Listening to Acid, The Village Voice, 1998

When Myron Stolaroff passed through New York City recently to promote his new book, The Secret Chief, he was greeted with little fanfare and not much of a media circus.  A book signing held for the 77-year-old author at a small apartment in Stuyvesant Town attracted a gathering of somewhat rumpled-looking, middle-aged psychotherapists and local-access cable talk show personalities.  The reception was low-key considering Stolaroff’s subject and his notoriety in certain circles: A former colleague of Timothy Leary’s and Aldous Huxley’s, Stolaroff has researched and advocated for psychedelics for 40 years.  Completely out of the hallucinatory closet at this advance age, he estimates that he has taken some 300 acid trips himself, and continues to proselytize for LSD use and study.

A former electrical engineer and head of long-range planning for Ampex, a California-based electronics firm, the grandfatherly and congenial Stolaroff took LSD for the first time in 1956 and never looked back.  In the early 1960s, he established the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California, which researched LSD and mescaline until the banning of those substances in 1965.  “Back then, I said I believed that LSD is the greatest discovery man has ever made,” Stolaroff said.  “Nothing that has happened since then has changed my mind.”

In The Secret Chief, Stolaroff presents his interviews with “Jacob,” a psychedelic psychotherapist who continued working with the drugs after they were outlawed, up until his death in the late 1980s.  A former Jungian analyst, the chief was the guide for thousands of trips—turning on an estimated 4000 people, leading both individual excursions and group tours of the mind’s outer recesses—and in the book he described his methods and philosophy.  Jacob, Stolaroff writes in a preface, “was blessed with an abundance of heart, the most necessary prerequisite for someone accompanying others into the depths of their very souls.”

The research Stolaroff conducted at his foundation—on LSD and creativity—was perhaps even more interesting.  One study used a blind peer review to evaluate work by painters, architects, engineers, and others, made during focused psychedelic experiences, and compared it to that by the same people made without the influence of hallucinogens.  Creative tasks that were attempted included building shopping centers and constructing new electrical circuits.  The psychedelically augmented work was in most cases found to be of superior quality, by the peers and by the subjects themselves.

The Secret Chief is the first book published by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or M.A.P.S. If psychedelic research ever achieves mainstream credibility again, it will be due to the efforts of this group and others like it.  The North Carolina-based organization, founding in 1986, encourages and helps to fund responsible study in this area.  The book includes introductory and closing contributions from as esteemed roster of LSD cognoscenti, including Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered the chemical in 1938; Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist; and Sasha and Ann Shulgin, pioneering psychonauts who have written two lengthy volumes detailing their daredevil experiments with new psychotropic chemicals.


Two days after the book signing, around 40 people—an eclectic crowd that included therapists, students, psychiatrists, Web consultants, astronomers, and freelance film animators—turned up for an afternoon talk held at the Lindesmith Center, the liberal drug policy think tank funded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.  The seminar featured Stolaroff and Dr. Richard Yensen, a Maryland psychologist and head of the Orenda Institute, who has embarked on a potentially lifelong quest to legitimize psychedelic therapy within the medical establishment.  Yensen is one of a very few researchers to receive FDA approval to use LSD on human subjects.  He plans to work with cancer patients, drug addicts, and alcoholics, although his research remains stalled at the present time.

The stated theme of the Lindesmith Center talks was LSD and psychotherapy, but a clear subtext was the outlaw and outcast status of psychedelics in general.  As one psychotherapist who has worked with hallucinogens said with some bitterness after the talk, “Since the 1960s, acid has been simultaneously demonized and trivialized by the culture.  Today, if you want to work with this substance, you are seen not only as a monster, but also as a flake.  Even so, I feel grateful that after so many years in the wilderness, these treatments are being talked about in small forums in a responsible way.”

“It is a tragedy that we have such a valuable tool, such an important tool, and it is so thoroughly discredited,” said Stolaroff, dressed conservatively in a maroon turtleneck and gray tweed jacket.  “During a psychedelic experience, you receive so much new data that it is hard to comprehend without some kind of framework.  Unfortunately, right now we have a lot of young people taking these drugs without the background to understand what is happening to them.”

While Stolaroff spoke mostly about his personal experience with LSD, it was up to Yensen, a brown-bearded man wearing a bright orange-and-yellow-patterned tie, to talk about what he sees as the tragically short-circuited history of psychedelic therapy and research.  In the 1940s and 1950s, LSD was considered a potentially invaluable tool, although for what exactly was unclear.  While the CIA studied it was a potential truth serum or mind-control device, psychiatrists thought they could us it to induce “model psychoses,” a temporary descent into madness that would give them insight into the mind of the mental patient.  Later on, a Canadian hospital began using single, massive doses as an experimental treatment for alcoholism.  Over a few years, they reported a tremendous—almost incredible—success rate of close to 50 per cent.  “Some of their patients reported, “I found an “I” beyond but inside myself,’ “Yensen said.  “ ’I saw the way I was using alcohol to deaden myself to my despair.’ “

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, LSD became the medium of choice for intellectuals seeking “deconditioning,” direct contact with their Jungian unconscious, or other spiritual dimensions—what Aldous Huxley termed “the essential otherness of the mind’s far continents.” Sincere, rhapsodic, and reverently longwinded attempts were made by writers to explicate what they found out there, such as Alan Watts’s The Joyous Cosmology (1962): “Light, sound, touch, taste, and smell become a continuous warp, with the feeling that the whole dimension of sensation is a single continuum or field.  Crossing that warp is a woof representing the dimensions of meaning—moral and aesthetic values, personal or individual uniqueness, logical significance, and expressive form—and the two dimensions interpenetrate so as to make distinguishable shapes seem like ripples in the water of sensation.”

