My elephant’s drug dealer.

I’ve never done LSD.  It’s not that I haven’t had the time, it’s just I’ve never really had a desire to have hallucinations.  I have enough trouble keeping track of what size bed sheets I need to buy.  I am pretty sure auditory and visual hallucinations would just induce me to buy extra king sized sheets for my queen sized bed.

Despite my reluctance, there is definitely a market for psychedelic drugs.  There is even a recent trend to write articles about how taking low doses of LSD might enhance work performancemake you more creative, and save your marriage.  To be perfectly honest it’s just not well-studied enough to really determine if this is safe and effective. If you can find a double-blind clinical trial that shows a statistically significant effect of LSD on your condition of choice, with a sample size preferably greater than 100, I would love to hear about it. In fairness though, once a drug is illegal it becomes really hard to study, which can be a problem if you find the drug may have some benefit later.  It’s a bit of a catch-22, you can’t study it because such schedule 1 drugs have no benefit, and they have no benefit perhaps because you didn’t study them enough.

It’s ironic really because LSD was always intended to be used as a pharmaceutical.  It was invented by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in 1938.  Hoffman was interested in looking at chemical extracts from a fungal agricultural pest known as ergot.  As he discusses in his book, LSD – My Problem ChildHoffman had finished synthesizing a set of lysergic acid derivatives looking for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, but none was found to have any special effects on animals, so the compounds were shelved.  There was only a passing reference made to the animals being “restless” when exposed to one particular derivative which Hoffman calls “LSD-25”.  Hoffman decided to revisit his synthesis of LSD-25, but upon completion he felt rather odd.  To have him tell it:

“Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.” – Albert Hoffman, LSD – My Problem Child

In what can only be described as a real commitment to reproducibility Hoffman tried to elicit the same experience again. This time more closely documenting the results in his laboratory notebook on April 19, 1943:

“4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.

Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle. From 18:00- ca.20:00 most severe crisis. (See special report.)” – Albert Hoffman, LSD – My Problem Child

This is the first real characterization of the hallucinatory effects of LSD.  Just a chemist and his bicycle.  In the 1950s and 1960s it was administered to simulate the symptoms of schizophrenia and as treatment for a host of psychological conditions, but also spawned an entire counter-culture movement which quickly brought on a backlash.

It was in this context that one of the most ridiculous experiments to ever be published was carried out at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City.  Louis West, Chester Pierce, and Warren Thomas, were interested in particularly aggressive behaviors, known as “Musth,” that are occasionally exhibited by Male Elephants when there is a surge of reproductive hormones such as testosterone.  In “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Its Effects on a Male Asiatic Elephant” West and Colleagues sought to “attempt to induce experimentally a behavioral aberration that might resemble the phenomenon of going on musth” by injecting a single 14-year-old male elephant with LSD.  I would like to emphasize the sample size here … it’s just one … a single elephant named Tusko.  They decide to go with a dose low enough in most mammals to barely produce an effect (0.1 mg/kg) in most animals, and the authors reasoned that they were “unlikely to see much reaction with this dosage of LSD.”

V0023127 Zoological Society of London: an elephant. Coloured etching.

An elephant that is, most likely, not on a LSD trip. (Photo Credit: Wellcome Library no. 42377i)

Now since they just have Tusko, he has to be both their placebo group and their experimental group.  So the authors start by injecting him using, an air rifle, with a shot of penicillin.  That acts as their placebo and has the knock on benefit that it should help prevent infection.  The next day … well I’ll let the authors tell you what happened:

At 8 A.M. on the second, or experimental, day the LSD was similarly injected.
Tusko began trumpeting and rushing around the pen, a reaction not unlike the one he had shown the day before. However, this time his restlessness appeared to increase for 3 minutes after the injection; then he stopped running and showed signs of marked incoordination. His mate (Judy, a 15-year-old female) approached him and
appeared to attempt to support him. He began to sway, his hindquarters buckled, and it became increasingly difficult for him to maintain himself upright. Five minutes after the injection he trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated, and went into status epilepticus. – West et al, Science, 1962

Tusko’s died an hour and forty minutes after this initial injection.  Ultimately the authors explanation for the death are wholly unsatisfying.  They don’t really work it out, it might be toxic to all elephants or could have been a Tusko specific reaction.  There is just no way to tell with a sample size of one.  As you may expect other zoos were not exactly clamoring to try this with their elephants, so it’s not as if this study has been replicated.

Interestingly the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 was passed just four years later in response to poor treatment of laboratory animals and the occasional use of household pets, which horrified the public.  Today, such an experiment would never be permitted.  What was learned was far too little and the risk is just too high.  That said, perhaps in this modern era there may be one take away: don’t let any elephants you work with microdose LSD.  Death is a real productivity killer and there is just no evidence to indicate that it is going to make their life any better than a placebo.

2 thoughts on “My elephant’s drug dealer.

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