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Albert Hofmann Turns 100

While traveling in Switzerland earlier this month, I wrote a story for Wired News about the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann - the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD. Listening to Dr. Hofmann address a symposium in his honor was an astonishing experience. I will post my own transcript of Hofmann's remarks here on this blog when I get chance. Until then, you can read the version of my story edited by Wired entitled LSD: The Geek's Wonder Drug? or my own unedited version below. The headline written by the Wired editors still makes me smile, but I like my version of the story a bit better.

BASEL, Switzerland -- When Kevin Herbert has a particularly intractable programming problem, or finds himself pondering a big career decision, he seeks insight with a powerful consciousness expanding tool -- LSD-25.

"It must be changing something about the internal communication in my brain. Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are used, " said Herbert, 42, an early employee of Cisco Systems who intervened to ban drug testing of technologists at the company.

Herbert says he's solved his toughest technical problems after dropping LSD and listening to drum solos by the Grateful Dead who were among the many artists inspired by LSD.

"When I'm on LSD and hearing something that's pure rhythm, it takes me to another world and into another brain state where I've stopped thinking and started knowing," said Herbert.

Herbert, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, joined 2,000 researchers, scientists, artists and historians from 40 countries who gathered here over the weekend to celebrate the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD in 1938.

In many ways, the conference LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug, an International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann, was a scientific coming-out party for the substance Hofmann uncovered.

Lysergic acid diethylamide, a derivative of lysergic acid found in the alkaloids of the ergot grain fungus, has been illegal worldwide since the early 1970's and still generates controversy.

The conference was picketed Saturday by a splinter group from Scientology opposed to drug use. But Hofmann received a congratulatory birthday letter from the Swiss president, roses, and a spontaneous kiss from a young woman in the crowd.

The storied history of LSD began during the darkest days of World War II, five years after Hofmann discovered the molecule. The chemist had what he described as a "peculiar presentiment" compelling him to resynthesize the drug. Soon afterwards, without intentionally ingesting the substance, Hofmann had a transcendent experience akin to one he experienced as a child. In a second
intentional trip, Hoffman took too large a dose and had a frightening experience that gave way to a feeling of rebirth.

"LSD wanted to tell me something," Hofmann told the gathering Friday. "It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation." During the 1950's and 1960's, LSD was used by psychiatrists and psychotherapists and was studied by the CIA as a potential interrogation weapon. LSD was criminalized after it was rejected by the government and widely embraced by the youth culture.

Aged but still eloquent, Hofmann said Friday that he hoped the symposium would encourage the renewed therapeutic and ceremonial use of LSD in supervised settings.

Hofmann says he would like to see a modern version of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek ritual of renewal which persisted for two millennium beginning in 1500 BC. Mythologist Carl P. Ruck and chemist Peter Webster said at the symposium that they believe that an ergot preparation was the active ingredient for the Kykeon beverage used to promote spiritual awakening during the ritual.

"When Hofmann synthesized the chemical in LSD, he stumbled upon a 4,000-year-old secret," said Ruck, author of Road To Eleusis.

In 1958, Hofmann was the first to isolate the psychoactive substances of psilocybin and psilocin from Mexican magic mushrooms Psilocybe
mexicana
which were among a variety of sacred plants used around the world to invite ecstatic and spiritual experiences.

The United States Supreme Court is now considering an appeal brought by the New Mexican chapter of the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) which uses the outlawed ayahausca brew in its ceremonies and cites the Eleusinian Mysteries as a precedent for a psychoactive Eucharist.

In Basel, symposium attendees sang, talked, danced to music, and viewed works by visionary artists including painter Alex Grey. Conversations and gatherings stretched long into the night -- especially for those in altered states of consciousness.

Participants wishing to describe their LSD experiences were
encouraged to contribute to a library of drug experiences at the Erowid web site. Earth and Fire Erowid, who operate the site, presented a sampling of comments at the symposium and document the 2-5 known deaths that have been associated with LSD. They note that according to the National Household Survey, the percentage of Americans who say they have tried LSD has held steady at about ten percent for about twenty years.

Geri Beil of Cologne, Germany, who attended the symposium, recalled his own ecstatic LSD experience on an Indian beach on New Year's day 2000. "I was crying from happiness, thankful that life was given to me and so thankful to my parents that they created me," said Beil. "This experience has not disappeared, it has had a lasting effect."

