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Take LSD 7 Times & You're
Legally Insane?
by Fire & Earth Erowid
May 2003
Citation:   Erowid F, Erowid E. "Take LSD 7 Times & You're Legally Insane?" Erowid Extracts. May 2003;4:8-9.
As we sort through incoming Ask Erowid questions and read submitted Experience Reports, some myths and misunderstandings stand out as persistent and widespread.

One of these myths, which we ourselves heard when we were teens in the 1980s, is that "Taking LSD seven times makes you legally insane." The proposed number of times varies but is usually under ten. Another variant is that if you take LSD n number of times, "you can't testify in court."

Unfortunately, it is difficult to narrow down the earliest date of this word-of-mouth myth. Informal surveys of some of the educated subculture reveal that it was around by the early 1970s and was widespread by 1980. But the myth is not omnipresent. Many of those we asked, even experts in the fi eld such as Darryl Inaba, CEO of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic and author of Uppers, Downers, and All-Arounders, said they had never heard this claim before.1

The following is an attempt to provide a clear description of the misunderstandings inherent in the myth as well as to look at some of the fertile historical context out of which it grew in the United States.

What Defines "Legally Insane"?
As with many good myths, this one relies on the audience's lack of familiarity with some highly complex system; in this case, both law and medicine. The first question, then, that springs to mind is how to find a definition of "legally insane" to check.

There is no legal definition of the phrase "legally insane". The term "insane" has different meanings depending on the specific context in which it is used. Most often, "insane" is used as a casual lay-person's term, like "crazy", with no specific meaning.

When used in the context of the modern legal system, the concept of insanity has very limited application. There are a few specific places where a declaration of a person's mental status can come into play.

For Commitment to an Institution
For many people, the most obvious implication of a diagnosis of "insanity" is the possibility of commitment to a mental institution. Interestingly, the word "insane" is seldom used in modern medicine or psychiatry. Instead, what used to be called "insanity" is now broken down into more descriptive groupings of medical diagnoses such as "mood, thought and mental disorders" or more specific diagnoses such as "psychotic episodes", "schizophrenia", etc. Modern psychiatric medicine generally frames these specific mental issues as disorders that can be treated and/or cured.

"Involuntary civil commitment" is the phrase used to describe being forced into a mental institution. The laws controlling this process vary from one jurisdiction to the next. With very few exceptions, involuntary commitment requires that an individual have a diagnosable mental disorder and either pose an "imminent threat" to themselves or others or be incapable of caring for their own basic personal needs. A few U.S. states allow involuntary commitment under slightly less stringent requirements, but all are based on current behavior or thinking, rather than on past activities.

There are no mental disorders defined in the standard diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) used in the United States that would allow a diagnosis of mental illness based solely on a person's past use of LSD or any other drug.2

For a Criminal Trial
Insanity can be used as a specific--albeit rare-- defense against an accusation of criminal conduct, resulting in a judgement of "not guilty by reason of insanity". This finding generally requires that the defendant have a mental disorder that caused them: to not know what they were doing, to not know that what they were doing was illegal, or that compelled them irresistibly to commit the crime. Again, the requirements involve a current disorder that directly led to the individual committing a specific criminal act.

Past use of LSD, regardless of the number of uses, does not qualify as a mental disorder for the purposes of an insanity plea. In fact, the voluntary use of LSD during the commission of a crime can sometimes disqualify a defendant from using the insanity defense, as it can be argued that changes to or problems with their mental status were the result of the voluntary act of ingesting the drug.3 Although it is important to note that the laws governing the insanity defense vary by jurisdiction, there is no jurisdiction in the United States in which a court would find someone incompetent to stand trial simply because they had taken LSD in the past.

A simple analysis of this part of the myth was described by Bob Wallace on Usenet in 1998: "Since we never hear news stories such as ‘The accused murderer was set free, of course, since he had taken LSD 8 times and was legally insane', and many defense lawyers are basically competent, it seems unlikely such a law exists in any state."4

For Testifying in a Trial
Fact meets fiction with the variant of this myth that states that one can't testify in court after having done LSD n times.

While there is no rule or law which requires disqualification of a witness based on past LSD use, a witness's testimony can potentially be discredited by a hostile attorney in front of the jury if one's "illegal drug use" is made an issue. But this depends on the personal biases of lawyers and jurors, not on formal legal rules.

