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Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Thursday, 1 May 2008 11:14 UK

Did LSD change Britain?

Blotter LSD (Picture: DEA)

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Sixty-three years ago the first acid trip was taken by an unwitting research chemist, Albert Hofmann, who has died at the age of 102. To its detractors LSD is perhaps the most dangerous drug in the world, but did its advent really change society in Britain and even the way we eat?

In 1965 something lurking under the meniscus of British society punctured the surface.

A man named Michael Hollingshead opened an office of the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea in central London. Having helped turn soon-to-be hippie guru Timothy Leary on to LSD, Hollingshead came on a mission of hallucinogenic proselytisation.

Albert Hofmann
Swiss research chemist for Sandoz
First created LSD in 1938
Accidentally absorbed LSD through fingers in 1943
Took deliberate higher dose "trip" three days later
Had hallucinatory bicycle ride
19 April 1943 now known by users as "bicycle day"
Believed in therapeutic use of drug

Soon musicians and artists were coming into regular contact with LSD. The rock historians still argue long and hard about the full extent of the effect LSD had on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Britain's biggest musical exports.

But it's hard to dispute the evidence of its impact in terms of psychedelic-inspired music, record covers, and even the commercial art of the time.

Before then LSD had been in Britain, but only in the hands of tiny groups of psychiatrists and military scientists. From 1965 onwards it suddenly came into the pockets and mouths of students, drop-outs, and "free thinkers".

And soon it drew the attention of the authorities. By the summer of 1966, the home secretary had moved to ban it. It cropped up in court cases and four decades of newspaper opprobrium commenced. Over the years it has been blamed for poor mental health and numerous suicides and accidental deaths.

Today the government advice warns of the possibility of terrifying trips, vivid flashbacks and triggers for those susceptible to mental health problems.

But there were those in the 1960s and 1970s who felt that rather than being a mere dangerous recreational drug it was the spark for dramatic changes in British society.

'Strait-laced culture'

This was the time of seismic shifts in sexual behaviour, the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, the genesis of modern feminism and the green movement. To its defenders, LSD was part of the reason why the old ways of thinking could be challenged.

"British culture was extremely strait-laced in the 1950s - it was rigid and confined and everybody went to church. LSD blasted a hole right through the middle of that," says Sue Hall, who was a student at Watford Art College when she first encountered LSD on a visit to London in 1966. Hall last took the drug at the 100th birthday celebrations for Hofmann in Switzerland.

Gregory Sams: 'LSD changed my life'

For Gregory Sams and his brother Craig an LSD trip at Berkeley in California in 1967 provided an epiphanal moment that led them to London to spark a major change in British eating habits.

"It was as a direct consequence of my brother and myself taking LSD that we introduced natural and organic foods in the UK. At that point people were looking forward to the day we all live on vitamin pills. Today you can't open a newspaper without reading about organic foods."

After the trip Gregory and Craig thought long and hard about what people were eating. They decided they were fed up with a Western diet big on garish food dyes, additives and cheap meat. It changed their thoughts on a career.

"My brother said he would have been a US navy fighter pilot, I was thinking of being an oceanographer. LSD clarified you. It gives you that primeval uncluttered vision.

In 1968, Gregory and Craig set up the Seed restaurant in London and started trying to source organic food. Together they founded Whole Earth Foods.

'Wider horizons'

Craig went on to be head of the Soil Association and to set up the chocolate company Green and Blacks. In 1982, Gregory is credited with inventing the vegeburger. Since then he has moved on to other projects including design and distribution of posters and T-shirts featuring fractal patterns and writing political works such as Uncommon Sense - the State is Out of Date. He continues to use LSD.

Paper bag

Visual and auditory distortion common

Hallucinations in some people
Pupils dilate

"Trip" can last eight hours or more
Delivered on paper or tablet
Class A drug in UK
Can provoke terror in users
Some users report fears over mental state
Can cause vivid flashbacks
UK government health advice says no evidence of permanent physical or psychological harm
Potential to trigger mental health problems in susceptible people
Implicated in a number of suicides and accidental deaths

"So many people made their breakthrough as a result of seeing wider horizons," Sams explains.

For John "Hoppy" Hopkins LSD was enough to take him out of his world as a Fleet Street photographer into the orbit of stars like Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney.

"The effect of acid is to kick your frame of reference and give it a good old shake. People are never quite the same again.

"The effect of acid on me was to cause me to question the whole business framework. It caused me in the parlance of the time to drop out. I was making the press barons richer by working for them without being able to set my own agenda."

To him there is a path to be traced from the sense of community generated by LSD to the social networking that is such a feature of today's internet.

"One of the things that acid enabled was for us all to recognise we were part of the same tribe.

"Acid was like a tin opener or a Pandora's box. Hofmann was as important as Oppenheimer and those other scientists who invented the atomic bomb."

Death knell

In 1966 LSD was big enough for two national tabloids to strain every sinew to get it made illegal.

Fast forward 40 years and seizures are few and far between. According to the British Crime Survey, by 1996 only 1% of 16-59-year-olds reported using LSD in the past 12 months. By 2007 the figure was 0.2%. In the same period the figure for those using cocaine has risen more than fourfold to 2.6%.

The Beatles
Some think LSD changed the course of the Beatles

The death knell for LSD started to sound in 1977. More than 800 police officers were involved in Operation Julie, conducting raids across the country. It transpired that a secret laboratory in sleepy Tregaron in mid-Wales was turning out vast volumes of LSD.

"They had been making some of the highest quality ever known and supplying most of the world," says Andy Roberts, author of the forthcoming book Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. "When this drug ring was smashed it effectively meant LSD started to fade away."

