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Bicycles and LSD: The connection is real

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LSD has been a substance of controversy ever since it was first synthesised in 1938 (Image by JahirMP via en.wikipedia.org)

Take a brief trip with Dr Samuel Douglas to the origin of LSD and Bicycle Day and how this enigmatic substance might be used in future.

BICYCLE DAY occurs on 19 April, when drug nerds, counterculture buffs and free-thinkers everywhere commemorate the first-ever deliberate ingestion of lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD

How was this remarkable chemical discovered? And what does it have to do with bikes?

Having synthesised LSD for the first time in 1938, while looking for possible blood stimulants, accidental trace ingestion on 16 April 1943 gave Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann reason to think it had psychoactive properties. Three days later, armed only with his lab journal, Hofmann endeavoured to test this substance — on himself.

He settled on taking 250 micrograms, reasoning (quite wrongly) that this would be barely perceptible. Within two hours of embarking on this experiment, he was getting much more than he bargained for and asked his lab assistant to get him home. Because of wartime restrictions on vehicle use, Hofmann and his colleague made the journey by bicycle — hence Bicycle Day.

Once they had somehow made it home, Hofmann feared he was losing his sanity or even his life.

This dread passed, though, and he would later recount that he began to enjoy the visons that appeared when he closed his eyes:

‘Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in coloured fountains, rearranging and hybridising themselves in constant flux.’ 

By the next day, Hofmann had recovered from his experience, aware that he’d made a momentous discovery.

LSD appeared to get off to a promising start through the 1940s and 1950s with research into its potential as an aid to psychotherapy, particularly in treating alcoholics. But even at this early stage, the CIA was embarking on less ethical applications via programs such as MK-Ultra.

Though popularisation of psychedelics coincided with countercultural movements that swept the globe in the 1960s and 1970s, this could possibly be a case of correlation rather than cause. Either way, this association set the scene for a moral panic of epic proportions.

By the mid-1960s, LSD was well on the way to being prohibited in most states and countries, with government-sanctioned research largely disappearing for the next 40 years. Despite the restrictions on personal use and therapeutic research that came with prohibition, in recent times LSD has been quietly moving away from its supposedly rebellious associations. In the past few years, it has been investigated for use in treating depression and anxiety.

Many people have relayed anecdotes about psychedelics aiding their recovery from addiction. This has inspired researchers to return to this application, with results suggesting LSD-assisted therapy produces clinically significant benefits in treating alcoholism.

At a less formal level, LSD "microdosing" – where people take small amounts to aid in concentration, creativity or boost mood – has swept through Silicon Valley and tech communities around the world.

This has spawned everything from mainstream books to slick multimillion-dollar businesses such as The Third Wave offering coaching and courses for the novice microdoser. While these practices presently lack clinical evidence, the University of Auckland is currently running its own microdosing trial to see if the hype has any basis in reality.

But LSD is still prohibited outside of highly restrictive research settings in most places. This doesn’t entirely make sense, given that it’s not habit-forming and difficult (if not impossible) to take a lethal overdose. Yes, difficult experiences can happen. And using such a powerful substance without a reasonably sober trip-sitter to look after you would be unwise, especially for inexperienced psychonauts.

People suffering from schizophrenia and similar illness should probably avoid psychedelics altogether. Although, the packet of paracetamol in Australians’ medicine cabinets or their pandemic-inspired booze stash may have more capacity to cause them serious physical harm than a tab of LSD.

Of course, there is always the danger that people just think they’re buying LSD and are instead ending up with more dangerous chemicals like NBOMe. But if politicians would just listen to the evidence and reasoning around pill-testing and decriminalisation, much of this risk could be mitigated or eliminated altogether.

As with laws around cannabis, this is a clear case of Australian governments failing to act in the interest of community safety or individual freedom, again.

None of this is to say there is consensus among advocates on drug law reform. Despite the relative safety of LSD and other psychedelics, some organisations pushing for therapeutic access – such as Mind Medicine Australia – have distanced themselves from decriminalisation efforts, stating that they do not ‘advocate for any changes to the law with respect to non-clinical use’.

Perhaps this is necessary for the short term to gain support (and donations) from social conservatives, or perhaps it is an indication of disinterest in the harms that criminalisation causes. From the outside, it is hard to tell. If conditions in November allow Mind Medicine Australia's planned summit on psychedelic therapies to go ahead, maybe its position can be clarified.

Nor is the growing association between capitalism and psychedelics without difficulty. The Third Wave founder, Paul Austin, has been accused of tricking the BBC into essentially running an advertisement for his business as an article.

Biotech company Compass Pathways controversially moved from being a not-for-profit to a very much for-profit organisation. It accepted investment from the infamous Peter Thiel and threatened to create a monopoly on psilocybin (the main active substance in magic mushrooms). While the flow of money might be slow right now, these sorts of issues are likely to intensify as markets recover.

If you read all of this and feel inspired to embark on a psychedelic journey for the first time, a few words of caution: LSD, like all psychedelics, is still highly illegal in most places (including all states in Australia). This also might not be the most comfortable time to confront things, like what is hidden deep inside your mind or the underlying nature of reality.

But if you’re stuck inside with time on your hands, it could be a good opportunity to read up on current developments, connect with organisations such as the Australian Psychedelic Society and Entheogenesis Australis, or maybe even write to your local MP to encourage them to reform our current drug laws.

Albert Hofmann called LSD his "problem child" — such was the disruption to worldviews and controversy its use created.

Sometimes problem children grow up. Other times, we come to realise that they were never the problem; that their weirdness or untameable wildness is something to be cherished. And who knows, maybe on Bicycle Days to come, we can celebrate this most potent of chemicals without either moral panic or corporate hype.

Dr Samuel Douglas is a philosopher and academic at the University of Newcastle, and a volunteer at the Australian Psychedelic Society. You can follow him on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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