LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide)

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Date: Oct. 1, 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Drug overview; Topic overview
Length: 5,020 words

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Official Names: Lysergic acid diethylamide (lih-SERJ-ik AH-sid die-ETH-uhl-AH-mide), LSD 25, Delysid (brand name); almost always referred to as LSD
Street Names: More than eighty street names, including acid, backbreaker, battery acid, blotter, boomers, brown acid, cid, contact lenses, doses, dots, electric kool-aid, looney tunes, Lucy in the sky with diamonds, microdots, panes, purple haze, sunshine, windowpanes, yellow sunshine, zen
Drug Classification: Schedule I, hallucinogen

What Kind of Drug Is It?

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a powerful psychedelic drug made from a naturally occurring compound called lysergic acid. This is how the drug got its nickname "acid." LSD is classified as an hallucinogen by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in "NIDA InfoFacts: LSD," has called it "one of the most [powerful] mood-changing chemicals" known. LSD alters the way the brain works. In microscopic amounts, it affects the user's senses, thoughts, and movements for ten to twelve hours.

Unlike some other hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD can be produced only under laboratory conditions. (An entry on mescaline is available in this encyclopedia.) LSD is termed a semi-synthetic drug rather than a pure synthetic drug because the key ingredients used in its manufacture are found in nature.


LSD was first synthesized, or made in a lab, in 1938. It was created from a mold called ergot that infests rye and other grains. Drug researchers initially hoped that this new substance would be useful in treating severe headaches. Because of its similarity to chemicals that occur in the human brain, it was later used in the study of mental illness.

History Dates Back to World War II

The hallucinogenic effects of LSD were discovered in 1943 in Basel, Switzerland. Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (1906-2008), a researcher at Sandoz Laboratories, had produced the first batch of the drug five years earlier. One day in April of 1943, Hofmann accidentally ingested some of the compound while experimenting with various ergot-based products. He soon experienced extraordinary visual symptoms similar to the mosaic pattern seen through a kaleidoscope.

When Hofmann's vision returned to normal, he deliberately took a larger second dose to see if the same effects would occur. The bizarre sensations returned but proved to be even more intense. Soon after taking this second dose, Hofmann began feeling dizzy and disoriented. While bicycling home from his laboratory, he developed distortions of his senses. They included profound changes in his hearing, the perception of fantastically vivid colors, and an inability to judge distance. In his account of this first LSD experience, included in his book LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann wrote: "A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul."

Suspecting that the new drug might be a useful tool in the advancement of psychotherapy, Sandoz Laboratories produced it as Delysid. According to Edward M. Brecher in The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, the company supplied Delysid in "experimental quantities" to psychiatrists at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. These psychiatrists soon determined that even micrograms of the drug prompted extreme reactions. Brecher noted that "an amount of LSD weighing as little as the aspirin in a five-grain tablet is enough to produce effects in 3,000 people."

LSD Comes to the United States

Hofmann and his fellow experimenters published their initial findings on LSD in 1947. Two years later, doctors at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital (which became the Massachusetts Mental Health Center) learned about LSD from the Austrian physician Otto Kauders. The American doctors obtained some of the drug from Sandoz Laboratories and undertook their own experiments. For the next several years in the United States, LSD was largely restricted to the scientific and medical communities. It showed promise as a breakthrough in the treatment of psychological disorders. "This was an extraordinary substance," wrote Antonio Escohotado in A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age.

By 1951, news of LSD had reached the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an organization responsible for American security. Agency officials wanted to investigate the use of LSD as a truth serum and, possibly, a form of nonviolent warfare that would incapacitate the enemy. The CIA began a government-funded research program to examine the effects of the drug. Initially, the operation was centered at Boston Psychopathic Hospital. There, LSD was administered to students and soldiers to test its effects. But experimentation led to disaster when one of the test subjects jumped out of a window and fell to his death.

