LSD has been having a cultural renaissance in recent years: A$AP Rocky rapped about it on his track "L$D", Kendrick Lamar seemed to warn against it in the song "Lucy", and Chance The Rapper named his album Acid Rap. UK festival Secret Garden Party have introduced a tent called “Psychedelia Smithsonian”, while trippy psytrance music features heavily on the line-up at UK festivals like Boomtown. Over in the States, Coachella is a hub for LSD lovers. I mean, you know acid has gone mainstream when Cosmopolitan magazine run a Coachella story called "Acid Does Weird Things To People". When you think of LSD – or “acid”, as it’s more commonly known – you probably picture the colourful, spiralling artwork of '60s psychedelia, or a warehouse full of '90s teenagers losing their shit at a rave. Historically it's a drug for the counterculture, for people who want to loosen their grip on reality with a hallucinogenic substance. Acid takes you on a trip into the unknown, and, for that reason, it’s also a notorious gamble. Will it help you reach a higher spiritual plane? Or will it take your mind somewhere you never wanted to go?
Over the last few years, the number of young people in Britain who are trying out acid has sky-rocketed. Statistics released by the crime survey of England and Wales last year suggest that the number of 16 to 24-year-olds who took LSD between 2014 and 2015 had tripled from 0.4% to 1.2% since 2012. It showed the highest number of people taking LSD in the UK for 15 years. And the true number could be even higher. This summer, thousands of young people will take acid at festivals. But why is this resurgence happening now? And what are the risks attached? I’ve always been far too neurotic to try LSD – shorthand for the chemical “lysergic acid diethylamide.” For starters, it can last up to about ten hours, depending on your tolerance and the dosage. 75 micrograms of the liquid, absorbed on a small blotting pad or “acid tab” might simply make the world look brighter and lift your mood, while 300 micrograms could give you a full-on hallucinogenic experience. The problem is, unless you’ve measured out the dosage yourself, it’s difficult to know the strength of what you’re taking. Then there are the horror stories. The cases of acid trips triggering mental health problems like schizophrenia. The concept of LSD flashbacks: a psychological return to the state of being on LSD days, weeks or years after taking the drug. The “bad batches” of LCD – usually found to be synthetic substitutes, which can kill you outright. And the tales of what people do when they’re on it; the man who thought he could fly and threw himself off a building, the boy who drowned at a full moon party – urban myths or not, the terror they instil is all too real.
So, why haven’t we heard much noise about the psychedelic’s big comeback? Dr Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist, addiction medicine specialist and founder of The Global Drug Survey explains that acid is a drug that people “dip their toe into.” He says that people don’t tend to use LSD regularly because, if you use it for four or five days on the trot, you become immune and the drug begins to lose effect. Within the medical community, LSD is not considered addictive, so few people seek treatment after using it. Essentially, it’s a drug that most users only take once in a while, and so a drug that we rarely talk about.
Personally, at 24, I’ve been offered acid three times: by British backpackers in Cambodia, at Glastonbury festival last year, and at a warehouse party. It’s not a coincidence that people take acid in these situations. Like travelling, like going to a festival, like going to a rave, acid offers young people an “alternative experience” – a chance to escape the reality of our everyday lives. “I first took acid at Secret Garden Party festival in Cambridgeshire,” says Max, who’s 24 and from North London. “I took it at night, and it was awful – there were too many people around and I felt vulnerable.” Max did it again, by a quiet lake whilst at Melt Festival in Berlin, and found it much less frightening. “As with all psychedelics, LSD breaks down the connectivity between different parts of your brain”, Dr Winstock tells me. “Our brain is built to help us understand the world around it in a meaningful way – LSD and psychedelics take away those filters. All of a sudden, you have connections between parts of the brain that don’t normally happen. You can see sounds and hear colours. You’re not constrained by the way society and evolution have shaped you to see the world. It allows your brain to return to its default, disorganised mode. The experiences can be fascinating, exciting or really, really weird.”
The narrative of LSD’s popularisation is often one set in the U.S.A. – focussing on the misjudged use of the drug in clinical trials, for example – but the LSD use spread in the UK in similar fashion. It first came to Britain in 1952 when a psychotherapist named Dr Ronnie Sanderson brought it over from America for treating psychological disorders in hospitals. Andy Roberts, author of the book Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain, explains that around this time, MI5 and MI6 also began trialling the drug as a method of interrogation, until, in Robert’s words, “they realised there was no use asking people questions when they’re high off their face.” By 1966, reports Andy’s book, there were labs manufacturing LSD in London and the drug found its way onto the streets. It was made illegal in the UK in October 1966. Apart from the fact that it was criminalised, Roberts thinks the use of LSD decreased in the 1970s and '80s because MDMA and ecstasy came into fashion, and with them, a more euphoric brand of high. However, when house music starting coming over to the UK from Detroit and Chicago in the late 1980s –music Andy describes as “tooled to MDMA and LSD” – Britain saw the birth of the acid house movement: a '90s filled with hedonism, dance music and a youth culture keen to escape the realities of a recession-hit, post-Thatcher era with whatever psychoactive drugs they could get their hands on. It was, Andy notes, a “drug of ideation”, and remains one today.
When the reality for young people at the moment is the worst youth unemployment rates for twenty years, not to mention unaffordable housing and staggering tuition fees, it’s easy to see why young people might want an escape with psychedelics all over again. And so it makes sense that LSD isn’t the only drug that young people are increasingly turning to; the same report that found a rise in LSD use in the UK also discovered a big rise in the use of MDMA. The number of young people taking the pure ecstasy crystal has doubled over the last two years, with an estimated one in 20 young people having used it in the past 12 months. Both drugs creative a cognitive disassociation with reality.
We’re living in a “polydrug society” whereby young people are, on the whole, more willing to experiment
Andy Roberts, author of 'Albion Dreaming'
On another level, though, it is surprising that LSD would make a comeback now – if only because there are so many other new drugs on the market, like MDMA. There are also a number of analogue versions of LSD available – similar drugs, but essentially just knockoffs. There are cheap synthetic chemicals out there, such as mephedrone, or other drugs that pertain to be “legal highs”, such as the synthetic cannabis “spice”. Andy doesn't see these drugs as being in competition with one another though; he believes that the availability of these substances means "we are living in a 'polydrug society' whereby young people are, on the whole, more willing to experiment." And at a time when young people are feeling the pinch, at around £5 for a tab, acid is a lot cheaper than some of these other drugs on the market, and provides a high that lasts a number of hours. In that sense, it’s more economically viable than street drugs like cocaine. And Dr Winstock suggests that "while the psychedelic of choice for young people has been ketamine in recent years, it’s entirely plausible that increased awareness of the harms the tranquiliser can have on your bladder might lead psychedelic users to conclude that LSD is safer."
“The immediate danger with acid is how your perception of time, speed and space go out the window"
Dr Adam Winstock, The Global Drugs Survey
The notion that LSD is safe is a dangerous misconception. The short-term effects are in and of themselves risky. “The immediate danger with acid is how your perception of time, speed and space go out the window,” says Winstock. He continues: “That means you might do something really stupid like get in the car and attempt to drive. A friend of mine at university got in his car, thought he was moving at 5 miles per hour, looked at the speedometer and realised he was driving at 30. Luckily, he thought, ‘I think I better get out of the car’, but many people wouldn’t, since LSD can not only impair your judgement, but take it away altogether.” The negative long-term effects of LSD have also been proven. The way Winstock describes the dangers is that the drug has the potential to “play origami” with your brain. “If you take it at the wrong time with the wrong people and you are someone who is prone to mental illness, it can trigger things,” he explains. “Everyone knows a story along the lines of ‘when my friend’s brother was 17 he took LSD and developed schizophrenia’. Well, although LSD does not cause schizophrenia, it very well might precipitate it or trigger it in someone who is vulnerable.” Winstock is quick to warn that there are people out there exploiting the possibility that psychedelic drugs offer a quick route to understanding yourself or having an awakening, but they can just as easily get you lost in a potentially fatal situation. Whether you’re buying drugs at festivals, on the dark web, or off a drug dealer, you’re always playing Russian Roulette with what that drug contains – and that’s before considering how the setting in which you take LSD, or your own mental state, will effect the outcome of your experience. Psychedelics might offer a short-term escape from the realities of life, but we ought to remember that there are much less risky ways to do that. LSD is a potentially harmful substance. If you're worried about drugs, visit the Frank website