The Problem Child

Gif Wknd
// WEEKEND

It was post-exam, early May of last year. Light was coming through the Street Hall skylights in fractals. In the landscapes of YUAG’s American Paintings and Sculpture, Otis* watched the flowers dance. “They were breathing,” he remembers, laughing to himself. “It felt like being in on the biggest inside joke in the world.”

Short-sleeved on a Friday night in February, Isabel* walked the empty streets of New Haven. “I got to the corner of Prospect and Grove, looked up at Woolsey, and just started to laugh. It looked like a piece in a board game or a video game. I was like, ‘Literally, where am I? What is this fake world I’ve been picked up and dropped in?’”

Last weekend, in her on-campus double, Zoe* pushed the twin beds together and filled the room with provisions for her and a friend — “nesting” she calls it — fresh fruit, piles of art books she’d checked out from the library, finger paint, pillows, films, Christmas lights, balloons, flowers, an old black-and-white camera. The photographs came out a little blurry.

For tomorrow’s Spring Fling, Isabel bought her LSD in Chinatown. “It’s not even tabs,” she explains. “They’re drops on Sour Patch Watermelon candies.”

* * *

Acid doesn’t flow on Yale’s campus. There’s no equivalent of the one-button Wenzel, and it seems unlikely that anyone will step up to fill the gap anytime soon. “I get it from a friend,” one student — or rather every student of the nearly two dozen I interviewed for this article — tells me when I ask about Yale’s acid, or LSD, market. At first I think it’s a euphemism, but then finally one of them directs me to his “friend” — a student from another, more drug-savvy, Ivy League, who allegedly buys in bulk and is hooking him and other Yalies up for Spring Fling. I think I’ve landed myself in the middle of a bona fide operation until I learn that “bulk” for this Ivy League drug mule means a 10-strip — that is, 10 tabs of acid that sell for around $8–10 a piece. Every man or woman for his or herself (and maybe a couple of friends) is a simple reality of being on a relatively dry campus, particularly in a nation where LSD production — very expensive, requiring hard-to-get precursors and an expert level of chemical precision — is believed to be concentrated in just a handful of labs nationwide.

This isn’t to say that students don’t get creative. Some, like Isabel, bring personal supplies in from New York, or nearby universities where drug use is more prevalent. Others have ordered tabs from the West Coast — “It comes on paper, is tasteless, and odorless,” one student explains to me. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to put in a box and ship.”

Last year, Otis and friends bought acid on a website similar to Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace where, he explains: “You can basically buy anything you can think of — you can hire prostitutes, assassins …” he pauses. “Reportedly.” The crux of Silk Road’s business model is that Bitcoin, a form of online currency, are used as payment, allegedly making transactions much harder to trace. He and his friends would have used the real Silk Road, Otis explains, but on the day they were set to receive the Bitcoins — Oct. 2, 2013 — the FBI shut Silk Road down.

As of late Zoe has a connection at Columbia, she tells me, who buys LSD directly from a lab in New York City. She will, on occasion, get groups of up to ten friends together for an order that satisfies what I originally imagined when I heard the term bulk-buying: a sheet of 100 tabs, at a total cost of about $800. Even so, she explains to me that this is “very much a one time thing” — or at least, a once-in-a-long-time thing.

At this point, a disclaimer: I’ve never tripped on acid, or any other psychedelic for that matter. My dad has been known to send my siblings and me emails (government job applications attached) reminding us that even if we manage to evade arrest; injury; death; loss of mind, motivation and self; drugs now will make us unemployable forever. We’ve never discussed acid specifically (D-R-U-G-S has served its purpose well as a formidable umbrella term), and until recently I thought it made you want to peel your face off like an orange. Turns out that’s either bath salts or PCP — and also possibly an urban legend—but needless to say, acid has been a non-issue so far.

Reportedly, Yale’s been struggling lately to say the same. When I first began this piece, it was to be — in light of Chance The Rapper’s “Acid Rap” — a look at first time drug use for Spring Fling (in an ironic twist of fate, Chance turned out to be the LSD problem that went away before the administration ever knew it existed — Get well soon, Chance!). The assumption was that Yale drug culture is event-focused, and as many have described it to me, “tame”; a culture in which harder drugs take a backseat to alcohol and marijuana.

