Take a trip to ease your final journey

Times Higher Education Supplement 10 February 2006 p 23

This is the original version. It may have been slightly edited for publication

Albert Hofmann, The father of LSD, is 100 years old. He has super-bright eyes, a firm handshake and a voice strong enough to address the 1500 people from all over the world who attended “LSD: problem child and wonder drug”, a grand conference to celebrate his birthday in Basel, Switzerland. Admittedly he walks with a crutch but then, as he puts it, “I must remember I’m no longer 90”.

He attributes his extraordinary health to a daily raw egg, but fans of LSD suspect it has something to do with his wonder drug. Lucius Werthmüller, who organised the conference as a birthday present, claims that the poets and artists who have flocked to Hofmann all his life keep him young, while Hofmann himself says that LSD reconnected him with the profound mystical experiences he had as a young child roaming in the Swiss mountains.

Certainly LSD is no ordinary substance. Its reputation in some circles is positively demonic. In the UK it is a Class A drug, and in the United States there are prisoners locked up for 20 and 30 years for taking it. Yet the city of Basel gave its discoverer a birthday reception, the Swiss President wrote him a letter; and in his home village children sang special birthday songs, and a bench was erected with his name on. Best of all, the famous route along which he road his bicycle on the first ever acid trip in 1943 has been renamed in his honour.

So this is a drug of extreme contrasts, from the classic bad trip to ecstatic spiritual experiences; and that’s what makes it socially and scientifically so challenging. As many contributors to this conference stressed, there is no single state that LSD induces; rather, the effect depends on the preparation, setting and expectations of the person taking it.

“The same drug that can control the mind can also free the mind” says Martin Lee, cultural historian and author of “Acid Dreams”. He tells horrific stories of the CIA’s attempts to use the drug as a weapon and even for torture. Remember that this is a drug that opens one’s mind, transforms perception, and dissolves the sense of self into oneness with the world around, and they gave it to people without telling them what it was or how long the effect would last. They threatened to keep people in that state forever, and experimented with electric shocks and even lobotomies while people were under its influence. Once the CIA decided that it was too unpredictable to be of use they abandoned the experiments, and the drug was made illegal in 1971.

During this time a certain amount of scientific research into psychedelics had been going on. In 1954 Aldous Huxley’s experiences with mescaline were published in “The doors of perception”, and in 1958 Hofmann isolated and named the active ingredients of magic mushrooms; psilocybin and psilocin. It became clear that all these psychedelic, or mind-revealing, drugs could have profoundly positive effects on people. Huxley claimed that they could make death “a more conscious experience” and on his deathbed, in 1963, asked for an injection of LSD. He died at peace.

In line with this, experiments in 1964 showed that a single session with LSD could reduce pain in the terminally ill for days or even weeks, breaking the cycle of anticipating pain and dramatically reducing the fear of death. But prohibition, led by the USA, and followed by the rest of the world, effectively put a stop to all research on the positive effects of psychedelics. Research intended to reveal damaging effects did continue, but not with the expected results. There is no known lethal dose of LSD and early claims that it causes chromosomal damage were apparently fabricated.

Now research on psychedelics is tentatively starting up again. With fearsome controls, and mountains of red tape it is a wonder that researchers are willing even to try, but those I met seemed extraordinarily determined. The situation is least difficult in Switzerland, as Felix Hasler, a researcher at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Zurich, explained. Switzerland did join the world-wide prohibition in 1971, but has a history of resistance to US policy, and in the 1990s began to allow research on psilocybin. The Zurich research group, headed by Franz Vollenweider, is using brain scans, visual illusions, tests of attention, and other methods to investigate its effects.

LSD and psilocybin both have structural similarities to the neurotransmitter serotonin and affect its pathways in the brain, and both can create a kaleidoscopic world of extraordinary colour and movement. But oddly enough brain scans do not reveal increased activity in the visual cortex. Rather, the increase is seen in prefrontal, parietal and temporal regions. It seems that the cortex can become overloaded with sensory information, with psilocybin affecting high level motion detection systems but not low level ones in the visual cortex. The result can be effects similar to those observed in schizophrenics.

Although the connection with psychosis is often stressed, psychedelics, like meditation and sensory deprivation, have also been widely used as aids to spiritual practice. The Zurich research is showing that all three of these spiritual techniques have a common core of effects which can be understood using a 5-dimensional model of altered states of consciousness. In the drug experiments, the type of drug, its dose and the setting all work together to shift a person’s state along these dimensions. In addition, PET scans are beginning to reveal which areas of the brain are implicated; for example the inferior temporal lobe is involved in the feelings of boundlessness.

Most important to many researchers is the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, but they have to fight to be allowed to investigate this. Psychiatrist, Charles Grob says that he has wanted to do such research since 1972 and at last is beginning, although it took him more than ten years to get approval for his study. He is using psilocybin rather than LSD, partly because its action is rather shorter and its effects more controllable, but partly because it is politically less sensitive. He has redecorated a drab hospital room for the purpose and is beginning to treat anxiety and pain in twelve patients with end stage cancer, giving them either drug or placebo, and so far the results are very promising. This is the kind of research that might eventually confirm what Huxley, and so many other users, have seen for themselves, that just one or a very few meetings with a psychedelic can – under the right circumstances – enhance life and abolish the fear of death.

Why, if psychedelics really do have such magical therapeutic potential, have they been ignored for so long? Why are they not legal, or at least available on prescription? One depressing reason is that the pharmaceutical companies cannot make money out of them; not only are there are no patents to be had but these drugs don’t need to be taken regularly. Indeed that is part of their magic. Even one LSD trip can change a person’s outlook forever. In therapy, one or a few sessions may be enough.

So what can be done? Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) cynically points out that the big pharmaceutical companies prefer a hair restorer needed twice a day, or an anti-depressant taken daily for life, to a once-off miracle drug. His solution is not to aim to make money from the drug itself but to set up clinics that train psychedelic guides and use the clinics as the business model.

Other initiatives are afoot in the hope that one day prohibition will fall. One suggestion that was much discussed at the conference was the LSD driver’s license proposed by German philosophy professor, Thomas Metzinger. He laughingly told me that if people knew what he really had in mind they might not be so keen, for the licenses could be taken away as well as awarded, and people could be prosecuted for the equivalent of driving without one. So this is hardly the free-for-all some proponents of prohibition might fear. Also applicants would have to undergo a thorough psychiatric examination, pass a theory test, and take several training sessions with an experienced guide. Once through all these hurdles they would be licensed to take the drug just once or twice a year.

Curiously enough, once or twice a year is probably quite enough. As Hofmann remarked, “once the gates of perception are open you don’t need any more substances”. Users seem to agree: the founders of the most comprehensive drugs site on the web, the Vaults of Erowid, surveyed tens of thousands of LSD users. The majority said that, if LSD were legal, they would take it no more than once or twice a year.

I hope that one day soon it will be; that as a society we will prove wise enough to use LSD for its highest potential not its worst. And purely selfishly I hope this will happen in time for me to take LSD again in my lifetime and that, like Huxley, I may be able to take it on my deathbed.