Friday, August 4, 2017

Acid Makes You Smarter...

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Reality enchanted

A little while ago I went to Colchester, to a quiet suburban street on a hill. Semi-detached houses lined one side, and on the other a grassy field rose to a high horizon.  My friends Anita and Lucas climbed down from their camper van.  There were a few more vehicles parked than one might expect, but no other indication that anything unusual was taking place.

Our hosts – a couple in their fifties – introduced themselves and showed us through to their beautiful garden.  Conifers overlooked neat borders, and a climbing frame stood beside a trampoline. Only once we had stepped beyond a broad, gnarled apple tree did the single length of privet reveal itself to be two, with a person-sized space in between them.
Psychedelic drugs have an appropriately colourful history.  The word’s origin is Greek (“mind-manifesting”, literally) and it was coined by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in an exchange of letters with Aldous Huxley; LSD, the quintessential psychedelic, first came to Britain in 1952, in the luggage of a psychoanalyst called Ronnie Sandison.  Sandison had met the drug’s discoverer, Albert Hoffman, on a visit to Switzerland, and Hoffman believed LSD to be miraculous – “You see the world as it really is”.  Sandison administered it to thirty-six patients with “very difficult psychiatric problems . . . all in danger of becoming permanent mental invalids”.  The Journal of Mental Science write up in 1954 claimed more than half recovered completely.

Humphry Osmond used it to treat alcoholism.  By the late 1960s he and his colleagues had treated over 2,000 people, more than 40 per cent of whom did not drink again within a year.  The randomized-controlled portions of this work were reviewed and found valid in 2012.  LSD was also tested by the military at Porton Down, first as a “truth serum” for interrogations, for which it proved useless, and then as a mass battlefield incapacitant, where results were inconclusive.  A thoroughly researched history of LSD in Britain can be found in Albion Dreaming (2012) by Andy Roberts.

Psychedelics were never going to stay in the labs for long.  In May 1954, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescaline under Osmond’s supervision, and the resulting account became a classic of psychedelic literature, titled for William Blake’s assertion that, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Along with Huxley’s final novel Island (1962), and the writings of the American psychologist Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”), The Doors of Perception (1954) became a bible for the counter-cultural movement of the next decade and a half, the experiential cornerstone of which was taking LSD.  Huxley had his wife Laura inject him on his deathbed.  LSD brought, in his words, “direct, total awareness, from the inside . . . of love as the primary and cosmic fact”.


On the other side of the hedge the garden changed.  Fairy lights were draped around bushes, and metal stars dangled from trees. Pink and blue mandalas painted on stones dotted the undergrowth, and a Japanese-style wooden bridge arched over a pond, overhung by an enormous willow.

The tipi on the far side of the bridge did not look out of place at all.  It was 20 feet high with fabric like sailcloth, but so artfully positioned that from the house one would have to look hard to see anything other than willow leaves.  A dozen or so people were milling about in loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing.  I became aware that I had the shortest hair.

Antonio’s hair was black and long.  He invited us into the tipi and explained the rules: stay in the tent, and stay by the fire.  The fire is the grandfather, and he will keep us safe.  There should be no speaking or eating, but we would be able to sing at certain times.  If we needed to “be well” there was a trench outside.

Then Antonio lit the fire, departed and returned with an old man, who carried a rattle, long feathers and a drum.  His white tunic was embroidered with deer and stars, and many beads dangled from his hat.  This was the shaman – Don Santiago.  He ground peyote buttons in a mortar and pestle, and Antonio mixed them with water.  We kneeled to drink it.  It tasted of earth.


What we were doing in the tipi was illegal.  One may possess the peyote cactus in the UK, but one may not dry it, cut off its buttons or grind them up.  Mescaline, the active ingredient, is a Class A drug, which means possession carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.  For supplying it to us, Don Santiago was technically risking a life sentence.

Britain’s native psychedelic – Psilocybe semilanceata, the liberty cap – is Class A too.  Following a change to the law in 2005, possession of even fresh “magic mushrooms” is banned, except in the case of “wild mushrooms, growing on uncultivated land”.  What this means in practice is you may sit in a field and get as high as you like, but pocket even one magic mushroom and you become a serious criminal.

Unlike peyote and other species of mushroom, which have been used in Mexico for millennia, the first reported deliberate consumption of semilanceata mushrooms was in about 1970.  This goes against some eager assertion about druids, witches and ancient paganism, and is one of several well-referenced debunkings in Andy Letcher’s Shroom (2006).  Another is that Lewis Carroll, a man of moderation and poor health, almost certainly never took psychedelics.  His inspiration for Alice’s “magic” mushroom is likely to have been literature about the fly agaric – Amanita muscaria – known to be used ceremonially in Siberia.

