Understanding LSD Abuse
Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a psychoactive drug with a long history of widespread recreational use for its mind-altering effects, which include visual distortions and hallucinations, as well as changes in awareness and perception. It was first synthesized in 1938 by chemist Albert Hoffman, who was investigating potentially therapeutic pharmacologic agents derived from a chemical compound (lysergic acid) found in a certain rye plant fungus.1 While performing pharmacological experiments on the substance, accidental self-exposure led Hoffman to experience the dramatic hallucinogenic properties of LSD. In the 1950s, a pharmaceutical formulation of the drug was introduced as a potential psychotherapeutic tool.1 By the 1960s and 70s, illicit use became more widespread as LSD gained popularity within the counterculture movement of the time.2 People continue to use LSD for a variety of reasons, such as to induce spiritual experiences, to de-stress, as well as to merely enjoy the subjective physical and psychological sensations this drug can induce.3
LSD is not as widely used as it was during the 60s and 70s, with one study reporting that only 1.7% of people aged 15-64 years old have tried it in their lifetime.2 Regardless, it’s important to understand the potential risks associated with LSD use. Though the potential adverse effects of LSD may not be as pronounced as they are with some other drugs of abuse, LSD use can result in negative physical and psychological consequences for people who choose to experiment with the drug. Some examples of these adverse outcomes include accidents or physical injury sustained during the relatively lengthy period of potentially disorienting and judgment-compromising intoxication, exacerbation of certain psychiatric symptoms (, as well as longer-term mental health issues such as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD).3,10
What are the Side Effects of LSD?
As with other hallucinogenic substances, LSD use can result in both short-term effects and long-term effects. Some of the more immediate subjective effects of LSD can range from pleasant to deeply uncomfortable. The duration, severity, and type of side effects can vary from person to person. Several factors play a part in shaping the LSD experience, including the dose and purity of the LSD being ingested, your unique psychological and physiological characteristics (such as height, weight, and overall health), and even your mood and expectations of the drug at the time you take it.4, 5
Short-Term Side Effects of LSD
Since its heyday of widespread use in the 60s and 70s, questions have remerged about LSD. Is LSD addictive? How addictive is LSD? LSD is commonly not considered to be a particularly addictive drug since it is not associated with consistently reinforcing effects nor a significant dependence/withdrawal phenomenon like many other drugs of abuse.10 Tolerance to the effects of classic hallucinogens like LSD develops quickly and, within several sequential doses, nearly completely—further limiting any potential reinforcing, subjectively pleasurable effects of repeated or incrementally increased dosing.1,10 Frequent LSD use can also result in the development of significant cross-tolerance to certain other hallucinogenic substances like psilocybin.1, 3, 8
Some of the sought after short-term effects of LSD can make it susceptible to abuse, however. After taking it, many people start to experience its effects within 30-90 minutes. These effects can last up to 12 hours.5 While many people have the misconception that experimenting with LSD is harmless or fun, you should be aware that even small doses can be extremely powerful. Given its propensity for eliciting wildly variable subjective experiences from one person to the next, it is difficult to predict when you might quickly develop a frightening or otherwise negative reaction to the drug (i.e., a bad trip). This can give rise to intense anxiety or, in some cases, cause you to feel like you are losing control of yourself and your sense of reality. Some hallucinations can be unpleasant or scary, such as those that instill the false perception of people or things that aren’t actually there.4
In addition to these feelings, the short-term effects of LSD can include:5
- Increased heart rate.
- Dilated pupils.
- Dry mouth.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weakness. Lack of coordination.
- Changes in time perception (you may feel time is moving more slowly).
- Strange behaviors.
In most cases, the adverse short-term effects of LSD go away as the intoxication wears off; more rarely, some people experience or re-experience symptoms for longer periods of time (e.g., days to months) after the last time the drug was used. Drug “flashbacks” have been reported to occur in some people even years after the last use.4
Microdosing is a practice in which people take very small amounts of psychedelic drugs like LSD in an attempt to alleviate mental health symptoms. Due to a lack of understanding about the practice, people may wonder; can microdosing cause psychosis? There is very little research on this topic to date and anecdotal reports have had mixed results. Some people reported that microdosing helped their symptoms, while others reported that they experienced manic symptoms after microdosing.6, 7 With such unknown risks, many would strongly caution against the self-administration of psychoactive substances (let alone illicitly sourced samples of questionable/variable purity) for any purported psychotherapeutic benefits until more systematic study has been conducted.
