A Psychedelic 'Problem Child' Comes Full Circle
By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: May 4, 2008
ON the afternoon of Jan. 11, Albert Hofmann, the chemist who
discovered LSD, had about a dozen friends and family up to his
glass-walled home in the mountains near Basel, Switzerland, for a
party. It was his 102nd birthday and, in an important sense, also a homecoming.
Dr. Hofmann, who died last week, spent the latter part of his life
consulting with scientists around the world who wanted to bring his
"problem child," as he called the drug, back into the lab to study as
a therapeutic agent. Not long before his last birthday, he learned
that health officials in his native Switzerland had approved what
will be the first known medical trial of LSD anywhere in more than 35
years to test whether the drug can help relieve distress at end of life.
"It was something to be there, in that house," said Rick Doblin,
president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic
Studies, a nonprofit group that supports research into LSD and
related compounds. "He was walking around the place, telling jokes,
being a host. He seemed ... I don't know, peaceful somehow,
comfortable to let the next generation carry on his spirit. And he
was expressing how completely grateful he was that that we'd been
able to restart LSD research that his problem child had come home,
had become a wonder child."
Most drugs that capture the imagination of the wider culture seem at
first to soothe the unease or gloom of their times, like Valium in
the 1970s or Prozac in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But lysergic
acid diethylamide, the substance Dr. Hofmann accidentally ingested in
1943 while working at the Swiss drug firm Sandoz, did exactly the
opposite. It inflamed people's hopes and fears, powerfully so.
LSD, it turns out, is one of the most potent consciousness-altering
substances known; an amount the size of a grain of salt can induce
swirls of emotion, and shimmering clear senses in which the ordinary
becomes extraordinary, luminous, meaningful. It can infuse a person
with creative energy or overwhelm the brain with a swarming feeling
of loss and fear. Sometimes both: Even Dr. Hofmann had at least one
bad trip, recalling in his autobiography, "Everything in the room
spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed
grotesque, threatening forms."
Looking back, scholars say, it's hard to imagine that such a drug,
once in circulation, could not have taken Western culture for a wild
ride, especially given the forces at play in the postwar United States.
"It was probably inevitable, and I think the reason is that the
common denominator, the common ground shared by all the various
groups who made use of LSD, was that they got instantly excited about
it as potentiator of their own agenda, whatever that was," said
Martin A. Lee, co-author of "Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History
of LSD: The C.I.A., the '60s and Beyond." "It's a terrible phrase,
but I think of LSD as a potentiator of possibilities. It just evoked
these grandiose possibilities with people."
Scientists in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, thought it might be
the key to providing healing insight, a window on the soul, a way to
transcend psychosis, mania, depression. Dr. Hofmann thought it could
awaken a deeper awareness of mankind's place in nature. About 1,000
studies crowd the medical literature of that era, many of them
sloppy, a few tantalizing and some disastrous for the people being
"treated" with an acid trip. The C.I.A. tested the drug as an aid to
interrogation, a kind of truth serum. The Army modeled the
possibility of using it as a madness gas, of dosing the enemy to gain
And this was all before acid met the counterculture on Haight Street
in the 1960s.
But meet they did, and it was love at first sight. Dr. Hofmann's
child was no hustler from a shotgun lab in Tijuana, after all, but a
bourgeois revolutionary, born into establishment medicine and able to
travel the world and enter societies from the top down, through their
most hallowed institutions.
The English novelist Aldous Huxley, who struck up a friendship with
Dr. Hofmann, was one of the first prominent proponents of LSD use for
personal transformation. Timothy Leary, LSD's pied piper, was a
Harvard professor whose public raptures over the drug were a strong
cocktail of mystical and scientific jargon. Ken Kesey, founder of the
protoraves known as acid tests, was at age 30 already an acclaimed
novelist, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He likened
taking acid to "putting a tuning fork on your whole body."
Not that acid was a hard sell to young people in the early 1960s, at
least to those who longed not only to shake free of mainstream
suburban-corporate culture but also to transform it, and themselves.
They weren't looking for an angry fix but something far grander. "To
put matters bluntly: the hippies were an attempt to push evolution,
to jump the species toward a higher integration," wrote Jay Stevens
in his 1987 book, "Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream."
A joint is not going to get you there.
