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Does LSD cause birth defects?

Dear Cecil:

During the 1960s, much was made of the impact of hallucinogenic drugs, notably LSD, on the genetic makeup of human beings. It was suggested that these drugs would cause users to subsequently produce deformed offspring. Now that the drug-abusing youngsters of the 60s have matured and presumably procreated on a wholesale basis, one might conclude that a good statistical population exists to test this horrifying theory. But little now is heard of the genetic effects of drug use. Is there, and was there ever, any truth to the allegations?

Anthony B., Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Put your drug-sodden mind at ease, Tonio — the notion that acid causes birth defects was thoroughly discredited years ago. The controversy started in 1967 when New York geneticist Maimon Cohen published a paper claiming he’d found an unusually high number of broken chromosomes in a 57-year-old man who’d been given LSD as part of a hospital therapy. Cohen also found that human cells dosed with LSD in a test tube showed significant chromosome damage. Not long afterward, another study said that street acid users were found to have scrambled genes in alarming numbers. These reports got big play in the media and soon everybody “knew” that if you did acid your children would be born looking like kumquats.

Later research pretty much nixed this screwy idea, but unfortunately good news never gets as much play as bad. Researchers pointed out that all sorts of things, including milk and undistilled water, can cause chromosome damage in a test tube — such experiments just don’t prove much. Others noted that Cohen’s 57-year-old man had received regular treatments with Librium and Thorazine, which have since been shown to cause chromosome damage.

It was also pointed out that “street” acid is rarely pure LSD, often containing such drugs as PCP and STP. And people who do acid often tend to be indiscriminate pill poppers, scarfing down alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates, marijuana, cocaine, peyote, psilocybin (a trip down memory lane, ain’t it?), etc., in addition to acid, any of which might have contributed to chromosome damage. Amphetamines in particular can be nasty; the illegally manufactured kinds often contain dangerous chemicals like benzene and chloroform. On top of everything else there’s the fact that drug users are prone to hepatitis and other viral illnesses, which themselves are suspected of damaging chromosomes.

The upshot is that LSD is no longer considered much of a threat, at least as far as your genes are concerned. A thorough review of all the studies on acid and genetic damage published in Science magazine in 1971 concluded that “pure LSD in moderate doses does not damage chromosomes … [and] does not cause detectable genetic damage.”

Note that we’re talking strictly LSD here, not hallucinogens in general — most of the others haven’t been studied sufficiently. And it’s certainly true that some sorts of drug abuse will cause birth defects, the most notorious example being fetal alcohol syndrome, in which hard-drinking mothers inflict various horrors, such as low IQ, on their unborn children. But LSD at least seems to be in the clear.

Cecil Adams

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