The first time Thomas Lyttle dropped acid, he had a bad trip. His high school friends had to sit on his chest just to keep him from flailing around the room. Terrified, the 16-year-old thought he was going to die, or at least lose his marbles. "I took too much," he says in retrospect.
But his explorations, which began with that 1974 incident, were far from over. Convinced his initial freak-out was just a fluke, Lyttle talked to seasoned users and read as much as he could on the subject of hallucinogens. The bad trip, he says, persuaded him to start doing research.
A few months later, he tried again. This time: cosmic bliss. "I had a wonderful, Zen-like, euphoric experience," Lyttle says. "For the very first time, I saw that everyone has a spiritual aspect."
Raised in a strict Catholic environment in Marietta, Ohio, the youngster's upbringing included attending school that was part of a convent. As a result, his curiosity worked overtime. Like a stubborn explorer determined to reach the North Pole even at the expense of losing a few huskies to the cold, Lyttle kept on tripping.
Millions of young people followed in the teenaged footsteps of Lyttle, now 46, a Fort Lauderdale resident and one of the world's foremost experts on psychotropic drugs.
The ballyhoo was that LSD was helping the thick-headed Western world finally catch up to the nuances of Eastern philosophy. As a cultural phenomenon, it gave users remarkable insights previously unattainable. Not only did it dilate pupils; it opened wide the mind's eye. For less than the price of a black-light poster, the entire universe could be explored inside one's bedroom. Visionaries like Lyttle contended that the drug had an enormous potential for good in terms of social change and expanded awareness.
Who knows how many frat boys reconsidered that impulse to jump on the Barry Goldwater bandwagon after ditching class and dropping a few hits?
In 1977, three years after Lyttle's first acid trip, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated that 6 percent of the population of the United States over the age of 12, about 10 million people, had used hallucinogenic drugs. In the 18-to-25 age group, the rate of usage went up to 20 percent.
Finally, Lyttle and other serious mind gazers said, everyday civilians had a chance to discover beauty in the mundane, to unlock the secrets of the cosmos, to unravel the mysteries of nature, to smell and taste and feel and touch their surroundings with the yoke of reality finally removed.
"Most people," Lyttle says, "just don't realize what lies deep down in the mind."
The young acid-tripper from Ohio has now developed into a respected scholar. Society, Lyttle reasons, could benefit from acid. To help the process along, he began his secondary career as an archivist, compiling data to supplement his own firsthand research. The amateur drug bibliographer gradually amassed a 5,000-volume library and a collection of 20,000 academic documents on altered states of consciousness.
Nowadays, Lyttle is best-known for the eight books he's put forth on psychedelic research -- the last two released through well-known Madison Avenue publishing houses. He continues to work with the creators of LSD and Ecstasy to get official acceptance of the drugs as research tools. He has also helped spearhead a movement in which sheets of blotter acid and their quirky designs have moved from street dealers' pockets to galleries of fine art. All of this he has accomplished with nothing more than a high school education and a passion for learning as much as possible about psychoactive chemicals.
His mission, after 30 years of study: to undemonize acid.
Ironically, Lyttle is achieving some success just as LSD has been virtually expunged from the underground drug landscape.
Despite the inherent trippiness and counterculture bent of his subject matter, Lyttle is adamant that his fascination with these compounds is scholarly in nature, his days of willful experimentation long past. He takes great pains to keep the two realms separate.
On a warm winter afternoon, Lyttle and his roommate, Scott Wollman, shuffle around their small Imperial Point apartment in bare feet. Lyttle's a big sheepdog in a baggy red sweatshirt, wire reading glasses, and damp gray hair. His only vices now are Coca-Cola classic and Rothman's Special cigarettes. Wollman, wearing an unbuttoned shirt festooned with pot leaves, looks like the friendly, balding uncle you'd sneak bong hits with in the basement.
Except for a few brass statues of Kali and Shiva, the living room is unpretentious, almost grandmotherly, with plush couches and carpet. Lyttle's bedroom is packed floor to ceiling with his book collection, his walls adorned with mounted, signed, and framed sheets of blotter-acid art that he and Wollman collect and sell.