“The fate of our times is characterized . . . above all, by the disenchantment of the world”, wrote the German sociologist Max Weber.  Letcher believes this disenchantment leaves us with “an unaccountable feeling of loss”, which we quench with stories such as those in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.  But psychedelics make enchantment real.  “The nature of reality is spiritual, not physical”, claims the writer Daniel Pinchbeck, “Everything we see around us is animated by sentient essences, dainty sub-Plank-length flimmers of cosmic wit”.

The Home Office claims that magic mushrooms cause psychosis. Mental-health concerns were also cited when LSD was made illegal in 1966, and it can indeed trigger schizophrenia in people who are predisposed.


The peyote ceremony had been going for hours.  Geometric patterns swirled on the tipi’s walls, and Don Santiago sang a rambling, nasal song.  I had drunk three of Antonio’s cups, yet couldn’t shake a sense that something was missing.  Anita looked beatific in the firelight and Lucas wore a piratical grin, but I felt too clean shaven, too fond of motorbikes and as if I were the only one there who had spent his twenties as a sports coach. Anita and Lucas have lived in communes.  I have never lived outside London’s Zone 3.

I have also never partaken of sacred tribal medicine, but I have done quite a lot of plain old drugs, and isn’t doing drugs ultimately what this was, with a bit of legitimizing indigenous window-dressing?  Peyote may be ancient and natural, but malaria is natural too, and plenty of old ideas are awful.  Our instructions had been not to eat after lunchtime, but being empty was only making me more fractious.  This probably didn’t count as a bad trip, but it certainly wasn’t a good one.


Context matters with psychedelics.  To witness the majesty of the cosmos with your selfhood unplugged from the mains may be wonderful, but only if you are basically open to the idea, and lying somewhere peaceful with nothing more pressing to do.  The addiction researcher Norman Zinberg conceived the term “set” to describe the internal state we bring to an experience, and “setting” for our physical location and who we are with.

Zinberg’s work is collected in Drug, Set and Setting: The basis for controlled intoxicant use (1984), but his ideas were popularized much earlier, notably in Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience (1964).  When a practice is driven underground, though, knowledge can be lost.  With psychedelics illegal and undiscussed, too many, myself included, had alarming moments.  Magic mushrooms, to pick an example, turn out to be frighteningly incompatible with watching football in a crowded bar.

And it can get much worse than this.  Andy Roberts believes that rumours of people believing they can fly on LSD are baseless, but if users of psychedelics are not properly prepared they can experience acute, and even suicidal, distress.  In Getting Higher (2017), Julian Vayne puts set and setting on an equal footing with “substance”.

This does feel to a degree like an amplification of real life.  If we do not take care of ourselves physically and emotionally there, then our existence will be chaotic at best.  Perhaps psychedelics do not spirit us away from reality, but present us with reality squared.


Away from the fire, in the fairy-lit garden, I wolfed down a king-sized Twix.  Breaking Antonio’s rules did not feel good, but neither did having low blood sugar, and the Twix didn’t just switch on the peyote – it switched on an entirely new outlook.  I was in a lovingly tended garden on mild, pleasant drugs and in the company of two people I deeply care about. And whether Don Santiago could contact spirits or not, he was surely warm, benevolent and sincere, and he had come all the way from Mexico because he believed in the importance of what he did.

When I returned to the tipi and took my seat, he blessed me with burning sagebrush.


Hallucinogens are not the only illegal drugs that work well in a therapeutic context. At this year’s Breaking Convention, the conference of the British Psychedelic Society, the researcher Ben Sessa cited US data showing that two thirds of subjects with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder were no longer experiencing symptoms following MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.  The protocol is three times as effective as current treatments, and large-scale Phase 3 studies are underway.  With MDMA, set and setting do not matter as much – on pure MDMA you are likely to feel fantastic, regardless of what you’re doing or how you felt before; the very consistency of its positive effects makes it an ideal container for processing trauma.

But much research continues on the medical potential of classic psychedelics.  Following findings from Johns Hopkins University that psilocybin reduced depression in terminally ill cancer patients, a study at Imperial College London suggested it was also safe and effective for otherwise healthy people with depression.  In A Really Good Day (2016) Ayelet Waldman helps her own disordered moods by “microdosing” LSD – taking a tenth of a recreational dose every third day – and microdosers’ claims of being “happier, more creative and more productive” were recently reported in New Scientist.

