teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle
In the 1960s and early '70s, when I was a youth, LSD was supposed to be more than an abusable substance. It was nonconformity and peace and truth.
It was yellow submarines and profound Jimi Hendrix guitar solos. A path to God or nirvana or oneness with nature, or at any rate the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. It opened "the gates of perception." Dropping acid was an act of revolution.
For better and worse, people no longer think of LSD - or any drug - this way. They think of drugs with desperation, feel chained to them, are destroyed by them. They think of them in terms of law enforcement or D.A.R.E.
Or they think of them as forms of entertainment or as fashion accessories, along with their Wii and iPod, their cologne and designer handbag.
Why think of LSD today? Last week, its inventor, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, died at age 102.
Like many great scientific discoveries, acid was an accident. Hoffman, in 1938, discovered it while researching plant fungi.
On the once-famous "Bicycle Day," Hoffman, having slaved over a hot lab all day (inhaling or absorbing his new creation through his skin), rode his bike home and began to see radiant colors, bent space and collapsing dimensions. Three days later, he took a whopping dose on purpose and had a mondo bad trip.
Hoffman hoped that lysergic acid diethylamide could be used to treat mental illness, and though there have been many experiments along those lines, it actually seemed more effective at
insanity than controlling it. But some people seemed to like the insanity it produced, or to believe it was a profound escape from and perspective on the everyday world.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the covert CIA program Project MK-ULTRA experimented with acid, hoping to come up with techniques of mind control or a truth serum. The CIA often administered the drug without the knowledge, much less consent, of the subjects. Said subjects were no doubt surprised when they started to hallucinate, and Frank Olson, for one, an Army biochemist, is thought by many to have committed suicide as a result of his induced psychosis in 1953.
The next year, the British author Aldous Huxley published
The Doors of Perception
, celebrating hallucinogens as a path to enlightenment. And before too long, Beat generation and counterculture figures such as Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and Owsley Stanley were giving the stuff away. Cue the Summer of Love.
LSD became a symbol of open-mindedness and peace, and gave us the colors and design styles and musical approaches associated with "psychedelia." The Beatles sang coyly of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," while the Stones declared, equally coyly, that "she comes in colors." In San Francisco, the Jefferson Airplane saw white rabbits, and Grateful Dead shows became festivals of collective hallucination.
Soon the stuff had penetrated to middle America, and high school students were "dropping" "orange blotter" and "purple microdot," "Mr. Natural," and "windowpane" - all names for product lines of LSD.
In 1973 or so, I was attending a "free" high school in Washington called Bonzo Ragamuffin Prep. My friends and I were acid-droppers, and I must admit I thought the stuff was deep. Later, I read the
Critique of Pure Reason
by Immanuel Kant, in which the great philosopher argued that space and time were not part of the external world, but merely forms of human perception. I understood this, because under the influence of acid, I'd seen space and time turn inside out, collapse, bloom like a chrysanthemum.
So I have LSD to blame (partly) for my being a philosophy professor.
However, the stuff had its drawbacks. It felt chemical, and according to the folk wisdom of the time, was related to strychnine. It made you grind your teeth and made your bones feel wrong. You woke up the next morning "burned out," your consciousness just as dulled as it had been heightened the night before.
People had terrible experiences in which they saw their own deaths or those of people they loved, or in which the world turned into an infinite host of screaming faces. A couple of my friends ended up in institutions, after having dropped acid every day for weeks or months.
I never really knew anyone I'd call an LSD addict, and the stuff had limited recreational uses. If you dropped acid and went to the prom or something, you were more likely to sit in a corner making trippy trails with your fingers than to party hardy.
Indeed, though it spurred some amazing music and visuals, LSD turned out not really to be a social revolution.
In fact, let's just say it: The notion of social transformation through substance abuse was a delusion, a hallucination. LSD did play its role in the end of the 1960s, with an element of narcissism, locking you in your own consciousness rather than sending you out to throw off the powers that be.
You didn't find the serious revolutionaries, the Che's and Mao's lionized by the '60s radicals, sitting in their rooms grooving to Hendrix, with a black light and a Peter Max poster, saying "Whoa . . ."
As the acid-and-Airplane '60s melted into the coke-and-disco '70s, it became pretty obvious that LSD, while it expanded some heads and collapsed others, was a rather bourgeois revolution, if any. And later, that it wasn't nearly as reliable at a rave as Ecstasy.
Drug use has become suburbanized, really. Never a runaway fad, LSD is now tried by about two or three in 100 people of high school age in the United States, according to information from the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. LSD use among young folks peaked at a meager 8.8 percent in 1996, then sank to below 2 percent and has stayed low, although 2005-06 data (not very reliable, even according to their compilers) suggest a mild uptick. Only around 16 of anybody has tried it by age 25. These days, off-label uses of OxyContin, plus Ecstasy and meth, are much bigger concerns. About one million people a year first try cocaine (average age of initiates: about 18), with about 860,000 for Ecstasy (most initiates were about 18 or older) and 91,000 for heroin (20 or older). These folks aren't seeking world peace or revolution. They are seeking a cheap buzz.
So though I can't help feeling some debt to Dr. Hoffman for his discovery, I still find myself, like Huey Lewis and the News, wanting a new drug.
Statistics on LSD usage from Drug Rehab 101:
The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings:
"Who's Got the Acid? These Days, Almost Nobody," by Ryan Grim, from the April 1, 2004, issue of Slate: