The material below is not intended to provide medical advice and we don’t encourage the illegal use of any substances. Psychedelics are potentially illegal substance, and we do not encourage the use of this substance where it is against the law. Due to the high demand for the subject, we created this article for educational purposes. The intent of the content is to help you start learning about the subject.
To fathom hell or soar angelic,
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.
This enigmatic rhyme penned by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1956 marks the first use of the word psychedelic. He coined it by combining the Greek root words psyche – meaning ‘mind’ or ‘soul’, and dēlos – meaning ‘clear’ or ‘manifest’.
Although modern terminology graced this category of ‘soul-manifesting’ substances only in the mid-twentieth century, humans have apparently been familiar with their effects for thousands of years. Evidence of this comes from a series of prehistoric cave paintings, stone carvings, sculptures, and ancient texts going back to prehistoric times. A reigniting of interest in psychedelics occurred in the later part of the 19th century, and by the 1960s and ‘70s, they had permeated the art & culture scene in the US, the UK, and across many other parts of the world. Psychedelics-inspired art, music, and theater went on to acquire their distinct nomenclature – psychedelia.
By then, these hallucinogenic substances had become the object of both widespread scientific and medical interest, as well as counter-culture notoriety.
Origin & Discovery
The earliest known indication of psychedelic use appears in the 5000 BC cave paintings of mushroom-wielding shamans in the Tassili plateau of southeast Algeria. Evidence of these drugs being used by later civilizations has been found all over the world, from South and North America to the Caribbeans and Greece.
One of the earliest documented encounters with psychedelics dates back to 1496, during the second journey of Columbus to the Americas. Friar Ramon Pane, who was commissioned by Columbus to collect “ceremonies and antiquities”, made detailed notes of the hallucinogenic snuff called cohoba that was popular among the island inhabitants of Hispaniola in the Caribbean sea. Later discoveries brought several widely-used plant-based psychedelics to light. They include mescaline (derived from peyote cacti and used by several Native American tribes), psilocybin (the active component of psychedelic mushrooms), ibogaine (derived from a hallucinogenic shrub native to Central Africa), and ayahuasca (a powerful psychedelic used by the Tukano Indians of the Amazon).
The first-ever scientific study of peyote cacti was conducted by Daniel Prentiss and Francis Morgan at Columbia University (now George Washington University) in Washington DC in 1895. Their findings, based on a single subject who ingested three dried peyote buttons, record “delightful visions” and “loss of conception of time and space” as effects. It was more than a decade later that in 1897 that German pharmacologist Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from peyote.
The first of the artificial psychedelics, MDMA (the active component of Ecstasy), was synthesized in 1912. It was followed by DMT in 1931 and perhaps the most famous of them all – LSD, in 1938. Just over ten years later in 1947, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz Laboratories introduced LSD as an experimental medicine under the brand name Delysid to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders including Schizophrenia.
Historic Timeline of Psychedelic Research
1943 Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, discovers psychoactive effects of LSD (16th and 19th April)
1947 A paper on psychological effects of LSD in humans published by Werner Stoll
1950 First English language publication on LSD, published on Journal of Mental Science
1953 ACNP Founding president Joel Elkes (President in 1961) publishes on LSD after openly self-experimenting with it
1954 Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception’ published: documents mescaline self-experiment
1956 Term ‘psychedelic’ coined by Humphrey Osmond in communication with Aldous Huxley
1957 Term ‘magic mushrooms’ coined by LIFE magazine
1960 First major European conference on psychedelics; Sidney Cohen publishes positive meta-analysis on LSD safety
1961 Jonathan Cole (ACNP president 1965-66) expresses ‘very mixed feelings on psychedelic research’ as critical commentaries emerge
1962 The Harvard Psilocybin Project begins, led by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. They conduct research on the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics
1963 Leary dismissed from Harvard; Aldous Huxley and JFK die (both on 22nd November)
President Nixon signs Controlled Substances Act, LSD and psilocybin made Schedule 1 drug
Early research and trends (First wave)
Plant-based psychedelics were being used in ritual, spiritual, and recreational practices by diverse communities across several continents over the past centuries. However, it was not until the arrival of synthetic LSD in the mid-nineteenth century that the wider social and scientific curiosity in this category of drugs came to the fore. In the 1950s, the most striking interest in psychedelics came from psychologists and psychiatrists. This period saw multiple clinical and research studies involving thousands of patients and participants. ‘Psychedelic psychotherapy’ became an accepted discipline in the treatment of depression, alcohol dependence, and a variety of other psychiatric symptoms.
The first paper on the psychological effects of LSD was written by psychiatric researcher Werner Stoll at the University of Zurich in 1947, his findings published by the Swiss Archives of Neurology. Around the same time, the US government greenlighted Project Chatter, a covert program supervised by the US Navy that sought to synthesize mescaline to develop a ‘truth serum’ for assistance in interrogations. A similar project called MKUltra was initiated by the CIA at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, which involved administering LSD to willing participants as part of efforts to test LSD as a ‘mind-control’ drug.