When Applying for a Job
While it has nothing to do with being declared "legally insane", admitting to past use of LSD could in some instances disqualify an individual for certain jobs or subject them to additional scrutiny or drug testing. For instance, the city police department of La Mesa, California lists "Use of any hallucinogenic drug ... LSD, acid..." as a disqualifying factor for being hired.5 But obviously this is a far cry from a declaration of "legally insane".

When Did This Myth Start?
Based on feedback from people who were teens in the 1970s, it seems this myth has its roots somewhere between 1967 and 1975. Rick Doblin of MAPS reports that he remembers hearing a variant of this myth around 1970.6

LSD causing insanity became a prominent component of its public image in the late 1960s. In Storming Heaven, Jay Stevens writes, "It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the LSD psychotic first entered the public consciousness, but a good starting point would be April 1966, when the FDA invited reporters in to examine its LSD dossier."7

Although we believe that there are earlier mentions, the fi rst documentation we have found for this myth is a series of Usenet posts from 1990 in which one author claims to have heard the myth as early as 1974.8 Usenet posts discussing this myth have appeared every year since 1990.

How Did the Myth Start?
As LSD use spread in the 1960s, the public meme-space was ripe for LSD myths relating to insanity.

  1. Widely publicized research in the 1950s classified LSD as a "psychotomimetic" creating "model psychoses" in those who took it.
  2. A couple of rumored and reported suicides in the 1950s associated with LSD primed negative expectations.9
  3. The "Reefer Madness" anti-cannabis campaign provided a backdrop for the concept of LSD-induced insanity. In early anti-LSD campaigns, cannabis was described as a "hallucinogen", often in the same sentence with LSD.10
Senate Subcommittee Hearings
In early 1966, several senate subcommittees convened hearings on "the LSD problem". Testimony by concerned psychiatrist William Frosch about the prevalence of LSD-related admissions to psychiatric wards was dramatically exaggerated in the committee's findings. He reported that a small percentage of LSD users had abreactions and that, of those, a common problem was mild to severe psychosis. The reported version, however, missed the context and simply reported that "One of the most common recurrent reactions to LSD is a psychotic breakdown of an extended but unknown duration."7

Media Hype
Of course, the real carrier of the meme was the national media. Lurid, sensational, and exaggerated stories about LSD causing insanity exploded into the national psyche in 1966. A few of the highlights are: a Time magazine article in March of 1966 which declared that psychosis resulting from LSD use was "everywhere",11 a March 25, 1966 Life magazine issue with a cover story about LSD titled "The exploding threat of the mind drug that got out of control: LSD",12 and an August 1967 Saturday Evening Post cover story titled "The newly discovered dangers of LSD".13 These were accompanied by a large number of television and newspaper stories covering the "growing epidemic".14

Famous Court Cases
Although there was frequent reporting of LSD-related crimes in the news during the peak of the LSD hysteria, two cases stand out as possible seeds for this myth cluster.

First, the case of Stephen Kessler stands out because of the style and magnitude of the headlines in April 1967, which declared him a "Mad LSD Slayer" and "LSD Killer" because he reportedly said to the police as he was being arrested: "Man, I've been flying for three days on LSD. Did I kill my wife? Did I rape anybody?".15

Although it was later reported that Kessler had last taken LSD more than a month before the killings and had actually been on "three quarts of lab alcohol" and "one-and-a-half grains of pentobarbital", this data was trumpeted with somewhat less fanfare. Kessler was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, but LSD was not mentioned during the trial.16,17

The second major LSD-related crime that splashed across televisions, newspapers, and magazines was that of the murderous cult of personality around Charles Manson. When several members of the group were indicted for high profi le murders in 1969, it was big national news. The media carried extensive mentions of the use of LSD, Datura, and other drugs by the members of the "Manson Family".

It was the cross examination of Linda Kasabian, a former member of the Family, that is considered one of the key seeds to this myth. When she was first called to the stand, the attorney defending Manson reportedly blurted "I object, Your Honor, on the grounds this witness is not competent because she is insane!"18

Kasabian spent eighteen days on the witness stand during which Manson's attorney repeatedly returned to questions about her LSD use, trying to depict her as a person who could not tell fact from fantasy. Despite this attempt to discredit a witness for her admitted fifty LSD trips, Manson and his cohorts were convicted and sentenced to death (later converted to life in prison) for the murders, based substantially on Kasabian's testimony.

Over time, we hope that additional documentation of early versions of this myth can be found. Part of the mystique of LSD is that insanity hovers somewhere around the edges of its use, making myths like this diffi cult to put to rest. One part fact, one part vague thinking, one part misunderstanding, and some hyperbole mixed in form the glue that holds these threads together.