The hallucinogenic drug known as LSD has been used recreationally since the 1960s. No small amount of scientific research has gone into investigating its properties and documenting the effects of its ingestion upon the body. Meanwhile, it has acquired a reputation as a “hardcore” drug, a dangerous drug you’d have to be crazy to take. But do the dangers of LSD live up to their reputation, or is it all hype?

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), or acid, was discovered in 1938, by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. In 1943, Hofmann accidentally absorbed some of it through his fingertips, and discovered its psychoactive properties first-hand. In the 1950s, the US government thought the drug could be used for mind control and investigated by administering it to unknowing subjects (yes, their malevolence isn’t recent).

LSD gives its users a “trip” – a set of experiences of altered perception, and for some, vivid auditory and visual hallucinations, that last for several hours. It’s highly potent, so a moderate dose only consists of around 100 micrograms (that’s 0.0001 grams). The hallucinations it causes can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on environmental factors and the brain structure of the user.

The drug never really took off until the 1960s, when flower power was in full bloom. The counterculture of the swinging sixties involved love, peace, music, and ingesting copious quantities of mind-altering drugs. By 1966, the American public viewed LSD as corrosive to social values, and the government, in response, prohibited its use. Other governments around the world followed suit. But is LSD as dangerous as other outlawed drugs – or just anti-American?

You’ve probably heard colourful rumours of the dangers of LSD. Horrific tales abound of acid trips gone wrong. However, many of these dangers just aren’t substantiated in scientific literature. For example, it’s virtually impossible to overdose, and no fatalities have ever been recorded from it. Extremely high doses of LSD (tens of thousands of times as much as a regular dose) can cause hyperthermia, respiratory arrest or seizures, but quantities of this size are unlikely to ever be encountered outside a laboratory.

For mentally healthy people, even habitual usage has no ill long-term effects, mentally or physically. There’s no evidence that it is addictive. Some say acid cause people to harm themselves or others by mistake. However, my “research” hasn’t turned up an instance of this, and I don’t believe there are any known to scientists.

Of course, acid isn’t side effect free, and there are good reasons to avoid it. Schizophrenia and depression may worsen after its ingestion – but there is no unambiguous research on the matter.

More rarely, users may have traumatic bad trips under its influence, which can affect them for days, and occasionally give them chronic mental symptoms. One symptom frequently talked about is the “flashback” – a spontaneous and unpredictable return to the trip, which can reoccur randomly for days, weeks or months. Various forms of flashbacks are known as “Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder” (HPPD), and it normally dies down with time. HPPD is also thought to be extremely rare – so your mate, whose mate’s mate took LSD once and now unceasingly hears ghostly screaming, may be mistaken.

So how did acid acquire such a nasty reputation? Well, this may in part be explained by legislation. LSD is a Schedule I substance in the States, prohibited in every way. It’s only natural that we should assume that there is a good medical reason for its legal status. Additionally, many cases of drug toxicity are mistakenly attributed to LSD, since anything could be sold as LSD without warning. Possibly the biggest danger is that what has been purchased is not LSD, and contains unknown substances with harmful effects.

So, while those suffering from mental health issues should, as for any drug, be wary, the reality of LSD doesn’t match public opinion. It’s easily safer than alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. On the other hand though, there’s no way to ensure that any LSD you obtain is genuine, and not a more dangerous chemical – this is the real danger – so you can never be too careful.