LSD Gets a Second Look in Eye-Opening Documentary

The National Post
Chris Knight

Originally appearing here.

Lysergic acid diethylamide turns 70 this week, which is all the reason the Big Picture Cinema needs to tune in and turn on The Substance, a 2011 documentary about the history of the psychedelic drug.

The chronology begins in Switzerland in 1943. Albert Hofmann, interviewed for this film not long before his death at age 102, describes how he synthesized and then, Jekyll-like, tested LSD on himself.

Hofmann is a cautious proponent of its mind-altering affects. Although he clashed with Timothy Leary and other advocates in the 1960s for using it too freely and on the very young, he also notes: “A chemist who is not a mystic is not a real chemist.” Hofmann also synthesized the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms.

Filmmaker Martin Witz keeps the trippy imagery to a minimum as he explores the various reactions to LSD. Far more interesting than swirly, out-of-focus patterns are the early footage of test subjects, Mexican spiritualists (the source of those shrooms) and training videos for doctors working with the drug.

During the Cold War, army doctors hoped it could lead to treatments for psychosis, or be used to confuse enemy combatants. The CIA used it in brainwashing experiments, some of them barbaric. But its unpredictability forced scientists to give up plans to weaponize it.

The 1960s brought LSD to the counter-culture, with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters tripping across America, handing out free samples. It was outlawed in 1966, which was something of a bummer.

Today, LSD research is rare, given its flower-power associations. But the film scares up a few scientists who are investigating its properties, including uses for the terminally ill.

A doctor at Johns Hopkins University explains that in terminal cancer patients, LSD can alleviate depression or anxiety, allowing for an easier end of life. Side effects such as “cosmic laughter” and “oceanic boundlessness” could be just the thing to combat fear of mortality. Essentially, a good trip may help you on your last one.

The Substance opens April 19 at the Big Picture Cinema in Toronto.
The National Post reviews The Substance, a new documentary about the history of LSD. The article highlights the therapeutic potential of LSD-assisted psychotherapy while also covering psychedelic research into using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD.