Dr Peter Moore: Has 2020 just been a terrible LSD trip rather than reality?

Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann manufactured the drug LSD from ergotamine while looking for a new treatment for migraine

Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann manufactured the drug LSD from ergotamine while looking for a new treatment for migraine - Credit: Archant

One Sunday morning the police brought a young man into the police station under the Mental Health Act. He was on Torquay seafront, hallucinating and flagging down cars. He believed that every car was full of policemen until he flagged down a car that really was.

I then saw several other young men, all hallucinating, all thought by the police to be suffering from a mental illness.

It turned out that a drug being sold at one of the clubs as ecstasy was dihydrocodeine with added LSD.

Although I have never taken mind-altering drugs apart from alcohol, I have wondered whether someone spiked my drink in February. Has the rest of 2020 just been a terrible LSD trip rather than reality?

Mind-altering drugs have a long history. In 1095, Pope Urban II ordered all Christians to join a crusade to drive the Muslims out of the holy land.

The French King and his nobles were unsure until a priest called Sigger had a vision from God. He saw two knights fighting in the air, one with a cross on his clothes. Others saw a city in the air.

So, had God made it pretty obvious they should obey the pope and join the crusades? Maybe, maybe not.

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A more likely explanation is ergot poisoning.

Ergot is a fungus which grows on rye and causes hallucinations. It also produces severe circulation problems leading to a burning feeling in the hands and feet, which explains the name ‘St Antony’s fire’ although I’m not sure why St Antony gets the blame.

It is also possible that ergot poisoning led to the Salam Witch trials in Massachusetts in the 1690s.

We now know that the chemical responsible for ergot poisoning is ergotamine, a drug which is highly effective in treating migraine at a much lower dose.

In 1938, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, working for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz, was looking for a new treatment for migraine.

As part of his research he manufactured the drug LSD from ergotamine.

In 1943, he accidentally absorbed some of the drug through his fingertips and experienced a stream of fantastic pictures with kaleidoscopic colours. Three days later he deliberately took some more and then rode home on his bike experiencing the world’s first deliberate LSD trip.

He continued to use it for the rest of his life believing that it gave a mystical experience of a deeper reality.

In 1947, it was marketed as a treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. It was even looked at by the CIA as an agent of mind control.

By the 1960s it was widely used by the hippy generation.

Many well-known intellectuals such as Aldous Huxley believed that the hallucinations gave a deeper insight into life, the universe and everything.

It inspired psychedelic music including Jimmy Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and The Beatles’ ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘Day Tripper’.

John Lennon always denied that ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was a reference to LSD although it does sound like an LSD trip. Is the reference to LSD in the title really just a coincidence?

In 1966, it was made illegal and is now a Class A drug, illegal and of no clinical use.

LSD is usually sold on the streets as small squares of blotting paper which are placed on the tongue. A ‘trip’ with hallucinations occurs in about 20 to 30 minutes.

The dangers of the drug come from behaviour during a trip. It is not a good idea for anyone to believe they can fly.

There is also a risk of flashbacks. Even when someone has not taken another dose, they can develop new hallucinations; a problem when driving on the fast lane of the M5.

Whatever the hippy generation say, LSD takes people out of reality unless they imagine that a car on Torquay seafront is full of policemen.

It does not give us a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. Nine hundred years after the Crusades some people still did not accept that these are just hallucinations.