LSD Gets Another Look

LSD has long been associated with 1960s counterculture. Today, psychedelic drugs are back in the lab, providing hope for people who suffer from anxiety, depression and addiction.

In the 1960s, a psychologist and former Harvard teacher named Timothy Leary coined the phrase ‘Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.’ The slogan was inspired by advertising jingles, but Leary wasn’t pushing a product, he was promoting a drug: LSD.

LSD was little more than a scientific curiosity in the early 1960s when Leary first took it. Developed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, the drug had been sent out into the world in the 1940’s and 50’s with no clear idea of what it might do. At first, researchers used LSD to mimic psychosis in an attempt to study the origins and nature of schizophrenia. It was also given surreptitiously to soldiers in the search for a military application. But the most promising use of LSD was as an aide in psychotherapy, particularly when aimed at problems like alcohol addiction or depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients.

And then along came Timothy Leary. He had conducted research at Harvard with psilocybin, another psychedelic drug derived from mushrooms. But after trying LSD, he became convinced the drug had even greater potential beyond the scientific realm and began preaching that young people could change their lives with an LSD trip. Before long, as the drug grew more popular, the stories about the dangers of recreational street use grew and it was declared a schedule one drug – the class of highly dangerous drugs with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

But today, scientists are studying psychedelics once again, in the latest twist in the long, strange story of LSD.

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Related: LSD-Like Drugs Are Out of the Haze and Back in the Labs by Clyde Haberman

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Joshua Fisher
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto
  • Reporter: Meral Agish

For Educators


This 11-minute video shows students how LSD was once a legal and widely studied drug whose potential uses attracted the attention of psychiatrists, the C.I.A., and the U.S. military. After becoming intertwined with the youth culture of the 1960s, it was banned, and research was largely suspended. The video connects this past with an emerging future in which researchers are pioneering new ways to use hallucinogens in monitored clinical settings for patients with stubborn symptoms. Useful as a way of illustrating the controversies surrounding the classification of psychoactive drugs, the video fits in well with units focused on the biological bases of behavior and the physiological and psychological effects of drugs.

Background reading

LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is often remembered as the hallucinogenic drug that gave 1960s America hippies, Dr. Timothy Leary, and so many bad health effects that it was banned.

But that perception is only part of the story. LSD entered the national consciousness in January, 1967, when thousands gathered in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to celebrate the birth of a new culture based on peace, love, and psychedelic drugs.

Leary, a former Harvard professor turned prophet for consciousness raising through LSD, urged the crowd in San Francisco: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

The message took hold for thousands of teenagers who streamed into San Francisco over the next few years, making the city the center of 1960s counterculture.

But the fallout quickly followed, as the street-use of LSD filled the media with reports of bad trips, damaged chromosomes, and accidental deaths.

In 1970, the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act banned LSD and other hallucinogens as dangerous drugs with “no accepted medical use.”

The Act dried up funding for promising clinical research that had been ongoing since the 1950s and which had indicated that hallucinogens could be effective in treating a range of mental disorders.

Within the last few years, though, there has been renewed interest in the therapeutic use of hallucinogens, as dozens of clinical studies have indicated they can be effective in treating drug addiction and chronic depression.

For some who have benefited from such clinically-administered treatments, the experience is not about “turning on” or “dropping out, but rather tuning in to oneself.

Lesson Plan 1: Hallucinogens as Treatment?

Students will learn how LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) was studied for potential therapeutic uses until it was banned in 1970, and how researchers today are pioneering a new role for hallucinogens within clinical settings.

  • How LSD was researched by scientists and the U.S. government during the 1950s and 60s.
  • How the recreational use of LSD became intertwined with the youth culture of the 1960s, and how this led to its prohibition under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
  • How modern researchers are exploring the therapeutic uses of hallucinogens within clinical settings.
Essential questions
  • How did LSD become a street drug in the late 1960s? Who was Timothy Leary? How did LSD become intertwined with the 1960s counter-culture?
  • In 1970, how was LSD classified under the Controlled Substances Act? What “schedule” was it included in? How did this affect medical and scientific research of the drug?
  • Before LSD became an illegal drug, why were research psychiatrists experimenting with it? Why were the C.I.A. and the U.S. Army interested in it?
  • What therapeutic uses of hallucinogens are being explored by modern researchers?
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Psy.9.9-12.Describe how biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence behavior.
  • National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula
    • Psychological Science Domain: Standard 1: Perspectives on Treatment1.1: Explain how psychological treatments have changed over time and among cultures.
  • AP Psychology
    • Topic 2.8: The Adaptable BrainSkill 1.B: Explain behavior in context.