Dr. Oscar Janiger, a small, gnomish man of 70, was musing about what he called "the real milestone in the history of our understanding of the human mind."
It's a Promethean fire, he was saying, awe inspiring, potentially dangerous and extraordinarily wonderful.
Janiger, a man Timothy Leary calls "super legitimate," was talking about LSD--lysergic acid diethylamide-25-- the hallucinogen alternately blamed and praised for blowing the minds of millions.
Today, 50 years after the first batch of LSD was synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann and 22 years after it was outlawed by the U.S. government, a movement is under way to clean up LSD's unseemly public image through a library to be established, not in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, but in Los Angeles.
Still just an idea in search of funding and a building, it would be administered by the nonprofit Albert Hofmann Foundation, which Janiger organized last year.
'Where Ideas Clash'
"It's only fitting that it be in Los Angeles, because Los Angeles is the Venice of the modern 20th Century," enthused Janiger, a semi-retired psychiatrist and professor at UC Irvine who has done extensive research on LSD and creativity. "Los Angeles is the place where ideas clash, conflict or get destroyed."
Which is what Janiger has in mind for the Albert Hofmann library, a place to gnash teeth, stand on tables and scream or calmly debate. Pro and con, good trips and bad, Janiger says this "world information center" for the study of inner space will have it all: lectures, seminars, workshops, a newsletter and tomes of material on LSD and the entire psychedelic movement.
Open to the public, it will be a place to assess what went wrong, what went right and what is next. And in the process, Janiger hopes, it will be a first tentative step toward rehabilitating the blackened public image of LSD, a drug its users say can open the doors to psychic nirvana or raging hell.
Not that the idea doesn't have its detractors. Even among the foundation's board of advisers, which includes such psychedelic luminaries as writer Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass (a.k.a. former Harvard professor Richard Alpert), neuroscientist John Lilly and Laura Huxley, widow of author Aldous Huxley, there are differences of opinion as to the drug's usefulness.
"LSD has never been proved to have any value, except for entertainment purposes," said Ronald Siegel, a psychiatrist who is an associate research professor at UCLA and Hofmann Foundation adviser.
"I personally think that (LSD) has merit in certain situations; however, research does not support my feeling. More research and development is needed."
Siegel, one of the few U.S. investigators granted government approval to use LSD in research after it was outlawed in 1966, added that during his five-year project (1972-77) at UCLA, there was not a single bad trip among his "couple of dozen" volunteers.
But, unlike most of his colleagues at the time, Siegel agreed with the government's virtual stranglehold on LSD research that began in 1962 when Congress passed a law giving the Drug Enforcement Administration control over all new investigational drugs.
Another research scientist, Dr. Jerome Levine, suggested that the members of the Hofmann Foundation may be more interested in building a monument to themselves than in furthering scientific debate on the potential of LSD.
"I would say that if they were really dedicated, they could still be working in the area (of LSD research) today," said Levine, who oversaw several LSD research projects during his 20-year tenure at the National Institute of Mental Health and is currently a research professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
From another quarter, the DEA's Michael Pavlick, head of the agency's Dangerous Drug Unit in Washington, pondered the idea of a research center dedicated to the drug that he is sworn to stamp out.
"If it is strictly a research thing, you can't have enough of that," Pavlick said. "But with the people involved, I hope they are not going to glorify it."
Janiger, who says such critics may be wrongly confusing education with advocacy, believes the legitimacy of the Hofmann Foundation and the center will come from the integrity of its advisory board members, none of whom he says are drug-crazed weirdos intent on turning on the world. All of them, however, have a respect for LSD as a powerful mind-altering drug worth looking at again for possible use in science and medicine.
But Levine, who has done research involving LSD in the treatment of alcoholism, agreed with Siegel that the drug, to date, has not proved therapeutically useful in treating diagnosed medical disorders, psychiatric or otherwise.
Taking It With Patients
Added Siegel: "A lot of the people who complained that they lost their license (for LSD research) were just dispensing it, giving it away or taking it with their patients and calling this study, calling this research."
But Siegel makes an exception for Janiger, who, after taking the drug himself, gave it to 900 people (between 1954 and 1962), including such Hollywood heavies as Cary Grant and Andre Previn.
"Some of the stuff that Ozzie Janiger did is classic," Siegel said.
"It's like an exploration," Janiger said of his research, which included giving the drug to artists and asking them to paint a Hopi Indian kachina doll while under its influence.
"It was a very valuable tool because it allowed us to make some inferences about how brain chemistry works and how the mind really functions in perceiving things around us. It was a very important adjunct to neuroscientific research and it was used in that way."
It was Albert Hofmann, now 82, who inadvertently took the world's first LSD trip on April 19, 1943, when he decided to synthesize the drug for the second time, after creating it five years earlier during chemical trials with ergot--a fungus that grows on diseased kernels of rye. He said he was in search of an analeptic to stimulate circulation and that for some inexplicable reason, he decided to conduct another test on LSD-25.
"Some trace entered my body," Hofmann said, "I don't know by which way, maybe a drop of the solution came on my fingers."
Without realizing the significance of that spill, Hofmann rode home on his bicycle and it was then, he said, that the world as he knew it began to dissolve and he thought he was losing his mind.
But when the dosage began to dissipate, Hofmann said, he could "enjoy the experience. Then I realized it was an important discovery."
