A Playwright’s LSD Trip Becomes a Psychedelic Journey

Posted October 10, 2018 11:42 p.m. EDT

BIRMINGHAM, England — Half a century after Timothy Leary urged the world to “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” there’s a surge of interest in lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. The psychedelic drug was outlawed in Britain in the 1960s and the United States later followed suit, but a new wave of scientists, authors and artists are now intent on changing our perceptions.

LSD’s colorful and contested history is the subject of Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “How to Change Your Mind,” which details his own transformative experience of taking LSD, while Ayelet Waldman diarized 30 days of microdosing — a practice that involves taking minuscule doses of the psychedelic at regular intervals — in her new book “A Really Good Day.” Many microdosing advocates swear by its effects, notably in Silicon Valley, where it is praised as a productivity-increasing “life hack,” but its benefits remain unproven. A placebo-controlled trial began in London last month.

British playwright Leo Butler signed up for a similar scientific study while writing his new play “All You Need Is LSD,” which opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theater last week. In 2014, Butler took part in the drug’s first neurological study in Britain in more than 50 years, in which LSD’s effects were monitored using neuroimaging techniques that measure brain activity. The aim was to better understand the nature of the psychedelic experience.

Just as many of the first scientists to study LSD used themselves as test subjects, artists have often done the same. Like Aldous Huxley, who recorded his own experiments with mescaline in “The Doors of Perception,” Butler wrote his experience in the clinical trial into his play. Initially, he tried to write a naturalistic drama about a couple in the ‘60s, but the “drug-taking scenes were dreadful,” he said. Instead, he opted for a more abstract, associative approach — a way, he explained, of making the play resemble the experience of a psychedelic trip.

“All You Need Is LSD” unfolds as a potted history of LSD — a magical mystery tour from its accidental discovery by the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in 1938 to Steve Jobs’ midtrip epiphany about the importance of “creating great things instead of making money.” On the way it takes in The Beatles, the Beatniks and Leary’s attempted countercultural revolution. (President Richard Nixon once described Leary as “the most dangerous man in America.”)

“It’s such a great story,” Butler said, “but I didn’t want it to just be a historical piece. I always wanted to bring it back to the present.” Like Pollan’s book, “All You Need Is LSD” proposes that psychedelics have therapeutic possibilities.

In an interview, Butler said he experimented with drugs, including LSD, in his youth. He was a “very shy, underconfident” young man, he said, but “LSD turned everything around.”

“Suddenly the world looked colorful, and I found a confidence,” he added. He wanted his play to reflect that experience, he said. Tonally, it nods to psychedelic films like “Yellow Submarine” and The Monkees’ “Head,” as well as the gonzo writing of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. The structure is slippery, freewheeling and associative, with scenes folding back on themselves and historical figures popping up out of the blue. “The play has this organic quality,” Butler said. " All the structural architecture has been torn down, so anything becomes possible.”

It is a kind of theatrical trip, but Butler said he wanted it to be more than just weird. “The thing with LSD isn’t that you start seeing things that aren’t there,” Butler explained. “You see everything as it is in a very naked and extraordinary way.”

Butler recalled that in 2014 he attended a hospital in London to take part in the LSD trial. On a ward decked with tie-dye drapes and fairy lights, he said, he was injected with 75 micrograms of pure LSD. During a daylong trip, Butler undertook a series of tasks and tests, including image association and memory regression. His brain activity was measured while listening to music.

The trial was supervised by professor David Nutt, a former adviser to the British government on drug policy, who was forced to resign in 2009 soon after he published an article that said taking ecstasy was safer than horse riding. Nutt said that neuroimaging showed that, rather than stimulating brain activity, psychedelics shut down those bits of the brain that organize thought and filter information. “LSD turns off conventional brain processing,” he said in an interview. “That allows the brain to work freely.”

He likened the way the brain functions under the drug’s influence to an orchestra playing without a conductor. “You don’t get Beethoven played perfectly,” he said, “but you do get something interesting and novel, like jazz.”

According to Nutt, because LSD disrupts habitual cognitive processes, it may be used to break negative behavioral patterns or psychological disorders such as alcoholism or clinical depression. “People get locked into a system of behavior that they can’t break out of,” he said. But under the influence of LSD, “People suddenly realize what idiots they’ve been or the mistakes they’ve been making,” he said. Nutt also argued that the drug’s suppression of the user’s ego, which often accounts for a sense of oneness with the world, could have implications for palliative care.

Taken with this idea, Butler included a dramatization of Huxley’s death in his play. On his deathbed, the author asked his wife to inject him with LSD to help him accept his passing. “It’s a very moving story,” Butler said. “Taking the drug gives you a euphoria, but it also gives you an out-of-body experience which could be used to help people with terminal illness.” Butler’s and Nutt’s beliefs about the drug’s therapeutic possibilities are not accepted by the medical mainstream and LSD is unlikely to be legalized any time soon. In 1970 it was classified in the United States as a Schedule One drug, making it illegal to manufacture, buy, posses, process or distribute LSD without a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Bad trips are a distinct possibility; Butler said he had experienced one of his own.

Given the illegality of LSD, Nutt was pessimistic about the chances of further clinical trials. “It was banned for political reasons, and its legal status hasn’t changed in 50 years,” he said. Restrictions on researching the drug amount to “intense and powerful scientific censorship,” he added.

In the absence of such studies, myths about LSD persist, Butler said. But, he added, art can counter public preconceptions about psychedelics. He didn’t want to write a play that just suggested “drugs are brilliant” in general, he said. “Let’s look at this one drug and see what it can actually do.”