Long Strange Trip

The Prague Post
Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006

Long Strange Trip
Answers sought from mass Czechoslovak LSD testing

By Kristina Alda
Staff Writer, The Prague Post

Miroslav Sajda may be frail and nearly immobile at 80 years old, but his eyes light up and his voice becomes animated when he recalls the first time he dropped acid. “It was an incredible experience,” says the retired chemist and former Army toxicologist. “I saw colors and heard sounds I never thought could exist. And I saw the gates of the most marvelous temple. It was unforgettable.”

Sajda wasn’t looking for inspiration or for new spiritual experiences when he tried lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, as it’s commonly known nearly 40 years ago. He was doing Cold War defense research.

As a chemist working at the Military Research Institute in Hradec Krlov, east Bohemia, Sajda helped prepare an LSD test on Czechoslovak soldiers in 1967 to see how well they would perform while under the influence of the drug. According to Sajda, Czechoslovak military officials at the time got information that the U.S. Army was considering using LSD as a chemical weapon to help disable enemy troops. Trying the substance on himself first was part of the protocol.

The results of the test weren’t that shocking: Soldiers on acid make very poor combatants, it turns out.

Sajda and filmmaker Vclav Hapl documented the experiment and were inspired to create the 1970 film essay Man Isn’t Dying of Thirst, which was banned by the authorities until after the 1989 revolution.

Miroslav Sajda stands behind the LSD research he did for the state during the Cold War, but he says the potent drug should remain forbidden. But the military experiment was just the tip of the iceberg. From 1954 until 1974, before the substance was banned here, LSD experiments in Czechoslovakia were all the rage. At least 400 people underwent testing, say doctors involved, and probably more.

“LSD was a hit here,” says Sajda. “But, of course, in those early days, scientists didn’t really know how it could be used.”

Although not nearly as massive as the LSD experiments done in the United States, the experiments done in Czechoslovakia were very likely the most extensive done in Eastern Europe, according to Ross Crockford, a Canadian journalist who is currently gathering material about LSD testing in communist Czechoslovakia.

Crockford was commissioned to do the project by a California-based association called MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), whose goal is to promote the legalization of psychedelic substances such as LSD, MDMA (or Ecstasy) and Psilocybin for therapeutic purposes.

MAPS works together with scientists seeking government approval for research projects involving psychedelic substances. According to Crockford, MAPS hopes to eventually collaborate with Czech scientists.

Any takers? “Some have expressed an interest, yes,” Crockford says.

Crockford is also searching for patients and volunteers involved in early Czechoslovak LSD tests, hoping they will contact him through the Web site www.ceskelsd.com. So far, he’s had little luck. “A lot of people who had bad experiences just don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

MAPS believes that a return to psychedelics could mean more than nostalgia for the hippie days. In the past few years, several organizations in the United States as well as in Europe have pushed for reviving medical research involving substances such as LSD and MDMA that have shown some promise as therapeutic tools for coping with anxiety, depression and various types of addiction.

“American society is ready for more [psychedelic drug] research,” says MAPS President Rick Doblin.

In the first decades following the discovery of LSD, however, Czechoslovak scientists were among the pioneers in researching the drug that later inspired figures like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey to fuel a cultural revolution in the West.

In 1963, Czechoslovakia even began manufacturing its own LSD, which was up until then primarily made by Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland, where chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized the first LSD in 1938. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Czech state-owned pharmaceutical company Spofa readily supplied Czechoslovak doctors interested in LSD research with quantities of high-quality LSD. And the drug was just one of many pharmaceuticals that Spofa was producing.

Communist authorities had no problem with local acid production, according to Crockford; it was a government-run program, after all. The focus was on rigorous scientific research, not expanding the mind far removed from Leary’s mantra of tuning in, turning on and dropping out.

LSD never became a recreational drug in Czechoslovakia the way it did in the United States, largely because of strict controls and communist limits on personal freedom, according to Crockford.

Early experiments

The earliest experiments involved doctors testing the drug on themselves. They believed that the mental state evoked by an LSD trip could help approximate what schizophrenic patients experienced and thus help psychiatrists understand what those patients were going through.

Also among the earliest test subjects were artists and students, who volunteered to take part. One of them was filmmaker Jan vankmajer, renowned today for his bizarre, surrealist films.

In diary excerpts released with one of his more recent films, Otesnek (Greedy Guts), vankmajer recalls his acid trip as a wholly negative experience, which prompted horrific flashbacks for years. vankmajer maintains that the LSD experience had almost no effect on his art.

Milo Vojt?chovsk, now a retired psychiatrist, was one of the first Czechoslovak scientists to try LSD, along with psychiatrists Milan Hausner, Ji? Roub ?ek and Stanislav Grof. Grof eventually emigrated to the United States, where he helped spearhead the earliest research in psychedelic psychotherapy.

The first LSD test Vojt?chovsk took part in was as a volunteer. “Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t have a pleasant experience,” he recalls. “It was quite stressful.”

The Czechoslovak LSD research that took off in the 1950s went off in many directions. The drug was considered a powerful therapeutic tool but no one knew yet exactly how it should be applied.

“It was little bit like space exploration,” says Crockford. “No one really knew where it would lead.”

Vojt?chovsk doesn’t like talking about those early experiments.

“There’s no need to popularize LSD. It has been abused too much,” he says. “It’s basically a psychosis, and it can have tragic consequences. It’s difficult to regulate everyone will react very differently and so-called bad trips are far too common.”

Vojt?chovsk says he was distraught to find out how much of the LSD testing in the United States was funded by the CIA. He cites Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, which presents evidence that subjects in many of these experiments did not know what they were given.

Still, Vojt?chovsk acknowledges, some of his colleagues had successes in using LSD, in combination with psychoanalysis, to treat depression and anxiety.

“A hallucinogen is a powerful catalyst that can help release a person’s earliest memories, which, during regular sessions, might be completely inaccessible,” he says. “It’s then possible to effectively interpret these emerging memories using psychodynamic principles.”

Also, says Vojt?chovsk, doctors who tried the drug were indeed better able to understand what some psychiatric patients were going through.

That doesn’t mean LSD should make a return, he argues. The drug was banned by the Czechoslovak Health Ministry in 1974, and, according to Vojt?chovsk, it should stay that way.

What next?

Czech scien
tists who want to research illegal substances today must apply for special permission from the Health Ministry. Currently, the Bohnice rat test is the only approved LSD project.

In that test, psychiatrist Tom Plen ?ek is comparing the effects of psychedelic drugs such as LSD and MDMA. “It’s hard to say how it would go if we applied for permission to do this type of research on human subjects,” he says. “It hasn’t been done here for a very long time.” But he says he wouldn’t be against working with a group like MAPS.

“The notion of using psychedelic drugs as part of therapy is slowly making a comeback,” Plen ?ek says.

That may be, but it will take significant legal reforms before much more can be known. For now, like the fate of Timothy Leary’s cryogenically frozen head, the future of LSD research still appears murky.

Kristina Alda can be reached at kalda@praguepost.com

Prague’s largest English daily, The Prague Post, reported today in “Long, Strange Trip” onMAPS-sponsored long-term follow-up research with Czechoslovak patients that were treated with LSD as part of a government-sponsored program between 1956-1974. A proposed MAPS-sponsored LSD-assisted psychotherapy study in Switzerland could soon become the first LSD research in the world in 35 years.