Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Those old problem children


When Albert Hofmann died in April at the age of 102 at his home in Switzerland, he would have been unknown outside the scientific community had it not been for what he affectionately called his "problem child," LSD—lysergic acid diethylamide-25, which he discovered/invented/synthesized in 1938 in the process of looking for medicinal uses of a fungus found on rye, wheat and other grains. He was a Swiss scientist in the traditional mold searching for ways to improve human life and he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations in unexpected ways. LSD deeply altered the lives of millions of people and, thereby, the course of human events.

LSD has been profoundly misunderstood and demonized by non-cognoscenti, seriously abused by some who could be called cognoscenti and banned for many years in much of the world. Hofmann's problem child strikes terror into the quaking hearts and fearful souls of those authorities who mistake control for order and who quiver with rage or uncertainty at questions (or chemicals) that challenge their certainty about what is what.

Psychedelics were well known by the time Hofmann discovered LSD, but LSD was some 10,000 times more powerful than mescaline. Through the 1940s and 1950s, LSD created a revolution in psychiatry. It was used successfully in the treatment of neurosis, psychosis and depression. Some 40,000 people underwent psychedelic therapy, perhaps most notably the actor Cary Grant, who received some 60 LSD psychotherapy sessions and said of them, "I have been born again." Aldous Huxley requested an injection of LSD on his deathbed. And many psychotherapists took the drug along with their patients, a fact not noted nearly enough.

Even though it was a problem child, Hofmann, who took LSD hundreds of times, never gave up his belief in its goodness and usefulness as a "medicine for the soul." He never believed in it as a pleasure drug for the masses. He said, "As long as people fail to truly understand psychedelics and continue to use them as pleasure drugs, and fail to appreciate the very deep psychic experience they may induce, then their medical use will be held back."

Like many others—perhaps including some reading these words—at a certain point he realized he no longer had a use for LSD. He turned to and recommended to others older methods of attaining "extraordinary states of consciousness"—breathing techniques, yoga, fasting, dance, art, meditation. He said, "LSD brings about a reduction of intellectual powers in favor of an emotional experience of the world. It can help to refill our consciousness with this feeling of wholeness and being one with nature." Which would seem to indicate a key element of any "extraordinary state of consciousness" is nothing more complicated than connecting the heart to the brain.

LSD was made illegal in the U.S. in 1967 and despite its successful use in psychotherapy for the previous more than 20 years the DEA holds that it has no medical benefits. Its potential for abuse as what Hofmann termed one of the "pleasure drugs" is well established, as, contrary to the rationale for its legal standing, is its beneficial medical use.

Another problem child in the pharmacopoeia of medicine is Cannabis sativa, more commonly known as marijuana. It has been used for thousands of years for a variety of purposes, including medicinal and spiritual. As hemp it has been used in the making of fiber goods including rope, many different sturdy woven products, oil, paper, textiles and fuel. Hemp is grown, harvested and used well in virtually every country in the world except the United States. The illegal marijuana has certainly been (and is as you read these words) used and abused as a pleasure drug, but its use, abuse, destructiveness and danger to the social order pales in comparison to that of the legal drug alcohol and, for that matter, several others.

The marijuana laws of America, unlike marijuana itself, have damaged and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of otherwise innocent people, flooded the jails with people who could not be termed criminal in a rational social order, created a huge illegal industry of enormous profits to a criminal hierarchy far more dangerous to society than the most pleasure seeking of their customers, including those seeking relief from the symptoms of AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and the incessant pain of many ailments.

The thing is, those old problem children are not going to go away. Though this newspaper and many of its readers do not support the legalization and control of marijuana and/or LSD the way alcohol and nicotine are controlled, this writer and, as the city of Hailey recently evinced (twice), many other readers do. Part of the rationale behind such thinking is perhaps best illustrated by a Florida report published this month that analyzed 168,900 deaths statewide in 2007. Cocaine, heroin and all methamphatemines caused 989 deaths, it found, while legal opioids—strong painkillers in brand-name drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin—caused 2,328. Drugs with benzodiazepine, mainly depressants like Valium and Xanax, led to 743 deaths. Alcohol was the most commonly occurring drug, appearing in the bodies of 4,179 of the dead and judged the cause of death of 466—fewer than cocaine (843) but more than methamphetamine (25) and marijuana (0).

Res ipsa loquitur.

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