10 Surprising Facts About the History of Hallucinogens
“Don’t stop here!” yells Raoul Duke as he swats at invisible flying creatures in Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “This is bat country!”
If all you know about LSD (full name: lysergic acid diethylamide) comes from that 1972 cult classic, you’re still armed to the teeth with anecdotal knowledge about hallucinogens. But here at Substance.com, we decided to take a deep dive into the history of hallucinogens on a bet that the psychedelic ’60s were the least of it. We were not disappointed. Here are 10 of our mind-bending finds:
1. The ancients were familiar with hallucinogens and even had special paraphernalia for their use. In 2008, two archeologists made a “breakthrough” discovery when they uncovered equipment used for sniffing hallucinogenic chemicals. The implements, which were found on the island of Carriacou in the Antilles, were shallow bowls with two tube-like projections that match up pretty well with human nostrils.
It is believed the bowl was used to inhale cohoba, a psychedelic made from beans that grow on a tree in the mimosa species. The bowls were dated back to 400 BC—much earlier than when hallucinogenic use was previously thought to have begun.
2. Mescaline, not one of the more commonly used hallucinogens today, was one of the first psychedelic compounds to be isolated. After hearing about some work done in 1888 by a fellow German toxicologist who had begun studying the peyote cactus, pharmacologist Arthur Heffter decided to investigate further. Upon isolating the plant’s alkaloids, Heffter did a series of self-experiments to determine which ones were active.
In 1897, after a few years of tripping in the name of science, Heffter published a paper identifying mescaline as the primary psychoactive compound contained in peyote. Mescaline is structurally somewhat different from hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD and is instead in the same family as drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy.
3. In 1914, a church was formed to preserve the use of peyote. Native Americans have used peyote for hundreds of years and, in fact, the word “peyote” is derived from the Nahuatl word for cactus, peyotl. Around 1885 the Native American use of peyote developed into a distinct religion, but the substance was quickly banned by US government agents in 1888.
Religious adherents fought efforts to curtail its use, and in 1914 peyote groups got together and incorporated as the First-Born Church of Jesus Christ in 1914. Four years later, peyotists formed the Native American Church, which is still around today—and now, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, their use of peyote as a religious rite is federally protected.
4. The psychotropic effects of LSD were discovered by accident in 1943. Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann had created the substance in 1938 while working at a research lab at the drug company Sandoz, but didn’t realize its effects until five years later when he unintentionally ingested some. He later wrote in his lab notes:
“Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”
Three days later, on April 19, Hoffmann deliberately dosed himself and then rode his bicycle home while enjoying the second acid trip ever known to mankind. That date has since come to be celebrated by acid-heads as “Bicycle Day.”
5. Silver-screen legend Cary Grant was a huge proponent of LSD. Well before acid became popular for recreational use, psychiatrists in California started using it for therapy, sometimes charging as much as $100 a trip. Grant was turned on to the stuff in the late 1950s and, by some accounts, he turned Harvard professor-turned-acid guru Timothy Leary on to it as well. Grant went to great lengths to publicize his belief in LSD’s perceived therapeutic properties—in 1959, he was on the cover of Look magazine with the headline “The Curious Story Behind the New Cary Grant,” and in 1960 LSD received a version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for being one of the secrets to Grant’s “second youth.”
Grant wasn’t the only big name in entertainment and the arts using the drug for therapy. Director Sidney Lumet, Grant’s ex-wife Betsy Drake, up-and-coming star Jack Nicholson, actor James Coburn, actress Rita Moreno, classical composer Andre Previn, erotic writer Anais Nin, philosopher Alan Watts and novelist Aldous Huxley were just a few of the names who dabbled with the drug.
6. Some movers and shakers in the business world got into mushrooms in the mid-‘50s and were instrumental in spreading their recreational use. Leading the push was Gordon Wasson, the vice-president of J.P Morgan & Company, who started shrooming in 1955 during a trip to Mexico. Two years later, he decided to share his fungal love with the world by writing an article for Life called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.”
Wasson went on to turn Time/Life founder Henry Luce on to the joy of magic mushrooms and he later induced Albert Hoffmann to isolate and identify psilocybin as one of the active ingredients in mushrooms. In Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, Andy Letcher credits Wasson with spreading the joy of mushrooms worldwide, writing that Wasson “may have failed in his attempt to prove the existence of an ancient mushrooming cult, but in doing so he gave the world a modern one.”
7. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the US government tested acid on people—yep, American citizens—without their knowledge. The project, MK-ULTRA, isn’t just the stuff of conspiracy theorist fantasy and druggie lore—it’s an actual thing that the government later admitted to. The experiments went on from 1953 to 1964 and featured such stranger-than-fiction procedures as creating a safehouse where prostitutes would lure johns for the purpose of serving them acid-laced drinks while agents watched from behind two-way mirrors.
In one incident, an army scientist was dosed with a huge amount of the drug and later ended up leaping out a 10th-story window to his death. The supposed reason for the clandestine experiments was to gain a better understanding of the drug that agents believed the Soviets and other Communist countries were using to brainwash captured Americans.
8. PCP was originally used as a general anesthetic. Although the same is true of Quaaludes and ketamine, in the case of PCP it’s unexpected because when used recreationally, PCP is known for sometimes causing psychotic and violent behavior rather than zoning you out. PCP (phencyclidine) was first synthesized in 1926, and in the 1950s Park Davis Laboratories began using it as an anesthetic for animals. Trademarked under the name Sernyl, the drug was briefly used as a general anesthetic for humans until adverse side effects caused it to be taken off the market in 1965. However, it continued to be used on animals under the name Sernylan until 1978.
9. In 1969, well-known TV show host Art Linkletter famously blamed his daughter Diane’s suicide on a bad acid trip. Diane, who was 20 at the time of her death, jumped from the sixth story of her Hollywood apartment building. Art called it a murder, telling the media, “She was murdered by the people who manufacture and sell LSD.”
In fact, toxicology reports showed that Diane had no LSD in her system at the time of her death, and friends reported that she had been deeply depressed. Her father’s false story, which grew into a publicity campaign, helped fuel anti-LSD hysteria.
10. Although most people can barely function on LSD, Major League Baseball’s Dock Ellis famously pitched a no-hitter while tripping in 1970. Ellis was a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher already known for his drug use and outlandish styles, but he made druggie history during one particular game against the San Diego Padres. The day before the game, Ellis dropped some acid upon arriving at the San Diego airport. He spent the night at a friend’s house, where he continued to take more acid and lost track of time. The afternoon of June 12, his friend’s girlfriend woke him, frantically screaming, “You have to pitch today!”
“What happened to yesterday?” Ellis answered. He hopped a jet and made it in the nick of time, albeit while tripping face.
Ellis, who died in 2007, described the experience in an interview for the 2014 “dockumentary” No No, about his tumultuous addiction-to-recovery life: “So there I was out there, high as a Georgia Pine, trippin’ on acid. I really didn’t see the hitters. All I could tell was if they were on the right side or the left side. As far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers so I could see the signals. The opposing team and my teammates, they knew I was high. But they didn’t know what I was high on. They didn’t really see it, but I had the acid in me, and I didn’t know what I looked like with that acid. I had lost all concept of time.” Nonetheless, Ellis succeeded in pitching a no-hitter in circumstances that would make any hardcore acid-head proud.