Tripping the light fantasmic
Sixty years after it first began running amok, the world's psychedelic problem child
is having a new coming of age,
writes Rak Razam.

“Last Friday, April 16th, 1943, I was forced to stop my work in the laboratory in themiddle of the afternoon and to go home, as I was seized by a peculiar restlessnessassociated with a sensation of mild dizziness. On arriving home, I lay down and sankinto a kind of drunkenness which was not unpleasant, and which was characterised byextreme activity of imagination.
“As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed, I experienced daylight as speciallybright. There surged up from me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images ofextraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense, kaleidoscopic-likeplay of colours. This condition gradually passed off after about three hours.” He didn’t know it at the time, but Dr. Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist known as the“father of LSD” or d-lysergic acid diethylamide, had just come back from the world’s firstacid trip, as recounted in his autobiography, ‘My Problem Child’. It was an extraordinarymoment, a brush with madness and the divine that would leave any ordinary personfearing for their mind. Sixty three years later, Hoffman’s unique chemical is still trying toshake off its reputation and the whole world has been drawn into his long, strange trip.
“LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug”, an international symposium held in Basel,Switzerland from Jan 13 – 15, is the latest chapter to unfold in the lurid history of LSD.
As well as discussing the current medical and cultural state of the controversialchemical, the symposium also celebrated Dr. Hofmann’s 100th birthday.
This venerable Swiss chemist is the retired director of research for the Department ofNatural Products of Sandoz Ltd., the pharmaceutical firm in Basel, Switzerland thatmerged with Novartis in the 1990s to become one of the world’s largest pharmaceuticalcompanies. The Novartis tower dominates the skyline of Basel, framed by two giantchimneys that bellow out gases from the pharmaceutical factory. Yet the people of thiscity seem oblivious to the billowing white clouds permanently overshadowing their lives,in much the same way that most of the world is unaware of Basel’s prize citizen and hiscreation – LSD, and how those three little letters changed the world.
Yet all that is changing, and at the prestigious Basel Convention Centre over twothousand members of the global psychedelic movement have gathered for an intimatemoment with their hundred year old spiritual ‘father’.
Dreadlocked hippie survivors of a bygone age wander through the grand lobby of thehotel, mingling with doctors and their wives. Hundreds of therapists, academics, writers,artists, holy men, drug fans and yes - respectable people of all ages - are gathered hereto talk about the importance of LSD and the benefits it can bring to a materialist societyin need of a spiritual reconnection. Day-glo blotter art, the vibrant pictures that haveadorned sheets of acid for over thirty years are displayed on the walls. The smell of potwafts generously through the air, despite the no-smoking signs.
Dr.Hofmann walks slowly on crutches into the cavernous ‘San Francisco’ seminar roomto thunderous applause from the thousands of ‘psychonauts’ that his chemical hasspawned. He carries an air of quiet dignity about him as he takes to the stage, guided byhis colleagues and overseen by a Swiss guard. He looks incredibly ancient, like MrBurns from the Simpsons come to life, sans the malice.
But while the body is frail, his mind is preternaturally sharp. There’s an energy andvitality in his eyes, a hint of the mystic, the alchemist that turned on the world. “A chemistwho is not a mystic is not a real chemist,” he says with a smile, alluding to the idea thatscience must look within, as much as without for answers. He has, he admits, taken LSDin his old age in very minute, sub-psychedelic doses. It was originally intended as acirculatory agent, and maybe that, along with the heightened sense of oneness withnature it can bring have kept him young. Or maybe it’s just the Swiss air.
The symposium is awash with psychedelic folklore, as new Heads meet old Heads andtrade stories about their underground mythology. They are like neurons bonding in acollective brain, transmitting the idea of themselves to the world. It’s a surrealenvironment, peppered with the BBC and other world media, mellow Californians, grey-haired septagenarians and, no doubt, undercover law officials. Yet the very idea of sucha large-scale conference on responsible LSD use shows just how far this undergroundculture has come.
The story begins in 1943, when a young Dr.Hofmann was doing research into theproperties of ergot in search of derivatives for migraine relief. He had a ‘strangepresentiment’ to look again at a lysergic compound he had first tested in 1938. Despitethe meticulous cleanliness of the Swiss laboratory, a minute dose of LSD-25 wasaccidentally absorbed into Dr. Hofmann’s body and the world’s first acid trip began.
