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LSD Makes a Return Trip : As Drug Reappears on the Scene, Many Warn of Risks

April 16, 1993|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Fifty years ago today, a Swiss scientist named Albert Hofmann was fiddling with a chemical in his tidy laboratory when he inadvertently ingested a bit of his brew. Wooziness seized him, then came a "dreamlike state" and "an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors."

Quite by accident, the bespectacled chemist had just experienced history's first acid trip.

Astounded by the episode, Hofmann concluded that he had fathered a drug with wondrous potential for psychotherapy and brain research. What he did not foresee was that his pharmaceutical child--LSD--would spawn a psychedelic revolution and become the defining drug for the rebellious Woodstock generation.

The revolution, of course, collapsed in the late 1960s, with LSD's reputation bloodied by tales of suicides, haunting flashbacks and bad trips. But now, on the 50th anniversary of LSD's invention, there are new signs of interest and even a push by scientists to rehabilitate the image of "the drug that shook the world."

Fresh evidence of LSD's comeback emerged this week when the federal government released results of a survey showing a 30% upswing of acid use by the nation's eighth-graders. The report also recorded the highest level of LSD use by high school seniors since 1985 and said that today's teen-agers prefer acid to cocaine.

Although abuse of other drugs is declining, LSD is becoming more common.

"I'm not calling it an epidemic, but LSD use is increasing, and that bucks the trends we see with other illegal drugs," said Robert C. Bonner, chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. LSD-related arrests have tripled in the last three years, he added, and the agency has formed an LSD task force to crack down on manufacturers.

While Bonner and his colleagues in the drug war scramble to extinguish LSD's revival, another group aims to nourish it. The drug's defenders insist it is a valuable, unexploited tool for science and hope to free LSD of the stigma that has exiled it to the laboratory shelf.

"It is time for a second look at LSD," said Dr. Oscar Janiger, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who studied acid's effect on humans until the government tightened controls on such work in 1962. "I don't believe it's for everyone, or any of that baloney. But this is an extremely fascinating material. It deserves its day in court."

This weekend, hundreds of LSD devotees are gathering in the Bay Area to tout the drug's potential and commemorate its discovery. There will be lectures, poetry readings, an art auction and a "rave"--a sort of 1990s-style group trip, featuring all-night dancing kindled by acid and a newer hallucinogen, Ecstasy.

Events in the three-day "Psychedelic Summit" will be held at various sites in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. They will include reminiscences by Laura Huxley, whose late husband, author Aldous Huxley, took LSD while dying to experience the event "more consciously." The rave concludes Sunday with a free concert in Golden Gate Park.

Timothy Leary, perhaps the most notorious sultan of psychedelics in the 1960s, will miss the party. But the guest list includes other LSD luminaries from Janiger, who will play a tape-recorded message from the ailing inventor Hofmann, to Mountain Girl, who joined author Ken Kesey and a busload of other "Merry Pranksters" on history's most legendary acid exploits.

Although the drug enforcement chief derides the anniversary event as a misguided glorification of a dangerous substance, its organizers say they have serious, noble goals.

"We've been hunted down and branded as social criminals," said Rick Doblin, founder of an organization pushing for government approval of research involving psychedelic drugs. "But we're coming out of the closet now, because these drugs--when used responsibly--have benefits. We want society to take advantage of what LSD has to offer."

Although the debate over LSD continues, its popularity with a new generation of young people continues to rise. The number of eighth-graders who have used LSD rose from 2.7% to 3.2% in the last year. That echoes results from a study of college students, which found a significant jump in LSD use between 1989 and 1991.

Some experts attribute LSD's appeal to its low cost--$2 to $5 for a hit that lasts up to 12 hours--and the fact that it is nonaddictive. It also has found a niche at the new and highly popular raves, which blend laser shows and computer-generated music to draw as many as 30,000 youngsters each weekend in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Psychologist Lloyd D. Johnston, who conducted the survey released this week, suspects that the new popularity in the face of LSD's risks is "a prime example of generational forgetting."

"Today's youngsters don't hear what an earlier generation heard," he said, "that LSD causes bad trips, flashbacks, schizophrenia, brain damage, chromosomal damage and so on."

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