Sixty-three years ago the first acid trip was taken by an unwitting research chemist, Albert Hofmann, who has died at the age of 102. To its detractors LSD is perhaps the most dangerous drug in the world, but did its advent really change society in Britain and even the way we eat?
In 1965 something lurking under the meniscus of British society punctured the surface.
A man named Michael Hollingshead opened an office of the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea in central London. Having helped turn soon-to-be hippie guru Timothy Leary on to LSD, Hollingshead came on a mission of hallucinogenic proselytisation.
Soon musicians and artists were coming into regular contact with LSD. The rock historians still argue long and hard about the full extent of the effect LSD had on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Britain’s biggest musical exports.
But it’s hard to dispute the evidence of its impact in terms of psychedelic-inspired music, record covers, and even the commercial art of the time.
Before then LSD had been in Britain, but only in the hands of tiny groups of psychiatrists and military scientists. From 1965 onwards it suddenly came into the pockets and mouths of students, drop-outs, and “free thinkers”.
And soon it drew the attention of the authorities. By the summer of 1966, the home secretary had moved to ban it. It cropped up in court cases and four decades of newspaper opprobrium commenced. Over the years it has been blamed for poor mental health and numerous suicides and accidental deaths.
Today the government advice warns of the possibility of terrifying trips, vivid flashbacks and triggers for those susceptible to mental health problems.
But there were those in the 1960s and 1970s who felt that rather than being a mere dangerous recreational drug it was the spark for dramatic changes in British society.
This was the time of seismic shifts in sexual behaviour, the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, the genesis of modern feminism and the green movement. To its defenders, LSD was part of the reason why the old ways of thinking could be challenged.
“British culture was extremely strait-laced in the 1950s – it was rigid and confined and everybody went to church. LSD blasted a hole right through the middle of that,” says Sue Hall, who was a student at Watford Art College when she first encountered LSD on a visit to London in 1966. Hall last took the drug at the 100th birthday celebrations for Hofmann in Switzerland.
Gregory Sams: ‘LSD changed my life’
For Gregory Sams and his brother Craig an LSD trip at Berkeley in California in 1967 provided an epiphanal moment that led them to London to spark a major change in British eating habits.
“It was as a direct consequence of my brother and myself taking LSD that we introduced natural and organic foods in the UK. At that point people were looking forward to the day we all live on vitamin pills. Today you can’t open a newspaper without reading about organic foods.”
After the trip Gregory and Craig thought long and hard about what people were eating. They decided they were fed up with a Western diet big on garish food dyes, additives and cheap meat. It changed their thoughts on a career.
“My brother said he would have been a US navy fighter pilot, I was thinking of being an oceanographer. LSD clarified you. It gives you that primeval uncluttered vision.
In 1968, Gregory and Craig set up the Seed restaurant in London and started trying to source organic food. Together they founded Whole Earth Foods.
Craig went on to be head of the Soil Association and to set up the chocolate company Green and Blacks. In 1982, Gregory is credited with inventing the vegeburger. Since then he has moved on to other projects including design and distribution of posters and T-shirts featuring fractal patterns and writing political works such as Uncommon Sense – the State is Out of Date. He continues to use LSD.
“So many people made their breakthrough as a result of seeing wider horizons,” Sams explains.
For John “Hoppy” Hopkins LSD was enough to take him out of his world as a Fleet Street photographer into the orbit of stars like Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney.
“The effect of acid is to kick your frame of reference and give it a good old shake. People are never quite the same again.
“The effect of acid on me was to cause me to question the whole business framework. It caused me in the parlance of the time to drop out. I was making the press barons richer by working for them without being able to set my own agenda.”
To him there is a path to be traced from the sense of community generated by LSD to the social networking that is such a feature of today’s internet.
“One of the things that acid enabled was for us all to recognise we were part of the same tribe.
“Acid was like a tin opener or a Pandora’s box. Hofmann was as important as Oppenheimer and those other scientists who invented the atomic bomb.”
In 1966 LSD was big enough for two national tabloids to strain every sinew to get it made illegal.
Fast forward 40 years and seizures are few and far between. According to the British Crime Survey, by 1996 only 1% of 16-59-year-olds reported using LSD in the past 12 months. By 2007 the figure was 0.2%. In the same period the figure for those using cocaine has risen more than fourfold to 2.6%.
The death knell for LSD started to sound in 1977. More than 800 police officers were involved in Operation Julie, conducting raids across the country. It transpired that a secret laboratory in sleepy Tregaron in mid-Wales was turning out vast volumes of LSD.
“They had been making some of the highest quality ever known and supplying most of the world,” says Andy Roberts, author of the forthcoming book Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. “When this drug ring was smashed it effectively meant LSD started to fade away.”
Operation Julie proved a seminal moment in drugs enforcement in Britain, involving hundreds of officers across a number of forces, extensive surveillance, undercover work, management of informants and lengthy sentences for the main players.
As well as this hammer blow to the production of the drug, culture was also changing and new drugs were arriving.
“In the 1980s, Thatcher effectively smashed the free festival culture and then ecstasy started to come in. People wanted a more manageable drug,” says Roberts.
But whatever the arguments about LSD’s influence or the harm it can do, it has had one indisputable lasting legacy.
The phrase “[something] is like [something] on acid” has become a classic piece of verbal shorthand – typically employed by those who have never taken the drug – to indicate that something is a bit wacky or exaggerated.
Whether it’s the “the Lord Of The Rings on acid”, “a giraffe on acid”, “Aspen on acid” or even “Charles Rennie Mackintosh on acid” the linguistic influence lives on.
ALBERT HOFMANN AND LSD:
• Swiss research chemist for Sandoz
• First created LSD in 1938
• Accidentally absorbed LSD through fingers in 1943
• Took deliberate higher dose “trip” three days later
• Had hallucinatory bicycle ride
• 19 April 1943 now known by users as “bicycle day”
• Believed in therapeutic use of drug
• Visual and auditory distortion common
• Hallucinations in some people
• Pupils dilate
• “Trip” can last eight hours or more
• Delivered on paper or tablet
• Class A drug in UK
• Can provoke terror in users
• Some users report fears over mental state
• Can cause vivid flashbacks
• UK government health advice says no evidence of permanent physical or psychological harm
• Potential to trigger mental health problems in susceptible people
• Implicated in a number of suicides and accidental deaths