The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD

MovieSteve rating:
Your star rating:

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

13 April

MKULTRA launched, 1953

On this day in 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles officially created the MKULTRA program. Its purpose was to investigate ways of controlling human behaviour, using drugs and other methods. It was a continuation of Operation Paperclip, Projects Chatter, Bluebird and Artichoke, whose purpose was also mind control and the exploration of more effective interrogation techniques. The MK of the name marks it out as being a project under the aegis of the Technical Services Staff division of the CIA. The ULTRA indicates that it was classified as being the very highest level of secret. Its main focus was on mind-controlling drugs, such as were also being used in the Soviet Union and China, in particular truth drugs, mind-wiping techniques and means of controlling foreign leaders – Fidel Castro being a particular favourite. Other goals included drugs to promote illogical thought, drugs to speed up the ageing process, drugs that cause paralysis, blindness or deafness, drugs to make the taker impervious to torture and other brainwashing techniques. A particular focus was on LSD, which was administered to willing volunteers (including a young Ken Kesey), but also to unwitting conscripts – usually prisoners, members of the military and mental patients. The researchers seemed to share the belief of drug enthusiasts that LSD was the key that could unlock the doors of perception. After years of fiddling with the lock increasingly exasperatedly, the CIA gave up on LSD, finding it too unpredictable.

The Substance (2011, dir: Martin Witz)

Subtitled Albert Hoffmann’s LSD, Martin Witz’s informative, methodical documentary about the discovery, uses, banning and reawakened interest in lysergic acid (LSD) has no particular countercultural axe to grind. Which makes a change. But in the shape of Albert Hoffmann, who first synthesised the drug in 1943 from the ergot fungus that lives on rye, there is a powerful testimonial to its effects. There he is, nearly 100 years old, still cogent, spry and with a twinkle in his eye as he speaks about the first laboratory experiments into the effects of lysergic acid on a human – carried out on himself.

Taking this starting point as its historical cue, the film then jumps forwards to BBC journalist Fyffe Robertson, a vision in tweed, interviewing young people off their chumps on acid in the 1960s. It cuts again, to LSD historian Martin A Lee, who fills us in on the MKULTRA use of LSD, including “psychic driving”, the process by which a lab rat was fed large amounts of LSD and then subjected to repeated tape recordings of the same message (the film doesn’t mention this, but this does sound very much like the treatment meted out to Michael Caine in The Ipcress File). We see archive of an army platoon who have been given acid and can no longer follow simple square-bashing instructions. On to Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out”, then to Jimi Hendrix, Haight Ashbury and the Summer of Love, before President Nixon initiated the War On Drugs, the last ineffectual battles of which are now being fought.

An interesting argument is made at this point – that Nixon’s prohibition not only made LSD illegal, but it stopped all sorts of legitimate and potentially fruitful research into the drug. Stanislav Grof, one of the early clinicians who studied it, bemoans the loss of LSD as a valuable psychological therapeutic, reckoning that one session of LSD therapy was more effective than years of psychotherapy.

Which brings us up to date, when renewed interest in the positive effects of psychedelics are once again being examined, with psilocybin (also isolated by Hoffman way back when) now being explored as a cure for depression. Fact-filled, and authoritative and with a stringently unsensational tone, this is a documentary that puts a refreshing interpretation on recent historical events.

Why Watch?

  • To see Hoffmann, the mild mannered father of LSD
  • A magical history tour through recent decades
  • Witz’s great use of archive
  • A drugs documentary arguing for an open-minded approach to research

The Substance: Albert Hoffmann’s LSD – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Leave a Comment