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Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal

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It’s no secret that psychedelic drugs have the ability to cast light on the miraculous reality hidden within our psyche. Almost immediately after the discovery of LSD less than a hundred years ago, psychedelics began to play a crucial role in the quest to understand the link between mind and matter. With an uncanny ability to reveal the mind’s remote frontiers and the unmapped areas of human consciousness, LSD and MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) have proven extraordinarily effective in treating anxiety disorders ...
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Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal

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Overview


It’s no secret that psychedelic drugs have the ability to cast light on the miraculous reality hidden within our psyche. Almost immediately after the discovery of LSD less than a hundred years ago, psychedelics began to play a crucial role in the quest to understand the link between mind and matter. With an uncanny ability to reveal the mind’s remote frontiers and the unmapped areas of human consciousness, LSD and MDMA (better known as Ecstasy) have proven extraordinarily effective in treating anxiety disorders such as PTSD—yet the drugs remain illegal for millions of people who might benefit from them.

Anchoring Tom Shroder’s Acid Test are the stories of Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who has been fighting government prohibition of psychedelics for more than thirty years; Michael Mithoefer, a former emergency room physician, now a psychiatrist at the forefront of psychedelic therapy research; and his patient Nicholas Blackston, a former Marine who has suffered unfathomable mental anguish from the effects of brutal combat experiences in Iraq. All three men are passionate, relatable people; each flawed, each resilient, and each eccentric, yet very familiar and very human.

Acid Test covers the first heady years of experimentation in the fifties and sixties, through the backlash of the seventies and eighties, when the drug subculture exploded and uncontrolled use of street psychedelics led to a PR nightmare that created the drug stereotypes of the present day. Meticulously researched and astoundingly informative, this is at once a personal story of intertwining lives against an epic backdrop, and a compelling argument for the unprecedented healing properties of drugs that have for decades been characterized as dangerous, illicit substances.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
06/09/2014
In this psychedelic patchwork of narratives, journalist Shroder (Old Souls) explores the therapeutic possibilities of LSD and Ecstasy (MDMA), and,more broadly,the potential of the human mind. Known as recreational drugs, LSD and MDMA have been proven to treat PTSD and similar anxiety disorders effectively. While Shroder provides scientific support for his arguments, stories trump studies in his descriptions of the prevalence, advantages, and—perhaps most significantly—vivid experiences of drug use. Guided by Shroder’s easy narrative tone, readers follow an activist, a marine, and a physician-turned-psychiatrist who developed a philosophy of psychedelic therapy through self-experimentation. Their lives intertwine across an evolving political and cultural climate, as the initial popularity of psychedelics was replaced with widespread backlash and controversy. Although Schroder’s story is largely Western, he takes readers all over the world, from the Swiss birthplace of LSD to Iraq, where he relates a soldier’s experience with the drug . Readers also learn how popular opinion against psychedelics emerged from misinformation and how this public bias threatens the reception of Shroder’s larger message. The debates surrounding the legalization of other currently illicit substances, however, add significance to this brief in favor of psychedelics. Shroder both informs readers about the drugs’ shadowy pasts and provides insight into the future of mental health. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-11
A well-respected journalist offers evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs.The late comedian Bill Hicks, prone to taking what psychedelic bard Terence McKenna called “heroic doses” of mushrooms, used to refer to the use of drugs as “squeegeeing open your third eye.” In this cleareyed account, formerWashington Post Magazineeditor Shroder (Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence For Past Lives, 1999, etc.) explores both the complex history of the issue and the current thinking on the use of LSD, Ecstasy and other psychotropic substances for healing troubled minds. Thankfully, the author only briefly touches on the usual tropes—there’s a thoughtful chapter on Aldous Huxley’s introduction to LSD, after which he wrote, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, Just take a pinch of psychedelic”—but Shroder skims over old stories about Ken Kesey, Owsley Stanley and Timothy Leary that have plagued authentic researchers for years. Instead, the author tells his complex story via three men: Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies; Michael Mithoefer, a former emergency room doctor whose interest in exploring his own mind led him to become a trauma psychologist; and Nick Blackston, a U.S. Marine whose war experiences are characteristic of the waves of soldiers returning from war with catastrophic PTSD. Occasionally, the stories are amusing: At one point, Doblin was being considered for an internship at the Food and Drug Administration. Upon being turned down, he thought, “Now I can still smoke pot and don’t have to wear a suit.” More often, they’re moving—e.g., Mithoefer’s assistance with a variety of patients, many of whom spoke on the record about their experiences, to discover what the doctor calls “inner healing intelligence.” Add to these stories a perceptive criticism of the failings of America’s war on drugs, and Shroder delivers an important historical perspective on a highly controversial issue in modern medicine.An observant argument for understanding a society through the drugs it uses.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399162794
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press
  • Publication date: 9/9/2014
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 176,657
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author


