My name is Charlie and I take drugs. Not many, and not often, but I don’t feel ashamed to admit that I do: quite the opposite in fact. You see today is the anniversary of the very first deliberate LSD trip, taken by Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in 1943, and, in honour of this, it is also Psychedelic Pride.
Established by the UK’s Psychedelic Society, users are encouraged to corner a lucky parent, sibling, or even colleague and “explain to them how psychedelics have benefited you”. As the organisers note: “Breaking the taboo on psychedelic use is an important step in the campaign for their legalisation and regulation.”
It is perhaps a little perverse to mark the date of what was undoubtedly one of the most terrifying documented drug experiences in this way. Hofmann had a few days earlier accidentally absorbed a minuscule amount of the then untested drug through his fingertips, and had found the resulting experience to be pleasant and dreamlike. His curiosity piqued, on 19 April he self-administered what we now know to be a mind-blowing 250-microgram dose. The effects first began to kick in on his bike ride home – and for this reason the day is also celebrated internationally as Bicycle Day – but soon became far too powerful. He thought he’d poisoned himself or, at the very least, driven himself insane. The unlucky chemist spent an unpleasant evening running screaming from his demons and glugging milk (two litres worth) in an attempt to neutralise the chemical.
However, he was undeterred, and went on research widely into LSD, publishing numerous books and articles on the drug, which he described as “medicine for the soul”. In 2007, The Telegraph ranked him in joint first place with Tim Berners-Lee in its list of 100 greatest living geniuses. He died the following year, aged 102.
Since his discovery – which directly and indirectly shaped the music, art and fashion of the late-20th century and beyond – the many beneficial possibilities of psychedelic drugs have been well documented and, after decades of scientific censorship, are finally being studied again. Highlights include experiments at Johns Hopkins University, which have shown that psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety among the terminally ill, and can act as a remarkably effective treatment for alcoholism and other addictions too. While on this side of the Atlantic, research has emerged within the last week from Imperial College London demonstrating for the first time, through brain scans, what hippies have been droning on about for half a century: LSD really does expand your mind.
My own moment of revelation came a few months ago when, after years of trying and failing to quit smoking using conventional methods, I chanced upon a study showing that psilocybin had an 80 per cent success rate in the treatment of nicotine addiction. With the help of a top mycologist and a mental health professional – nobody is advocating the use of these drugs without proper guidance and supervision – I went on a magic-mushroom-picking trip, followed by a magic-mushroom trip. When I came out the other side, the urge to smoke was gone. I haven’t touched a cigarette since.
While attitudes are slowly changing, there is still a long way to go. Psychedelics remain Class A drugs, the mere possession of which can result in up to seven years in prison, and research is correspondingly tricky to undertake.
As some of the testimonials collected below show, however, when used carefully and responsibly, these drugs can have profound, life-enriching effects. At other times, not so much. Either way, on this Psychedelic Pride it’s time to break the taboo, and bring the debate out into the open.
Stephen Reid, 30, founder of the Psychedelic Society
I have a Masters degree in Physics from Oxford and have always been interested in the nature of reality. Most of science can be considered a “third-person” investigation of the universe, that is, the experimenter tries as far as possible to remove themselves from experiment to gain some sort of detached truth. I see psychedelics, along with meditation and dance, as “first-person” investigation, complementary to the scientific method. What’s fascinating, yet should be expected, is that the fundamental truths revealed by psychedelic and scientific exploration agree. Anyone interested in the nature of consciousness and reality should consider trying a psychedelic.
Paul, 30, lawyer
I recently went with 20 lovely people on a “psychedelic weekend” to a beautiful retreat in the Netherlands (where the ridiculous, illogical ban on magic mushrooms that we have in the UK does not apply) to have a safe, legal and guided psychedelic experience. It was amazing to listen to other people's experiences on their trips, ranging from the beautiful, to the difficult, to the profound.
I am proud to have participated in an event of this kind and to be part of a movement to remove the stigma and illegality from these incredible substances, which have so much potential to heal people, to help them experience beauty and wonder and to open the doors of perception. Here's to psychedelic pride!
Craig Sams, 71, co-founder of Green & Black’s chocolate and a director of Duchy Originals
I took LSD while at university. My post-graduation career path was all mapped out: two years Peace Corps, two years US Navy pilot (Vietnam), life in the State Department. Then I took acid. I made the connection between mental health and physical health and adopted a macrobiotic diet. I feel I acquired a clarity of purpose and a sense of direction. After graduation I came to London and opened a macrobiotic restaurant that kicked off the wholefood and organic food boom. Life threw up stresses and challenges but I had an inner resilience that I feel came from my acid experiences.
