Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD (2 page)

BOOK: Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD
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This tiny revelation is but a parenthetical remark in a story full of surprises, many of which are profoundly unsettling. The drug that connected so many of us to the organic mystery of a vastly alive universe turns out to have been, at least in the beginning, a secret CIA project to find a truth serum. It’s frightening to think that CIA spooks have used LSD with electroshock and torture to get information out of prisoners. It’s even more frightening that they have used it themselves to little positive effect. Or perhaps not. It’s ironic and still scary to think that the CIA tried to control the LSD experiment even though hundreds of thousands were turning on in the heyday of the sixties. Neither the ironies nor the chilling implications stop here. The authors have plowed through thousands of pages of declassified intelligence material to reveal a complex tissue of connections between secret government agencies and the academic world on the one hand, and between the Utopian hopes of a generation and the machinations of those same agencies on the other. It’s a riveting story that makes the most paranoid and outlandish theories of the sixties seem insufficiently paranoid.

At the same time, in a most persuasive and closely argued way, this sharply documented chronicle tells the story of the fantastic characters of acid: Captain Al Hubbard, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Owsley, Art Kieps, Ken Kesey, and many, many more. One is quickly immersed in the vibrant collective aura of the times, which, in spite of the CIA and army intelligence, managed to change America forever. The undeniably metaphysical window that LSD opened for so many of us may have unwittingly been opened by those whose interests lay in keeping it shut. It may well be that, seeing their mistake, they have been endeavoring to close it ever since. But the fact is that the brilliant glimpse of a living cosmos did pour through for a while, and it resulted in an unprecedented vision of a different world. One could debate forever the question of how much of what the drug did for us was contingent on the peculiar conditions of that time. The opening, however, was real.

The usefulness
oí Acid Dreams
goes beyond nostalgia. In researching the effect of LSD on the psychology, sociology, and politics of the sixties, the authors have given a context to the mythos and poetry that now permeate almost every aspect of high and low American culture. For believers in capital
C
Conspiracy this book should prove a rich mine for reflection. For those, like myself, who believe that conspiracy and control are games that vanish once one ceases to believe in them, this book stands as a much-needed corrective. To history buffs, this is fascinating history. Best of all, this is a thriller about the great mystery of how we of a certain generation got to be who we are.

December 4, 1991

Prologue

October 1977.

Thousands of people jammed the auditorium at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Those who were unable to gain admittance stood outside and pressed their faces against the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the visiting dignitaries. An all-star lineup of poets, scientists, journalists, and media celebrities had convened for the opening of a weekend conference entitled “LSD: A Generation Later.” Topping the bill was the man they call the “Father of the Psychedelic Age.”

At seventy-one years of age Dr. Albert Hofmann seemed miscast in his role as hero of such a gathering. His white, closely cropped hair and conservative attire contrasted sharply with the motley appearance of his youthful admirers, who could just as easily have turned out for a rock and roll concert or an antinuke rally. But as he strode to the podium to deliver the evening’s keynote address, Dr. Hofmann was greeted by a long and thunderous standing ovation.

“You may be disappointed,” he warned the audience. “You may have expected a guru, but instead you meet just a chemist.” Whereupon Hofmann launched into a serious scientific discussion of the step-by-step process that led to the discovery of LSD-25, the most potent mind drug known to science at the time. Occasionally he flashed a diagram on the screen and expatiated on the molecular subtleties of hallucinogenic drugs. While much of the technical data soared way above the heads of his listeners, they seemed to love every minute of it.

Dr. Hofmann first synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 while investigating the chemical and pharmacological properties of ergot, a rye fungus rich in medicinal alkaloids, for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. At the time he was searching for
an analeptic compound (a circulatory stimulant), and LSD was the twenty-fifth in a series of ergot derivatives he concocted; hence the designation LSD-25. Preliminary studies on laboratory animals did not prove significant, and scientists at Sandoz quickly lost interest in the drug. For the next five years the vial of LSD gathered dust on the shelf, until the afternoon of April 16, 1943.

