Acid Redux: My Long, Strange, Cancer-Fighting Trip Back to Tripping

Summary: Author and journalist Davin Seay shares his personal story with Salon about searching for LSD as a treatment for depression after he and his wife were simultaneously diagnosed with cancer. Seay reached out to MAPS for help during this journey, and Brad Burge of MAPS spoke about MAPS’ clinical study of LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness, noting that the study had already completed in Switzerland.

“We are primarily advocating for research and funding for research,” Burge told Seay. “But we also support much broader uses for psychedelics, with an emphasis on safety and responsibility. We are focused on the therapeutic approach because we see it as the most likely way to gain social and legal acceptance. At the same time, our goal is to open up its spiritual uses and benefits for personal growth, general science, creativity and whatever other applications people find.”

“While we do advocate for the careful use of psychedelics beyond the therapeutic context,” Burge continued, “we don’t have any precise policy recommendations. We’re not lobbying to change laws. Especially not now, when at the federal level there is no effort whatsoever to reschedule or legalize psychedelics for broader use.”

Originally appearing here.

In March 2013 I was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Four months later, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. In the four years since that dual catastrophe, we have been fighting a relentless battle to survive. We prayed to God, but it seems He has determined that we should not be spared this trial.

A large part of the trial has been our struggle with depression. Our lives, what is left of them, will never be the same. That loss and the specter of death are overwhelming. The prognoses might change from month to month but the fear, anxiety and despair steadily metastasize.

Three years into this ordeal, I read news reports that psychedelic drugs were being used with some success to alleviate depression in late-stage cancer patients. It made sense to me. I had taken LSD hundreds of times in the ’60s, following the death of my mother and my father’s remarriage. In an ugly family tragedy, I fought bitterly with his new wife for my father’s favor and when, at 17, it became clear that I had lost, I left home to act out my anger and sorrow with self-destructive behavior in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

But LSD changed all that. Expanding my consciousness brought compassionate closure to my past, opening a future of stupendous potentiality, a world of radical joy. In a very real way, acid saved my life, made it worth living. I got married, raised three kids, bought a house in the San Fernando Valley and had a long and rewarding career in the music business. In due course seven grandchildren arrived. I counted my blessings.

As those busy years progressed, my use of the drug steadily diminished. For a time I followed my own micro-dosing regimen, maintaining a low frequency high for days at a time. But I finally let it go altogether. Decades had passed since I had last tripped. Now suddenly, there was an urgent need to try it again. A half-century on, I wondered if LSD might not, once more, come to my rescue.

It was in 2012 that the New York Times first reported on research studies showing significant relief from depression and anxiety in terminally ill patients given psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Three years later the New Yorker detailed clinical trials at NYU, this time specifically with cancer patients and LSD, showing similar results. A Newsweek article quoted the quizzical researchers: “LSD appeared to allow patients to address their problems in a way that produced some resolution or catharsis.”

While they might not have known what to make of their research, I immediately understood acid’s potential to ease the fear of death. The drug itself induced a kind of dying, the surrender of ego and identity as a prelude to revelation. I needed that reset now more than ever.

My wife was having none of it. She made it plain: the idea was insane. It had been years since I last took LSD. It was a dangerous drug. And it was an illegal dangerous drug.

She was right about that: In 1968 LSD was designated a Schedule One substance, like heroin and cocaine, defined as “having no currently accepted medical use.” A first offense for possession can run as high as five years. Was I, indeed, crazy?

That last question spoke to her greatest fear. What if I took the trip and never came back, a late-stage acid casualty? I understood her trepidation. Psychedelics had never agreed with her, inducing paranoia and confusion instead of visions and ecstasy. She knew just how potent the drug was, how hard it could be on a brain and body. We were already virtually toxic from the arsenal of cancer medications we were taking. LSD could tip the balance into chemical chaos.

Her concerns were echoed by my two daughters. Along with my son, they had seen close up the ravages cancer had wrought. They had been trying to keep us alive ever since, joking that they should start a hip-hop group 2PWC — Two Parents With Cancer. Like my wife, my daughters took it personally that I would now recklessly risk my fragile health with an illicit drug. My decision to try LSD again was beginning to have unanticipated repercussions.

But I wouldn’t be dissuaded. Acid might help me cope with the crushing depression brought on by my disease. It was worth a try and at the same time, what was wrong with wanting to recapture some small token of my misspent youth?

There was only one problem. Where would I get it?

* * *

At 68, I’m definitely showing my age. Retired, on Medicare and Social Security, I am a certified senior citizen. Suffice it to say my dealer contacts had long since expired. I would have to start from scratch. I considered attending Burning Man in hopes of making contact with the millennial underground, but quickly concluded that trying to score in the middle of the desert from cosplay hipsters on a tear would amount to a net deficit in my quest for serenity. And what about undercover narcs? Actually, I had no idea whether there even was such a thing anymore. Would police disguises that formerly consisted of sideburns and bell-bottoms these days require piercings and a man-bun? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to take any chances. There had to be an easier way.

Working for 35 years in the record industry, notorious for drug use from the executive suite to the tour bus, you’d think something would turn up. It didn’t. While I was getting older, more settled and cautious, so was everybody else. Robust health was the new high, hanging in there as long as possible. LSD was a relic in the Baby Boomer’s trunk of memories. Or so it seemed.

As I began asking around, I was surprised to discover that many of my colleagues, who I’d always assumed were members of the psychedelic brotherhood, had in fact never taken the drug. One in particular was a devoted Deadhead and Phish follower. It made me wonder: Would acid have the same effect on me now that it had had a half century ago?

