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.


Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

Farmer Pepe Casanas poses with a scorpion in Los Palacios, Cuba, December 5, 2018. Picture taken December 5, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 December 2018
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Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

  • In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar
  • The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity

HAVANA: Once a month for the last decade, Pepe Casanas, a 78-year-old Cuban farmer, has hunted down a scorpion to sting himself with, vowing that the venom wards off his rheumatism pains.
His natural remedy is no longer seen as very unusual here.
Researchers in Cuba have found that the venom of the blue scorpion, whose scientific name is Rhopalurus junceus, endemic to the Caribbean island, appears to have anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties, and may be able to delay tumor growth in some cancer patients.
While some oncologists abroad say more research is needed to be able to properly back up such a claim, Cuban pharmaceutical firm Labiofam has been using scorpion venom since 2011 to manufacture the homeopathic medicine Vidatox.
The remedy has proven popular.
Labiofam Business Director Carlos Alberto Delgado told Reuters sales were climbing 10 percent annually. Vidatox already sells in around 15 countries worldwide and is currently in talks with China to sell the remedy there.
In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar. On the black market abroad it can cost hundred times that — retailers on Amazon.com are seen selling them for up to $140.
“I put the scorpion where I feel pain,” Casanas said while demonstrating his homemade pain relief with a scorpion that he found under a pile of debris on the patch of land he cultivates in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio.
After squeezing it long enough, it stung him and he winced.
“It hurts for a while, but then it calms and goes and I don’t have any more pain,” he said.
Casanas, a leathery-skinned former tobacco farmer who now primarily grows beans for his own consumption, said he sometimes keeps a scorpion under his straw hat like a lucky charm.
It likes the shade and humidity, he says, so just curls up and sleeps.

FROM FARM TO LAB
In a Labiofam laboratory in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, workers dressed in scrubs and hairnets tend to nearly 6,000 scorpions housed in plastic containers lined up on rows of metal racks.
Every few days they feed and water the arachnids that sit on a bed of small stones. Once a month, they apply an 18V electrical jolt to their tails using a handcrafted machine in order to trigger the release of a few drops of venom.
The venom is then diluted with distilled water and shaken vigorously, which homeopathic practitioners believe activates its “vital energy.”
The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity.
After two years of exploitation in the “escorpionario,” they are released back into the wild.
Dr. Fabio Linares, the head of Labiofam’s homeopathic medicine laboratory who developed the medicine, said Vidatox stimulates the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
“After four to five years (of taking it), the doctor whose care I was in told me that my cancer hadn’t advanced,” said Cuban patient Jose Manuel Alvarez Acosta, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008.
Still, Labiofam recommends Vidatox as a supplemental treatment and says it should not replace conventional ones.