"Scott's kind of a roving talent scout," Lyttle explains in a low monotone. "He finds unusual artists and gallery shows." Lyttle hardly ever cracks a smile; the playful Wollman, on the other hand, wears a silly smirk. He's got the faraway look of someone who's intimately familiar with more than a few lysergic adventures.
"Once, in Los Angeles, eight of us had this great group trip," tells 49-year-old Wollman. "We did about seven or eight hits apiece. That was really fun. We were all holding hands in a circle and flying around the universe, and I kept seeing Baby Huey laughing at me."
Wollman giggles at the memory, as Lyttle stares at the ceiling, noticeably uneasy.
"It was green gel acid," Wollman continues cheerfully. "Windowpane. We were all scared that if we stopped holding hands, we'd lose contact with each other and be totally lost in space." Lyttle lets out an enormous sigh, shuts his eyes, and folds his arms across his barrel chest.
Wollman was 14 when he first tried acid. Born and raised in Miami Beach but later traveling the world as an Army medic, he returned in 1996 to Fort Lauderdale, where he unashamedly maintains his ties to those who dabble in mind travel.
"Scott was a shadowy figure, kind of an underworld type," remembers their mutual friend Robert Demarest, alluding to Wollman's "shady past."
By the time Wollman casually mentions his link to Lumonics, the Fort Lauderdale light museum known for its connection to the rave scene and Ecstasy subculture, Lyttle has had quite enough.
"I have nothing to do with anything illegal," he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "All this stuff we're talking about, I have no interest in. Nothing. None." He crosses his arms again in finality, clearly anxious to maintain his goody-goody façade.
Wollman, taken aback, begins, "He's right, this is not my -- "
"No, it's not, Scott," Lyttle snarls, cutting him off. "I have nothing to do with the local underground or the illegal drug scene."
Steaming and monosyllabic, Lyttle calls a quick end to the interview but agrees to meet again in a few days.
And then, when he answers the door -- still barefoot, still nursing a Coke and a smoke -- he appears less hotheaded. Wollman's home but darts into a back bedroom. Lyttle makes it abundantly (and repeatedly) clear that his interest in expanded consciousness is never anything less than aboveboard.
"Even though," Lyttle is quick to point out, "I've tried a lot of these drugs."
Lyttle's reticence is understandable, considering the kind of resources law enforcement agents direct at illegal drug use.
Before LSD became the ultimate pop drug in the '60s, though, it wasn't illegal. After its power was unleashed in 1943, it was appropriated by the CIA, which undertook clandestine experiments with an eye toward using LSD as a mind-control drug. It was briefly used in a therapeutic context, lowering inhibitions and allowing the subconscious to be plumbed. Harvard researcher Timothy Leary saw a future where we'd all turn on, tune in, and drop out.
But in 1967, after rogue chemists took it from government-controlled pharmaceutical labs to the clandestine underground, the U.S. placed LSD in the category of a Schedule I narcotic. In the same boat with heroin and cocaine, it was labeled as being without any redeeming medical benefit to society. That drove the drug deep underground.
Even so, LSD remained until recently the most cost-effective method of watching walls melt or temporarily gaining the ability to taste colors. The average cost of a hit of acid was $2 to $5. Now -- if you're lucky enough to find a "travel agent" to hook you up -- a single hit of blotter can cost $20.
The sort of renewed interest that researchers like Lyttle have lent LSD is happening just as the drug itself is more memory -- for a large portion of the baby boomer and Gen X generations -- than reality. The demise of both the Grateful Dead and Phish as touring entities, of course, shut down one huge LSD pipeline. A massive Drug Enforcement Administration bust in 2000 landed two Kansas men in prison and closed down the nation's largest-ever LSD lab, which had operated inside an abandoned missile silo.
"Acid has not been in vogue in South Florida for many, many years," Lyttle reports. "It's harder than ever to come by."
The zing of the tongue tingle, that aching anticipation of impending liftoff, and those hours of laughing one's face off are fewer and farther between. It all adds up to a lot of minds not getting blown.
