LSD: Usage trends

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 4:54 pm

Hallucinogenic drugs have been used by different cultures, often in religious ceremonies, for thousands of years. Before LSD, however, this use was limited by the fact that hallucinogenic plants only grow in certain climates and certain areas. When LSD became available on the street in the 1960s, hallucinogen usage soared across the United States and, later, in Western Europe.
Age, ethnic, and gender trends
LSD is the most widely used hallucinogenic drug. Traditionally it has been favored by middle- to upper-middle-class white, educated people in high school or college. It is also popular among artists and musicians because it is believed that LSD experiences can enhance the creative process. It is integrated into the lifestyle of people who follow certain rock groups, such as the Grateful Dead. Historically, LSD has also been a common drug of abuse among mental health professionals. In general, LSD has enjoyed far more popularity in the United States than in any other country.
Patterns of LSD use can best be explained through the drug’s history. In the 1940s and 1950s, the drug was tested for various Therapeutic uses. At this time, LSD became popular among mental health professionals.
In the 1960s, LSD research was undertaken on college campuses to examine the drug’s ability to help change undesirable outlook and behavior patterns as well as elicit profound spiritual experiences. Psychologist Timothy Leary, Ph.D., spearheaded this research. At Harvard University, Leary gave the hallucinogen psilocybin, a drug very similar to LSD, and later, actual LSD, to college professors, graduate students, and other intellectuals in controlled, positive environments to study the experience and its later impact on behavior and outlook. Although Leary was fired from Harvard in 1963, he used his position as a scholar to educate other researchers, and interested individuals about what he believed were the important positive effects of LSD. He was instrumental in promoting the use of LSD across college campuses in the United States, although he never advocated taking the drug for purely recreational purposes.
By 1962, LSD was widely available on the streets of America, and the American Medical Association published a public warning in its journal regarding the increasingly widespread use of LSD for recreational purposes. The drug was most popular in New York and California.
In 1965, street use of LSD in the United States surged, and it peaked from 1967 to 1969. By one estimate, 40% or more of students at Stanford University were using hallucinogenic drugs in 1967. LSD use was high on many other American college campuses as well. Leary himself estimated approximately one million Americans had used LSD at least once by 1967.
The popularity of LSD in the 1960s was at least partially spurred by the political situation at the time. Increasing numbers of young people were seeking higher education, and there was heightened interest in social issues and the workings of the mind. As young people became disenchanted with government decisions, such as the American participation in the Vietnam War, the rebellious “turn on, tune in, and drop out” mentality took hold. LSD was an integral part of that development.
LSD has also experienced some popularity in Britain and other European countries, starting a few years after its use began in the United States. However, LSD has never been used as much in Europe as in America.
As LSD’s popularity soared, stories started appearing in the media about crazy things people did while on the drug, such as staring into the sun until they went blind, committing suicide, or committing murder. These stories tended to be wildly exaggerated and, in some cases, simply untrue. However, this negative publicity, combined with stiffer and stiffer legal penalties for manufacture or possession of the drug, eventually helped decrease its popularity. LSD use dropped off in the 1970s and 1980s, while other drugs, particularly crack, cocaine, and heroin, became more common. LSD was still used during these decades, however, mainly by white, middle-class high school and college students.
In the early 1990s, there was a resurgence of LSD popularity. Experts disagree somewhat on why the resurgence occurred, but it seems to be at least partially related to emergence of the rave and club culture. Ravers and clubbers enjoy dancing all night under the influence of drugs that give them more energy (e.g., amphetamines or “speed”) as well as hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD and ecstasy (MDMA).
In the 1990s and since the early twenty-first century, LSD has rarely been bought “on the street” from strangers. Most often, it is sold at concerts and raves, and people usually buy it through friends and acquaintances. The typical LSD user is a white, middle-class high school or college student who tends to be a risk taker. Men are slightly more likely to take LSD than are women. In the United States, most illegal LSD is produced in Northern California and distributed through San Francisco to the rest of the country.
