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The Trip 

Wednesday, Jul 1 1998
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One morning in April 1962, Cary Grant swallowed four tiny blue pills of lysergic acid diethylamide — LSD. Incredibly, it was the 58-year-old actor’s 72nd acid trip under the supervision of a psychiatrist. Grant relaxed on a plush couch and sipped coffee as the drug began to take effect. During the five-hour session, his running commentary was captured on a small tape recorder for later transcription: "I was noting the growing intensity of light in the room," he recalled at one point, "and at short intervals as I shut my eyes, visions appeared to me. I seemed to be in a world of healthy, chubby little babies’ legs and diapers, and smeared blood, a sort of general menstrual activity taking place. It did not repel me as such thoughts used to."

Hardly the suave repartee associated with the star of His Girl Friday and North by Northwest. But as the aging movie idol had already stated in bold public endorsements of the experimental drug, LSD had a way of stripping away cultivated veneers and forcing one to confront unguarded, often unpleasant, emotions. Grant was grateful for his LSD "therapy" — over the course of a decade, he’d drop acid more than 100 times. Among other benefits, he credited LSD with helping him control his drinking and come to terms with unresolved conflicts about his parents.

"When I first began experimentation," he said on that sunny spring morning, "the drug seemed to loosen deeper fears, as sleep does a nightmare. I had horrifying experiences as participant and spectator, but, with each session, became happier, both while experiencing the drug and in periods between . . . I feel better and feel certain there is curative power in the drug itself."

Grant was just one of hundreds of citizens in the Los Angeles region who participated during the 1950s and early 1960s in unprecedented academic studies of the then-novel pharmaceutical. In just a few short years, of course, LSD would become a chemical taboo, the notorious "hippie psychedelic" vilified by the media, criminalized in every state, classified by the FDA as a Schedule I drug of no medical value and banned globally by international treaty. But before most Americans had heard of lysergic acid diethylamide, here in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, students, professionals, clergymen, writers, artists and celebrities enthusiastically turned on, tuned in and didn’t drop out.

"It was a time in the world when scientific research with psychedelic drugs was perfectly acceptable," recalls Dr. Oscar Janiger, the psychiatrist who administered LSD to Cary Grant and more than 900 others in the longest ongoing experiment with LSD on human subjects in a nonclinical environment.

Flash forward 35 years to a very different time in a very different world: In many ways, science has finally caught up with LSD. Given recent advances in our understanding of neurochemistry — the complex chemical pathways that drive human thought, emotions and behavior — many researchers believe that LSD could become a valuable tool in further unraveling the mysteries of the human brain. What’s more, they say, the drug’s startling, if underappreciated, efficacy in the treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction and a whole range of psychiatric disorders begs for renewed research. Yet after decades in legal limbo, LSD remains a sociopolitical pariah. Though research on animals has continued, little more than a dozen human subjects have participated in studies since the late ’60s, and no new research has been published since the early ’70s.

Some of LSD’s latter-day defenders now believe that for acid science to move forward, acid must first be rehabilitated in the public mind. And they’re pinning their hopes on a new follow-up study of Janiger’s classic experiment, conducted between 1954 and 1962. By interviewing the people who participated in the original study (many of whom are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s), researchers hope to show that, by and large, few of the original human guinea pigs suffered negative long-term effects as a result of their LSD dosings. And — shocking as it may sound — many may have benefited from the experience.

The prime force behind the follow-up study, to be completed later this year, is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit research and advocacy group that has lobbied the FDA to approve medical studies of marijuana, MDMA and LSD. Funded via academic grants and the support of its 1,600 members, who include a number of prominent research scientists, the North Carolina–based organization describes its purpose as "working to assist psychedelic researchers around the world [to] design, obtain governmental approval, fund, conduct and report on psychedelic research in humans."

"Janiger’s study was crucially important," says Rick Doblin, a Harvard-trained social scientist and founder of MAPS, "because it was work trying to describe what LSD does in a neutral, noncontroversial context, in relatively healthy nonpatients."

Other studies conducted worldwide before the ban tended to focus on the use of LSD in treating disorders such as chronic alcoholism, sexual neuroses, criminal psychopathology, phobias, depressive states and compulsive syndromes. But Janiger’s subjects were average, middle-to-upper-class, healthy adults with no pre-existing mental or physical problems. As Doblin puts it: "The subjects of Janiger’s experiment break all the stereotypes about LSD users, since they are now in their 60s or older and took LSD before it was controversial. So the follow-up study is like a time capsule back to an era before the drug war. And it gives us a view of what LSD research could be again, if we can get past the biases and just see this drug more unemotionally, as a tool."

Janiger’s study is also a time capsule back to a unique moment in the cultural history of Southern California. Long before the acid underground surfaced in San Francisco as the vanguard of the hippie movement, Los Angeles was an intellectual hub for psychedelic research, and its acid salons drew adventurous celebrities from Anaïs Nin to Jack Nicholson, Aldous Huxley to André Previn. Those were heady days . . . in more than one sense. As Cary Grant rhapsodized about LSD’s revolutionary potential that spring morning in Janiger’s office, everyone could benefit from a good dosing. "Just a few healthy magnums of LSD in the Beverly Hills reservoir . . ."

[The doctor] had suggested that I listen to some music while the drug was still effective. I am a composer and pianist, and I have never before or since been so strongly affected by music. I listened to recordings of some Brahms, Mozart and Walton, and was moved to tears almost immediately . . . I then played the piano for approximately 40 minutes. I felt that I played extremely well and possibly with more musical insight than before. I played among other things a Chopin Fantasia which I had not looked at since my student days, and remembered it perfectly and without flaws. A few days after the experiment I again attempted to play this piece and found that I had retained it completely. I would sometime be interested in repeating the experiment and recording some improvisations while under the influence of the pills.

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