Like Herbert, many scientists and engineers also report heightened states of creativity while using LSD. During a press conference on Friday, Hofmann revealed that he was told by Nobel prize winning chemist Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction which helps amplify DNA sequences.

"When you study natural science and the miracles of creation, if you don't turn into a mystic you are not a natural scientist," said Hofmann. He believes LSD brings users closer to nature, a bond that he says has been damaged by the intrusion of technology.

In his presentation, artist Alex Grey noted that Nobel prize winner Francis Crick, discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, told friends that he received inspiration for his ideas from LSD - a revelation covered by href="http://www.mayanmajix.com/art1699.html">news reports.

The gathering included a discussion of how early computer pioneers used LSD for inspiration, including Douglas Englebart, the inventor of the mouse, Myron Stolaroff, a former Ampex engineer and LSD researcher who was attending the symposium, and Apple-cofounder Steve Jobs. In the 2005 book
What the Dormouse Said
, New York Times reporter
John Markoff quotes Jobs as describing his LSD experience "one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life."

In addition to enhancing creativity, supporters say LSD has promising medical uses. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists at the symposium discussed research into the therapeutic usefulness of psychedelic drugs.

Dr. Michael Mithoefer presented the preliminary findings of his study in Charleston, South Carolina, which is investigating whether MDMA is effective for treating post traumatic stress disorder in people traumatize by crime or war.

Dr. John Halpern of Harvard University discussed his proposed study using MDMA to treat anxiety in cancer patients which is now awaiting DEA approval.

The Florida-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is sponsoring these inquiries and research in Canada investigating the use of ibogain to treat drug addiction.

And a study at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, supported by the Heffter Research Institute, is investigating whether psilocybin effectively eases the anxiety of terminal cancer patients. Psychiatrist Charles Grob says his research group has located six of the needed twelve subjects and is looking for more participants.

While the data has yet to be analyzed, Grob told the gathering that study results have been promising and applauded the opportunity to share the data in an international gathering.

"It's very encouraging to see such a large number of people, including very knowledgeable people, getting together and sharing a common vision that these compounds have tremendous potential to facilitate healing, especially in areas that do not respond well to conventional treatments," said Grob.

"There is global healing in these compounds which have been used for millennium by indigenous people that have much to teach modern man and modern woman."

MAPS founder Rick Doblin says his goal is to make psychedelic medicines into prescription drugs. But he notes that LSD is not yet being studied for therapeutic purposes. "We have been deeply touched by our experiences with psychedelics and it is hard that there is not a single legal study with LSD given to humans anywhere in the world," said Doblin. "We need to bring what is underground and illegal back into a legal context."

But Doblin notes that a group of people who say LSD provides relief from their cluster headaches have organized
online and are pushing for a study at Harvard to explore this possible therapy. Doblin says that if Harvard accepts the MDMA study, it could pave the way for the symbolically important return of psychedelic research at Harvard. His goal, says Doblin, is to secure an LSD study in time for Hofmann's 101st birthday.

Dr. Andrew Sewell, a psychiatrist and neurologist from the Harvard Medical School who studies alcohol and drug abuse, says most problems with LSD occur when users take an unknown dose they don't feel comfortable with, in an uncontrolled setting, without supervision to shield them from dangerous situations.

"LSD flashbacks are well-confirmed phenomenon but they are relatively rare and don't seem to cause as much trouble as the media would have you believe," said Dr. Sewell who is attending the LSD symposium.

Dr. Sewell says people who have underlying mental disorders should not take LSD because it could make their symptoms worse. "Like any powerful drug, if LSD is used incorrectly it can cause more harm than good," said Dr. Sewell. "LSD is a potentially dangerous drug and should be taken under medical supervision."

"There is no evidence that LSD causes permanent brain damage and quite a lot of evidence that it doesn't," continues Dr. Sewell. "We are lucky that we have over 1,000 papers written in the 50's and 60's when LSD was given to thousands and thousands of research subjects so we have a pretty good idea at this point what it does and does not do."

Asked if the world need his invention, Hofmann said he hoped that the Basel LSD symposium would help create an appropriate place for LSD in society. "I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD," said Hofmann. "It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be."

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