For the next ten years LSD was quietly and legally spread to research labs across theworld as a generation of chemists, doctors and researchers discovered the miraculousproperties of the drug in aiding psychoanalysis, helping cure alcoholism andpersonality disorders, in easing pain and anxiety and in giving terminally ill patients asense of the divine.
The term ‘psychedelic’ or ‘of the mind’ was coined by Dr.Humphrey Osmond in 1954 tobetter describe LSD and similar chemicals like mescaline, with this little ditty: “To fathomhell or soar angelic, try a pinch of psychedelic.” One of the key LSD practioners back then was Dr.Al Hubbard, who stormed the gates ofperception with the novelist Aldous Huxley. Dr.Hubbard was a notorious acid cowboynicknamed ‘Captain Trips’, who was said to have the largest supply of LSD in the worldafter Sandoz itself. Like many who became ‘acid evangelists’, Hubbard had a grandioseidea that “If he could give the psychedelic experience to the major executives of theFortune 500 companies, he would change the whole of society," recounts Dr. AbramHoffer.
Writers and scientists alike were also attracted to LSD as a creativity drug. In 2004, justafter he died, London’s the Daily Mail reported that Francis Crick, the co-discoverer ofDNA, was inspired by his use of LSD at Cambridge in the 1950s.
And he wasn’t alone – LSD therapists treated housewives, businessmen, movie stars,politicians and the intelligentsia of the world, who in turn turned on their friends - which iswhere it all started to spiral out of control. Freak-outs, bad trips and widespreadinappropriate use led to a media frenzy which concentrated on the spectacle unfolding inthe acid culture of the time.
The objectivity science had cultivated since the Renaissance also melted in the face ofthe direct experience model favoured by shamen and alchemists. Scientists like TimothyLeary had amazing success with clinical trials of LSD at Harvard, but became embroiledin controversy when they self-administered the drug in unconventional ways. Learybecame one of the key figures preaching the benefits of psychedelic culture, going on toform his own church – the League of Spiritual Discovery - and turning on the world withslogans like ‘Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out’ that inspired the burgeoning Hippiemovement.
As historian Martin A. Lee, author of ‘Acid Dreams’ explains, even the CIA conductedsecretive ‘MK-Ultra’ tests with LSD on the pretext that if they didn’t explore its potentialfor war – as a way to incapacitate the enemy and brainwash prisoners – then theRussians would. After dosing their own agents without their knowledge and conductingmind games that resulted in the deaths of American citizens, the CIA finally gave up onthe drug when public attention on its use was exposed by the U.S. Senate.
Writers like Ken Kesey, who Tom Wolfe chronicled in the ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’,started distributing LSD with the Merry Pranksters and toured America in their day-globus, ‘Further’. The Beatles got high and ushered in a wave of psychedelic music thatswept the world. And a generation of kids rejected the rote values of their parents,opposed the war in Vietnam and unconstrained materialism, and dropped out to getback to nature and seek out the divine.
LSD became inexplicably entwined in the experimentation and revolution that swept theworld, as the potential for mystic states left the monasteries and hit the streets. The tidewas turning. Something was blowing in the wind.
By the late 1960s an estimated 40,000 people worldwide had been legally treated withLSD as a psychotherapy and consciousness-raising drug. Sandoz let the patent lapseon what it considered an embarrassment, despite twenty years of successful clinical treatment. By the 1970s, according to Scientific American, over seven million Americanshad used LSD. When the dust settled the communes were abandoned and thePentagon failed to be levitated, but the world had changed.
Lee claims that “LSD directly and indirectly helped tune a generation of baby boomersback into themselves and their environment. The personal development, New Age andEcology movements all blossomed as the lessons of the 60s were integrated and thecultural direction shifted,” he says.
Ironically, while many cultures recognise the deep need to transcend the body andconnect with the soul, it was chemistry - the seat of materialist learning - that producedthe first man-made drug with spirit inducing properties. And the person who made all thatpossible is Dr.Hofmann.
He is an enigma – a respected scientist who sat on the board of directors of the NobelPrize Committee for many years, and a deeply spiritual man who understands thatscience describes an outer set of events, and that the meaning of those events lieswithin.
"LSD came to me - I didn't look for it. LSD wanted to be found, it wanted to tell mesomething,“ he hints, smiling at the spellbound crowd in the auditorium. “If I had worked100% safely and taken all the proper precautions, then we would not be here today. Sosometimes it pays not to be perfect!" he laughs, radiating good humour.