LSD Experimentation Studies

Even though LSD was discovered in the late 1930s, its use was most widespread in the 1960s. At that time, it was viewed by members of the counterculture as a way to alter and intensify virtually all experiences. Many people used it to stimulate the creative process. The drug influenced everything from the tie-dyed clothing styles to the art, music, and motion pictures of the era.

The reputation of LSD as a mind-altering drug caught the interest of psychiatrists and researchers at various universities. Soon such institutions began sponsoring widespread studies of the drug. They even paid college students and others to take the drug and be observed under its effects.

The Influence of Timothy Leary

The rate of LSD experimentation was particularly high at Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It drew the attention of Timothy Leary (1920-1996), a psychologist who had joined the university's faculty in 1960. Leary had already experimented with other hallucinogenic substances and soon became a key promoter of LSD use.

"By this time we had become aware of an international network of scientists and scholars experimenting with psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline," Leary wrote in his autobiography Flashbacks (1983). "They varied widely in age and temperament and held widely differing ideas about how the drugs should be used. One powerful [idea] was common to all: these plants and drugs, as expanders of human consciousness, could revolutionize psychology and philosophy."

With the encouragement of novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Leary launched a public campaign recommending LSD as a liberating and mind-expanding drug. Huxley had gained fame decades earlier with his futuristic novel Brave New World (1932), and he championed psychedelic drug use in a later work called The Doors of Perception (1954). Word of LSD's hallucinogenic properties rapidly spread across the country. By the mid-1960s, the drug had become an undeniable part of American culture.

However, Leary's experiments with and ideas about LSD were controversial, especially at Harvard. Parents of many of his students were upset to hear that their children were using drugs, no matter if the drugs were being administered in a clinic setting. These parents were concerned because they had sent their children to Harvard to get an education and become leaders, not become drug users. Ultimately Leary was fired from Harvard in 1963 amid the controversy. He went on to conduct experiments elsewhere and sometimes ran into legal trouble. Nevertheless, he gave lectures throughout the country urging people to "turn on, tune in, [and] drop out."

Psychedelics, Flower Power, and the City of Love

Augustus Owsley Stanley III, more commonly known as Owsley, supplied much of the LSD that circulated in the United States in the late 1960s. His lab was located in San Francisco, California--the center of U.S. acid culture. The Haight-Ashbury district within the city became a gathering place for young men and women arriving from around the country.

Soon, San Francisco gained a reputation as the "City of Love." Its radical residents were termed "hippies." Their philosophy of peace, love, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and psychedelic experiences gave birth to the "flower power" movement. However, the movement in San Francisco lasted only a few years. By 1969, the end of the era was evident when violence erupted near the city at a free concert given by the Rolling Stones and other bands. One fan was stabbed to death and several others died at the event. The chaos of the music festival is chronicled in the documentary film Gimme Shelter.

After the Sixties

LSD was made illegal in the United States in 1967. By the early 1970s, LSD use had declined in the nation. Owsley and Leary had both been arrested, and the drug seemed to lose its appeal. Then, in the late 1980s, the rave culture hit the United States. A new generation of young American drug users was firmly established by the mid-1990s. LSD was one of the drugs they began taking.

Most of the LSD distributed in the United States and Europe from 1996 to 2000 was made in illegal labs operated by two California men, William Leonard Pickard and Clyde Apperson. The pair had set up labs in California, Oregon, New Mexico, and Kansas, where they manufactured nearly $100 million worth of LSD each month. Both men were arrested in November of 2000. Over the next two years, the availability of the illicit drug decreased by 95 percent in the United States. In 2003, three years after their arrests, Pickard and Apperson were found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute LSD. Pickard was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Apperson received a thirty-year sentence in prison without parole. According to a DEA press release, "this was the single largest seizure of an operable LSD lab in the history of the Drug Enforcement Administration."

What Is It Made Of?

LSD is a colorless, odorless drug with a bitter taste. It is made from ergot, a brown, toxic (poisonous) mold that grows on rye and other grains. The chemical formula for LSD is C20H25N30. LSD is a very difficult drug to synthesize. A DEA publication titled "An Overview of Club Drugs: Drug Intelligence Brief," describes the drug's manufacture as "a time-consuming, complex chemical process" that requires "a solid background in chemistry." It is hard to obtain the ingredients needed to make the drug. Most of the LSD in the United States is manufactured in the city of San Francisco, California. Because it is made in illegal labs, there is no guarantee of the drug's purity or safety.

The DEA reports that a typical dose of LSD is not as strong as it used to be. In the late 1960s, at the height of its use, the dosage ranged from 100 micrograms to 200 micrograms. As of 2005, doses were in the 20 microgram to 80 microgram range. An average dose costs about $5 to $10.

How Is It Taken?

LSD is usually taken by mouth. Pure LSD is a crystalline powder, but it is usually dissolved and diluted before being readied for sale. A microscopic amount of LSD is dropped on sugar cubes, blotter paper, or mushrooms, which are then ingested. Blotter papers are perforated sheets of paper--smaller than a postage stamp, square in shape, and decorated with colorful graphics. They are soaked in LSD and sold separately, in sheets, or in books. Sometimes LSD is put on the back of a postage stamp, which is then licked. LSD is also produced in a tablet form called a microdot.

In addition, some users absorb LSD into their systems through their eyes. Thin squares of LSD-laced gelatin, nicknamed "windowpanes" and "contact lenses," are used for this method of intake.

Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?

LSD is still under study as a means of treating various psychological disorders. Sandra Blakeslee, writing in the New York Times, reported as recently as 2001 that a psychiatry professor at Harvard University was preparing "to see whether LSD can alleviate fear and anxiety in dying patients." Blakeslee concluded her article by quoting psychiatrist George Greer, who cautioned: "If hallucinogens ever find their way into mainstream medicine ... they will never be handed out like [the antidepressant] Prozac. People will need guidance. These are not drugs you administer every day."

Usage Trends

The use of LSD peaked in the late 1960s, when psychedelic music reached the height of its popularity. By the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, LSD use declined. Reports of bad trips turned off many recreational users, and the media gave widespread coverage to tragic stories of lives shattered by the drug's effects. The term "bad trip" is used to describe a negative LSD experience, which is characterized by anxiety, panic, and despair. Such trips can be extremely traumatic.

After raves began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, other drugs--most notably ecstasy--became far more popular among drug users than LSD. However, a small group of ravers did rediscover LSD, which is said to enhance the sights and sounds of the rave experience. This new generation's interest in the hallucinogenic effects of LSD accounted for the spike in use that appeared around 1997.

According to the most recent data available from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH; 2014), about 0.1 percent of the U.S. population had taken LSD in the month prior to the survey. That number had remained relatively constant for the preceding 12 years. The age group most likely to have taken LSD during that period were those between the ages of 18 and 25 (about 0.3 percent of the population) followed by those in the 12 to 17 age group (about 0.2 percent) and those over the age of 25 (less than 0.1 percent). These data show that LSD use, while very low in the United States, has still not disappeared entirely.

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) study on teenagers' use of drugs and attitudes towards drug use has been conducted since 1975. In its most recent survey (2014), the MTF found that 1.1 percent of eighth graders had reported using LSD at least once during their lifetime, compared to 2.6 tenth graders and 3.7 twelfth graders who had admitted to doing so. The numbers of respondents to the survey who said they had used the drug within the last year or the last 30 days were much smaller: for eighth graders, 0.7 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively; for tenth graders, 1,9 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively; and for twelfth graders, 2.5 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively.

MTF researchers also asked respondents about their attitudes toward the use of LSD. About one-fifth (20.0 percent) of eighth graders said that they thought LSD was harmful if taken only once or twice, while 33.7 percent said it would be harmful if taken "regularly". Comparable numbers for tenth graders were 34.5 percent and 54.8 percent, respectively, and for twelfth graders, 35.5 percent and 62.7 percent, respectively. In all of these case, concerns about the harmfulness of taking LSD had decreased since the earliest years reported (usually, 1991).

