The ‘high priest of LSD’, Dr Timothy Leary casts a long shadow over this exhaustive study of mind altering compounds despite being dismissed early on as a washed-up psychologist who had less influence over the potential value of psychedelics than he claimed.
The Berkley, California based academic was by no means the first to realise the effects of ‘acid’. That was down to the chemist Albert Hoffmann who, in 1938, thirty years before Leary et al discovered tripping, inadvertently absorbed LSD-25 in his lab and after lying down on a couch in his home reported perceiving “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Writes Pollan, whose previous works include the acclaimed The Botany of Desire, “Thus unfolds the world’s first LSD trip, in neutral Switzerland during the darkest days of World War II. It is also the only LSD trip ever taken that was entirely innocent of expectation.”
For many years LSD was being dispensed, researched and used by creatives (Aldous Huxley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger…), politicians and bureaucrats, the CIA, Church leaders, Robert Kennedy’s wife and myriad others - often not covertly.
At a conference in 1979 attended by participants in the first wave of psychedelic research, including Leary, old timers considered the question of whether mistakes had been made. One quipped, “There was a mistake made: nobody gave it to Nixon!”
Thirteen years earlier, when “the whole project of psychedelic science had collapsed”, Santoz pharmaceutical withdrew it from circulation. By then the research findings and users’ experiences showed that LSD does not lead to addiction and causes no physical harm, assuming that ‘trippers’ are properly supervised.
Later, and to this day, it was found that Hoffmann’s extract from ergot mould (which attacks rye) can help with addressing addictions such as nicotine and alcohol, and improving end-of-life experiences for the terminally ill. Chapters are devoted to the neuroscience surrounding the ingestion of LSD and psilocybin mushroom extract, and their use in treating certain psychiatric and mood disorders, including depression, and end-of-life anxiety.
Whatever the misgivings of the author regarding Leary, and he’s not alone, his index references outnumber those for Hoffmann by ten-to-one. Pollan deeply regrets that in portraying LSD as the ideal recreational drug Leary sabotaged its therapeutic acceptance for decades.
However, he concedes that the professor of psychedelics played an important, and valuable, historical role, not so much contemporaneously but from his “enduring contribution… by turning on a generation - the generation that, years later, has now taken charge of our institutions [“Steve Jobs often told people that his experiments with LSD had been one of his two or three most important life experiences’] - he helped create the conditions in which a revival of psychedelic research is now possible.”
Many figures have contributed to the psychedelic story, and Pollan has identified most of them in his lengthy research. Not content to present the story at arm’s length, or report others’ experiences, he embarked on a series of trips himself, noting that, by his late 50s, he had never taken psychedelics.
His accounts of LSD and psilocybin, both in somewhat New Age settings, are much what one might expect to hear - “The mushroom teacher helps us to see who we really are,” said mushroom Mary - and provided him with insights he regarded as valuable.
The third trip, on 5-MeO-DMT, derived from the smoked venom of the Sonoran desert toad, resulted in a rapid, horrendous, out of body high that caused him to think, “Is this what death feels like?” He didn’t know “what to think of this last trip.”
While these experiences have gained his book the most media attention, the real merit is his charting of how these extraordinary substances have travelled a path from potential therapeutic value through recreational use and subsequent banning to an increased recognition that they could help address many conditions. But there seems no role for The Toad’!