So long and thanks for all the trips (a tribute to Albert Hofmann)

Originally published on my Guardian CiF Blog, May 2008  – this is the version I submitted, but it may have been edited before publication.

by Susan Blackmore

Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD, has died at the age of 102. I am sure I join lots of other people whose lives have been enhanced by his discovery in wanting to thank him from the bottom of my heart.

The strange story of LSD’s discovery is well known. Hofmann first synthesised it in 1938 at the Sandoz laboratories in Basel where he lived and worked, but it wasn’t until five years later that he decided to experiment on himself and took what he thought was a tiny dose – unlikely to have any effect at all. He couldn’t have known that LSD’s psychoactive effects are more powerful than any drug ever discovered, and that what he thought was a minuscule amount was enough for 4 or 5 full doses. He tried to cycle home and later described the extraordinary effects of the world’s first ever acid trip.

April 19th is now known as “bicycle day” and every year people re-enact that first trip by cycling along the path that has now been renamed “Albert Hofmann Weg” in his honour.

Two years ago, Albert’s one hundredth birthday was marked by civic celebrations and by a grand conference in Basel, attended by hundreds of well-wishers. I imagine that most of them were there, as I was, both to learn more about LSD and in the hope of perhaps glimpsing the great man himself. I didn’t know what to expect but I guess you shouldn’t expect too much of anyone at 100. So I was surprised, on the first day, when I saw a small white-haired man stepping onto the escalator surrounded by people gazing at him. I joined them only to find something utterly magnetic about his bright eyes and ready smile. Quite against any normal inclination I found myself almost bowing with reverence – silly, I thought – but that’s how I felt. When I was introduced to him by one of the organisers and was able, in my rather poor German, to thank him, I found him warm, charming and none the worse for one hundred years and all those acid trips.

I was even more surprised when he stepped up onto the stage several times to speak eloquently and to answer questions. As he walked carefully up to the podium he said “I was going to apologise that I have to use this stick, but then I reminded myself that I’m no longer in my nineties”.

He spoke of the familiar story, but also of his sadness at the way his “problem child” was abused by the CIA, taken up by the counter-culture, and ended up as a drug of trivial recreation on the streets. He knew its deeper potential. For him it reawakened the mystical experiences he had had as a child in the mountains. He once told the psychiatrist Stanislaw Grof that “Through my LSD experience and my new picture of reality, I became aware of the wonder of creation, the magnificence of nature and of the animal and plant kingdom”.

He went on to work with anthropologists and shamans, learning how traditional cultures work with hallucinogenic drugs, treating them with care and respect through ritual and social regulation. He worked with psychiatrists exploring its mind-opening effects and its curative potential, but that research was soon shut down by the American insistence on prohibition, and from then on the wonder drug was banned.

Prohibition has indeed been a tragedy for LSD. I feel ashamed to live in a culture that takes a drug of such great value and instead of treating it with respect and using it wisely, lumps it in with cocaine and heroin and bans it. The consequence is a culture that learns nothing from the drug and exposes everyone who tries it to the dangers of abuse and ignorance. Sad.

I was lucky, in my mid-twenties, to take LSD in the right circumstances and with people who knew how to use it well. Like many regular users, I used to take it once or twice a year – quite often enough for a drug that last 8 to 12 hours, has extraordinarily mind-bending effects, and can leave you exhausted and full of amazing lessons that you need time to digest.

I am grateful too that it was Albert Hofmann who discovered LSD. And this is one of the most curious facts about this most curious drug. Hofmann had already had mystical experiences long before he took LSD, and was therefore well placed to appreciate the deeper significance of its mind-altering effects. There are very few chemists of whom that could be said.

Today, at last, there is a glimmer of hope for Albert’s problem child. After so many years of almost complete suppression, research on its possible therapeutic effects is at last, tentatively, being licensed. Organisations such as MAPS and the Beckley Foundation, that have been working hard for years, are finally able to begin supporting research again.

As for me, I hope I’ve not had my last LSD trip. Indeed, like Aldous Huxley, I hope I may be fortunate enough to be given it on my death bed. But for now I just want to thank Albert for finding it for us.