Is Acid Back?
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Is Acid Back?


What year is it again? If you said 1969, that might be because of the recent news that the first medically controlled experiment with LSD in more than 40 years was performed. The findings? That acid helped reduce anxiety in terminally ill patients.

The Acid Experiment

Admittedly there were only 12 people in the Switzerland-based trial group but of those 12, the eight who were given full doses of acid noted a 20% improvement in terms of their anxiety and this improvement continued over the year following. Among the four who received the placebo drug, however, anxiety rose.

Of course there’s a history of dropping acid under a doctor’s observation. After Albert Hoffman’s inadvertent invention of LSD in 1938, it became all the rage for the intelligentsia to ride the paisley highway under a psychiatrist’s care. Hollywood followed, most famously in the person of Cary Grant, who felt acid therapy benefitted him. In a shockingly frank interview in the late 1950s, Grant said that the drug “was like being born for the first time. I imagined all the blood and urine and I emerged with the flush of birth.” Man, I wish Hitch had filmed that scene.

In the same decade Aldous Huxley, an early proponent of the drug and author of The Doors of Perception, noted that acid experiments had fallen into the hands of money-grubbing doctors (“Really, I have seldom met people of lower sensitivity, more vulgar mind!”) who were hawking LSD therapy at $100 a shot. Around that time, the CIA also started carrying on their own little experiments: putting acid in baguettes in a French mind control experiment (seriously—Google le pain maudit) and England’s MI6 also secretly fed servicemen the stuff in an attempt to find a truth drug.

But then when LSD went mainstream and the vulgar, un-chaperoned herd started gulping down the stuff for pleasure and insight (sometimes to dangerous consequences, though more often to deplorable fashion choices), it was criminalized in 1968.

Feeling Rather than Numbing Feelings

I don’t know what to think about this new Swiss experiment except to say that haven’t all addicts thought, “Hmm…if I were dying, would I use again? Would I use all the stuff I never tried?” Such musings can, in our blithely self-destructive way, be a comfortable escape hatch from all those sober feelings.

And acid, well—it’s always been thought to be different somehow from the drugs that just let people escape uncomfortable feelings. As Oscar Levant, Golden Hollywood’s tortured soul and one of the first people to talk publicly about his drug addiction, commented to a friend about acid, people “take it for exactly the opposite reason you and I take stuff…trying to find out about things. You and I are trying to obliterate them.”

But isn’t relying on drugs for revelation or anxiety reduction simply opening the doorway to run from life—from consciousness and its obligations? While no one would begrudge the terminally ill patients, you have to wonder what this finding will bring.

Back in the Lab

With SSRI’s now quotidian and the psychiatry profession being as faddish as it is, it’s worth considering whether or not such experiments might get a little more mainstream. What if the medical requirement for a full-blown legal acid trip downgraded from terminal illness to crippling fears—then to plain old anxiety and then to stress about SAT’s or Tuesday nights? If you think that would never happen, just know that in the last few years, Harvard and the University of California have received permission from the FDA to experiment with LSD once again after Harvard discovered that LSD helps patients with cluster headaches. Say, how long before the folks at Advil want to get in on that action?

God knows the arenas of end-of-life care and drug criminalization each have a need for more thought and compassion and fewer judgments bred of fear and ignorance. But addicts in recovery need to remember: They have a terminal disease, too—one that causes them to want to obliterate themselves and is all too happy to mask that intent as “anxiety reduction.”

It’s worth noting that this Walmart-shopping family didn’t find their recent interaction with LSD too anxiety reducing.

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About Author

Dana Burnell has written for The London Times Sunday Magazine, The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Inside New York and Time Out New York. A former Editorial Assistant at Harvard Review, she’s the received Mellon Foundation Grant and two Fiction Fellowship Grants from Columbia University. She’s written two novels, Mistaken Nonentity and The Tame Man.