Nor, in the end, did LSD. By 1966 a raft of toxic knockoffs were on
the street, and the authorities recognized that, whatever its upside,
acid had become part of a self-devouring drug culture that exposed
many users to a poisonous menu of illicit drugs. The government
outlawed distribution of LSD, and research into its effects soon
ground to a near halt. Where some saw a long-overdue crackdown on
abuse, others saw an overreaction.
"Once the drug illegalization crowd gets hold of it, that's that,"
said Alexander Shulgin, a former Dow chemist who discovered the
effects of MDMA, or ecstasy, which has also been made a controlled
substance. "People start talking about protecting little children,
and worrying about whether someone's going to jump out the window,
and meanwhile we have these substances MDMA and LSD that may be
of tremendous value in psychotherapy and couldn't be explored."
They can now; several trials testing psychedelics are in the works,
thanks in part to the steady example set by Dr. Hofmann. "I think
people in this country, when they see a patient in pain, will not
deny that person a medication just because the drug has abuse
potential," said Dr. John Halpern, a Harvard psychiatrist who is
testing the effect of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in late-stage
cancer patients. "LSD is always going to be a touchy subject but I
think it's kind of fallen back to earth."
The trip is over, the hangover gone, and the prodigal child arrived
home, just in time to say goodbye.
A Mind-Altering Drug Altered a Culture as Well
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: May 5, 2008
When it comes to LSD, I have to confess: I inhaled. But I inhaled
like so many other denizens of the 1960s and early '70s, whether they
actually took the drug or not. I inhaled because you couldn't fail to
inhale. LSD its aura if not its substance was a component of the
air we breathed. This hallucinogen infused the exhalations of
musicians, philosophers, advertisers and activists.
There seemed nothing "counter" about this culture; it was prevalent.
At the time there seemed to be as many head shops in New York as
there are Starbucks now; acid rock played in those darkened spaces to
acid heads, as beams of black light caused DayGlo Op-Art images to
shimmer dizzyingly. Typefaces ballooned and swooped, melting across
posters and album jackets in drug-induced swoons. Lucy was in the sky
with diamonds, the Byrds were eight miles high, the Magical Mystery
Tour was overbooked; Carlos Castaneda played out his fantasies.
The era's hallmark drug was championed with as much messianic fervor
as the era's countercultural politics. And I, and seemingly everyone
else I knew, ingested that culture even if not the drug itself, not
even realizing how strange that culture was.
It seems even stranger with the passing of time. So while the death
at 102 last week of Albert Hofmann may have tempted some to resurrect
tales of spiritual adventures under the influence, or to invoke the
now familiar quip that if you can remember the '60s you weren't
there, there are other flashbacks LSD-induced or not to consider.
Dr. Hofmann, you recall, was the discoverer of LSD when he was a
brilliant young Swiss chemist working for Sandoz Laboratories; he was
identifying and refining the medicinal properties of various plants.
In 1943, after synthesizing a chemical derived from the ergot fungus
found on rye kernels, he noticed some unusual sensations. He entered
a dreamlike state, as he described it; when he closed his eyes he saw
an "uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures."
His real eureka moment came a few days later when he deliberately
ingested a minute quantity (0.25 milligrams) of that synthesized
chemical lysergic acid diethylamide and had the world's first bad
acid trip. Its components included a horrifying bicycle ride, the
frenzied drinking of two liters of milk, a neighbor who appeared as
"a malevolent insidious witch," and an emergency call to the family
doctor who could see nothing wrong, even though in his autobiography
Dr. Hofmann said he felt like "a demon had invaded me, had taken
possession of my body, mind and soul." But the next day everything
glistened in a fresh light: "The world was as if newly created."
For the LSD era there was something mythic about this initiation.
Epic heroes have always descended into the underworld to emerge,
however scarred, bearing new forms of wisdom. That was also the LSD
archetype: descend into madness and emerge enlightened, seeing the world anew.
Like others, I found the demonic threat too fearsome to engage and
saw many an injured traveler drop by the wayside. As for the promised
enlightenment, it too raised concerns. I was wary of the trappings
the surface style and attitude that had developed around a substance
whose promise was that it would help you see the essence of things.
I doubt if I would have been comfortable ingesting anything more than
a Fresca if Timothy Leary had been at my side reciting the spiritual
patter he and Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert the shamanistic
professors of the age had put together for the 1964 book "The
Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the
Dead." Their manual tried to establish an almost sacramental order
for an experience that was much more anarchic.
"O (name of voyager)," its opening recitation begins (prompting for
personalization of the impersonal message), "the time has come for
you to seek new levels of reality. Your ego and the (name) game are
about to cease. You are about to be set face to face with the Clear Light."