“I had a strange feeling,” Hofmann told the assembled masses, “that it would be worthwhile to carry out more profound studies with this compound.” In the course of preparing a fresh batch of LSD he accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips, and soon he was overcome by “a remarkable but not unpleasant state of intoxication . . . characterized by an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered state of awareness of the world.” A knowing chorus of laughter emanated from the audience as Hofmann continued to read from his diary notes. “As I lay in a dazed condition with eyes closed there surged up from me a succession of fantastic, rapidly changing imagery of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid, kaleidoscopic play of colors. This condition gradually passed off after about three hours.”

Dr. Hofmann was baffled by his first unplanned excursion into the strange world of LSD. He could not comprehend how this substance could have found its way into his body in sufficient quantity to produce such extraordinary symptoms. In the interest of science, he assured his audience, he decided to experiment on himself. Another boisterous round of applause filled the auditorium.

On April 19, three days after his initial psychedelic voyage, Dr. Hofmann swallowed a mere 250 micrograms (a millionth of an ounce), thinking that such a minuscule amount would have negligible results. But he was in for a surprise. As he bicycled home accompanied by his laboratory assistant, he realized the symptoms were much stronger than before. “I had great difficulty in speaking coherently,” he recounted. “My field of vision swayed before me, and objects appeared distorted like images in curved mirrors. I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant told me afterwards that we had cycled at a good pace.”

When Hofmann arrived home, he consulted a physician, who was ill equipped to deal with what would later be called a “bad trip.” Hofmann did not know if he’d taken a fatal dose or if he’d be lost forever in the twisted corridors of inner space. For a while he feared he was losing his mind: “Occasionally I felt as if I were out of my
body. . . . I thought I had died. My ‘ego’ was suspended somewhere in space and I saw my body lying dead on the sofa.”

Somehow Hofmann summoned the courage to endure this mind-wrenching ordeal. As the trip wore on, his psychic condition began to improve, and eventually he was able to explore the hallucinogenic terrain with a modicum of composure. He spent the remaining hours absorbed in a synesthetic swoon, bearing witness as each sound triggered a corresponding optical effect, and vice versa, until he fell into a fitful sleep. The next morning he awoke feeling perfectly fine.

And so it was that Dr. Albert Hofmann made his fateful discovery. Right from the start he sensed that LSD could be an important tool for studying how the mind works, and he was pleased when the scientific community began to use the drug for this purpose. But he did not anticipate that his “problem child,” as he later referred to LSD, would have such enormous social and cultural impact in the years to come. Nor could he have foreseen that one day he would be revered as a near-mythic figure by a generation of acid enthusiasts.

“Dr. Hofmann,” said Stephen Gaskin, leader of the largest counterculture commune in America, “there are thousands of people on the Farm who feel they owe their lives to you.” Gaskin was among the guests invited to participate in a panel discussion on the second day of the colloquium. Its purpose was to provide a forum for counterculture veterans to reflect back upon the halcyon days of the psychedelic movement, which had reached a peak a decade earlier during the infamous Summer of Love, and assess what had since come to pass. Poet Allen Ginsberg likened the event to a “class reunion.” He decided to do some homework before joining his fellow acid valedictorians, so he took some LSD on the plane flight to the West Coast. While under the influence of the psychedelic, he began to ponder the disclosures that had recently surfaced in the news media concerning the CIA’s use of LSD as a mind control weapon. The possibility that an espionage organization might have promoted the widespread use of LSD was disturbing to Ginsberg, who had been an outspoken advocate of psychedelics during the 1960s. He grabbed a pen and started jotting down some high-altitude thoughts. “Am I, Allen Ginsberg, the product of one of the CIA’s lamentable, ill-advised, or triumphantly successful experiments in mind control?” Had the CIA, “by conscious plan or inadvertent Pandora’s Box, let loose the whole LSD Fad on the U.S. & the World?”