Associates of Lyttle's who do possess advanced degrees are quick to include him in their ranks.
"Thom is really dedicated to psychedelic research," claims Dr. Manolo Torres, an art-history professor at Florida International University with a particular interest in the psychedelic art of pre-Colombian civilizations in South America. "He's a great compiler of the contemporary culture of psychedelics. His archive will be a great resource in the future."
Lyttle's primary accomplishment to this end includes the five volumes of Psychedelic Monographs & Essays he has edited and published. In 1985, he started issuing these journals, which compile research pertaining to the scientific and medical study, religious use, and academic examination of the culture of mind-expanding substances.
Touching upon every possible aspect of psychedelic study, the books document close encounters with MDMA (Ecstasy), the harvesting and storage of mushrooms, techniques of "lucid dreaming," in-depth investigations into the teachings of Carlos Castenada, even discussions with William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary. Lyttle's own contributions include heady essays along the lines of "Neurostructuralism and Hallucination."
His most recent compilations include 1994's Psychedelics and 1999's Psychedelics Reimagined. The latter features a waggish introduction, written by Leary shortly before his death, in which he explains, "Thomas Lyttle wanted to find out what's happening within 'Psychedelics 101,'" and refers to him as a "digital basketweaver who has collected all this e-fruit."
In 1994, High Times called upon Lyttle's expertise to debunk the Top Ten LSD Myths. "The media is partly responsible for perpetuating those," he says. "The popular mainstream press likes to write about the seedy side of the psychedelic world, but not too many people know the truth."
Lyttle dispelled some of the bogus propaganda that was used to demonize the drug. Among the doozies:
Chromosome damage caused by acid (long since debunked by researchers).
LSD killed Art Linkletter's daughter (nice scare tactic, but false).
The strychnine myth (LSD never contained rat poison).
Users who got so high they stared into the sun until their retinas fried (a ludicrous fairy tale).
The enduring but false rumors about "acid flashbacks."
Briefly emerging to interrupt, Wollman snickers and says, "I've never had a flashback. I wish." Lyttle shoots him a look, and he disappears again.
When Lyttle began publishing, it wasn't easy to write about illegal drugs without attracting suspicion. "People felt that if you published articles about these things, you had to be using these things. And if you were using them, then of course you were breaking the law."
Rick Doblin, president and founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies -- a Sarasota-based think-tank that tries to encourage the government to study these chemicals for medical research -- finds Lyttle's work especially brave.
"To Thom's credit, he got into this field when it was held in very low repute, at the height of social disapproval." he says.
At the forefront of medical marijuana research, MAPS tries to locate neutral ground between reintroducing psychedelics into society and the zero-tolerance attitudes of the war on drugs. Doblin, who began MAPS in 1986, received a Ph.D. in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. For his master's thesis, he investigated the benefits of marijuana as it relates to oncology. His dissertation focused on the beneficial uses of psychedelics.
MAPS scored a major achievement late last year when one of its pet projects -- the use of Ecstasy to help terminally ill cancer patients -- was approved by the FDA. Doblin reveals that MAPS is now trying to reinvigorate a Harvard program that would study LSD as a possible remedy for cluster headaches. He's optimistic that the use of psychedelics as medically beneficial agents, which Lyttle has long supported, is close at hand.
Despite Lyttle's lack of formal academic credentials, Doblin considers him an equal. "If you're doing the work," he says, "you don't need the credentials. Thom has a high school diploma and I have a Harvard Ph.D., but we can talk as equals on a lot of things. He has the most important prerequisites of all, which are curiosity and the self-correcting mechanism that is the basis of science."
As Lyttle's publishing career attracted the attention of professional scholars, he started garnering invitations to attend conferences on psychedelic research all over the world. "The conferences allowed me to meet people I would otherwise never have a chance to get to talk to," he says.
