups with which LSD had — accurately or not — become linked, including hippies and opponents of the Vietnam war.
But the effect of the Schedule 1 designation was to bring serious research on LSD to a halt, both in the United States and among foreign laboratories worried about American reprisals, Burge said.
Mangold told AFP that the LSD research landscape was effectively dormant for nearly four decades and only began to change following a 2006 conference in the Swiss city of Basel to mark Hofmann’s 100th birthday.
Scientists from numerous countries left the Basel symposium resolved to pursue new research and asked their regulatory authorities for permission to work with LSD, Mangold said.
Burge said that a key finding of the Phase II MAPS trial was that none of the 12 patients who participated had adverse reactions.
Given the risks of taking a powerful psychotropic in an unsupervised context, proving that LSD could be safely administered by medical professionals was essential to advancing further research, he said.
In the study, Gasser focused on patients diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, who participated in LSD-assisted psychotherapy during which they were guided in confronting anxieties and painful experiences while under the influence.
The qualitative results of the study showed participants experienced a reduction in anxiety, but found that further research was needed to define model medical uses for LSD.
“It’s still early, but it is now conceivable that LSD could make a comeback as a (therapeutic) drug,” Mangold said.


San Francisco moves closer to nation’s 1st e-cigarette ban

In this Monday, June 17, 2019, photo, Joshua Ni, 24, and Fritz Ramirez, 23, vape from electronic cigarettes in San Francisco. (AP)
Updated 19 June 2019
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San Francisco moves closer to nation’s 1st e-cigarette ban

  • Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among young people in the country

SAN FRANCISCO: San Francisco supervisors moved a step closer Tuesday to becoming the first city in the US to ban all sales of electronic cigarettes to crack down on youth vaping.
Supervisors unanimously approved a ban on the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes. They also endorsed a ban on manufacturing of e-cigarettes on city property. The measures will require a subsequent vote before becoming law.
“We spent the ‘90s battling big tobacco, and now we see its new form in e-cigarettes,” Supervisor Shamann Walton said.
The supervisors acknowledged that the legislation would not entirely prevent youth vaping, but they hoped it would be a start.
“This is about thinking about the next generation of users and thinking about protecting the overall health and sending a message to the rest of the state and the country: Follow our lead,” Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera said young people “have almost indiscriminate access to a product that shouldn’t even be on the market.” Because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet completed a study to assess the public health consequences of e-cigarettes and approved or rejected them, he said, “it’s unfortunately falling to states and localities to step into the breach.”
Most experts agree that e-cigarettes are less harmful than the paper-and-tobacco variety because they do not produce all the cancer-causing byproducts found in cigarette smoke. But researchers say they are only beginning to understand the risks of e-cigarettes, which they think may damage the lungs and blood vessels.
Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among young people in the country. Last year, 1 in 5 US high school students reported vaping in the previous month, according to a government survey .
FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said in a statement that the agency will continue to fight e-cigarette use, including preventing youth access to the products, acting against manufacturers and retailers who illegally market or sell the products to minors and educating young people about health risks.
Leading San Francisco-based e-cigarette company Juul frames vaping as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco. Juul has said it has taken steps to deter children from using its products. The company said in a statement that it has made its online age-verification process more robust and shut down its Instagram and Facebook accounts to try to discourage vaping by those under 21.
“But the prohibition of vapor products for all adults in San Francisco will not effectively address underage use and will leave cigarettes on shelves as the only choice for adult smokers, even though they kill 40,000 Californians every year,” Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said.
Tuesday’s vote also sets the stage for a November ballot fight over e-cigarettes. Juul has already contributed $500,000 to the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, which is set to gather signatures to put an initiative on the issue before voters.
The American Vaping Association opposed San Francisco’s proposal as well, saying adult smokers deserve access to less hazardous alternatives.
“Going after youth is a step that you can take before taking these out of the hands of adults,” said the association’s president, Gregory Conley.
Groups representing small businesses also opposed the measures, which they said could force stores to close.
“We need to enforce the rules that we have in place already,” said Carlos Solórzano, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco.
Walton said he would establish a working group to support small businesses and address their concerns.
Although San Francisco’s ban is unlike any other in the country, the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law reports that all but two states have at least one law restricting youth access to e-cigarettes. City voters last year approved a ban on sales of candy and fruit-flavored tobacco products.
Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control and Research and a supporter of the measures, said e-cigarettes are associated with heart attacks, strokes and lung disease.
The presence of e-cigarettes, he said, has “completely reversed the progress we’ve made in youth smoking in the last few years.”