The anecdote is very apt. The unplanned birth of his problem child caused waves thatshook the world during LSD’s heyday in the 1960s and that are still rippling through thefabric of society today. Dr Alexander Shulgin, an ex- chemist for the Drug EnforcementAdministration (DEA), a component of the US Department of Justice, says that “LSDaltered our knowledge of the human brain, leading to the awareness of dopamine andserotonin’s crucial roles as neurotransmitters.” Without it, legal drugs like Prozac andViagra wouldn’t be around to liven up your headspace or your bedspace, nor would thecurrent age of neurochemistry be so developed.
Yet for many of the attendees at the LSD symposium, one gets the feeling that thechemical has become a sacrament at the heart of a post-modern/ archaic-revivalreligion. They say they are united by an ego-dissolving state of mind that has beenshared by tribal cultures ingesting plant sacraments like that LSD is derived from for tensof thousands of years. The Greeks had their soul-enriching ‘soma’ at Eleusis, theshamans of the Amazon have their ayahuasca, the Mayans have their magicmushrooms and the Native American Indians have their peyote, to name just a few. Butuntil the psychedelic resurgence of the 1960s, the West had not only ignored this aspectof it’s own psyche, it had actively tried to exterminate it in the cultures which valued it.
Despite being banned in 1966, a psychedelic underground has kept the uniqueexperience of LSD inebriation alive across the world. And like all people persecuted fortheir religion, the psychedelic community still struggles to practice its beliefs. Afterdecades of stigmatisation they are only now coming up from the underground to rebrandthemselves to a new generation that has only heard of its sacraments as drugs and itspractioners as criminals. All because they share an altered state of mind.
But in an age of mass communication and startling advances in science and technology,the idea of altered states of consciousness is almost de rigeur, albeit invisible.
Television, surveillance culture, cyberspace and legal lifestyle drugs, as well as acornucopia of black market alternatives, are all a part of our reality. Culturally, the shockof the new is gone.
Which begs the question - does the world still need LSD? Dr.Hofmann thinks so.
“I think in human history it has never been as necessary as it is today,” he says up thereon the podium, bathed in the light of a thousand cameras. “But it has never been legallysanctioned before. It is one of the modern sacred drugs but we don’t have a sacredroom for it. It is one of the gifts that the plants give us, like food, vitamins and medicine.
It is a tool to turn us into what it is in us to be. It should be integrated in a reasonableway by society to prevent its misuse.” A significant number of current LSD sympathisers are actually medical experts whobelieve that when psychedelics are used with responsible intent and with the proper setand setting, they can be a powerful learning and healing tool. And after escaping the labover sixty years ago, LSD is now cautiously returning to the medical fold as part of arenewed interest in the use of psychedelics as therapeutical aids.
Dr.Rick Doblin of the Florida-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies(MAPS), shares Dr.Hofmann’s hope that one day there can be legal dissemination ofLSD by medical practicioners in state-controlled meditative centres. Along withPsilocybin, the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and MDMA, the US Foodand Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a MAPs sponsored proposal by Harvarddoctors to renew medical trials of LSD to provide relief for debilitating ‘clusterheadaches’ and migraines, and to ease anxiety and pain for the terminally ill. Thealchemical process is reaching a critical mass. Things are coming full circle.
To further promote LSD’s fair and responsible use for scientific research, Dr. Hofmannand dozens of other leading authorities at the symposium signed a ‘Declaration ofConsciousness’ which will be delivered to the U.N. in Brussels and policy makers inWashington.
On the last day of the symposium Alex Grey, the renowned psychedelic artist, presenteda picture to Dr. Hofmann for his birthday. It shows Albert circa 1943 as a earnest youngchemist holding up the LSD molecule, but the figure is exploding with colour and chakraenergies, cosmic ecologies interconnecting with him and out into a hallucinogenic ocean.
It will probably find its way onto blotter sheets, double or triple dipped by undergroundalchemists in celebration of this tuning point in the global psychedelic movement.
But beyond all the hype and enthusiasm, what became apparent in Basel is that LSDhas grown up. And perhaps the mistake the first time around was not with Hofmann’s‘problem’ child at all, but with the parent culture and how it reacted to it.
Up on the stage at the Convention Centre, Dr. Hoffman waves to his cheering fans,glowing with a beatific innocence. The father has become the child and the child has And the long, strange trip has turned a new corner at last.
Rak Razam is the co-editor of


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