Fifty years ago today, a Swiss scientist named Albert Hofmann was fiddling with a chemical in his tidy laboratory when he inadvertently ingested a bit of his brew. Wooziness seized him, then came a "dreamlike state" and "an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors."
Quite by accident, the bespectacled chemist had just experienced history's first acid trip.
Astounded by the episode, Hofmann concluded that he had fathered a drug with wondrous potential for psychotherapy and brain research. What he did not foresee was that his pharmaceutical child--LSD--would spawn a psychedelic revolution and become the defining drug for the rebellious Woodstock generation.
The revolution, of course, collapsed in the late 1960s, with LSD's reputation bloodied by tales of suicides, haunting flashbacks and bad trips. But now, on the 50th anniversary of LSD's invention, there are new signs of interest and even a push by scientists to rehabilitate the image of "the drug that shook the world."
Fresh evidence of LSD's comeback emerged this week when the federal government released results of a survey showing a 30% upswing of acid use by the nation's eighth-graders. The report also recorded the highest level of LSD use by high school seniors since 1985 and said that today's teen-agers prefer acid to cocaine.
Although abuse of other drugs is declining, LSD is becoming more common.
"I'm not calling it an epidemic, but LSD use is increasing, and that bucks the trends we see with other illegal drugs," said Robert C. Bonner, chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. LSD-related arrests have tripled in the last three years, he added, and the agency has formed an LSD task force to crack down on manufacturers.
While Bonner and his colleagues in the drug war scramble to extinguish LSD's revival, another group aims to nourish it. The drug's defenders insist it is a valuable, unexploited tool for science and hope to free LSD of the stigma that has exiled it to the laboratory shelf.
"It is time for a second look at LSD," said Dr. Oscar Janiger, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who studied acid's effect on humans until the government tightened controls on such work in 1962. "I don't believe it's for everyone, or any of that baloney. But this is an extremely fascinating material. It deserves its day in court."
This weekend, hundreds of LSD devotees are gathering in the Bay Area to tout the drug's potential and commemorate its discovery. There will be lectures, poetry readings, an art auction and a "rave"--a sort of 1990s-style group trip, featuring all-night dancing kindled by acid and a newer hallucinogen, Ecstasy.
Events in the three-day "Psychedelic Summit" will be held at various sites in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. They will include reminiscences by Laura Huxley, whose late husband, author Aldous Huxley, took LSD while dying to experience the event "more consciously." The rave concludes Sunday with a free concert in Golden Gate Park.
Timothy Leary, perhaps the most notorious sultan of psychedelics in the 1960s, will miss the party. But the guest list includes other LSD luminaries from Janiger, who will play a tape-recorded message from the ailing inventor Hofmann, to Mountain Girl, who joined author Ken Kesey and a busload of other "Merry Pranksters" on history's most legendary acid exploits.
Although the drug enforcement chief derides the anniversary event as a misguided glorification of a dangerous substance, its organizers say they have serious, noble goals.
"We've been hunted down and branded as social criminals," said Rick Doblin, founder of an organization pushing for government approval of research involving psychedelic drugs. "But we're coming out of the closet now, because these drugs--when used responsibly--have benefits. We want society to take advantage of what LSD has to offer."
Although the debate over LSD continues, its popularity with a new generation of young people continues to rise. The number of eighth-graders who have used LSD rose from 2.7% to 3.2% in the last year. That echoes results from a study of college students, which found a significant jump in LSD use between 1989 and 1991.
Some experts attribute LSD's appeal to its low cost--$2 to $5 for a hit that lasts up to 12 hours--and the fact that it is nonaddictive. It also has found a niche at the new and highly popular raves, which blend laser shows and computer-generated music to draw as many as 30,000 youngsters each weekend in San Francisco and elsewhere.
Psychologist Lloyd D. Johnston, who conducted the survey released this week, suspects that the new popularity in the face of LSD's risks is "a prime example of generational forgetting."
"Today's youngsters don't hear what an earlier generation heard," he said, "that LSD causes bad trips, flashbacks, schizophrenia, brain damage, chromosomal damage and so on."
Steve Hager, editor of High Times, a magazine for drug users, sees in LSD's comeback evidence of a broader return by young people to "the countercultural roots," a shift that marks "a rejection of the dream of yuppie success."
Hager believes acid has social benefits, but even he has a warning for would-be users: "LSD is not a party drug. If you treat it like one, you're bound to get in trouble."
The drug's inventor, now 87, stumbled onto LSD--lysergic acid diethylamide--while working with ergot, a fungus that grows on kernels of rye. Hofmann was seeking a stimulant for blood circulation that April afternoon in his lab in Basel, perhaps for use against migraines.
After Hofmann's accidental LSD trip, his employer, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, patented and distributed the new drug for experimental use by psychiatrists and students of brain chemistry. Researchers were entranced, marveling at the capacity for extremely small dosages of LSD to produce profound psychic changes and startling rainbow-color images.
"We all knew it had tremendous promise," said Dr. Stanislav Grof, who studied LSD for 16 years, first in his native Czechoslovakia and then at the Maryland Psychiatric Institute. "It was my view that LSD had the potential for psychotherapy that the microscope had for biology and the telescope had for astronomy."