The Drug Awareness Warning Network (DAWN) studies the number of emergency department (ED) visits caused by misuse or abuse of drugs. In its most recent report (2011), DAWN found that 4,819 ED visits in 2011 could be attributed to misuse or abuse of LSD, more than twice as many has had been reported in the 2005 survey. That number had been increasing gradually between 2005 and 2011 to its current high number. The increase from 2010 to 2011 of more than 1,000 visits to emergency departments was especially significant, according to DAWN researchers.

Trends in Availability

Some experts say that the use of LSD has decreased largely because the substance is more difficult to obtain for illegal use. A posting on the Erowid website, for example, says that while the LSD that was popular in the late twentieth century is still "globally produced," it is "harder to find good quality LSD." (Erowid is a website that has long provided some of the most accurate and detailed information on the recreational use of illegal drugs.) The posting goes on to provide detailed information about the form and quality of today's LSD. Respondents to the 2014 MTF survey do not entirely agree with that viewpoint, however. When asked how easy it would be to obtain LSD for their own use, 6.9 percent of eighth graders said that it would be "easy" or "fairly easy" to get LSD, while 14.8 percent of tenth graders and 25.9 percent of twelfth graders gave the same response, respectively. In all cases, however, respondents reported that it was significantly more difficult to get LSD in 2014 than in preceding decades.

Effects on the Body

LSD is believed to act on the serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, sensory perception, and other nervous system functions. When LSD attaches to these brain receptors, serotonin cannot. The nerves in the brain become confused without a supply of this neurotransmitter and send out false signals that result in an LSD trip. A trip is an intense and very visual experience that occurs after taking the drug.

Trippin' on LSD

The authors of the DEA publication "Drugs of Abuse" state that an oral dose of "25 micrograms [of LSD], equal in weight to a couple of grains of capable of producing rich and vivid hallucinations." The effects of the drug usually begin to appear about a half an hour to an hour after it is taken. They last for about twelve hours.

In pregnant women, LSD use brings on contractions of the uterus that can cause a miscarriage. In all users, LSD raises blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. Sweating and dry mouth are other common side effects. But, the authors of "NIDA InfoFacts: LSD" note that "sensations and feelings change much more dramatically than the physical signs." Many users report that the drug expands the mind and helps them discover their inner selves. Furthermore, they claim to be able to bond and empathize with, relate to, or understand others like never before. Some users have described the insights they obtain on LSD as a truly mystical experience.

All sensations are intensified by LSD, but the most bizarre effects are usually visual. Hallucinations are common. Objects become distorted, colors appear to glow, and images seem to melt into each other, forming flowing patterns and kaleidoscopic designs. A peculiar blending of the senses known as synesthesia (pronounced sinn-ess-THEE-zhee-uh) may also occur. Synesthesia is a mixing of sensations, often due to the use of hallucinogens, that makes users believe they can hear colors and see sounds.

Unpredictable Results

In their book From Chocolate to Morphine, Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen commented: "From the very first ... it was apparent that not everyone who takes LSD has a good time. Some people had bad trips: they became anxious and panicky, afraid they were losing their minds and would be unable to return to ordinary reality ... Some of them remained depressed and anxious for days afterward, and a few had lasting psychological problems."

LSD use can prompt a range of disturbing psychological reactions. These include feelings of disconnection; anxiety; confusion; depression (a mood disorder); extreme fear; and even paranoia (abnormal feelings of suspicion and fear). Users may also experience sudden psychedelic symptoms even when they are not high on the drug. These episodes are called flashbacks and may occur days, months, or even years after someone last used the drug. Flashbacks occur when someone re-experiences the effects of LSD after he or she has stopped taking it. The medical term for a flashback is "hallucinogen persisting perception disorder," commonly called HPPD.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America Web site points out that the effects of LSD "depend on the amount taken, the user's personality, mood, and expectations, and the surroundings in which the drug is used." Many users report extreme mood swings while under the influence of LSD. They may also feel stuck to a particular spot or even stuck in time. The distorted perceptions and reduced inhibitions caused by the drug greatly increase the likelihood of an accident.

