The Guardian: Basel in the spotlight: the city that learned to love LSD

Summary: The Guardian explores the history of the world’s first LSD experiences in Basel, Switzerland, 75 years ago this month. The Guardian highlights MAPS’ recently completed study that investigated the therapeutic use of LSD combined with psychotherapy to treat anxiety and depression associated with life-threatening illness. “Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser has recently shown that LSD can be used to reduce a sense of existential fear. Its capacity to induce feelings of deep bliss raise the prospect of therapeutic uses, for example to treat depression,” reports the Guardian.

Originally appearing here.

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Seventy-five years ago, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann experienced the world’s first full-blown LSD trip on his way home from his lab in Basel. Hofmann had been researching the ergot fungus, hoping to develop a drug to treat fatigue. Among the compounds he was analysing was lysergic acid – Lysergsäure-Diethylamid in German, also known as LSD. On Friday 16 April 1943, Hofmann left the lab feeling a little dizzy: “I lay down and had these wonderful dreams – I saw every thought as an image,” he said in an interview for his 100th birthday. The chemist concluded that he had accidentally touched the substance, and was intrigued by its powerful effect.

Three days later, on 19 April, he returned to the lab and swallowed a tiny amount just to see what would happen: “As it later turned out, it was five times too much and gave me a horror trip.” He asked an assistant to take him home by bicycle, and Basel transformed into a panorama of hellish and heavenly visions. The bike seemed to freeze to the spot; a friendly neighbour turned into an evil witch. Hours later, Hofmann felt wonderful. “LSD called me, I didn’t seek it out,” he recalled. “It came to me.”

Loving LSD

Today, Basel wears its psychedelic history with pride. Locals point out that the city has for centuries served as a safe haven for rebels and free thinkers. An exhibition at Basel’s Kunstmuseum celebrates Hofmann’s discovery in the context of the city’s creative history, pairing it with nightmarish, horror trip-like prints by Old Masters such as Bruegel. Thousands of visitors are expected to flock to Basel to celebrate “Bicycle Day”, as 19 April is known among the cognoscenti. And researchers are studying LSD’s medical properties again, shrugging off decades of stigma.

Switzerland’s relatively permissive regulations around researching LSD have helped the renewed effort to understand its medical potential. New methods, including advanced brain scanners, also give unprecedented insights into its effects. One study by the Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser has recently shown that LSD can be used to reduce a sense of existential fear. Its capacity to induce feelings of deep bliss raise the prospect of therapeutic uses, for example to treat depression.

Basel in numbers

250 micrograms – the amount of LSD Hofmann ingested before his bike trip

200 micrograms – the amount of LSD participants take in the study at University Hospital Basel

19 – percentage of Baselers who “regularly ride bikes”, according to a survey. The Swiss national average is 7-8%.

40 – number of museums in Basel, which has Switzerland’s highest museum density

3 – percentage rise in housing costs (including rent and heating) in Basel over the last two years

35 – percentage of foreigners living in Basel

History in 100 words

Basilia was first mentioned in 374 CE, having started as a small Celtic settlement by the Rhine. Its reputation as an innovation hub began in 1460, with the founding of Basel University, Switzerland’s oldest, which in 1661 acquired the world’s first public art collection – setting Basel’s other big theme, fine art. During the Reformation, silk dyers arrived, laying the foundation for Basel’s pharmaceutical and chemicals companies. In 1897, Basel hosted the First Zionist Congress under Theodor Herzl. In 1996, Sandoz – in whose labs Hofmann discovered LSD – and its rival Ciba merged to create the chemicals giant Novartis.

Basel in sound …

Musically speaking, Basel’s most important contribution to pop culture may indeed be LSD. Countless songs have been inspired by Hofmann’s discovery at the Sandoz lab, and it’s hard to think of a chemical compound with a broader and deeper musical influence. “Well I met a girl called Sandoz, and she taught me many, many things …” sang the Animals. Even in current LSD studies, psychedelic music is played to the participants. On the other hand, John Lennon tried hard to dispel the rumour that the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was a nod to the substance and its acronym.

….and vision

Art Basel is one of the world’s most famous and extravagant art fairs, with off-shoots in Hong Kong and Miami Beach. But locals say there’s much more to Basel’s art scene than record prices. The city’s free-thinking legacy has inspired a robust counter-cultural tradition – with or without the help of mind-altering substances.

Sebastien Pierre Portron, an art consultant, grew up here and returned to the city three years ago after some time abroad. “People from all over Europe have been coming here for centuries,” he said. “Not just artists but different people from all cultures, all religions. In the arts, people came to Basel from very early on. Holbein the Elder and the Younger came here to develop and promote their art, and many others followed – Picasso, and more recently, even Ai Wei Wei.”

Gen Atem, a Swiss urban artist based in New York and Zurich, remembers being one of the first contributors to Basel’s budding graffiti scene in the 1980s. “I used to take the train from Zurich to Paris or Amsterdam, because at the time, a lot of good sprayers were there,” he said. “My train passed Basel, and I looked out of the window and noticed that all the walls there were still empty. And that’s how it started.”

He says now the urban art scene in Basel has overtaken that of Zurich, its longtime rival. Basel’s location helps – it sits between Switzerland, Germany and France, attracting artists from all over. And Art Basel is pulling in more and more graffiti artists as the boundary between commercial and street art increasingly dissolves.

What’s on for Bicycle Day?

The seriously committed will have already bought their tickets to the special anniversary congress in Basel that features some of the world’s leading LSD researchers – the event is sold out. Basel Art Center offers a special LSD night as part of its psychedelic retrospective of HR Giger, the Swiss artist known for his terrifying designs for Alien, the movie. Basel Short Stories, an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, honours Hofmann as well as other Basel luminaries such as Erasmus and the feminist Iris von Roten. And, more prosaically, there are the many cycling routes in and around the city.

What’s everyone talking about?

Gentrification. “In Switzerland’s cities, entire neighbourhoods are changing: first they are cheap and attractive, then the new residents bring in more money, and in the end the existing population can hardly afford the rising rents,” wrote journalist Benjamin von Wyl. He sees Basel as a particularly strikin
g example: the supply of available flats has shrunk by two-thirds since 2005.

Amid local protests over the rising cost of living, Novartis and BASF are now planning to turn a 300,000 sq m industrial site in the Klybeck area into a whole new neighbourhood. According to Von Wyl, a spokesperson for the Baseler canton said the new community would not become an “urban monoculture for the better off” – without revealing concrete steps for preventing this from happening.

Closer zoom

Local papers Basler Zeitung and bz Basel, and Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung have run several in-depth features and interviews on the anniversary. In LSD, My Problem Child, Hofmann writes about his life, his discovery of LSD and his research into sacred plants. He warns against “mistaking this substance for a pleasure drug”. But with the right spiritual preparation and under the right medical conditions, he argues, his “problem child could become a wonder child.”