Hofmann, who will be attending a series of foundation fund-raisers this week in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview from Switzerland that LSD, what he calls his "problem child," was simply too much for the free market to handle, although he rues its demise as a medical tool.
"It would have been enough to take it away from the free market," he said. But "it is less dangerous than opiates. It should be accessible to the psychiatrists, to the medical profession, without all the paper, all the restrictions."
Gained 'an Understanding'
Janiger, who said he took LSD 13 times, says the drug has given him "an understanding of what other people throughout the ages have described, like St. John the Divine, St. Theresa and Saul of Tarsus and all these great figures, the Buddha and so on, in terms of their own luminous or transcendental experiences."
But Janiger makes an emphatic distinction between the drug manufactured by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the Swiss company that employed Hofmann, and the street acid that filled the void after the firm ordered all researchers to return their supplies of LSD and another company-made hallucinogen, psilocybin, in 1966. Sandoz later turned over all the drugs to the U.S. government.
"I didn't touch any (street acid) and neither did my colleagues," Janiger said. "Would you want to take a medicine that was manufactured by someone of dubious background? I wasn't going to fool with this stuff."
Of course, millions of others did fool with the stuff, including current board members of the Hofmann Foundation, and that, Janiger and others believe, was the beginning of the end.
Paranoia Ran Deep
Allen Ginsberg, who took his first LSD with electrodes stuck to his head during government-sponsored experiments at Stanford University in 1959, said that when the drug was outlawed, "an atmosphere of paranoia" crept in.
"The street mixtures were unreliable, sometimes poisonous and bummer-producing," said Ginsberg, who is now distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College. "The cash nexus then became further cause of anxiety and a certain number of people who were mentally unstable (took it), and, of course, that was the stereotype, that LSD drives you crazy."
"I knew from the start that it would get away because I realized the potential for this stuff, the power," Janiger added. "It's a strange way of holding up reflections of ourselves in ways that would challenge our customary way of looking at things. It could and would be, in time, too threatening. It was a situation that sooner or later would have to come to an end."
Today, with LSD classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which means that selling or manufacturing it can lead to a 15-year prison term and $125,000 fine, spokesmen for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health and the DEA said there were currently no authorized studies using LSD on humans in the United States. A few animal and in-vitro studies continue.
What has been lost, Janiger says, is the importance of Hofmann's discovery. The uproar, what he calls "this thicket of anti-drug hysteria," unfairly lumps LSD in "with all those nasty things" like cocaine and heroin, he says.
And he believes that now--the Just Say No campaign to the contrary--is the time to take an unbiased look at LSD.
Loosening Up Again
"I think we are entering the other side of the pendulum," he said. "I think we are beginning to loosen up again. The issue of consciousness change is not going to go away. . . .
"When a white-collar, highly professional Swiss chemist can sit down with a New York beatnik poet and still have something in common, we have crossed a lot of lines," Janiger said from the airy living room of his Santa Monica home.
The New York beatnik poet, of course, is Ginsberg. He and the other board members plan to donate materials from their personal files to the Hofmann Foundation, which is also talking about a possible merger with the Fitzhugh Ludlow Memorial Library, the vast San Francisco collection of psychedelic drug materials that closed for lack of funds in 1981.
With the exception of Ken Kesey--the author, chief merry prankster and Oregon farmer who Janiger said politely refused to join the board by saying, "I'm bringing in the hay"--all of those asked to participate agreed.
The only name noticeably absent from the roster, and arguably the most famous one, is Timothy Leary's. The former Harvard psychologist, drug Pied Piper, ex-convict, philosopher-at-large and maven of the hip Los Angeles social scene, was not invited.
"If I were trying to curry favor with the Establishment," Leary said, "I wouldn't ask me to join either.
"My name is still so radioactively dangerous that I don't like to cause controversy for sincere, good organizations, which this is."
Ram Dass, who was fired with Leary from Harvard University's graduate school of psychology in 1963 in the wake of their controversial experiments with psilocybin and LSD, said in a telephone interview that he hopes the Hofmann foundation can act as a "lobbying center" to promote the use of psychedelic drugs as a research tool and for such uses as aiding the terminally ill.
'Can Be Misused'
"Obviously, these things can be misused," said Ram Dass, who now counsels AIDS patients in Boston and around the country. "Almost anything that has power in society can be misused. But . . . I think it is possible to educate people and provide safe environments for this type of research (with LSD)."
Ram Dass, who shed his Western name after a spiritual quest in 1967 led him to an ashram in the Himalayan foothills, said that during the 1960s, psychedelic drugs "shifted the perception of a very small percentage, but a very vocal percentage, regarding the nature of time and space and institution and even the relative nature of reality.
"I think it crept into the culture very deeply," Ram Dass said. "The way I know about that is because in the '60s, I would give a lecture and almost everyone in the room had taken LSD, and they would nod knowingly at what I would say.
Still Nod Knowingly
"Twenty years later, I speak in Des Moines, Iowa. There are 2,000 people in the audience and 80% of them have never taken drugs of any kind, never studied Eastern religion and they nod knowingly. And I am saying the same things that I said back then."
Ram Dass, who added that he believed drugs to be "somewhat anachronistic now," said that he nonetheless drops LSD about once every two years "just to check to see if there is more that I need to know."