Scope and severity
The Monitoring the Future Study (MTF) is a survey performed every year since 1975 by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research on nearly 17,000 American high school students about their drug use. The survey is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to this survey, recent LSD use has remained below 10% among high school seniors since 1975. The lowest use of LSD was in 1986, when 7.2% reported using LSD at least once, and 4.4% reporting use in the last year. By 1997, 13.6% of seniors said they had used LSD at least once, and 8.4% reported using it in the previous year. From 1996 to 2000, LSD use dropped off slightly among high school students.
Another study, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), tracks drug, alcohol, and tobacco use in a sample of 13,000 Americans aged 12 and over. According to this survey, 6% of respondents had used LSD in 1988. The number increased to 7.7% in 1996, and most users were in the 18-to-25 age group.
According to a special analysis of NHSDA and MTF data, the United States experienced a hallucinogen use epidemic in the ’90s that peaked in 1996 among predominantly white youths aged 14 to 24. Use remained approximately stable until 1999, then dropped off slightly in 2000 and 2001. This renewal of interest in LSD spurred reports on the drug in major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as on TV news programs.
According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, LSD-related emergency room admissions have shown an up-and-down pattern since 1993. In 2000, 4,106 LSD-related admissions were reported.
NIDA reports that 13 million to 17 million Americans have used a hallucinogen at least once. In 1999, 8.1% of high school seniors had used LSD in the previous year. One study identified LSD as the third most common drug of abuse among college students, after alcohol and marijuana.
In Britain, LSD usage patterns are similar to those in the United States. The drug became popular in Britain in the mid-1960s, use declined in 1970s and 1980s but picked up again in the 1990s with the rave and club scene. A 1998 study in England and Wales revealed that 11% of respondents aged 16 to 29 said they had tried LSD at least once, and 2% said they had tried it in the previous year.
Patterns of LSD use have changed since the 1960s. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), typical doses of LSD obtained from illegal sources in the 1990s ranged from 20 to 80 micrograms (meg), which produces a high that can last 12 hours or longer. In the 1960s and 1970s, a typical dose was closer to 100 to 200 meg. The LSD available today is produced by about 10 laboratories, all located in or near San Francisco. At the doses used today, 1 gram of crystal LSD produces about 20,000 individual doses.
In the 1960s LSD was often used as a mind-opening or consciousness-expanding experience that encouraged deep understanding or empathy between people. In the 1990s and early twenty-first century, the appeal of LSD appears to be the enjoyment of the intense experience, as users claim it makes everyday life more exciting, unpredictable, and interesting. LSD use is closely tied to attending raves, clubs, and concerts and is often combined with ecstasy by ravers in a practice called “candy flipping.”
People who take LSD most often schedule the experience for a special occasion, such as a rave or concert. Even those termed “acid heads” by their friends because of their high use of LSD rarely take the drug more than once or twice a week. Use of LSD is limited by the fact that tolerance to the drug develops very quickly. After someone takes three or four doses close together, a few days must pass without taking the drug for it to be effective again. Also, LSD separates the user so much from reality that he or she cannot function normally while taking it. It is virtually impossible to effectively work, attend classes, drive a car, or even have a normal conversation while on LSD. As a result, people generally don’t take the drug if they need to be doing something else.
A few people, usually high school-aged individuals, take LSD on a regular basis to the point that it interferes with their everyday lives, dramatically disrupting sleep, eating, and personal hygiene habits. These heavy users usually notice that their lives are affected by heavy LSD use, but they first attribute this feeling to the effects of the drug itself. In other words, they think the LSD is making them believe that their lives are affected, when, in fact, everything is fine. Fortunately, even these users eventually realize the effect LSD is having on their lives and stop taking the drug. The vast majority of people who use LSD in their youth stop of their own accord as they get older.

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