TOM SHRODER is an award-winning journalist, editor, and author of Old Souls, a classic study of the intersection between mysticism and science. As editor of The Washington Post Magazine, he conceived and edited two Pulitzer Prize–winning feature stories. His most recent editing project, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William Arkin, was a New York Times bestseller.
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Read an Excerpt

Acid Test

LSD, Ecstasy, And The Power To Heal


By Tom Shroder

Blue Rider Press

Copyright © 2014 Tom Shroder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-399-16279-4



CHAPTER 1

ALBERT

(ST. ALBERT'S FIRE)


Many years later, as Albert Hofmann wrote of the discovery that made him famous, he recalled the distant May morning when he experienced a phenomenon that bizarrely foreshadowed his extraordinary career.

"There are experiences that most of us are hesitant to speak about," he wrote, "because they do not conform to everyday reality and defy rational explanation. These are not particular external occurrences, but rather events of our inner lives, which are generally dismissed as figments of the imagination and barred from our memory. Suddenly, the familiar view of our surroundings is transformed in a strange, delightful, or alarming way: it appears to us in a new light, takes on a special meaning. Such an experience can be as light and fleeting as a breath of air, or it can imprint itself deeply upon our minds."

On this particular Monday morning, walking along a forest path near Baden, Switzerland ("I can still point to the exact spot where it occurred," he would exult more than half a century later), what Hofmann encountered was definitely of the latter variety.

As he walked through the greening spring woodland, "all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Was this something I had simply failed to notice before? Was I suddenly discovering the spring forest as it actually looked? It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty. I was filled with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness, and blissful security."

He gaped, transfixed for an immeasurable moment, then watched, helpless, as the preternatural light slowly receded into mundanity. He felt spent, at once deflated and transformed.

"How could a vision that was so real and convincing, so directly and deeply felt—how could it end so soon? And how could I tell anyone about it, as my overflowing joy compelled me to do, since I knew there were no words to describe what I had seen?"

This was only the first of young Albert's several similar encounters with the ineffable, and through them he became convinced of "the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight."

He felt moved to express the wonder of what he'd seen through art or poetry, but bitter attempts to do so persuaded him he was no artist, and never would be. "I was often troubled in those days," he wrote, "knowing that I was not cut out to be a poet or artist. I assumed I would have to keep these experiences to myself, important as they were to me."

So instead he became a chemist, working with tubes and flasks and Bunsen burners in cramped, poorly equipped, badly ventilated laboratories of the early twentieth century, using techniques that had advanced little in a hundred years. In short, he descended into the atomistic materialism of the science of his era, far from his youthful visions, and marching ever further away.

It is great irony, then, or fate, that following this contrary path led him, purely by chance, to discover an astoundingly potent drug that did far more than convey the inexpressible experiences of his youth. It created them.


All the thirty-two-year-old Hofmann wanted to do in 1938 was synthesize a chemical compound that would stimulate the human respiratory and circulatory systems. He had gone to work for Sandoz, a Swiss chemical company in 1929, after graduation from the University of Zurich. Sandoz, founded in 1886, had started out manufacturing dyes and, later, saccharin. There wasn't even a formal pharmaceutical department until 1917, when Professor Arthur Stoll isolated an active substance called ergotamine from ergot, a fungus found in tainted rye that had been used as a folk medicine for generations.

In its natural form and in quantity, ergot was a deadly poison and a scourge responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over many centuries. In the year 857 in what is now Germany, a contemporary accounting of the events of the year recorded that "a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."

Historians now attribute this and similar events throughout early history to long term exposure to infected grains, a condition known as St. Anthony's fire after the French monastic order that devoted itself to caring for the plague's victims. Ergot was not suspected as the cause until the late seventeenth century. Eventually, ergotism's toxic effects were classified into two categories; gangrenous ergotism and convulsive ergotism. The description of the symptoms on a University of Hawaii botany website is enough to permanently put you off rye bread:

Convulsive ergotism is characterized by nervous dysfunction, where the victim is twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and wryneck, a more or less fixed twisting of the neck, which seems to simulate convulsions or fits. In some cases, this is accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations.

In gangrenous ergotism, the victim may lose parts of their extremities, such as toes, fingers, ear lobes or in more serious cases, arms and legs may be lost.