Darren Cullen, 33, artist, Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives
There’s something about psychedelics that make you see things as if it were the first time. The absurdity of authority or the vulgarity of advertising or the beauty of nature just hit you like a brick to the head. Mushrooms in particular have been at the core of my art practice since art school. I’ve been able to bring back ideas from those trips and the ideas still made sense in the morning and they were still really, really funny. It’s like a method of going down and mining your subconscious brain for truth. You come back filthy and exhausted but you have a nugget of something incredible that you rarely see on the surface. And they make you want to be kinder, and more thoughtful, and drink less and ring your mum more often. They make you want to be a better person, and it seems insane that I owe so much of who I am today to something weird which grows in a field.
Jana, 31, set designer
I started doing party drugs quite late, in my mid twenties. I sort of avoided acid as I kept finding my tripping friends scurrying around like agonised woodlice in the morning light, wishing for it to stop. Or hear someone sweating it out the day after with spastic yelps, wrapped in their blanket like a third-degree burn victim. No one seemed to really have a “great” time on it so it never interested me. Then a friend offered me some DMT. I read up on it a bit and decided to try it out. She guided me through it and I did it in a calm room, not a party, and it only lasted five to 10 minutes. Afterwards we just sat down and drank some tea and shared our experiences. It was like having all the mythology of mankind zapped into my brain like in The Matrix, and I felt calm and positive and happy to have had the opportunity to experience something so amazing.
Roger, 60, writer
I was 17. I’d done about half a dozen trips that were incredible: the visuals, the sense of wonder and joy, the insights into life and the universe that you couldn’t remember the next day.
This particular Saturday, I’d bought about four tabs of “doomdot” for £1 each. The clue was in the name. I thought I was on fire. I ran into a pub and threw water on myself and the glass at the landlord. Some of the local hippies saw what was happening, and tried to take me away, but I fought them. And then the police and ambulance men arrived...
I had horrible visions and thoughts in hospital – more intense than anything I’d known on a good trip – and got sent for observation to a mental asylum. I was out in a few days, seemingly unharmed. But I’ve passed on hallucinogens ever since.
Catherine, 26, teacher
I took acid for the first time at a Flying Lotus concert at the Roundhouse in Camden. I felt myself stretching over the crowd. I looked at my hands. They swelled with the music and shrank with the silence. When I left I felt sick and ashamed that there was so much concrete everywhere, and so ran with friends to Regent’s Park, to sit amongst the safety of the trees with our back to the skyscrapers. I have taken acid twice since then, and each time endeavoured to be as far away as possible from modernity and machinery. Ultimately, I think it reaffirms what we already know: we’re animals that really only need the very basics, everything else is superfluous.
Sarah, 26, commercial analyst
I guess it's difficult to categorise something as otherworldly as a trip in terms of “good” or “bad” experiences. They are often a rollercoaster of ideas and emotions, from mortal terror to transcendent elation, and sometimes both at exactly the same moment... I've had several experiences of pure, relentless joy and several unpleasant ones from which I was certain I was never coming back. Acid in particular has a reputation for being fiercely introspective, and you have to be prepared for that. Overall though I would say that my experience on psychedelics – both “good” and“bad” – have had a very positive impact on my life.
Tom, 33, photographer
My family are extreme born-again Christians, and my dad’s a pastor. Homosexuality was always associated with demonic possession. Which is why, at the age of 29, I still hadn’t come out. All that changed when I went to Japan for work with my assistant, who is also one of my best friends. One night a client gave us some vials, which he said they contained distilled magic mushrooms. We drank them and it eventually became very clear that I had to be true to myself and honest with them about who I am. I picked up the phone and called my family one after the other. They still have no idea that I was high.
Tom Fortes Mayer, 42, hypnotherapist
Psychedelic experiences are the most effective way of objectively studying the true nature of consciousness. Discovering first hand that our perception of reality is not the same thing as actual reality is the greatest source of psychological, emotional and spiritual revelation. If people are studying the mind with the mind, their findings are by nature unscientific because all their discoveries are affected by the very apparatus they are trying to understand. Like trying to study the colour red with red lensed glasses on. Sometimes we have to lose our mind, to come to our true senses.
Additional reporting by Kashmira Gander
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