A most spectacular feat of narcotic nincompoopery was achieved on July 29, 1972, when eight guests at a San Francisco dinner party mistook powdered LSD for cocaine and snorted the equivalent of several thousand doses of acid. Fifteen minutes later, while receiving emergency treatment, five were in a coma and three were breathing through a tube. Yet in spite of their astonishing pharmacological blunder, all eight were discharged from the hospital within 48 hours with no lasting symptoms, which goes to show just how difficult it is to die from a psychedelic overdose.
Hardly Any Recorded Deaths
Robert Gable is a professor of legal psychology at Claremont Graduate University, and has spent decades investigating drug toxicity. Speaking to IFLScience, he explained that psychedelics tend not to produce fatal reactions unless they are mixed with other harmful substances, and that he has “not come across any cases in which LSD alone could be verified as the cause of death.”
The term “psychedelic” was originally coined by British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, and literally means “mind manifesting”. It is used to refer to a broad range of substances, although the most common recreational psychedelics include LSD, psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms), DMT, and mescaline.
This mystifying mob of molecules work on a range of different receptors in order to produce their brain origami, with the serotonin 2b receptor being the main culprit. Strangely, serotonin 2b has such a high affinity for LSD that it literally wraps itself around it, holding the drug in place. This explains why LSD trips are so long lasting, and why such small quantities are required in order to produce an effect, with only 100 micrograms being needed for a standard dose.
LSD is consumed in tiny quantities, and is often taken on a sugar cube. mikeledray/Shutterstock
According to Gable, this is also one of the reasons that it’s so difficult to die on LSD. “The smaller the dose of a substance, the less likely it is to cause physiological death,” he says. “And what’s unique about LSD is it’s in micrograms, so it’s much smaller than all the other psychoactive drugs, making death less likely to be caused by LSD than by some other substance.”
It’s therefore unsurprising that this year’s Global Drugs Survey (GDS) found psychedelics to be among the safest recreational drugs. Psilocybin, for instance, was responsible for less medical treatment than any other illicit substance, with just 0.2 percent of users worldwide requiring care.
Adam Winstock from University College London founded the GDS, and told IFLScience that psychedelics come with an in-built protection mechanism that stops people from overdosing on them.