While working as a chef at high-end restaurants on Florida's southwest coast a quarter-century ago, Lyttle spent his free time searching for rare books. That quest led him to Naples resident Robert Demarest, then the director of the Collier County library system. They traded books and information about consciousness research and mind expansion. In the early 1980s, the pair was invited to a symposium in Turin, Italy, called Plantas Maestros -- "Plants of the Gods" -- devoted to the discussion of psychoactive plants from South America.
"We'd been in contact with Albert Hoffman," recalls Demarest, referring to the venerable pharmacologist who first isolated LSD and who turned 99 on January 11. "He suggested that we come visit him when we were at this conference."
The hotel and conference center in Turin was a castle in the Italian Alps, and Lyttle and Demarest took a sleeper train to the Swiss city of Basel. Hoffman lived a few minutes away in the village of Rittematte, with the border of France and Switzerland right in his backyard.
"It was a very interesting time to be there," adds Demarest. "Sandoz [the drug firm that employed Hoffman] was giving him a big celebration that week -- they'd just sold $800 million worth of the latest wonder drug he'd created."
With their children-of-the-'60s background -- as well as their academic fascinations -- Lyttle and Demarest found themselves in the intimate company of the man who had introduced humanity to one of the most infamous drugs in history.
Hoffman, they say, was a charming, elderly man whose modest office was tucked into the back of a chalet, in what appeared to be his wife's sewing room. Instead of a computer, he still used an old manual typewriter. Demarest had collected many of Hoffman's books on organic chemistry and brought them to be autographed. "His wife made us a beautiful cherry torte from his orchard," Demarest says. "He took us through Basel, fed us dinner, and we had a marvelous stay."
Adds Lyttle: "He's very unassuming. If you met him, you'd just think he was somebody's grandfather tinkering around in the garden. He appears to be nothing more than a sweet Swiss gentleman. He doesn't come off as a great intellectual, but he's one of the world's great minds." Hoffman is a member of the Nobel Prize Committee.
"He was very interested in what was happening to his discovery," Lyttle continues. "After all, it's influenced Western culture in so many different ways."
Hoffman took Lyttle and Demarest on a stroll through his alpine garden. While walking down a path, Lyttle noticed a small chapel literally embedded in the mountainside; the only way to access it was through a series of ladders that rose almost 1,000 feet from the valley below.
A miracle had occurred there, Hoffman explained. Years earlier, a young child was climbing and fell from the mountain. As the legend went, the Virgin Mary appeared, caught the boy in midair, and deposited him safely on a ledge where he could be rescued. The church had been built at precisely that location.
"I asked him, 'What do you really think happened?'" Lyttle recalls. "'You think that the Virgin Mary actually appeared?' He just said, 'All that is important is that the child was saved. '"
Lyttle and Demarest had many questions for Hoffman, but Hoffman had curiosities of his own to satisfy.
"One of the first things he asked me about was Charles Manson," Lyttle recalls. "He asked me if I knew if it was true that Manson had used LSD to brainwash his cult members and whether they actually committed murders while they were tripping on LSD. I told him it was absolutely false. The Manson family members, most of the time, had used datura and other drugs used for zombie preparations in Haitian voudoo."
This was a great relief to Hoffman, who in his books has repeatedly referred to LSD as "my problem child."
In the late 1930s, the chemist was working for Sandoz Pharmaceutical in Basel, searching for a migraine reliever. He was working with compounds derived from ergot, a fungus that infects rye. First synthesized in 1938, the 25th such derivative of lysergic acid diethylamide was studied and abandoned until, on a whim, Hoffman decided to brew up a batch in the spring of 1943 and renew tests.
Somehow, he accidentally ingested a tiny amount of the LSD-25, probably through his skin. Feeling decidedly strange and aware that ergot compounds were known to be toxic, Hoffman left the lab, went home, and lay down. "I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors," he later wrote. "After some two hours, this condition faded away."
Intrigued, Hoffman returned to work a few days later and decided on a self-experiment: He dosed himself with what, by any measure, should have been a minuscule quantity -- .25 milligrams, or one-quarter of a thousandth of a gram. To put that in perspective, common LSD dosages from the 1960s through the 1990s varied from 20 to 100 millionths of a gram.