Despite its prelapsarian promise to “get us back to the garden” billing, LSD is best understood as a product of the Atomic Age. Like the bomb, there was something atomic about psychedelics, too, synthesized by heedless scientists drunk on pure research, unlocking secrets to explode the world. Maybe acid was a time-sensitive historical phenomenon, its shelf life expired at the end of the ’60s. Instead of a supercharged change agent, it had become a recreational party favor. My friend had simply aspired to be psychedelic. It was a lifes
tyle choice.

The search continued, down various dead ends. There was no point in asking my oldest surviving comrade from the ’60s, a former dealer and epic head back in the day; he had since become the pastor of an evangelical church. Early hopes were pinned on another friend who had an acid-dropping ritual once a year on his birthday. But when I asked he told me that his refrigerator had failed back in the ’90s and spoiled the stash. He hadn’t seen any since. I tried to widen the net, putting out feelers to anyone I knew 30 and under, mostly my kids’ crew. What I hadn’t bargained for was the innate creepiness of having your friend’s father ask you to cop. None of them got back to me.

Of course, finding acid was only part of the problem. Once procured, there would be no way of knowing exactly what I was getting. The same applied for dosage: Would it be strong enough? Would it be too strong? None of that ever used to bother me; buying acid on the street was always a crapshoot. I once scored an eyedropper bottle of pharmaceutical-grade Sandoz (the Swiss company that first commercially manufactured LSD 25 in its purest form). More often I would end up with something variously stepped on or, worse, adulterated with meth, which made for a Boschian ordeal. God knows what diabolical designer drugs are being passed off as the real thing these days.

I took a deep dive onto the web, searching “Buy LSD.” It yielded dozens of sites, where I was instructed to download Tor, open a Bitcoin account, install encryption software and cover my webcam with duct tape while surfing Blue Viking on the Dark Web. It all seemed more random and risky than the old-fashioned way, in a back alley from a stranger.

One thing I did learn, however: LSD was very affordable. The average price for a 250mc hit is around three dollars, essentially the same as it was in the ’60s. Even though a dollar back then is worth seven today, it still seemed like a bargain. Not that I really cared. I would have happily paid hundreds. I’d thrown caution to the wind. My web activity had probably already landed me on a government watch list, anyway. There was no turning back.

But secretly, I was starting to have misgivings. What if my wife was right? What if my synapses had grown brittle with age? What if they snapped under the strain? Not being able to score was giving me too much time to think about all the ways this could go wrong. It was going to have to happen soon. I was losing my nerve.

My wife watched all this frantic activity with growing alarm. If I was seriously going through with it, she demanded that I find somebody to guide me on the trip, in case I decided I could fly or stare directly at the sun. And she wasn’t about to volunteer.

I wondered who would agree to hold my hand as I stepped into the unknown. It didn’t seem fair to ask my friends. It wasn’t like asking for a ride to the airport. There could be dire consequences.

That left me with one option: my son. Unlike my wife and daughters, he didn’t seem overly concerned with my antics. He had, of course, tripped. All my kids had. Growing up in the ’80s, it had been, apparently, a rite of passage, checking a box on a to-do list of your parents’ youthful follies. Since then he’d settled down, gotten married and was raising three of his own kids. But he seemed to understand instinctively what it was I was after — some kind of liberation — and it was all right with him. I like to think that maybe my quixotic quest for a drug I had last taken when I was his age stirred some dormant impulse in him as well for the wild times he had long since put behind him. A friend laughed when I told him the plan: I’d just handed the boy a wealth of material for the psychiatrist’s couch. My son laughed, too, when he agreed to be my guide. I felt safer with him aboard.

* * *

I went back to reread the coverage of the LSD studies that had first caught my attention, looking for clues as to how the scientists were being supplied. If I couldn’t find any illegally, then legality was my last resort. Would I qualify as a research subject? That didn’t sound promising. I had zero interest in the clinical setting, picturing a windowless room with incense and New Age music setting the “mood,” while being observed, presumably, through a two-way mirror. But if that’s how it had to be . . .

My research eventually led me to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which had been consistently on the cutting edge of psychedelic research since the late ’80s. A nonprofit based in Santa Cruz, California, they had done the first therapeutic study on humans using LSD in 40 years. In 2008, they conducted trials using acid to treat anxiety due to life-threatening illnesses. They were currently testing the efficacy of MDMA (aka Molly) on PTSD patients, all with DEA and FDA approval. It was a long way from the street corners of the Haight where I used to wait for my man.

I started at the top, writing a letter to MAPS founder and Executive Director Dr. Rick Doblin, a pioneering name in psychedelic research, asking if he could “point me in the right direction.” Not surprisingly, I never got a reply; there are many excellent reasons not to give drug contact information to strangers through the mail. But I eventually did connect with Director of Strategic Communications Brad Burge.

My search had raised some intriguing questions along the way. Among them: Where would this renewed, albeit cautious, interest in psychedelic research eventually lead?

“We are primarily advocating for research and funding for research,” Burge told me. “But we also support much broader uses for psychedelics, with an emphasis on safety and responsibility. We are focused on the therapeutic approach because we see it as the most likely way to gain social and legal acceptance. At the same time, our goal is to open up its spiritual uses and benefits for personal growth, general science, creativity and whatever other applications people find.”

But what was that going to look like? Were we heading for a brave new tomorrow where LSD would be available by prescription, or even over the counter? Would there be acid emporiums alongside pot shops? Would it be administered in churches as a sacrament, or included with your concert or movie ticket, a premium enhancement like 3-D glasses?