Serious injury and death may occur during an LSD trip because the user's judgment is so severely impaired. Stories have been told of people jumping out of windows, not because they wanted to commit suicide, but because they believed they could fly. Violent behavior is a possibility as well, since individuals on a bad trip may mistakenly believe that other people are a threat to their safety.

Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances

Very few studies have been conducted on the interaction of LSD with other drugs. It is known that antidepressants may alter the effects of LSD. Marijuana, a drug that causes paranoia in some users, also makes for a bad mix with LSD. Smoking marijuana while taking LSD can increase the risk of a bad trip or a psychotic reaction. (Entries on antidepressants and marijuana are also available in this encyclopedia.)

Treatment for Habitual Users

Drug experts generally agree that LSD is not an addictive substance. According to NIDA, "There is no evidence that LSD produces physical withdrawal" symptoms. However, it does cause psychological dependence, which is the belief that a person needs to take a certain substance in order to function. It also leads to tolerance, a condition in which higher and higher doses of a drug are needed to produce the original effect or high experienced. The tolerance does not last long. Typically, it disappears altogether if the user stops taking the drug for about a week. At that point, the full LSD experience will occur when another dose is taken.

While LSD may not cause physical withdrawal, use of the drug may result in lasting psychological effects--especially among people who have experienced emotional problems in the past. Individuals who showed signs of psychological instability prior to taking LSD are especially likely to have a bad trip with long-lasting negative consequences. Some users are overwhelmed by serious psychological trauma after taking the drug just once.

Use of LSD may contribute to outbreaks of psychosis (pronounced sy-KOH-sis), a severe mental disorder that makes it difficult for people to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. It can also lead to schizophrenia, another severe mental disorder. Schizophrenia makes it difficult for people to behave normally and function adequately in their everyday lives. "These effects may last for years," according to the NIDA research report "Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs." They can even "affect people who have no history or other symptoms of psychological disorder." Intensive psychotherapy and even hospitalization may be required in these cases.

A more common complaint from LSD users involves flashbacks. The cause of these sudden and persistent replays of an earlier trip has not yet been determined. As of 2005, there was no known treatment for them.


LSD completely disrupts the ability to concentrate and communicate, thus increasing the risk among users of failure at school or work. Even bathing and getting dressed may be perceived as tasks too difficult to accomplish when under the influence of LSD. The drug also interferes with sleep, so users are often exhausted after its effects wear off.

People coming down from bad LSD trips need others to reassure them that everything will be fine. Users often need to rest in a quiet room with a trusted person in attendance at all times. In Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, Paul M. Gahlinger explained that the trusted person should not leave the user "even for a few minutes, since the time distortion of LSD can make it seem like an eternity of abandonment." Stimuli such as bright lights, bustling movement, or loud voices may frighten the user as the negative aspects of the experience continue.

The authors of the NIDA research report caution that users' moods sometimes shift so rapidly that they "may seem to experience several emotions simultaneously." This mental confusion and loss of control can make users so frightened that they become dangerous to themselves and others. Gahlinger noted, "Most injuries and a few fatalities have occurred [from LSD] when users found themselves overwhelmed by delusions and were injured either by accident or by intent."

The Law

LSD became illegal in the United States in 1967. Three years later, it was classified as a dangerous Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This means it has a high potential for abuse and is not used medically. Prior to its ban, however, LSD was available as a prescription drug for use in treating psychological disorders. But as a Schedule I substance, LSD is illegal to possess, sell, or consume.

In the United States, LSD-related prison sentences range from five years to life, and fines can run from $2 million to $8 million. In the United Kingdom, LSD is considered a Class A drug under the 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act. Its use there carries penalties as severe as those in place in the United States.

