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The Chemist, human guinea pigs & the psychedelics

Feature length documentary The Substance: Albert Hofmann´s LSD (dir. Martin Witz, 2011) tells the story of LSD. In the spring of 1943 Hofmann discovered the substance LSD by coincidence. He began experimenting with it on himself and soon realized that he had made an extraordinary discovery. A tiny drop of the substance was powerful enough to bring one to new and unfamiliar dimensions. The human brain and psychiatry has puzzled scientists’ and psychologists minds for centuries. With a new substance in hand scientists were eager to experiment in hopes of curing some mental illnesses and make new discoveries. Psychiatrists & consciousness researchers tested it both themselves and on people with mental illnesses. It was not long until the CIA and US Army found out about LSD and started experimenting with it in their researches. CIA used human guinea pigs in experiments that today would have one word to describe it; torture. People were given LSD and then the same information was played over and over for them from tape recorder to see if people could be brainwashed and peoples´personality could be changed.

The US Army experimented to see if LSD could be used as mass weapon, ‘psyco numbing’ enemy soldiers and citizens of enemy nations. Some of the experiments included documenting soldiers behaviour on LSD. Soldiers were asked to follow orders and then given LSD and told to follow the same orders, such as marching etc. In one scene, one can see the soldiers walk in circles, all smiley and not at all following orders.

Eventually, LSD ‘leaked’ out of the labs and into the hands of regular Joes & Janes. LSD became the drug of the hippies, artists, musicians, protest movements etc. One of the god-fathers of LSD in California was Dr. Timothy Leary, a professor in psychology at Harvard University. Leary, a great fan of LSD, did all kinds of studies and self-experimenting with the drug, believing it to have therapeutic potential in psychiatry. Eventually Leary and few other LSD experimenting colleagues were fired from Harvard and moved their ‘experimenting’ to Millbrook, a mansion in New York state, which was to become the ‘Mecca for Psycadellics’.

Leary was very outspoken about LSD and encouraged young people to try it. When LSD became scarce, one of his friends Nick Sand started cooking LSD himself to meet with the rising demand. The result was million of dozes that spread like wildfire in California and around the world in the 1960s. They even sent some dozes to American soldiers fighting in Vietnam for free!

Hofmann on the other hand was not very pleased with LSD being used as a drug. And he sure was not the only person worried about it´s effects. After few years of anti-LSD campaigning in California, the drug was finally banned in California in 1966 followed by more states in Americas as well as countries in the rest of the world.

The Substance: Albert Hofmann´s LSD is a historical account of the story of LSD from it´s early days to modern times. It´s strenght is in it’s archive footage and interviews with Albert Hofmann and some of the key persons in the LSD experiments. However, there is not much talk about the down side of LSD use or all the bad LSD trips. Not even from some of the persons who were used as human guinea pigs by CIA, the US Army or psychiatrists. There sure must be many such stories out there given the numbers of people who were involved in experiments or used LSD on regular basis in the 1950s and 1960s when it was still legal in California. The first mention of a bad trip is roughly in the final quarter of the documentary. If anything, the documentary leaves you with the worrying feeling that it´s message is actually more for the use of LSD such as for medical and/ or psychiatric purposes than actually against it. None the less, the documentary is well recommending because the story of LSD is after all, an interesting story. Note to mention some of the main characters in the film like Hofmann who was first and foremost a scientist seeking answers and never lost his focus. Unfortunately, people like Dr. Leary and many other people did get carried away in the LSD bliss. Leary was called ‘the most dangerous man in America’ by Richard Nixon, and was at some point a jail mate of Charles Manson as can be read about in a New York Times article from June 1996, announcing the death of Leary.

Following is the trailer for the film. The stills and the poster with this post are from the press kit on the film´s website.


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