In a moment of delightful whimsy in the annals of drug history, Albert Hofmann, after purposely ingesting LSD for the first time, rode his bicycle home and experienced all manner of beatific and hellish visions. Hofmann, a chemist with Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, had recently synthesized the compound lysergic acid diethylamide (a/k/a LSD, or “acid”) from ergot fungus. A few days earlier, on April 16, 1943, Hofmann had accidentally absorbed LSD through his fingertips and began experiencing “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Curious about the rabbit hole into which he had tripped, Hofmann dissolved some of the compound into water and deliberately swallowed a dose before taking his bicycle journey home — and elsewhere.
This experience set the stage for what was to become one of the most profound cultural forces in America, the use — and abuse — of psychedelic drugs. LSD, as well as other hallucinogens, would go on to help shape our ideas of consciousness, religion, and law for decades to come. From Timothy Leary’s proclamation to “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” to the spiritual underpinnings of the New Age movement, psychedelics would prove to be a restless burden for both the drugs’ users and the government that tried to suppress their use.
Hofmann, who died this past April at the age of 102, watched it all play out, horrified by the behavior of both drug users and opponents. He winced as the hippies took LSD with wild abandon, and wrung his hands as the government, here and abroad, criminalized LSD and other psychedelic compounds. But Hofmann also lived long enough to see it all come full circle. By the time he died, legitimate above-ground psychedelic research was alive and well at places like Johns Hopkins and, even more telling, at Harvard University, the latter under the guidance of Dr. John Halpern. Sitting a little to the left and outside of Halpern is Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit research group that, through the support of members and donors, helps fund scientists to do bona fide work with psychedelics in the hopes of legitimizing their therapeutic use. Together, the two men form a kind of psychedelic odd couple: Halpern is young but traditional and cautious, a scientist first and foremost. Doblin is a veteran in this world, a little rougher around the edges, and speaks openly about his own psychedelic adventures and his vision for less drug prohibition.
Nearly 50 years ago, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert created the Harvard Psilocybin Project, only to be fired by the university a few years later under scandalous circumstances. Harvard had not taken up this kind of drug research since that time. But after years of fundraising and petitioning for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, this past February, under the auspices of Harvard, Halpern began administering MDMA (better known to the Glo-Stick crowd as Ecstasy) to dying cancer patients, to see how they psychologically benefit from the drug. And now Halpern is also hoping to get approval from Harvard for a project that will evaluate the effects of LSD and psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms) on patients suffering from the debilitating condition known as cluster headaches.
I meet Dr. Halpern — considered the most important above-ground scientist in America willing to investigate hallucinogenic drugs — at McLean Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, where he is assistant professor of psychiatry. Halpern, 39, has been at McLean since 1998 and made a name for himself in 2005 with a groundbreaking research project studying peyote use within the Native American Church. Prior to that, Halpern worked on projects related to drug addiction, and the use of hallucinogens to treat it.
Before we head into his office at McLean, Halpern wants to take a walk in the woods that surround the hospital’s Belmont grounds. It is a crisp spring morning, and I half expect Halpern to pick and ingest some lichen, or start scraping some bark off a tree that he would brew into a psychedelic tea. Eventually we find our way to his office, where I imagined would be cushions on the floor, or maybe a giant statue of Shiva or Vishnu. What I see instead is the office of a typical Harvard professor: wall-to-ceiling papers, books, and journals. And while the screen-saver on his computer monitor is decidedly psychedelic, there is nothing here to suggest I am in the den of a mad Harvard scientist, hell-bent on dosing the collective American consciousness with LSD. In fact, when I mention the ghost of Leary and his legacy, Halpern smiles and says, “Well, we have seen how not to do it, haven’t we?”