Ginsberg raised the CIA issue during the conference, but few
seemed to take the matter seriously. “The LSD movement was started by the CIA,” quipped Timothy Leary with a wide grin on his face. “I wouldn’t be here now without the foresight of the CIA scientists.” The one-time Pied Piper of the flower children was in top form, laughing and joking with reporters, as though he hadn’t been chased halfway around the world by US narcotics police and spent the last few years in prison. “It was no accident,” Leary mused. “It was all planned and scripted by the Central Intelligence, and I’m all in favor of Central Intelligence.”

A jovial mood prevailed throughout much of the panel discussion. Old comrades who had not seen each other for a long time swapped tales of acid glory and reminisced about the wild and unforgettable escapades of yesteryear. “As I look at my colleagues and myself,” said Richard Alpert, one of Leary’s original cohorts at Harvard University in the early 1960s, “I see we have proceeded just as we wished to, despite all conditions. I feel that what we are doing today is partly demonstrating that we are not psychotic!” Alpert went on to declare that he didn’t care if he ever took LSD again but that he appreciated what his hundreds of trips had taught him and hoped there would be a more favorable climate for serious LSD research in the near future.

Alpert’s sentiments were echoed by many of the panelists, who called on the government to reconsider its restrictive policies so that scientists and psychologists could resume studying the drug. There were frequent testimonials to the contributions LSD made to science and society. Acid was praised as a boon to psychotherapy, an enhancer of creativity, a religious sacrament, and a liberator of the human spirit. Dr. Ralph Metzner, the third member of the Harvard triumvirate, suggested that the appearance of LSD constituted nothing less than a turning point in human evolution. It was no coincidence, he maintained, that Dr. Hofmann discovered the effects of LSD shortly after the first nuclear chain reaction was achieved by the Manhattan Project. His remarks seemed to imply that LSD was some sort of divine antidote to the nuclear curse and that humanity must pay heed to the psychedelic revelation if it was to alter its self-destructive course and avert a major catastrophe.

Author Richard Ashley elaborated on the theme of acid as a chemical messiah. As far as he was concerned, LSD provided the most effective means of short-circuiting the mental straitjacket that society imposes on its members. A worldwide police state was a virtual
certainty, Ashley predicted, unless more people used psychedelics to raise their consciousness and resist the ominous specter of thought control.

Others were somewhat more cautious in speculating upon the role of hallucinogenic drugs in advanced industrial society. “LSD came along before our culture was ready for it,” asserted Dr. Stanley Krippner, a leading parapsychologist who once directed the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in New York. “I think we’re still not ready for it. We haven’t used it for its greatest potential. Psychedelic substances have been used very wisely in primitive cultures for spiritual and healing purposes. Our culture does not have this framework. We don’t have the closeness to God, the closeness to nature, the shamanistic outlook. We’ve lost all that.”

By the time the conference drew to a close, over thirty speakers had rendered their verdicts about LSD and the so-called psychedelic revolution. While it was clear that everyone had been deeply affected by the drug experience and the social movement it inspired, there was no overall consensus as to what it all meant. Each person had his or her ideas about why things happened the way they did and what the future might portend. Some felt that LSD arrived on the scene just in the nick of time, others saw it as a premature discovery, and there were a few who thought it might already be too late. If that wasn’t enough to thoroughly confuse the audience, John Lilly, the dolphin scientist, urged his listeners to ignore everything they heard from their elders and make their own discoveries. Ginsberg seconded the motion in his concluding remarks. “We must disentangle ourselves from past suppositions,” he counseled. “The words ‘psychedelic revolution’ are part of a past created largely by media images. We need to throw out the past images.”

Less than a month before the Santa Cruz convention, LSD was the main topic at another well-attended gathering. The setting on this occasion was an ornate Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill. The television cameras were ready to roll as Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, strolled toward the lectern flanked by a few of his aides. During the next two days he would attempt to nail down the elusive details of Operation MK-ULTRA, the principal CIA program involving the development of chemical and biological agents during the Cold War.

BOOK: Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD
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