The intellectuals in their private cabals were followed by Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, who promoted acid as the mass-market ticket to mystical transcendence, terrifying the government, and warping the consciousness of a generation.  As LSD permeated the youth culture, psychedelics were banned and all legitimate scientific study ended.  “Our society got thrown into chaos because this stuff got out of lab,” said Yensen.  “Bad science was used to spread fear.  People were told that LSD could damage their chromosomes.  They wondered what their children would be like.”


Yensen, now 50, has spent many of the years since wondering what his research might have been like if he and other scientists had been allowed to continue working with psychedelics and human subjects.  He began his career in the early 1970s, briefly conducting a therapeutic program similar to the Canadian experiment, working with skid-row alcoholics in Maryland and registering an astonishing 35 per cent success rate, restoring meaning to shattered lives, and stopping the patients/ dependence on alcohol.  The program was led by Stanislav Grof, who had used LSD to treat neurosis in Czechoslovakia and later theorized about the drug’s possibilities and what it suggested about the nature of consciousness in his books LSD Psychotherapy and Beyond the Brain.  Yensen also went to Mexico, where he worked with the psychiatrist Salvador Roquet, and examined the effects of peyote, psilocybin, datura, and other substances.

“I believe psychedelic therapy is a long-repressed treatment of great beauty and meaning,” Yensen said a few days after his Lindesmith Center appearance.  “Psychedelics amplify the power of human relationships.  But they don’t have a quantifiable allopathic effect like penicillin, and the medical establishment prefers the simple allopathic model.”

Yensen is quick to admit that “no one has the answers in this field.” Grof, one of his mentors, thinks that LSD can force people to literally reexperience their birth-trauma, which he sees as the original cause of later psychological suffering. “An LSD subject can experience himself or herself as a single cell, as a fetus, and as a galaxy,” Grof has written.  “These three states can occur simultaneously, or in alternating fashion by a simple shift of focus.”  Although the idea of rewinding back to the embryo state might sound far-fetched to some, Stolaroff believes it happened to him: “During my first time with LSD, I had to undergo an extremely painful birth experience.  I was 65 before I forgave the universe for allowing me to be born in such pain,” he said during his talk.


“It is truly phenomenal the way LSD releases the hold that our ego seems to have on time and space,” Yensen said.  “As a doctor, I don’t have to decide if the wild journeys that people have are real or metaphorical.  What I need to know is, Do they get better form the experiences?”

Unfortunately, at the moment, it is unclear if the government will allow Yensen the chance to discover the answer.  Lacking funding, he has yet to treat his first patient.  After a feature on his work appeared in the September 1997 issue of Esquire, the FDA called him up and put his project’s approval on hold.  “They said they had grave concerns about the safety of my patients.  The original article was very positive—I saw a rough draft.  By the published piece was filled with editorial distortions.  The writer called me up after the piece was published and said he was terribly upset about what the editor did.”

The Esquire feature includes mad-scientist-like portraits of the doctor with his face melting, and confusingly presented hypothetical situations in which a patient that Yensen is treating sometime in the future “bolts from the unsecured room to the kitchen downstairs, gets a carving knife, and tries to cut the soul out of his own body—or out of Yensen’s two-year-old daughter.” The article, Yensen said, “showed that the major-media-corporation take on the subject is to make it frightening and demonic.  My team of researchers has treated over 750 patients in 35 years of work without a single major incident of harm.  That safety record is the best in the entire world.” For Esquire’s part, the editor of the story, Mark Warren, said, “The substance of the piece didn’t change from the beginning to the end [of the editing process].  I think the piece took Yensen seriously and is generally supportive of his work.”

The future place of LSD seems intriguingly uncertain.  Its illicit use remains steady: according to the 1996 Household Survey of Drug Abuse, 18.4 million Americans had tried it at some point in their lives, with 482,000 having taken it in the past month.  But today’s typical dose of blotter acid ranges from 20 to 80 micrograms, way down from the whopping 100 to 100 micrograms of a typical 1960s dose.

Still the most potent psychoactive chemical known to man, LSD has kept its furtive popularity among mathematicians, scientists, and computer innovators.  Some—such as chaos theory mathematician Ralph Abraham; Nobel Prize—wining biologist Kary Mullis, who discovered polymer chain reactions; and Lotus Development founder Mitch Kapor—credit psychedelics with helping them make important breakthroughs.  For almost everyone else, the drug is seen as a paisley cliché, at best the catalyst for groovy fun-house experiences at rock shows or raves, at worst a pathway toward mental breakdown.  In their efforts to convince the world that LSD deserves a place in legitimate therapy, Yensen and Stolaroff probably face a long, strange trip.