Long-Term Side Effects of LSD
Two disorders are associated with long-term hallucinogen abuse: persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. These conditions can be severe and result in disturbing and persisting side effects. While they are rare and generally occur more frequently in people with a history of mental health disorders or people who have chronically used LSD, they can affect anyone who uses the drug.3
- Persistent psychosis. This is a serious disorder that results in long-term, persistent mental health problems, such as disorganized thinking, visual disturbances, paranoia, and mood changes.
- Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. More informally referred to as “flashbacks,” this disorder is characterized by potentially distressing hallucinations and other recurring symptoms that take you back to the experiences of your LSD use. The frightening aspect of this disorder is that flashbacks can occur without notice and at any time, even up to a year after you last used the drug.
Behavioral Symptoms of LSD Addiction
Is acid addictive? While it’s not generally considered to be a highly addictive drug, its use can still be problematic for some people. While classic hallucinogens like LSD lack some of the characteristic features (such as markedly reinforcing effects and a lack of a dependence/withdrawal syndrome) that otherwise contribute to the abuse liability associated with more commonly recognized substances of abuse like alcohol and opioids, addiction—or, a hallucinogen use disorder—may still develop in some cases. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder that results in “clinically significant impairment and distress.” As with any addiction, people who develop maladaptive patterns of compulsive LSD use may display other characteristic signs, symptoms, and behavioral changes such as:8
- Quitting recreational, occupational, or social activities or hobbies that you previously enjoyed so you can use LSD.
- Using more frequent doses or higher amounts of LSD than you originally intended.
- Feeling that you are unable to cut down your LSD use.
- Experiencing work, school, or home problems due to your LSD use.
- Using LSD in circumstances where it is physically unsafe to do, such as while driving or operating machinery.
- Experiencing social or interpersonal problems because of your drug use.
- Spending a lot of time trying to obtain, use, and recover from the effects of LSD.
- Continuing to use LSD despite knowing that you have a physical or psychological problem that is probably caused by LSD.
- Developing tolerance, meaning you need to increase your doses to experience previous effects.
Unlike other substance use disorders, the presence of withdrawal symptoms is not a diagnostic criteria for a hallucinogen use disorder involving LSD (since LSD does not typically result in withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using it).8,9
Are You Struggling with LSD Addiction?
Do you recognize any of the above signs or symptoms in yourself? Are you looking for help but are unsure where to start?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might consider speaking with someone about a potential hallucinogen use disorder, or inquiring about LSD addiction treatment options. If you or someone you care about are struggling with LSD abuse or addiction, you should know that you are not alone and help is available to treat both the addiction and its underlying causes.
American Addiction Centers Can Help
As the leading addiction treatment provider in the United States, American Addiction Centers focuses on not only treating the addiction itself, but the causes that led to its development. At American Addiction Centers, treatment is specialized to meet the needs of each person.
There are 8 treatment centers across the country, making it easier to access care. We are located in the following states:
To learn more about how American Addiction Centers can help, you can call our free helpline 24/7 to speak to an admissions navigator.
Still Unsure About Seeking Treatment?
If you are still unsure about how treatment works, how to ask for help, or how to get treatment, consider the following guides:
- Passie, T., Halpern, J. H., Stichtenoth, D. O., Emrich, H. M., & Hintzen, A. (2008). The pharmacology of lysergic acid diethylamide: a review. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 14(4), 295–314. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6494066/)
- Beck, F. & Bonnet, N. (2013). The Substance Experience, a History of LSD. Medecine sciences, 29(4), 430-433.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Hallucinogens DrugFacts.
- Stanford Children’s Health. All About LSD.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2004). NIDA community drug alert bulletin – club drugs: Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
- Muller, R. (2019). Microdosing psychedelics can lift depression, but it may not be for everyone. The Trauma & Mental Health Report.
- Nasrallah, H. (2017). Self-administering LSD: Solution or abuse. In Comments & Controversies, Current Psychiatry, 16(4), E4-E5.
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs research report: How do hallucinogens (LSD, psilocybin, peyote, DMT, and ayahuasca) affect the brain and body?
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.