Dr. Hoffman's problem child turns 58
It started causing trouble as a teen and has never really stopped.
We can't name names, but its initials are LSD.
By Chris Colin
April 16, 2001 | A hundred and one years ago today, the first book of
postage stamps was issued in the United States. Exactly 43 years after
that, on a Friday afternoon, April 16, 1943 -- Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann
took the world's first LSD trip.
We now know a lot. We know about the epiphanies, and the paranoia and the
visions. We know that the CIA conducted secret LSD experiments on U.S.
citizens, the military and its own agents for years. We know that there was
briefly talk at the CIA of testing LSD on unsuspecting subway riders. We
know that the public got its hands on the drug in the ^A'60s and
reconfigured it as a countercultural apparatus. We know that some users
really did believe, at inopportune times, that they could fly. We also know
LSD's dangers were often exaggerated by the government, and then the media.
We know acid's popularity waned in the late '70s and '80s, then picked up
in the '90s. In 1993, 3.2 million Americans said they'd used it, according
to the Drug Enforcement Administration. We know it makes police and drug
enforcement agents see red since 1981, they've busted only a handful of
labs, and the majority of their arrests have just been middlemen.
Hofmann called LSD his "problem child." Soon enough, it was America's, and
as with all problem children, we've yet to hone a good response.
On March 30, San Francisco artist Mark McCloud was acquitted of LSD charges
in Kansas City, Mo. McCloud, 47, makes blotter art, the prints found on
sheets of LSD tabs, minus the LSD, according to McCloud and a Kansas City
Police seized 33,000 sheets of blotter paper, plus some framed samples,
from McCloud's home, according to the Kansas City Star. He was accused of
conspiring to distribute and distributing the drug near a school. But
McCloud's lawyer pointed out that the blotter paper was untreated and
therefore legal, never having been impregnated with the d-lysergic acid
diethylamide, it was like a pot pipe with no pot in it.
In the past, McCloud has joked that collecting blotter art is tricky, since
it's tempting to eat it. A small, personal stash of the drug was found in
his apartment during the raid. He says he hung out with Timothy Leary and
tripped with '60s LSD pioneer Augustus Owsley Stanley III. McCloud likes
acid. Nevertheless, given the well-established history of LSD hysteria,
recall, for example, the rumor that evil acidheads had wiped LSD on the
buttons of pay phones across the country, the prosecution argued with all
the paranoia of a bad trip.
"Mark McCloud was the head of an LSD conspiracy that gained a new
generation to the cause of LSD," assistant U.S. attorney Mike Oliver said.
"It is a cause that creates in people the capacity to make life-threatening
and life-stealing decisions."
When McCloud's reputation in the art world was trumpeted an editor from
Paper magazine flew in to testify on the two-time National Endowment for
the Arts grant winner's behalf, Oliver turned it around, saying the artist
used this reputation as a cover to disguise his countrywide distribution
"This was about the circulation of blotter art as an art form," McCloud
said, according to the story in the Star. "Thank God the people of Kansas
City can tell the difference between art and LSD."
Not so long ago, McCloud wasn't that keen on people telling the difference.
"Art is not a big enough word for it," the one-time art professor told the
Los Angeles Times about his collection back in 1995. "It's magic."
But with a life sentence looming, "art" became the perfect word for it.
McCloud had a decent lawyer, and the "magic" argument didn't surface once
in the two-week trial. When it became clear that the prosecution could link
him to the empty blotters but not the LSD, McCloud watched the case unravel.
Even when they're not facing prison time, people don't stand up for LSD
like they used to.
Its current renewed popularity notwithstanding, the days of earnestly
arguing the drug's virtues are gone. Any discussion about the chemical as a
legitimate mechanism for exploring consciousness, treating terminally ill
patients or working with habitual criminals has long since been mocked into
farce by either those opposed to it or those now embarrassed by their
Before LSD was criminal and foolish or visionary and therapeutic, it was an
accident that startled a young chemist. Albert Hofmann had been researching
ergot alkaloids at the Sandoz (now Novartis) company's
pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, when,
during the purification and crystallization of lysergic acid diethylamide,
he noticed a strange sensation. He described it for a colleague later in a
widely quoted note, inaugurating the illustrious and indulgent genre of the
acid trip log:
"Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the
laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected
by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I
lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition,
characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state,
with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring) I
perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary
shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours
this condition faded away."