Janiger agreed. The psychiatrist and former UC Irvine professor gave the drug to nearly 1,000 people between 1954 and 1962--including Cary Grant, Rita Moreno and other celebrities. LSD, he reported, helped people recall repressed events and stimulated creativity, as evidenced, he said, by the work of artists under its influence.
"I was quite amazed by our results," said Janiger. He took LSD himself 13 times and credits it with a "profound expansion of my thinking."
Elsewhere, there was fruitful research using LSD to learn about basic neurochemistry, and studies of the drug's potential as a treatment for alcoholism and certain mental illnesses. Others tested LSD as a means of relieving pain and anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
The federal government, meanwhile, suspected it would be useful for incapacitating enemies. Testing this theory in experiments codenamed MK-ULTRA, the Central Intelligence Agency gave LSD to hundreds of subjects--some of them unsuspecting.
One such guinea pig was Frank Olson. An Army chemist, Olson jumped to his death from a 10th-floor hotel window in 1953, two weeks after LSD was slipped into his drink. His family later received an apology from President Gerald R. Ford--and a settlement from the government.
Olson's fate and MK-ULTRA remained secret for 20 years, until they were disclosed in 1975 in a report that heaped scorn on the CIA. By then, however, LSD had already tumbled far from grace.
Two men deserve credit, or blame, for making acid the drug that defined the flower child generation--Leary and Kesey.
Leary was the East Coast's acid pied piper, a onetime Harvard University professor best known for urging everyone to "turn on, tune in and drop out." After his experiments with LSD got him in hot water at Harvard, he chucked a career in academia to become a full-time acid guru.
LSD fascinated him, Leary recalled in an interview, because "it allows the individual to turn off the socially imprinted word processor in the brain, to actually activate and boot up and reformat new files in your brain." He still takes the drug regularly, "though not as often as I'd like."
In the West, author Kesey--who wrote parts of his acclaimed novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," while on psychedelics--was the reigning LSD shaman. Piloting a Day-Glo bus bearing the warning "Weird Load," Kesey romped about the state with his cabal of Merry Pranksters, serving LSD-tainted Kool-Aid at "acid tests" held in places as unlikely as the Watts Youth Opportunity Center.
It was San Francisco, however, that was the psychedelic movement's indisputable vortex. Host city for the "Human Be-In," the "Summer of Love" and other drug-lubricated happenings, San Francisco was kept well supplied with LSD by manufacturer and underground hero Augustus Owsley Stanley.
Teeming with tens of thousands of tripping hippies, the city's Haight Ashbury district became what historian Jay Stevens called "a kind of sanitarium, an indigenous Baden-Baden that offered a therapeutic regime of good vibes and drugs, rather than mountain air and mineral springs."
But ultimately the good vibes turned bad, and the drugs celebrated for expanding so many minds began buckling too many minds. There were suicides--tweaked kids wandering into traffic or through plate glass windows--and, as adult America concluded that something very disturbing was happening to their offspring, there were laws.
"It all got out of hand," said Grof, one of many scientists who lamented LSD's escape from the laboratory. "I don't believe our culture was ready for a tool of such intensity."
In 1966, LSD was banned by the federal government, and within two years most scientific research involving the drug had been shut down. From Switzerland, Hofmann watched it all with sadness and coined a new description for his invention, calling it "my problem child."
In the years since, a small band of researchers who have refused to give up on LSD have been inching onward, hoping to regain government permission--and grants--to use it on human subjects. They have scored at least one important victory, winning approval in 1991 from the Food and Drug Administration for a study of LSD's effect on 60 drug addicts.
Richard Yensen, one of the researchers who will conduct the study once funding is obtained, believes using humans to assess LSD is essential because "it is very hard to ask a rat what is happening in its consciousness."
Other scientists are skeptical of such work, arguing that the LSD experiments on humans in the 1950s and '60s yielded a wealth of anecdotal observations but little hard proof of the drug's usefulness.
"It's not exactly a case of Galileo against the church," said Dr. Daniel X. Freedman, a professor at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. Freedman has for years used LSD in animal tests, and he discovered 30 years ago that LSD achieves what he calls its "TV show in the head" partly because of its effect on a neurotransmitter called serotonin.
50 Years of LSD
LSD--lysergic acid diethylamide--is a hallucinogen commonly called "acid." While not addictive, it has potent mood-changing capabilities and can induce panic, paranoia and terrifying delusions lasting 12 hours. It is colorless, tasteless and usually taken by mouth. * Invention: In 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was testing a fungus that grows on grains in a search for a stimulant for blood circulation. While mixing a batch on April 16, he inadvertently took the first acid trip, witnessing "an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors." * Initial Uses: Scientists used acid to investigate brain chemistry, psychiatrists experimented with it as a therapeutic tool, and the Central Intelligence Agency studied its potential for incapacitating enemies. * History: By the mid-1960s, young people were using it to "turn on, tune in and drop out," as urged by former Harvard professor Timothy Leary. The recreational use--and reports about bad trips and LSD-induced suicides--prompted the government to outlaw the substance in 1966.
TODAY * Use: While the use of cocaine and marijuana by young people has declined in recent years, LSD use is up. LSD-related arrests and hospital admissions are increasing and drug counselors report a surge of interest, mostly among well-to-do suburban youths. * Price: $2 to $5 for a "hit." * Strength: Considerably weaker than the acid of a generation ago.