The LSD-Chromosome Scare
by Earth Erowid
The article below is extracted from Earth Erowid's Albert Hofmann's Collection of LSD and Psilocybin-Related Papers (this is a PDF file).
The Albert Hofmann Collection contains nearly seventy articles on the topic of whether or not LSD-25 causes "chromosome damage". These articles are a good example of the scientific and cultural moral panic that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1967, Science published an article, based on the examination of a single patient, which proposed that LSD caused chromosome breakage.1 As Peter Stafford notes in Psychedelics Encyclopedia, "By evening, the charge that LSD could break chromosomes was in all the nation's media."
Between 1967 and 1972, article after article was published, in respected peer-reviewed journals, describing the link between LSD and chromosomal damage, both in vitro and in users and their offspring. As these reports accumulated, popular media amplified the scare, leading to sensational articles decrying the mutations that would be unleashed on future generations.
"New research finds [LSD] is causing genetic damage that poses a threat of havoc now and appalling abnormalities for generations yet unborn."2
Yet, by the mid-1970s, the tide had turned and the scientific literature generally supported the revised opinion that LSD does not cause chromosomal breakage or birth defects.
How was it possible for this issue to progress as far as it did? In an atmosphere friendly to reports of negative consequences of LSD use, a litany of elementary scientific and research errors were ignored by the journals that published the findings. It wasn't until enough research could be conducted to counteract the initial momentum that saner opinions, and better science, prevailed.
In the collection is a copy of one of the key articles that helped end the hysteria that was taking place in peer reviewed journals and the media. The authors conclude that:"From our own work and from a review of the literature, we believe that pure LSD ingested in moderate doses does not damage chromosomes in vivo, does not cause detectable genetic damage, and is not a teratogen or a carcinogen in man. Within these bounds, therefore, we suggest that, other than during pregnancy, there is no present contraindication to the continued controlled experimental use of pure LSD."3
The progression of this issue and its related articles is a perfect example of how dozens of journal references supporting one position may still be wrong. In many cases, only time and the evolution of knowledge can sort it out.
It would be interesting to read a retrospective on this part of psychedelic research history.
1. Cohen MM, Marinello MJ, Back N, "Chromosomal damage in human leukocytes induced by lysergic acid diethylamide", Science, 1967; 155:141719. LSD #1506.
2. Davidson B, "The Hidden Evils of LSD", Saturday Evening Post, Aug 12, 1967, p. 19.
3. Dishotsky NI, Loughman WD, Mogar RE, Lipscomb WR, "LSD and genetic damage. Is LSD chromosome damaging, carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic?", Science, 1971, 172:431-440, LSD #2145.
© 2002 Earth Erowid
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