The Real Reason LSD and Opium Are Illegal

August 18th 2015

Nicole Charky

Psychedelic substances have been used for thousands of years, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, but despite their role in religious and therapeutic purposes, the reason why psychedelic drugs remain illegal today has more to do with anti-drug laws that were often rooted in racism and not necessarily—or solely—focused on health concerns.

To explain why psychedelic drugs became illegal in the U.S., ATTN: created a video series that gives viewers a clearer understanding of America's drug law origins.  In this piece, we examine two psychedelic drugs: LSD and opium.


Some naturally occurring psychedelics, such as psilocybin mushrooms, peyote (containing mescaline), and ayahuasca (containing DMT), have been used for thousands of years in spiritual, religious, and past medicinal settings. It's relatively recent—with the rise of man-made drugs such as LSD, also known as acid—that they have been placed under official regulation.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, some psychedelics, LSD, for example, were considered promising treatments for a variety of psychological and psychiatric conditions, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. LSD was something of an accident, originally created in the late 1930s by a young chemist named Albert Hoffman, and intended for use as a clinical drug. Although it never took the form of mainstream medication, LSD seemed in vogue in experimental medical circles during the period between 1950 and 1965; nearly 40,000 patients—including actor Cary Grant—used some form of LSD for illnesses ranging from neurosis, schizophrenia, and psychopathy, according to the Guardian.

It was the growing popularity of psychedelics, during a time of social and cultural revolution, that eventually led to their downfall. As the 1960s wore on, growing concern over the political and cultural climate of the U.S., association with hippie culture, and the perception that LSD and other psychedelics were primarily abused recreationally instead of medically, led to bans on further research. Drugs such LSD became more widely available and grew into the defining inebriant of the decade. LSD was eventually outlawed by the federal government in 1968, although certain psychedelics are allowed for use in religious ceremonies.


According to a Scientific American article from 1898:

"It has been estimated that in San Francisco thirty per cent of the Chinese are addicted to smoking [opium] and that ten per cent of the entire population of Chinatown are habitual 'opium drunkards. The drug is smoked as freely as tobacco. First, there are the opium dens. There are scores of these dens in the Chinese quarter of every large city. There the Chinaman can buy his pipe and smoke in peace. In San Francisco white people are forbidden to visit these dens, but they have such places of their own, which are well known to the police, and the vice is ever spreading and increasing."

Today, the word "Chinaman" isn't politically correct, but what they were referring to being smoked, opium, became an increased concern for the American government. When this Scientific American article was published, laws were changing regarding opium and San Francisco became the first U.S. city to effectively ban smoking the drug toward the end of the 1800s, which ATTN: has illustrated before. White men were becoming concerned with Chinese men luring their women into opium dens, so they outlawed smoking it, which made it possible to throw Chinese men in jail if they were seen as threats. Drinking and injecting opium was popular among white men and women at the time, so that was not outlawed in the city. In the 1890s, tabloids owned by William Randolph Hearst led a fear campaign, claiming white women were being seduced by Chinese men in the opium dens, and they referred to it as the "Yellow Peril."