Some believe that the advent of these gruesome symptoms without a known cause, especially the convulsive symptoms—which, along with hallucinations, sometimes included mania and psychosis—led to accusations of witchcraft, followed by witch-hunting hysterias such as the famous Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693. Studies have even correlated years of rye scarcity—suggesting an increased willingness to consume tainted rye—with years of abundant witchcraft accusations.

But in small doses, the muscle and blood vessel constricting properties of ergot could be useful to hasten childbirth and staunch bleeding after delivery, capabilities that had somehow been divined by alchemists and midwives and made use of for generations.

Arthur Stoll's accomplishment was to isolate the compound in ergot that caused the constrictions: ergotamine. In its refined form, the compound could be precisely dosed to avoid a host of side effects from other unhelpful compounds in ergot—properties that made Sandoz a lot of money and launched the pharmaceutical research and development department that hired Hofmann twelve years later.

Within a few years researchers had determined the chemical structure of the various biologically active compounds in ergot, all of which shared a common nucleus. This chemical starting point was called lysergic acid, or, in German, Lysergsaure.

Hofmann developed a synthetic process to build the ergot compounds from their component chemicals. Using this method, he recreated ergot's active ingredients as well as novel but similar compounds that, based on the potency of the ergot compounds, could reasonably be expected to have medical uses.

In a sense Hofmann was playing God, combining lysergic acid with various other organic molecules just to see what happened. He created twenty-four of these lysergic acid combinations. Then he created the twenty-fifth, reacting lysergic acid with diethylamine, a derivative of ammonia. The compound was abbreviated as LSD-25 for the purposes of laboratory testing.

He had hoped for something that could stimulate circulation and respiration. But his hopes were dashed. LSD-25 did show an effect on the uterus. As Hofmann explains in his book on the discovery, LSD: My Problem Child, the uterine contracting effect only amounted to 70 percent of that of ergobasine. The research report also noted in passing that the experimental animals became highly excited during testing. "The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued."

Hofmann went on with his ergot research and produced some very successful compounds, including a drug called Hydergine, which improved peripheral circulation and cerebral function in the elderly, and became one of Sandoz's most important products. Hydergine is still used in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

But for some reason, even as the years passed, Hofmann couldn't stop thinking about the apparently useless LSD-25. Maybe it was the memory of all those oddly excited animals in the test pens. Hofmann never said, beyond calling it "a peculiar presentiment—the feeling that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations."

So, five years after lysergic acid diethylamide was tossed on the ash heap of pharmaceutical history, based on nothing but his odd presentiment, Hofmann decided to synthesize it again. He would later tell intimates, "I did not discover LSD; LSD found and called me."

It was a Friday in the middle of a world war, April 16, 1943. Hofmann was in the final stage of the synthesis of just a few centigrams of the material, the part where the LSD crystallized into a salt, when he suddenly felt very strange to the point that he had to leave work and go home. When he returned to the lab the following Monday, he wrote a memo to his boss, Stoll, explaining what had happened:

I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.


When he recovered, Hofmann set about trying to figure out what had so strongly affected him. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Hofmann said that he first suspected the fumes of a chloroform-like solvent he had been using. Now he intentionally breathed in its fumes, to no effect. It was only then that he was forced to the conclusion that he must have somehow ingested a trace of the LSD, an idea he discounted at first because he had been very careful to avoid contamination, knowing the potential toxicity of any ergot-related compounds. The only point of access would have been through the skin of his fingertips, and the amount involved would have been so tiny that he could not imagine it could produce such a significant reaction.

Now that his intuition about LSD was showing tantalizing signs of proving justified, Hofmann decided there was only one course of action. Self-experimentation.

At 4:20 in the afternoon of April 19, without informing anyone at Sandoz except his lab assistant, Hofmann dissolved 25 millionths of a gram of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate—the crystallized salt form of the compound—in a glass of water and drank it. He expected it to do absolutely nothing.

Hofmann was dealing with the LSD as if it might be deadly poison. That's why he had begun his tests with such an infinitesimal dose, a thousand times less than the active dose of any other psychically active compound he knew of. He had planned to increase the dosage by tiny increments until he got the first inkling of a reaction, expecting it to take many dose increases before that happened.

But just forty minutes after that initial dose, he wrote the one and only entry in his lab journal:

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.


"I was able to write the last words only with great effort," he wrote in My Problem Child. "I had to struggle to speak intelligibly."

Hofmann asked his lab assistant to escort him home, which wasn't as easy as it might have been. Because of wartime restriction on automobile use, both men were on bicycles. On what must have been an extraordinarily adventurous bike ride, Hofmann felt his condition take a threatening turn.

"Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors."

