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The Trip 

Wednesday, Jul 1 1998
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Page 7 of 7

—Philosopher Alan Watts

B y the early 1960s, it was apparent that the era of inward journeys — or at least legal ones — was fast approaching an end. LSD had seeped into the underground youth culture, and the forces of prohibition were already in play. Long before LSD was outlawed, Sandoz, under international pressure, cut off researchers’ access to the drug.

And what of LSD’s reputed perils? "A lot of the so-called dangers were hyperbole exaggerated by the press and misunderstood by science," says Ronald Siegel, who has studied psychopharmacological agents at UCLA for nearly 30 years. The claim that LSD causes genetic damage, for one, turned out to be inaccurate. "In fact," Siegel continues, "the drug does not present a lot of toxic dangers to individuals, simply because the dose that turns them on and the dose that kills them are so far apart. No one has ever died from a direct toxic overdose of LSD.

"There are psychological problems for many people," Siegel says, "but by and large LSD has been tolerated very well. And one of the examples of that is the fact that more people are using LSD today in the United States than ever before in our history, and there are fewer problems than ever before."

According to Janiger, researchers themselves are partly responsible for the drug’s fall from grace. "LSD didn’t pan out as an acceptable therapeutic drug for one reason," he says. "Researchers didn’t realize the explosive nature of the drug. You can’t manipulate it as skillfully as you would like. It’s like atomic energy — it’s relatively easy to make a bomb, but much harder to safely drive an engine and make light. And with LSD, we didn’t have the chance to experiment and fully establish how to make it do positive, useful things."

So acid has continued to hang in limbo. Says Siegel: "Because LSD carries with it so much political baggage, it has become extremely difficult to generate approval for new studies."

For researchers hoping to resume LSD studies with human subjects, progress on the regulatory front has been excruciatingly slow. Since the early 1970s, only a dozen or so people have participated in FDA-sanctioned studies, and those were continuations of projects approved before the ban. Last year, Baltimore psychologist Richard Yensen was ready to administer 499 doses of LSD to down-and-out alcoholics and drug addicts in a resumption of his work begun in the early ’60s at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. But early this year, the FDA put the study on "clinical hold," demanding that Yensen revise his research and safety protocols. Yensen says he has no idea why the FDA suddenly hit the brakes, but he suspects that a recent Esquire magazine story publicizing his obscure research spooked government regulators.

Other planned research projects with hallucinogens have hit similar regulatory obstacles. For now, at least, says Siegel, "Psychedelics are more useful as a basic research tool than as an applied medical tool. And because of that, hallucinogens have very limited appeal to government agencies to foster further research."

Some critics of psychedelic science argue that LSD’s would-be rehabilitators are really mounting a crypto-legalization campaign. Rick Doblin of MAPS denies that charge, at least in the sense that he’s lobbying for LSD to be sold over the counter like cigarettes and alcohol. Yet he asserts that "the ultimate goal is to have legal access to LSD, more likely than not in specially licensed centers to specially licensed therapists."

Janiger also envisions a place for LSD in our culture. He would like to see studies of LSD and other psychedelics "be come fair-minded and at parity with other kinds of research," and the fruits of such research applied to "acceptable social and medical uses." He cites the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece as a model for LSD’s potential place in our own society. For nearly 2,000 years, the Greeks participated in an annual ritual in the city of Eleusis, 22 kilometers west of Athens. In the secret ceremony, participants from all walks of life (Plato and Aristophanes, as well as slaves) imbibed a sacred drink called kykeon and then proceeded to experience what one ancient author described as "ineffable visions" that were "new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition." Says Janiger, "Those who underwent the mysteries came out at the other side, the sages tell us, as changed people who saw the world differently." In short, the Golden Age of Greece may also have been a very psychedelic age.

If Janiger’s own experiments in Los Angeles resembled a kind of modern-day Eleusinian Mystery, that was no accident. "The discussions I had with Huxley and Watts and the others in those early years," he says, "really centered around the way our culture might institutionalize LSD, and it would be very much like the Greek model."

Clearly, Janiger isn’t advocating "legalization" in a simplistic sense. He is talking about the kind of self-transformation that leads to larger cultural transformations. And for that reason, his vision may ultimately be even more radical than the notion of over-the-counter psychedelics. But what a long, strange trip it was for about 2,000 years in ancient Greece. And what a short, strange trip it was for about a decade in Los Angeles.

MAPS is still searching for people who participated in Dr. Oscar Janiger’s LSD study. The MAPS contact number is (704) 334-1798. You can find more information about MAPS on its Internet Web site, http://www.maps.org.

Dr. Janiger served on the
L.A. Weekly’s board of directors from 1990 to ’93.

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