Many years ago a man on the end of my cigarette stole my soul. Mr Migarette (for such was his name) wore a tall hat like the one in the Arnolfini Marriage portrait, he smoked a pipe and no matter how often I tried to flick away the glowing fag ash, his evil grinning features remained intact. I have never taken LSD since.
But having watched How to Change Your Mind, I think I may have done the drug a disservice. After four or more decades in the wilderness, lysergic acid is now being rehabilitated as a miracle cure for all manner of conditions from cluster headaches to alcoholism and depression.
LSD was isolated by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann while investigating the properties of ergot (the rye fungus which in the Middle Ages caused outbreaks of a madness known as St Anthony’s Fire). One day in his laboratory, he began hallucinating and realised that he must have absorbed the substance through his fingertips. Intrigued, he followed up by taking a stronger dose, which led to a mind-blowing bicycle journey in which he glimpsed the secrets of the universe.
Hofmann lived to 102, long enough to see the magical discovery that had been vilified and proscribed by the Nixon administration rehabilitated by respectable researchers who recognised its beneficial properties. Perhaps those who’ve been freaked out by a really bad trip will remain unpersuaded. But it seems that LSD’s bad rap is partly the result of government propaganda (ersatz scientific studies insisting it causes foetal damage, etc.) and partly because people misuse it.
This makes sense to me. When I did LSD in the early 1990s – it generally came in strips of blotters with pictures of Batman and the Joker, red dragons or a purple om symbol – I tended to drop it before a party. This invariably led to situations where I’d be tripping my face off with a handful of likeminded souls in milieus where the majority of those present were straight. Inevitably one tended to get weird looks or alarmed rejection from those not under the influence, which only exacerbated one’s sense of isolation and paranoia.
The key, according to researcher and presenter Michael Pollan, is ‘set and setting’. That is, you need to be in a comfortable environment (setting) and you need to be in a relaxed, positive state of mind (set). You only have to look at film footage of events like Woodstock to realise where the hippies got it wrong. Imagine dropping acid in a crowded, muddy field surrounded by gurning freaks and terrifying toilet facilities. Actually, I’ve no need to imagine it: I once started tripping during the Happy Mondays’ set at Glastonbury in 1990 and became convinced that the music was chasing me, so fled all the way from near the front of the stage through a sea of weird faces, up to the hill to the rear.
For this, we can in part blame Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychiatrist who urged the hippie generation to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. But perhaps the bigger villain was Augustus Owsley Stanley III (curiously unmentioned in the documentary), the amateur chemist who flooded the market in late 1960s California with inexpensive, high-quality LSD, often via concerts performed by his friends the Grateful Dead.
At about the same time, in projects like MK-Ultra, Pollan describes how the CIA was testing LSD’s potential as a military mind-control weapon which would render the enemy incapable of fighting. He suggests that when the hippie dream turned sour (partly as a result of all that LSD) it was because of a ‘CIA experiment gone horribly wrong’. Unless, of course, as some have argued, it actually went horribly right: by this account, LSD was cynically used to derail the peace movement by flooding principled, serious, articulate opponents of the Vietnam War with a deluge of spaced-out, flower-toting love children.
Whatever the truth about LSD’s murky past it is now back on the menu and mostly healing rather than harming. One moving case study presented in the documentary was that of a 23-year-old man who suffered serial cluster headaches (which he described as like having a red-hot icepick driven into his brain) so bad that he’d seriously contemplated suicide. But having enrolled on an LSD study programme at a Swiss clinic, after a year in which he had not known a single day without pain, he enjoyed five days in a row pain-free.
It has been a long time. But I’m sorely tempted.
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