The numbers point neither one way nor the other. Of 832 respondents to a News survey on student drug use earlier this week, 44 percent admitted to having used illicit drugs other than alcohol while at Yale. Of these, 42.2 percent cited marijuana use, while the prevalence of prescription stimulants (e.g. Adderall), Molly, and cocaine came in at 7 percent, 6.2 percent, and 5.7 percent, respectively. Only about 5.3 percent of student respondents claimed to have used LSD.

One in 20 Yalies is not an insignificant student ratio — though it pales in comparison to a 1967 poll of 541 undergraduates, in which 10.5 percent of respondents had tried LSD. Still, this statistic has represented a fringe of campus life that, until now, has been easily avoided and overlooked.

In a campus-wide email sent out just before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 9, Director of Yale Health Dr. Michael Rigsby cast a different light on drug use at Yale. “Several recent incidents have raised our concern that use of drugs such as LSD, cocaine, and heroin is on the rise among college students, fueled in part by a mistaken belief that occasional use is really not that dangerous,” he wrote, eliciting a reaction which, for many of the students I interviewed, was twofold.

First: “Who’s doing heroin?!” — a tangential gut reaction, but one which, to my amusement, was repeatedly voiced, verbatim, among not only students who talked casually about their own LSD use, but also by one of my professors, and my mom. (To answer this question: one of the 832 survey respondents claims to have tried it.)

And second, more importantly: “Shit — what happened?”

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m sitting in a corner of Bass Café across from Alex,* whose voice wavers as he talks. Alex is a member of the freshman suite in Durfee Hall whose March incident with LSD was covered in Monday’s issue of the News, and the primary witness to what it called his suitemate’s “extremely negative reaction” to the drug. “When I woke up, there was a ton of noise coming from the common room,” he tells me. “Sounds of things being broken, things being thrown — just a lot of screaming and incoherent rambling.”

For those familiar with LSD, what happened to Alex’s suitemate is known as a bad trip — what students have described as an overwhelming downward mental spiral, often to the effect of terror, anxiety, grief, loss of reality, feelings of entrapment, and much that goes beyond words. Alex agreed to go on the record in the interest of dispelling rumors surrounding his suitemate’s bad trip — namely, that either a suicide attempt or intentional self-harm occurred.

“As I started to get more focused, I recognized it as a computer programming language. He was running through strings, but every time he would get to a certain point, his syntax would be off or he would say something wrong. And then he would start screaming. He sounded like a fucking banshee or something.”

“I decided to walk out when there was a second of quiet.” Alex pauses and takes a deep breath. When he’d gone to bed around 2 a.m., his suitemates had dropped acid almost four hours earlier. Things were calm: they’d just finished watching Planet Earth together, and were leaving to visit another suite. As he speaks, it’s clear that he was unprepared for what he encountered next: his suitemate, standing naked in the common room, covered in his own blood. “It looked like something out of a horror movie,” Alex remembers. “I tried to call his name, and something about that scared the shit out of him. He screamed and rushed at me.” At that point, Alex slammed his door, locked it, and called his FroCos, who in turn called the police. His suitemate was taken to the hospital.

* * *

Part of the horror of Alex’s account is that the question of what happened, and why, remains to be answered.

“We know a lot about what LSD does to the brain — we’ve been researching the neurology since the ’50s,” says Peter Addy, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. “We also know a lot about what it does to consciousness. The thing is,” he explains, “we don’t really know how neurology and consciousness connect.” Addy calls me from a conference at the University of Arizona, Towards a Science of Consciousness, where he gave a lecture on psychedelics earlier in the week. This question — what’s been called the “hard problem of consciousness” — is what the conference revolves around. “How do the brain and mind interface with each other?”

The basics of LSD are simple: It takes just 15 minutes with a tab under your tongue to, in the words of the famous Harvard psychiatrist Timothy Leary, “turn in, tune in, drop out.” Once in the brain, LSD interfaces with about 20 different receptor sites and transporters — but one particular serotonin receptor, 5-HT2A, which LSD activates as an agonist, is thought to be responsible for its visionary and psychedelic effects. The physical side effects of LSD — beyond dilated pupils and sometimes, troubled sleeping — are virtually nonexistent. Acid is non-addictive, and if it’s possible to overdose, no one in all of its rampant history has managed to do so. But even in microgram doses, it’s marvelously potent, and triggers an 8–12 hour trip to match.

