July 31, 2021

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LSD and the bike ride that changed the world

Known as Bicycle Day, on April 19 a young Albert Hofmann took a trip that revolutionized the face of psychedelics.

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In the spring of 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann took a bicycle trip like no other.

While working in the pharmaceutical department of Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, where he was hoping to develop a circulatory and respiratory stimulant, the 32-year-old first synthesized the compound D-lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, in 1938.

Five years after creating that first batch, Hofmann returned to the compound for further experimentation. After producing a small amount of LSD, his workday was soon interrupted as he began experiencing “unusual sensations,” he wrote in his 1979 memoir LSD: My Problem Child.

Feeling slightly dizzy, and remarkably restless, Hofmann decided to call it a day. It was the correct decision. Upon arriving home, he had entered a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.”

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When he closed his eyes, he entered a dreamlike state and for about two hours, he “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours.”

He hypothesized that while handling the compound in his lab, he may have accidentally absorbed LSD through his skin.

Determined to better understand what he had experienced, three days later, on April 19, 1943, he intentionally dosed himself. He ingested a quarter milligram of the compound, the smallest quantity of LSD that he believed would produce similar effects.

In his laboratory journal, he wrote that he took the dose with a glass of water at 4:20 p.m. Forty minutes later, he once again began experiencing dizziness, but also “anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis,” and a “desire to laugh.”

It became clear to him that not only was LSD responsible for the effects he had experienced in the previous week but that he had also taken an extremely potent dose.

Realizing it was best to return home, Hofmann asked his lab assistant to accompany him as he travelled by bicycle. At the time, the use of automobiles was restricted under wartime measures.

On the journey home, his experience intensified. “Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had travelled very rapidly.”

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By the time he arrived, he was in a “delirious, bewildered condition” marked by “brief periods of clear and effective thinking.”

His surroundings were transformed, furniture “assumed grotesque, threatening forms.” He feared, at the height of his trip, that he had done irrevocable damage to himself. But the next day he woke up clear-headed and refreshed.

“A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created.”

His self-experimentation, in other words, had been a success. He had confirmed that LSD was a “psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency.”

From that day forward, April 19, the day that LSDs effects were discovered, became known as ‘Bicycle Day.’

Amid what is often called a “psychedelic renaissance,” Bicycle Day is an opportunity to not only celebrate psychedelics but scientific discovery, says Dr. Ivan Casselman, the chief psychedelic officer for Havn Life Sciences, a Vancouver-based biotech company working on the research and development of psychopharmacological products from plants and fungi.

Dr. Ivan Casselman is the chief psychedelic officer of Havn Life Sciences.
Dr. Ivan Casselman is the chief psychedelic officer of Havn Life Sciences. Photo by Havn Life Sciences

Dr. Casselman has been studying medicine for more than 20 years and he describes Hofmann as a personal hero.

“Not very many chemists would have done a biological assay of the compound again, to figure out whether or not, you know, it’s good or not,” he says. “So I think it happened a little bit by accident. But then it happened by accident to somebody with the type of intuition and foresight to say, ‘Hey, look, let’s bring this to the world.’”

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According to Dr. Casselman, Hofmann’s experiment, and the creation of LSD is “one of the most important pharmaceutical or scientific discoveries of our time.”

He says imagining a world without LSD is to imagine a world devoid of some of the most interesting music and art ever created. Including, the smartphone.

Steve Jobs is documented as saying that his use of LSD was one of the “two or three most important things he’d ever done,” according to the New York Times.

“We probably carry around a small manifestation of that in our pocket every day,” Dr. Casselman says of Jobs’ use of LSD.

A few days after turning 101, Hofmann wrote a letter to Jobs, asking for his assistance. “I hope you will help in the transformation of my problem child into a wonder child,” Hofmann wrote.

Today, with psychedelics emerging as potential breakthrough medicines for treating a variety of mental health conditions, that transformation is well underway. And Canada, once again, is at the forefront of psychedelic medicine.

Much of the leading psychedelics research that occurred in the 1950s happened in Canada and specifically at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Weyburn, Sask., where LSD was studied as a treatment for alcoholism and a range of mental health disorders. In the 1960s, the compound was sensationalized under fears that the substance could lead to moral decay and a breakdown of societal order. In 1968, the U.S. outlawed LSD and research on the compound was halted.