Three days later, Hofmann dosed himself deliberately, swallowing 250
micrograms. From that day comes the famous bicycle ride through Basel, and
his subsequent glimpse of the true powers of the drug, which included terror:
"A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I
jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down
again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted
to experiment, had vanquished me ... I was seized by the dreadful fear of
going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My
body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was
this the transition? ... I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife,
with our three children, had traveled that day to visit her parents, in
Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented
thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, and that
such a result was in no way foreseeable? "
In the years that followed, Hofmann and others explored LSD's potential as,
among other things, an aid to psychotherapy. While the military conducted
awful (and long-denied, and at least once fatal) experiments, the medical
community wrote volumes about the drug's potential benefits. (Before LSD
became illegal, it was tested on more than 40,000 subjects by psychologists
alone, according to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain in their book "Acid
Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion.")
Research extended beyond the unsuspecting to the rich and famous. Anas
Nin, Andr Previn and Clare Booth Luce all participated in LSD studies. For
a while, Cary Grant couldn't say enough about his treatment. Leary claimed
that, contrary to popular opinion, it was Grant who turned him onto acid.
In 1959, Grant raved about his LSD therapy:
"I have been born again. I have been through a psychiatric experience which
has completely changed me. I was horrendous. I had to face things about
myself which I never admitted, which I didn't know were there. Now I know
that I hurt every woman I ever loved. I was an utter fake, a
self-opinionated bore, a know-all who knew very little. I found I was
hiding behind all kinds of defenses, hypocrisies and vanities. I had to get
rid of them layer by layer. The moment when your conscious meets your
subconscious is a hell of a wrench. With me there came a day when I saw
But acid's popularity took off just as the '60s did, and Leary, his
research partner, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), and others got loud about
it. Eventually it didn't matter whether or not they were right.
"He was a very intelligent man, and quite charming," Hofmann said of Leary
in a 1995 interview. "However, he also had a need for too much attention.
He enjoyed being provocative, and that shifted the focus from what should
have been the essential issue. It is unfortunate, but for many years these
drugs became taboo."
Ironically, it's the taboo that gave McCloud his hobby, if the acid
proponents had succeeded, his collection would be commonplace.
They didn't, and it isn't; McCloud has three decades' worth of blotter art
and shows no signs of stopping.
"These are symbols of a secret society," he told the San Francisco Weekly
in 1995. "And I am the mule that has dragged the cultural evidence to town."
To McCloud, who emigrated from Argentina as a boy, blotter art confirms the
integrity of the acid pantheon. The variety of prints, he says, isn't
essential; if the LSD industry were just about money, the manufacturers
wouldn't bother prettying up their product. (Maybe, but the significance of
blotter art has also been exaggerated. Aficionados allude to the impact an
image will have over a trip: Ganesha will frame your experience in
mysticism, while Daffy Duck's mug will give you a silly trip. Of course in
reality, while LSD does vary from sheet to sheet, the different images have
nothing to do with what will happen next.)
The Kansas City acquittal wasn't the first for McCloudin 1993, he was
released on similar charges. Since then, he claims, the drug enforcement
agencies have been after him.
"An Interpol agent came to me with fake blotter paper made at great expense
by Scotland Yard. They were trying to trap me," he once told the British
magazine Loaded. "Said they wanted to raise money for a friend of mine on a
similar charge. I could see through them straight away. When you do what I
do, you learn to be careful."
There are McCloud fans out there who hope he'll be more careful now. Those
who like him love him. Indeed, his collection is occasionally beautiful,
and is certainly impressive in scope.
As folk art, nothing around captures this particular sensibility better.
Yet at the same time, the Kansas City trial brought out something sad in
his art. LSD culture, often vapid and sometimes heroic, has been reduced to
its vessels. For two weeks, lawyers argued about the blotter paper that LSD
comes on. This, it would seem, is what's left. Hofmann, the other eloquent
scientists, the activists and the fools have all been lumped into one kooky
With acid's marginalization, all that remains in the spotlight is some
overwrought, stamp-size nostalgia. Maybe LSD was never not on the margin,
but the margin didn't used to seem so far away.
Still, taking a page from Hofmann, Leary, Ken Kesey, Abbie Hofmann and half
a dozen other psychonauts, McCloud has managed to scrape together his share
"Mr. McCloud, I told you I didn't want any reaction in the courtroom," U.S.
District Judge Gary Fenner scolded when the just-acquitted defendant jumped
up to greet the jury.
According to the Kansas City Star, McCloud shrugged.
"I sure would have loved to have given that jury a hug," he said. "Where I
come from, you thank the people who set you free."
About the writer
Chris Colin is the associate People editor at Salon.
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