The night before I read Rigsby’s email, I sat in an off-campus living room with Dylan.* He had recently experienced a bad trip firsthand within these same four walls, where he took two “really strong” tabs with three of his housemates. It wasn’t long into the trip before, he recalled, he lost the ability to form a thought. “I was sitting in this room and I was picturing us all shorting out. We were broken.” A few moments later, he did have a thought. “I am lucky or unlucky enough to exist at the very point in time where time has ceased to exist.”

Dylan took two sleeping pills. He’d intended to take more, but his housemates hit the rest out of his hand. “I wasn’t thinking about notions of death and sleeping,” he tells me. “I didn’t see the difference between the two anymore. I just wanted to leave the trip.” What he did leave was his living room — for the hospital, where they covered him in little sensors. There, things got even weirder. “I thought we all shared one brain. I saw the doctors as conglomerations of three or four people that I knew. Every person I’d ever met was a construction, and every single being in the world was connected to me. Here was this new reality I had to deal with.” Dylan tells me. “I remember I turned to the nurse at one point, and was like, ‘I’m so excited.’”

“It was the most traumatic experience of my entire life,” Dylan admits. “But in hindsight, it was also one of the most formative and maturing … It’s like someone peeling a layer off the world—you don’t remember what it looked like before.”

* * *

“Acid is my favorite drug,” Madison* laughs. We sit at a small table in the back of Starbucks, where she’s just finished walking me through all the LSD trips she’s taken — around 25, she estimates — since she first dropped acid with her boyfriend and best friend at Spring Fling freshman year. Madison wears a white Oxford shirt and a tan cardigan, and oozes the sort of self-assurance that in any other context might set off my instinctual ‘section asshole’ alarm. In this context, however — Madison’s effect is somewhat different. What it tells me is: This is not the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. There is no “on the bus or off the bus.” It’s Yale. Here, a student who drops acid on Saturday writes a paper on Sunday and interviews for summer internships on Monday.

Madison hopes to pursue a career in public health (the only drug she sees as being in particular conflict with this right now is Molly: “It’s a designer drug, so what you’re getting is almost never actually Molly these days”). She can tell me everything there is to know about “set” and “setting” — the idea that one’s mindset and physical setting can make or break a trip — meticulously plans for every time she drops acid, and knows that you should “never, ever” dive into a new batch without first testing how a small amount makes you feel. “I’ve never had a bad trip, and no one’s ever had a bad trip with me,” she tells me.

On the fun to introspective scale of LSD experience, Madison sits far left. She uses the drug mainly for concerts, festivals and day adventures — for the “giddy, childlike” sensation that can come from a trip. But even among those on the other end of the spectrum, for whom tripping is a narrative of transformation — expansion, even — she’s not alone in her love of acid.

“I think I would like to trip at least every three months, even just for a reflection period,” another student, Olivia*, explains over lunch in Morse, picking up a slice of portobello between her middle finger and thumb and popping it into her mouth. When I ask her about the time commitment — tripping has been framed to me as “kind of like going to Boston for weekend” — she scrunches her face a bit. “I honestly feel like tripping is so productive — it’s not a work versus play thing. So often I’ll come out of a trip with ideas that I’ve never thought of before … But it’s not something you can do every week, or even every three weeks,” she says. Often, she explains, it can take a while to digest everything that comes to the surface in a trip.

For Zoe, the novelty and departure of an acid trip holds particular appeal. “When I think about why I’m taking drugs,” Zoe tells me, “it’s because I’m interested in an experience that I can get something out of. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things while on acid, and it’s brought a lot to my life. I look at the world differently after a trip — I keep those things with me.”

But especially on a campus where alcohol — and lots of it — tends to be the social norm, logic would suggest LSD to be more in line with a liberal arts education than much of student habit. “I wouldn’t say LSD is good for academics,” Otis tells me. “You can’t write a paper on LSD — it’s just not going to happen. But intellectually? Yeah. I think my professors would be proud of the thoughts I have when I’m tripping.”

There’s no way to know, really—but that too seems to be part of the psychedelic experience. At some point, you just have to go with the flow.