That Clear Light sounded nice. So did "the All Good" and "the All
Peaceful." But these chants also warned on the subject of the "Source
Energy," "Do not try to intellectualize it." And that still seems
wrong: ideas of trying to "merge with the world" and "enjoy the dance
of the puppets" seem relatively banal compared with really seeing the
interconnectedness of things. How did Eastern mysticism, 20th-century
pharmacology, messianic politics and 19th-century Romanticism become
This really was a remarkable form of cultural intoxication. And there
were important precedents. It was no accident that when Aldous Huxley
wrote about his experience taking mescaline in "The Doors of
Perception" in 1954, his title was drawn from William Blake: "If the
doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as
it is, infinite."
Blake was a Romantic visionary, suspicious of the scientific
mechanisms of modernity that were transforming 18th-century Britain.
His younger compatriot William Wordsworth, once intoxicated by
revolutionary fervor, strolled through the English Lake District,
beautifully invoking the nurturing powers of Nature and evoking an
incorporeal "presence" that moved him deeply "with the joy of
The Romantics were championing an alternative culture that might
displace the encroaching industrial age. Cold reason would be
tempered by visionary warmth, objective science by internal
experience. Coleridge and De Quincey penned their drug dreams, and
Coleridge said that nitrous oxide laughing gas provided "the most
unmingled pleasure" he ever knew.
In Dr. Hofmann's 1979 autobiography, "LSD: My Problem Child"
(reproduced, along with other fascinating texts, at
psychedelic-library.org), he sounds at times like the Romantics'
nemesis. He is a frustrated scientist, astonished at the popular
interest in the drug and dismayed by how it was swept out of the
research laboratory by a "huge wave of inebriant mania that began to
spread over the Western world." During his first meeting with Leary
at a Swiss train station in 1971 Dr. Hofmann barely restrained his
criticism of that populist showman.
As Dr. Hofmann points out in his memoir, Sandoz Laboratories, seeing
no obvious medical purpose for the drug, provided it without cost to
researchers at first. About 100 scientific papers appeared annually.
But in 1965, when patents had expired, and accounts of bad trips and
widespread use had made LSD a "serious threat to public health" (as
Sandoz put it), the company announced it was stopping production
which did not, of course, stop proliferation. In Dr. Hofmann's view
abuse of the drug led to its illegality.
But he was torn; the scientist also sounded like a Romantic. He
seemed to echo Wordsworth: during one of his childhood walks in a
forest path above Baden, Switzerland, Dr. Hoffmann had a euphoric
vision of nature, experiencing what he called a "beautiful radiance,
speaking to the heart." He said he believed LSD could recapture that
experience, disclosing a "miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality
that was hidden from everyday sight."
Like the British Romantics and like the '60s counterculturalists, Dr.
Hofmann also saw a "spiritual crisis" in "Western industrial
society," one that demanded that we "shift from the materialistic"
and discover new modes of understanding. That view gave a political
edge to LSD: it was literally counter-cultural, offering a dissent
and the promise of a reformation.
The same impulse attracted Huxley. In 1932, in "Brave New World," he
saw drugs as instruments of social control and as short cuts to mood
manipulation. But in "The Doors of Perception," his conversion is
complete: the drug plays the opposite role. It provides a way to step
outside of the restrictive bounds of one's culture, revealing
alternatives, breaking down boundaries.
There is no need to rehearse again how wildly such countercultural
fantasies ultimately failed, how drugs of illumination became drugs
of disturbance. Huxley was more prophetic about the influence of
mood-altering drugs than about mind-altering drugs. And with all the
great promise of LSD, what did it leave behind? What liberatory
principles were established or revelations disclosed?
Not many, except in one surprising direction. The LSD counterculture
may once have attained its cultural power by dissenting from the
scientific world view, encouraging a return to the natural world and
stripping away the trappings of materialism. But many alumni of that
era have had different ideas.
It is through technology, not despite it, that LSD visions were
realized. Leary called the personal computer "the LSD of the 1990s."
And in a 2006 report in Wired magazine, many early computer pioneers
are said to have been users of LSD. Steve Jobs, Apple's presiding
genius, described his own LSD experience as "one of the two or three
most important things" he has done in his life. So here it is a
world in which we all do more than just inhale. It is through the
iPod that, in Leary's once contentious words, we turn on, tune in and