The powerful effects were as frightening as they had been unexpected. Hofmann had no idea how the experience might play out in the next few hours, and beyond. For all he knew, the drug might permanently damage his psyche. Perhaps it might even physically injure or kill him. These fears were what prompted him to request the milk, a nonspecific palliative for a range of toxic substances. The hubris of what he had done in testing this potent drug on himself filled him with anxiety and regret. He would only realize later how important that fearful mind-set would be in shaping the nature of his experience, which he described compellingly in his book:

The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa.... Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk—in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R, but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.... Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul.... I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? ... Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.


Hofmann wasn't dying. In fact, when the doctor arrived, he detected nothing more alarming than dilated pupils. Blood pressure, respiration, pulse were all completely normal. The doctor left his bag shut: no medications were required. He simply put Hofmann to bed and waited by his side. Hofmann began to come to himself.

His account continued:

The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me ...


By the time his wife arrived home, Hofmann was able to speak coherently about what had happened to him. The next morning he wrote:

Everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.


As remarkable as his experience had been, in the aftermath it struck Hofmann that perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was that, despite the extreme intoxication he had experienced, he could remember every detail of it with, one might say, acid-etched clarity.

Hofmann sent his report to Stoll the following day and copied Ernst Rothlin, head of the Sandoz pharmacological department. Both men were skeptical that such a small quantity of the drug could have produced the outlandish result Hofmann claimed.

"Are you certain you made no mistake in the weighing? Is the stated dose really correct?" Stoll asked.

Rothlin's skepticism exceeded even Stoll's.

In a 1976 interview with High Times, Hofmann said Rothlin insisted that he had exaggerated the drug's effect. "Rothlin claimed he had a strong will and could suppress the effects of drugs. But after he took 60 micrograms, one quarter of the dose I had taken earlier, he was convinced. I had to laugh as he described his fantastic visions."

Now it was clear that a remarkable discovery had been made. Yet, Hofmann did not yet see a clear connection between his frightening experience on what would become known as "Bicycle Day" and his transcendent moments as a child. That would come later.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Acid Test by Tom Shroder. Copyright © 2014 Tom Shroder. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Foreword, xiii,
1. Albert (St. Albert's Fire), 1,
2. Nicholas (A Sign), 12,
3. Werner and Stan (The Maelstrom of Poe), 20,
4. Nicholas (What Makes Grass Grow), 23,
5. Humphry and Aldous (To Fall in Hell, 27,
6. Rick (Brave New World), 40,
7. Nicholas (Tires, Grille, Kill), 51,
8. Rick (Hidden Realms), 56,
9. Nicholas (Dreamland), 68,
10. Rick (Perilous Terrain), 74,
11. Nicholas (American Dreams), 79,
12. Rick (Peak Experiences), 84,
13. Michael [The Pit), 95,
14. Nicholas (Taking the Lead), 100,
15. Rick (Concrete Reality), 103,
16. Michael (Fertile Soil), 111,
17. Nicholas ("Man, You're Scared"), 115,
18. Rick (Who Would Be Born), 119,
19. Michael (Sailing Away), 125,
20. Nicholas (Going Cyclic), 129,
21. Rick (Breathing Lessons), 136,
22. Nicholas (Of Man and Superman), 144,
23. Rick (Ecstasy and Agony), 151,
24. Michael (Heal Thyself), 158,
25. Nicholas ("Got a Light?"), 164,
26. Rick (Forces of Nature), 167,
27. Michael (Getting to the Root), 179,
28. Nicholas ("Keep the Glove On"), 185,
29. Rick (Drug Warriors), 191,
30. Michael (Catnip), 206,
31. Nicholas (All Gummed Up), 213,
32. Rick (Full Flower of Depression), 222,
33. Nicholas (Heavy Duty), 226,
34. Rick (Hippie of the Year), 230,
35. Michael (Mother Ibogaine), 239,
36. Nicholas (Don't Forget to Check Your Guns), 243,
37. Rick (Machine Elves), 246,
38. Nicholas (The Maniac in the Mirror), 257,
39. Rick (Earthquakes and Rainbows), 261,
40. Michael ("Are You a Psychiatrist?"), 279,
41. Nicholas (Have a Plan), 295,
42. Michael (Getting Crooked), 300,
43. Roland Griffiths (A Healing Void), 323,
44. Nicholas (The Vicious Cycle), 337,
45. Michael (The Peace Drug), 342,
46. Nicholas (The Web of Life), 352,
47. Rick ("Our Lives and Time"), 392,
48. Nicholas (Semper Fi), 401,
Acknowledgments, 409,
About the Author, 411,
Index, 413,

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