“We’re always asking ‘What is this? What is this? What is this?’ and coming up with these temporary, functional, predictive answers that condense reality into regular things. The trick of acid,” Dylan tells me, “is it kind of sheers off those associations.”

* * *

I ask my next interview — Rebecca,* a junior — if we can move from Bass Café to Cross Campus. The weather on this particular day — rounding the corner on 70 degrees, sunglasses or squints all around, high chance of toasty skin by dinner time — would be what many have described as perfect for an acid trip. Fittingly, as Rebecca remembers while watching a classmate ride by, it’s also Bicycle Day — April 19, the 61st anniversary of the first intentional ingestion of LSD.

Dr. Albert Hofmann, a 37-year-old Swiss chemist working in the pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratory of Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, had his first experience with LSD — Lyserg-saure-diathylamid, as he knew it — nearly five years after he’d first synthesized it and set it aside. As Hofmann later wrote in his memoir “LSD: My Problem Child,” he’d been struck by a “peculiar presentiment … that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations,” and had set about, one Friday afternoon, to synthesize the drug for a second time. Hofmann was forced to interrupt his work in the midst of a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.” He later realized that he had absorbed the LSD through his fingerprint.

In Hofmann’s laboratory journal on the events of April 19, 1943 — three days later — the final note was a peculiar one:

Home by bicycle. From 18:00–ca.20:00 most severe crisis.

What had happened, of course, between Friday and Monday — what would eventually come to be known as Bicycle Day — was that Hofmann “decided on a self-experiment,” Taking the same leap of faith that generations of acid users would follow, he ingested 250 micrograms of LSD. It was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the original.

In United States, self-experimentation took place on the back burner LSD came to be the subject of close to a decade of notable clinical psychiatric research, mainly to induce “model psychoses” in otherwise healthy patients in an attempt to study mental illness. The most infamous of this research, started in 1953 under the direction of Dr. Sydney Gottlieb, was Project MKUltra, in which the CIA tested LSD on often nonconsenting human subjects — mental patients, prisoners, and heroin addicts (bribed into participation with more heroin).

MKUltra, however, wasn’t brought to the public eye until 1975 — and thus, the dominant narrative among many scientific researchers was that the eventual surge of medically unsupervised recreational use, or as Hofmann called it, “the huge wave of an inebriant mania that began to spread over the Western world, above all the United States, at the end of the 1950s” was what ultimately transformed LSD into a “problem child.” The irony of this transformation is that it began, in large part, on the campus of the nation’s most elite institutes of higher learning.

It was in a café in Paris in 1961, just after Jim Fadiman graduated from Harvard College, that his undergraduate mentor, Richard Alpert, first introduced him to psychedelics. Alpert, an assistant professor of clinical psychology and education, told Fadiman that he had just experienced “the greatest thing in the world,” and offered him psilocybin — the psychedelic compound found in shrooms. “It awakened me to the fact that I was much more than my education,” Fadiman tells me over the phone one afternoon. Fadiman tried LSD for the first time later that year, when he arrived at Stanford for graduate research in clinical psychology on its effects.

Fadiman was just one of countless students and faculty members that Alpert and his colleague Dr. Timothy Leary, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard, allegedly introduced to psychedelics between 1960 and 1963. When Harvard President Nathan Pusey terminated their contracts in 1963, he cited Leary’s failure to keep to his teaching schedule as justification. Clearly, the issue was much bigger: in Hofmann’s eyes, “the evolution of LSD from remedy to inebriating drug” was primarily their doing.

At Yale, it wasn’t faculty that brought acid to campus — it was the mid-’60s. In Geoffrey Kabaservice’s The Guardians, Mark Zanger, a then-prominent leader of the radical student group Students for a Democratic Society, recalls, “our class [the class of 1970] arrived and basically marijuana and LSD arrived with us.” That was the fall of 1966, and the drug had already begun to accumulate the cultural baggage of the era. LSD became illegal nationwide in October. In a December 1967 interview, University President Kingman Brewster told News Friday he thought of LSD use as “the signal of a need for psychiatric treatment … and in some cases, institutionalization. If any friend or relative of mine were using LSD,” he added, “I’d be very worried about it.”

By the time ’60s student counterculture had run its course on University campuses — culminating in 1969 student riots nationwide — LSD had come to be virtually synonymous with the decade’s trauma. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified it as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use,” effectively strangling all further laboratory and clinical trials for the next 40 years.

