Tripping on LSD ... what was THAT about?

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[Crispin Sartwell 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 inducing 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....

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