Sunday, January 11, 2009

LSD Users Go Blind

The Legend:  Several students tripping on LSD stared at the sun until they were blind.

Status: Some Truth

Example: [Taken from the Internet]

Here is how the story was written up by the Los Angeles Times, 1967:


Four LSD Users Suffer Serious Eye Damage
Exclusive to The Times from a Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA -- Four college students have suffered permanent impairment of vision as a result of staring at the sun while under the influence of LSD, according to a spokesman for the Santa Barbara Ophthalmological Society.

One of the youths told his doctor he was "holding a religious conversation with the sun." Another said he had gazed at the sun "to produce unusual visual displays."  The students, all male, suffered damage to the retina, the sensory membrane which receives the image formed by the lens.

In the same way that a piece of paper will burn when bright light is beamed through a magnifying glass, a pinhead-sized hole was burned into the retina of each eye of the students as sunlight passed through the lens.

What this has left the students with is not total blindness but a blind spot in the center of their vision. As a result, the victims have lost their reading vision completely and forever, the ophthalmological spokesman said. [snip]


A Staff Writer? A spokesman? The students? We want names!  What medical facility treated them? Who rescued them? What school did they attend? Even worse, this particular LSD horror story was picked up by the Associated Press and quickly spread all over the U.S., appearing in The New York Times and Time magazine. Does no one learn to fact-check in journalism school anymore?

This story showed up a second time in the news, 8 months later, only this time it supposedly happened in Pennsylvania. The PA version of the story, which eventually appeared in Newsweek, was planted by Dr. Norman Yoder who admitted he had made the whole thing up because of his concern over illegal LSD use by children. He was suspended from his post and checked himself into the Philadelphia Psychiatric Center. See, sometimes the truth is far more interesting than the legend.

A review of current medical literature finds two cases of solar retinopathy associated with LSD use. The earliest article appeared in 1973 (Schatz & Mendelblatt, 1973), 6 years after the California and Pennsylvania incidents were reported. The second article appeared in 1976, (Fuller, 1976).

There are a few articles about solar retinopathy acquired after sun-gazing in prayer or as the result of mental illness, (Mwanza et. al., 2000). However, the bulk of research on solar retinopathy focuses on "Eclipse Burns," or eye damage resulting from watching a solar eclipse, (Hallmark & Ygge, 2005).

So is it true that people tripping on LSD stared at the sun until they were blind? We don't know if the California report of this taking place is true because there is no way to fact-check an article that contains no facts. What we do know is that it is possible to cause permanent damage to your eyes if you stare at the sun, and there is reliable record of a few LSD users doing this.