“Psychiatry right now feels palliative”, says Dr Sessa, and another researcher, Julie Holland, compares conventional antidepressants to casts for broken limbs.  But it is Bill Richards, the oldest scientist at the press briefing, who says the thing that strikes me most.

“The difference with what we’re doing is that if the monster appears you don’t run from it.  You look it in the eye and say, ‘Hello.  What are you doing in my mind?’”

Breaking Convention has four lecture theatres running in parallel over three days.  All are close to full.

At the end I sit down with the organiser, David Luke.  He seems to personify the sober excitement that has been in the air all weekend.  “There are studies popping up everywhere”, he says, “Harvard, Yale, Oxford.  Psilocybin’s being used for smoking-addiction.  Half the subjects were tobacco-free a year later.  There’s microdosing as a cognitive enhancer for geriatrics, and we’ve been giving low doses of LSD to scientists – guys from NASA and CERN – for problem-solving.  The main problem we have is funding.  Because of the purity requirements and legal status, a single dose of psilocybin costs £1500”.  I am shocked.  A bag of high-quality magic mushrooms can be ordered online for £12.

Can psychedelics really be as much of a cure-all as many of the delegates seem to think?  “We don’t want to go back to the 1960s”, says Dr Luke.  “We’re not evangelists, but we are scientists.  Robin [Carhart-Harris]’s neuroimaging study found global brain connectivity under LSD.  That’s likely to be pretty far-reaching”.

I had been to the lecture.  A flyer from the Beckley Foundation, a think-tank and NGO supporting the research, talked of “a dramatic increase in crosstalk between brain networks that don’t normally communicate with one another.  This . . . can generate a looser style of cognition, more prone to new associations, fresh perspectives and creativity”.  There was also decreased connectivity within networks, which was correlated with experiences of ego-dissolution.  So many psychiatric disorders seem to involve troubling ideas of self that it might indeed be broadly helpful to let go of the self for a while.

The eventual legislative model Luke suggests for psychedelics resembles that for dangerous sports.  One does not buy a hang-glider and immediately jump off a cliff.  There is screening, training, supervision and eventually a licence. “Psychedelics would become controlled substances at last.”

We seem to have come a long way.  In 2014 the Daily Mail ran an article claiming that peyote sends people mad. The paper’s coverage of a recent study at Sussex about neural signal diversity was headlined “LSD produces a higher level of consciousness” and was balanced and hysteria-free.  In the 1970s, when “Operation Julie” seized enough LSD to make millions of doses, the chemists thought those they had “turned on” might help with their legal fees, but no money turned up.  In 2017 much of Dr Carhart-Harris’s work is crowdfunded.


On a weighted scale of harms compiled by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in 2010, LSD scores 7 out of 100.  It comes joint-second from bottom, ahead of magic mushrooms, which score 6.  Both are non-toxic (nobody has ever died of an overdose), non-addictive and difficult to binge on (rapid tolerance means much larger doses are soon required, though it is important to note that even these would be physically safe).  Although one could not drive a car one would also in no way want to.  In the ISCD’s analysis, alcohol scores 72.

I have taken both LSD and magic mushrooms, and experienced a greater sense of purpose, a deeper appreciation of classical music and generally higher satisfaction with life. Neither drug causes comedowns or hangovers.  By very rough calculation, I have got drunk 2,000 times.  I’ve had a lot of fun, but also a lot of hangovers, and have said and done a few things I regret.  I once had an accident that required hospital treatment.  Almost every argument I have ever had seems to have featured drink, and unlike with LSD I do not believe that it has given me a single, lasting good idea.

Julie Holland said at Breaking Convention that psychedelics promote connectedness – to self, others, environment and universe – and Aldous Huxley said in a lecture:
If we all had the doors of our perceptions cleansed and we all saw the world as infinite and holy, we should all find it a great deal less necessary to go in for bullfighting, attacking minorities, or working up frenzies against foreign people.
The American writer David Solomon described consciousness as “our most inalienable possession”. It should, surely, be ours to do with as we please.


The peyote ceremony finished at dawn.  We ate the fruit and chocolate that lay around the altar, but I wanted more than it felt polite to take.  A woman told me how visions of Mayan temples had really helped her in her work as a lawyer.  I felt guilty for my gratitude that she worked as someone else’s lawyer, not mine.

Anita sensed my discomfort – “It wasn’t until my fourth ceremony that I got it”, she said.

Lucas suggested going out for food. We drove in shaky, hopeful convoy to West Mersea and found a shack selling oysters, prawns and clams. That the place was open at breakfast time felt like a benediction.  We all wore garlands of paper flowers.

Josh Raymond is a freelance writer living in London.

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