Key Terms

psychedelic drug
a drug that can produce hallucinations and distort reality
a substance that brings on hallucinations, which alter the user's perception of reality
pronounced URH-got; a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye, and contains lysergic acid, a chemical used to make LSD
the treatment of emotional problems by a trained therapist using a variety of techniques to improve a patient's outlook on life
a millionth of a gram; there are 28 grams in 1 ounce
a group of people who challenge the values of established society
recreational users
people who use drugs solely to achieve a high, not to treat a medical condition
wild overnight dance parties that typically involve huge crowds of people, loud techno music, and illegal drug use
a combination of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen; it is found in the brain, blood, and stomach lining and acts as a neurotransmitter and blood vessel regulator
a substance that helps spread nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another
inner thoughts that keep people from engaging in certain activities
false, unshakable beliefs indicating severe mental difficulties; "delusional" refers to the inability to distinguish between what is real and what seems to be real

The 1960s: The LSD Era

LSD use was high in the 1960s--a time of political and social turmoil in the United States. The quest for social justice was one of the key concerns among young Americans during the era. Antiwar sentiment had grown in the United States against the war in Vietnam (1954-1975). Protests against America's role in the conflict marked the decade.

The era was also an important time for civil rights in the United States. However, the civil rights movement was dealt a major blow with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the leader of the civil rights protest movement, in the late 1960s. Presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy (1925-1968), the brother of murdered U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), was also assassinated. In the midst of the country's grief and social upheaval, other causes started gaining momentum. Notable among these were the call for women's rights and a more responsible attitude toward the environment.

As youth around the country rallied together in support of these causes, many took an anti-establishment attitude. This means that they wanted to do things differently than their parents had. Many rejected mainstream society's ideas and instead experimented with new ways of doing things, such as living together and wearing bell-bottoms and tie-dyed tee-shirts with psychedelic colors. They also started experimenting with drugs, such as LSD. For some, the dangers of such experimentation were soon revealed.

The use of LSD and other drugs eventually influenced the arts. One of the people who experimented with LSD was Ken Kesey (1935-2001). He first tried the drug in the early 1960s when he volunteered to be observed under the effects of the drug at Boston Psychopathic Hospital. Kesey enjoyed the sensory experience he received taking LSD. He later worked at the hospital as a psychiatric aide. He used his experiences and observations for his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Released as a film in 1975, the story won many Academy Awards that year.

LSD also influenced various musicians. Songs by The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, and The Beatles are reportedly inspired by the acid culture. In fact, The Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" has become a street name for the drug LSD.

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary died at his Beverly Hills, California, home on May 31, 1996. The last word he spoke was reported to have been "Beautiful." Leary's body was cremated according to his wishes. The February after his death, a portion of his ashes was launched into space.

The Language of LSD

Certain terms are used to describe different aspects of the LSD experience. A sampling of LSD lingo follows.

  • acid head: an LSD user
  • coming down: the experience of the drug wearing off
  • coming home: the end of an LSD trip
  • drop: a common term used to describe the taking of LSD, as in "dropping acid"
  • hit: a dose of LSD
  • talk down: the process by which someone helps users high on LSD reconnect with reality by calmly explaining that their hallucinations are not real; reassuring them of their safety; and reminding them that the effects are only temporary
  • ten packs: 1,000 dosage units of LSD
  • trails: visual distortions produced by LSD that make moving objects seem to leave multiple images behind them
  • travel agent: an LSD supplier
  • trippin' or trippin' out: getting high on a psychedelic drug such as LSD

LSD Hawkers

"Pulse Check," a report available on the Office of National Drug Control Policy Web site, indicated that as of January 2004, most LSD was being sold at raves by ecstasy dealers. These dealers are commonly called "hawkers" because they walk through nightclubs announcing that they have drugs such as LSD and ecstasy for sale. The "Pulse Check" report also noted that LSD and ecstasy are frequently taken together. The street term for mixing these two drugs is "candy flipping."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CV2646400030