Bicycle Day and the Roots of Psychedemia

Photo: Stefan PangritzThe Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) will be holding its 2nd Psychedelic Science conference this week featuring more than 100 researchers from 13 countries. Research for medical uses of LSD is known as "psychedemia." So how did it all begin?

Seventy years ago this week, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested a compound he was working on and described the next two hours as "an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was the substance, derived from the ergot fungi that grow on rye plants.

Three days later, on April 19th, 1943, Hofmann took what he thought was a small dose of the substance as an experiment. It was actually 10 times more than what is now considered a typical dose and—suspecting he might be going insane due to the intensity—rode his bicycle home to recover. (In the 1980s, April 19th was dubbed "Bicycle Day" by Northern Illinois University psychology professor, Dr. Thomas Roberts, to commemorate the occasion.)

What followed was an explosion of research into potential medical uses of psychedelics, which slowed after Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified LSD as a schedule 1 drug, the most highly regulated classification. Interviewed in 1996, Hofmann said:

I believe that shortly after LSD was discovered, it was recognized as being of great value to psychoanalysis and psychiatry. It was not considered to be an escape. It was a very important discovery at that time, and for fifteen years it could be used legally in psychiatric treatment and for scientific study in humans. ... This early work was very well documented, and shows how well research with LSD went until it became part of the drug scene in the 1960s. So, from originally being part of the therapeutic pharmacopeia, LSD became a drug of the street and inevitably it was made illegal. Because of this reputation, it became unavailable to the medical field, and so the research, which had been very open, was stopped. Now it appears that this research may start again. The importance of such investigations appears to be recognized by the health authorities, and so it is my hope that finally the prohibition is coming to an end, and the medical field can return to the explorations which were forced to stop thirty years ago.
Hofmann died in 2008 at the age of 102, but as he hoped, the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in studying the drug's therapeutic effects on conditions such as chronic anxiety, alcohol addiction, anorexia, and cluster headaches.

Additional Resources

LSD: My Problem Child - 1980 book by Albert Hofmann

Hofmann's Potion - 2002 documentary by Connie Littlefield

Inside LSD - 2009 National Geographic Explorer episode

Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD - 2013 book by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller

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