“From the late ’60s and early 7’0s until the ’90s, there was no research done whatsoever on human subjects in this country with psychedelics because of all the political and cultural turmoil. It had become too politicized,” says Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine. Grob has been part of the scientific vanguard venturing back into kaleidoscopic terrain within the past decade, shedding light on the therapeutic potential of a psychedelic-assisted treatment model using drugs such as psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca for conditions ranging from chronic alcoholism to PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder. Grob recently submitted for publication a study demonstrating psilocybin as an effective treatment against anxiety in advanced-stage cancer patients.

Still, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t conduct research on LSD, and in a 2012 article in The New York Times, referred to himself as “anti-Leary.” “LSD continues to carry strong cultural and political associations from the ’60s that really make it much harder to do careful, objective scientific research,” Grob explains — but something tells me objectivity isn’t the whole story. His disclaimer is symptomatic of a scientific community haunted by what Dr. Peter Addy calls “a serious social stigma towards LSD. No one wants to go near it,” he says. In fact, there has only been one published study using LSD on human subjects in the past 40 years, and it came out just last month. Though the study was largely funded by the U.S.-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and mirrored projects on near-death patients like that of Grob, it was ultimately conducted by Swiss researcher, Dr. Peter Gasser, in Switzerland, at least partly due to the salient bureaucratic barriers to LSD research that remain to this day in the U.S.

In fact, Grob, Addy, Fadiman, and Brad Burge — of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies — were all sure to ask about my findings on student LSD use at Yale when we spoke. As researchers whose funding and reception is tied to public perception, they have a vested interest in discouraging the “problematic model” of psychedelic use that arose in the ’60s — a model that saw these drugs taken in dosages of several hundred micrograms at once (much higher than the average today), often in combination with drugs and alcohol. “There’s a clear difference between this recreational model and administering a drug in a controlled research or treatment setting,” Grob points out. Burge, to whom I mention that students have pointed to the recently published MAPS study as evidence for the therapeutic nature of LSD, follows this with another crucial caveat: “It’s not LSD that’s doing the therapeutic work. This is LSD-assisted psychotherapy.”

Of course, no institution has so vested an interest in student LSD use as Yale itself. By this logic, it’s hard not to question a campus-wide email from administrators — not unlike the emails I get from my dad — that corrals heroin, cocaine and LSD into a single sentence. It’s similarly hard not to marvel at the Director of Yale Health, Paul Genecin, who addressed my four questions on this “important topic” in a total of no more than 50 words, most substantially: “These are all illegal substances used for recreational rather than therapeutic purposes, all with significant risks to the user’s health.” Jim Fadiman compared this sort of approach to preaching abstinence over sex education: naïve at best — and more likely, destructive.

“Once you’ve smoked a joint one time and you realize it’s fine, and you take MDMA one time and you realize it’s fine, there’s really no reason for you to believe anything anymore,” Zoe says of this.

“Especially at an elite University like Yale, there’s a great deal of pressure, culturally and financially speaking, for administrators to squeeze drug use under the rug or cast out students who do use them; to either blow it out of proportion or pretend it’s not happening,” Burge, who graduated from Stanford in 2005, points out. “A much better policy, in my view, is to have an open door for that kind of thing — to be able to host confrontations openly and publicly about drug use, and about psychedelic use. No matter how elite a University gets, people will use drugs.”

Charlotte,* sitting in my living room on a Saturday afternoon, tells me as much. Following a recent encounter with Yale’s Executive Committee, she’s been attending counseling for substance abuse at Yale Health. “At first, I guess I was a bit annoyed,” she admits. “My counselor seemed kind of pedantic and moralizing when I would talk about my drug use. She kept talking about the risks I was taking in using LSD, and ultimately, I had to concede that she was right. But at that point, there was still a difference in what we valued.” Her experience speaks to a problem I’ve been circling as I write this piece: the way in which Yale students, administrators, professors and parents speak, think and read about LSD are hardly in the same language, let alone on the same wavelength. “Eventually, she asked me, ‘Would it help you if I told you what I’m thinking?’”

“And I said, ‘Yeah. Yes, it would.’”

 

*name changed for anonymity.

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