Operation Julie proved a seminal moment in drugs enforcement in Britain, involving hundreds of officers across a number of forces, extensive surveillance, undercover work, management of informants and lengthy sentences for the main players.

As well as this hammer blow to the production of the drug, culture was also changing and new drugs were arriving.

"In the 1980s, Thatcher effectively smashed the free festival culture and then ecstasy started to come in. People wanted a more manageable drug," says Roberts.

But whatever the arguments about LSD's influence or the harm it can do, it has had one indisputable lasting legacy.

The phrase "[something] is like [something] on acid" has become a classic piece of verbal shorthand - typically employed by those who have never taken the drug - to indicate that something is a bit wacky or exaggerated.

Whether it's the "the Lord Of The Rings on acid", "a giraffe on acid", "Aspen on acid" or even "Charles Rennie Mackintosh on acid" the linguistic influence lives on.

Below is a selction of your comments.

Are we honestly suggesting that if someone hadn't taken LSD the idea of not putting additives in food and growing food naturally would never have been thought of? Taking LSD to change your thought processes isn't a very organic or natural approach now is it? LSD curtailed the careers of Peter Green, Syd Barrett and probably a good few other people whose brains never made it out of the sixties. Sounds like if you are lucky the pattern on your curtains swirls about a bit, and if you are unlucky you spend the rest of your life as a child. I'll give it a miss thanks.
Jonathan, Brentwood, Essex, UK

Whilst your list of LSD effects is accurate it is also biased. If you wish to use the subjective lines like "can provoke terror in users", and "some users report fears over mental state", why not balance them with "can cause euphoria and joy in users", or "some users report a more balanced and creative mental state"? All those statements are true and it would be nice to see a truly balanced list of potential effects rather than a focus on the negative. I'm not an LSD user myself nor have I any desire to take any drugs but I am intelligent enough to recognise that this drug has both positive and negative effects.
Mark, London

My best friend became schizophrenic on a bad LSD trip, and I developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a bad one, which left me with an anxiety disorder for about five years. I still think LSD and mushrooms are an amazing experience... but we need to learn to respect them and think about the environment in which we take them. My advice - only take it among people you know and trust, not among strangers.
Jezza, London

Its actually quite funny when you look at the people quoted saying LSD changed their lives. They claim that they wouldn't have made their lifestyle choices without LSD experimentation and claim it helped them to be free from the mainstream culture of the time. But in giving LSD so much credit in "freeing" themselves, they seem to be denying themselves their own liberty as human beings and the power to change their lives. I really doubt that the drug freed them.
Michael, Nottingham, UK

I took LSD several times 20 odd years ago, it changes your perception of things forever I think, and it's not all good, I thought all was well but have since developed perception issues and problems with depression, memory, concentration and mental health issues. So yes, a positive mind altering/opening drug that is very positive but take it and as with any drug you will have to pay the price. The best advice is probably don't as there is nothing worse than being stuck in a mental playground from which there is no escape. Be warned.
Planet Gaz, Bham

It seems to be a common misconception that people who take LSD are the only people to experience "free thinking", creativity and the ability to question the 'buisness framework' of the world. Many people like myself have been brought up and educated in a way to have all these things without having to resort to chemically altering our minds, maybe it is only those missing something in the first place that need LSD or other drugs to enable them to experience their true being.
Charlie, Banes

I had a great time with some great people experimenting (heavily) with acid and mushrooms etc for a few years. I also had some absolutely nightmarish trips too. I think it helped lead me to a more conscious and empathic life. I'm lucky to have found expression in an artistic industry and have no need of any chemical triggers 20 years later, not even alcohol.
Raindog, Oxford

LSD25 is a powerful tool. As an old 'acidhead' myself, I am convinced that it should be used in the treatment of certain mental ill health - and it's use in treating those dependant on alcohol showed it was the most effective treatment. Yes, there were some - like Peter Green - who seemed to suffer from its use. I believe they were already ill and LSD25 did not help, and may have amplified their ill health, but prescribed drugs do not have positive benefit for all users either. As for myself, I am glad I experienced the high quality acid produced in the early 70s. It altered my perception of myself and the world around me. It took an unemployed council estate kid, woke him up, and gave him the vision to return to education and eventually become a graduate.
AKF, London UK

How sad is a human being when they need artificial influences to make their life better or different? The repercussions of having an alternative thought process is disasterous. And having a chemical replace common sense and reason is unfathomably foolish.
A Booyse, Stevenage

Consider the fate of Peter Green, founder of Fleetwood Mac. His experimentations with LSD resulted in quite stunning musical experimentation that formed the blueprint for hard rock and even dance music, but resulted in "never coming back" from the trips he took.
Rich Stock, Southampton, Hampshire

As an ex-LSD tripper it made a significant impact, both positive and negative on my self. This impact veered from an increased sense of self awareness and creativity on the positive side to a short lived bout of extreme paranoia and problems concentrating related to hallucinogen persisting perception disorder on the negative.

It's true that if I hadn't had bad trips whilst on LSD I would still love to take it today if only to re-experience that wonderful sense of cathexis and increased creativity. Whilst LSD has received a large amount of bad press, I still strongly believe that LSD can be an important tool in treating mental illness, and should be studied free from this negative stigma. Having said that, it's clear that LSD isn't a drug for everyone.
Jez, London

Well, I was a "child of the 60's". Now I am 60. Back then I refused the strawberry stamp petrified at the thought of dying young. Now when I read "Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD has died aged 102", I wonder at my choices.
The Suze, South Wales


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