Elsewhere, in universities and laboratories across the US and Europe, more sedate studies into the potentially beneficial uses of natural and synthetic hallucinogens continued into the late 1960s. A lot of this early research into psychedelics was based on self-experimentation, including the 1953 study on LSD by the American College of Neuropharmacology (ACNP) founder-president Joel Elkes. This was followed by several prestigious academic conferences on psychedelics across both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s and ‘60s. Buoyed by this new-found popularity and acceptance, Sandoz Laboratories went on to introduce psilocybin pills for medical use in 1960.
Two years later, one of the most infamous studies into psychedelics was conducted by a duo of Harvard researchers under scientific conditions but without the approval of the university. The site of the so-called Good Friday experiment of 1962 was the Marsh Chapel on Boston University grounds. Twenty participants were divided into two groups, one given a dose of psilocybin and the other a placebo. All participants were then led to a Good Friday service, where some who had received psilocybin reported having strong mystical experiences. Because of the quasi-scientific nature of the experiment, lead researcher Timothy Leary lost his faculty position at Harvard the year after. More importantly, the study’s findings raised ethical questions because they failed to mention the severe negative effects that some of the participants had experienced.
Parallel to the developments of the ‘50s and ‘60s but outside the halls of research and academia, psychedelics were fueling a social impact that left many communities and governments concerned. Illegal production of these substances, their experimentation without medical supervision, and finally their widespread and alarming abuse forced a rethink of the psychedelic experience. LSD, most of all, became a symbol of resentment and rebellion in the masses. It was behind much of the popular resistance against the government and institutions in the US at the time, boiling over into anti-war protests and student activism. Prohibition of psychedelics began to be considered and research studies began to be curtailed.
Prohibition & late 1960s (Controlled Substances Act)
The prevailing public opinion of psychedelics in this period is clearly expressed in a 1966 Life magazine cover article titled ‘LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control’. That same year, Sandoz Laboratories recalled all of its LSD stock that was still in the market and suspended sponsorships of LSD research. The initial awe inspired by the seemingly magical properties of psychedelics had turned into fear of its dark underbelly. The demand for action against the rampant abuse of psychedelics and the resulting degeneration of entire demographics was rapidly becoming an electoral issue.
Finally, just a year into his presidency in 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law, putting into effect various restrictions and penalties over the use of psychedelics and other psychotropic substances. LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote, MDA (a closely-related compound to MDMA), Cannabis, and a few other substances were all notified as Schedule 1 drugs and made illegal. This categorization, reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, also meant that they could no longer be used in scientific trials. The ‘War on Drugs’ was well and truly underway. Similar bans followed in the UK and the rest of Europe, marking the beginning of the end of the first wave of psychedelics.
Federal funding for law & order agencies in the US was increased manifold, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created in 1973 to lead the charge against trafficking and abuse. Despite these interventions, and just as the love affair with psychedelics was starting to decline, the early 1980s saw the beginning of a crack cocaine epidemic. As a result, Ronald Regan upped the war on drugs by several notches right from the beginning of his presidency in 1981. In a matter of just two decades, jail time for nonviolent drug crimes in the US had grown from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 by 1997.
However, although the first wave of psychedelics had been partially arrested between the ‘70s and the ‘90s, it had not died down entirely. Investigations, raids, and arrests continued to be reported from various illegal psychedelic laboratories and user groups spread across the US during this period. That did not stop researcher Alexander Shulgin from creating the now globally-famous party drug Ecstasy out of MDMA in 1976, just six years after psychedelics had been outlawed. It was just one of 200 psychedelic compounds that he would go on to synthesize over his long career.
Recent trends (Third wave)
Psychedelics were slowly relegated to the fringes of experimental drug use for two and a half decades following their initial ban in 1970. While they always retained a degree of cultural sway and mystical lore in certain liberal circles, the revival of scientific interest in their properties didn’t happen until the mid-‘90s. That’s when scientists in Germany, the US, and Switzerland began taking a second look at the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.
In 1999, researchers at Johns Hopkins University began studying psilocybin for its potential use in the treatment of end-of-life distress in patients with terminal cancer, and to help with smoking cessation. In the years following, multiple research papers emerged to cite the efficiency of psychedelics in treating a wide variety of psychological and physiological symptoms – from cluster headaches and migraine to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, alcohol and nicotine dependence, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and treatment-resistant depression, among others.
An important adjunct to these developments was a 2006 ruling by the US Supreme Court that allowed the importation and use of ayahuasca by members of a Christian religious group. In 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ designation for psilocybin studies to treat major depressive disorder (MDD). The same year, Denver, Colorado, became the first US city to decriminalize certain psychedelics. Similar measures were announced by several other cities in rapid succession, including Oakland and Santa Cruz in California, Ann Arbor in Michigan, and finally Washington DC in 2020. Cities like Oregon and Seattle followed soon.
Back on the research scene, the University of California Berkeley opened the Center for the Science of Psychedelics in 2020. A year later, Johns Hopkins Medicine was awarded a $3.9 million grant – the first of its kind in over 50 years – to research psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for smoking cessation.
In 2022, a popular Netflix series titled ‘How To Change Your Mind’ successfully rekindled long-dormant interest in LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and MDMA. The third wave of psychedelics had arrived!