Authors want rethink on a ‘hell of a drug’

Seventy years after LSD was discovered, the authors of a book on the drug say it should be legalised again

Timothy Leary: LSD scientist Albert Hoffman told him “he was happy that they would use it not only in a medical and therapeutic way. But he also wanted it used to expand human consciousness.”

Timothy Leary: LSD scientist Albert Hoffman told him “he was happy that they would use it not only in a medical and therapeutic way. But he also wanted it used to expand human consciousness.”


Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who discovered LSD in 1943, experienced the first psychedelic “trip” caused by the drug as he rode his bicycle home in war-time Basle.

Fearing that he had poisoned himself, Hoffman urgently called for a doctor and a glass of milk once he reached home, before collapsing exhausted on the living-room sofa. “A demon had invaded me and taken possession of my body, my senses and my soul. A terrible fear that I had lost my mind grabbed me,” he recounted later.

Reassured by the family doctor that his pulse, breathing and blood pressure were fine, Hoffman relaxed, soon to enjoy “feelings of happiness and thankfulness”. Soon, he was dazzled by “a kaleidoscopic flood of fantastic images, spiralling as they opened and closed as fountains of colour”.

Seventy years on, and half a century since the “flower power” generation experimented with the drug, it is widely used, nearly always illegally. Recent US research suggests young Americans are as likely as their counterparts in the 1960s to have tried LSD or other psychedelic drugs.

Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmuller, who have written a new biography of Hoffman, argue that the drug should be legalised, though its use should be regulated.

Drugs such as Ecstasy and LSD “are a lot less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. You have so many more problems with young people and alcohol,” argues Hagenbach. “ is not a street drug,” he insists.

“It has nothing to do with drugs like cocaine. ‘Safe places’ for LSD use, run by regulated practitioners, each an experienced user, would be better than rave parties, where some organisers attempt to look after their charges, and others do not.

“It is very important that you get a very pure substance and you know exactly what the dose is and that you have somebody who takes care of you, who has made this experience himself and who can guide.”

“My personal point of view,” says Werthmuller, “is that substances [such as LSD] should be legalised because we are allowed to kill ourselves by drinking.” With three sons in their 20s, Werthmuller says he tried to be honest with them, warning that while LSD could “open up your consciousness” it was also “a very potent substance”.

Urging politicians to think about solutions, Werthmuller is sympathetic to the idea of an LSD “driving licence”, where people would have to show that they know how to use it.

In the 1950s, it was used as a truth serum by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which tried to buy every microgramme made by the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Sandoz. Sandoz kept the CIA at arm’s length, refusing to join its research, but agreeing to supply 100 grams of LSD per week and not to sell to communist countries.

In October 1966, it was banned in the US, where politicians had become frightened by the movement against the Vietnam War. “It expanded consciousness and it raised the questions,” says Hagenbach. “[Politicians] realised that there is something going on and ... it was LSD because that was the time when LSD really fuelled culture, music, everything.”

Some supporters of LSD credit it with creating the mood that led to ecological organisations such as Greenpeace, women’s liberation, and modern computing. Such claims could attract ridicule, though not from Hagenbach. “That is a hell of a claim, but it is a hell of a drug,” he declares, laughing. “LSD, and this might be too spiritual for you, was discovered at the same moment as [the Manhattan nuclear project] at Los Alamos, New Mexico was under way.

“There are many people, quite intelligent people, who say it was a counter-development. Hoffman said it was an inner bomb, as strong in a way as the atomic bomb. Rock music, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead: they all took LSD. The Beatles’ greatest record, Lucy in the Sky, came when they got LSD from their dentist.”

They say the US decision to criminalise its use and supply – one copied elsewhere – stunted promising medical research into the drug’s uses.

Now, though arguments in favour of legalisation struggle to find a home, attitudes to the drug are changing in some quarters. A 2006 “Problem Child, Wonder Drug” conference in Basle inspired those who believe the drug has potential, though it did attract opposition.

Medical research
Medical research is under way again, investigating LSD’s use in curbing alcoholism, ending nicotine habits and helping the terminally ill. Hagenbach welcomes this work, but laments the loss of 40 years, and says much of the work is but a repetition of studies done then.

“Albert Hoffman, when he was in touch with Timothy Leary, said he was happy that they would use it not only in a medical and therapeutic way. But he also wanted it used to expand human consciousness. That was always an issue for him because humanity needs to expand consciousness.

“He always said it is a tool for doing that. And you then can see the world as it is. Yes, it is a hell of a drug,” says Hagenbach.

Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD by Dieter Hagenbach, Lucius Werthmüller is published by Synergetic Press

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