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According to Dr. Casselman, this time around not only is society more prepared for psychedelic research but the approach is also different.

“We’re very medically focused. We’re really understanding that we don’t need to take heavy, heavy doses. We’re understanding that we can use these compounds as tools to help with our mental health, to help heal people that have trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

Drawing a parallel to cannabis, and how legalization can be traced back to the plant’s medical efficacy, Dr. Casselman says establishing a medical foundation “is the path to creating broad acceptance in society at large.”

Kelsey Ramsden, the CEO of Mind Cure Health Inc.
Kelsey Ramsden, the CEO of Mind Cure Health Inc. Photo by Mind Cure Health Inc.

Kelsey Ramsden, the CEO of Mind Cure Health Inc., a Vancouver-based mental health and wellness company, says an emerging focus on personalized medicine and rising rates of mental health issues are also pushing psychedelic medicines forward.

“What I feel is that when society is in enough pain, it looks for options, right? We all do,” she tells The GrowthOp. “When I have a bad enough headache, I start looking around in the drawer and say ‘What do we have here?’ And I believe that society is in a place where we have a sufficient amount of pain, whether it’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, there are so many things going on, that we’ve reached this societal edge and we’re willing to look back and go, ‘What do we have that we maybe have to reconsider?’”

Increasingly, when it comes to treating mental health, people are willing to choose their own path, Ramsden says.

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“We’ve departed from this thing of like, well my parents wouldn’t like that, or, you know, what will my neighbour think. I think we’re moving away from that and getting more into individual agency, which allows the individual person to say what’s right for them. And if psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is an answer for a person, I think those people are more willing to engage in it.”

Payton Nyquvest, the CEO and founder of Vancouver-based Numinus Wellness, which develops and delivers psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, is one of those people.

“I wouldn’t be here today without it,” he says. “Psychedelic psychotherapy has saved my life.”

Nyquvest turned to LSD therapy after running out of traditional treatment options. One of his diagnoses is complex PTSD. He says the therapy helped him better understand the condition and how to manage it, particularly after seeing a vision of his complex PTSD.

“In that space, I was able to actually get a visualization of what it looked like, how I could actually approach it, and what the felt sense and emotions were that were creating that diagnosis,” he says.

Nyquvest says for psychedelics to stick, this time around, work needs to be undertaken to make changes from within the healthcare system, using data and science to create conditions that facilitate further progress with psychedelic medicines.

Payton Nyquvest says LSD therapy saved his life.
Payton Nyquvest says LSD therapy saved his life. Photo by Numinus Wellness Inc

He points to the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is currently engaged in Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. In the Phase 2 trials, a year after receiving treatment, almost 70 per cent of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD.

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“A lot of the ways that we treat mental health are just not effective and not working,” Nyquvest says. “Look at the rates of addiction, suicide, anxiety, depression, especially in the light of COVID. We’re clearly not doing a good job in the way that we’re treating these things. And we’ve got a lot of tools but we need to be able to use it appropriately and with the proper information and support.”

Bicycle Day, he says, is an opportunity to not only recognize the work that is currently being done but to honour the achievements of the past.

“I think it’s a day that needs to be celebrated and respected,” he says. “There needs to be a constant reminder that these tools are here thanks to people who discovered them, not for necessarily profit, or to increase share prices, but to help people, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude and service for that.”

In the 2002 National Film Board of Canada produced documentary, Hofmann’s Potion, Hofmann expresses his hope for the future of psychedelic research, noting that “it is very important that one is prepared for the use of psychedelics. It is not just fun; it is a very serious experiment.”

He speaks of a future with ‘meditation centres,’ where patients can consume psychedelics under the right conditions and in proper dosages.

He ends his speculation on an optimistic note and one that echoes his letter to Steve Jobs, that in the not so distant future psychedelics will be recognized and celebrated for their therapeutic potential.

“Things take years and years and years, until finally, we find the right solution,” Hofmann says. “I am convinced that LSD will find the place it needs in the human culture.”

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