Within two hours, Hoffman was hallucinating so ferociously that he barely managed to bicycle back to his chalet. Convinced he had been poisoned, was near death, and "unable to form a coherent sentence," he summoned his personal physician. Eventually, Hoffman came down from his trip.
By the next morning, he reported, "a sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day."
To his knowledge, no other substance known to man was capable of "such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world."
Hoffman had stumbled upon the world's most powerful hallucinogen -- LSD is 100 times more potent than psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms") and 5,000 times stronger than mescaline (derived from peyote). The first acid trip so intrigued Hoffman's colleagues at Sandoz that they too tried LSD. From there, the international pharmaceutical community took notice. Soon, Hoffman's discovery would belong to the world.
As LSD blew minds, it opened up pathways between emotion and creativity. Many of the visual aspects of the acid trip -- the colorful trails and tracers, the animated patterns seen in the sky and behind closed eyes -- began to manifest themselves on artists' canvases. These images inspired psychedelic music and fanciful album-cover art. In turn, this artistic reform helped generate the insignias and logos that became an integral part of blotter acid.
Those with no interest in reading articles about the synthesis of alkaloids in the amanita muscaria mushroom or the neurocognitive effects of ibogaine can certainly groove to the trippy designs and pop-cultural significance of blotter art. Lyttle and Wollman are two instigators of the fascinating field of collecting perforated sheets of acid, the most popular delivery vehicle for the drug.
By 1970, sugar cubes were no longer the standard substrate for LSD. Absorbent paper, perforated to look like a sheet of stamps, was dipped in the drug -- after being printed with colorfully whimsical designs. In fact, the art soon became the main way of referring to the drug, since LSD itself is invisible, odorless, and tasteless. "Did you get the purple dragon? Or the globe stuff?" was how psychonauts differentiated what variety they'd bought.
Users would purchase a few of the stamps -- "hits" -- at a time, but at a wholesale level, the entire sheet, which was often 10 by 10 inches, was made up of as many as 1,000 squares.
Some of the seminal designs by artists like Robert Crumb are worth thousands today. Popular blotter designs included geometric patterns, variations on rock poster art, and especially cartoon imagery. In the '70s, Felix the Cat, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse adorned sheets. During the '80s and '90s, Bart Simpson, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park characters were common.
When he started his collection, Mark McCloud, a San Francisco art professor, considered blotter a uniquely American folk-op art form and started exhibiting his collection in the late 1980s. He would have to expose the pieces to ultraviolet light to negate their mind-bending properties but soon found ways to get hold of the stuff on its way from the printer to the chemist, who would add the actual acid.
Lyttle began his own blotter collection. "People would see these things and think, 'Wow -- this is exactly what I bought illegally and ate! I never thought I'd see such a thing mounted and framed legitimately!'" relates Lyttle. Emboldened by the popularity and appeal of blotter art, Lyttle decided to take it a step further.
"I had an idea that might make the art even more collectible," he says. "And at the same time do something to help promote legitimate research."
His suggestion was to take some of this undipped blotter to get autographed by some of the most famous psychedelic figureheads. So he sent sheets to Albert Hoffman in Switzerland, then to poet Allen Ginsberg and author Ken Kesey. He hit up dolphin (and flotation tank) expert John Lilly, as well as Laura Huxley, wife of psychedelic guru Aldous Huxley. Sasha Shulgin, the California synthetic chemist who developed MDMA, got into the game too. Most of the time, Lyttle would present them with 200 sheets, get them autographed, then split them up -- and the profits from reselling them.
Lyttle knew that surrealist H.R. Giger, who won an Oscar for his design of the monster in the film Alien, had an interest in the connection between surrealism and psychedelics, so he contacted him through his manager. Giger agreed to reproduce and perforate Illuminatus, a painting that featured caricatures of Leary and fantasy writers H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Anton Wilson.
"Giger signed 200 of them, just for collecting purposes," Lyttle recalls. "One hundred went to the Giger Museum in Switzerland, and the other 100 I ended up selling."
Lyttle was detained at the Canadian border two years ago when Customs officers wanted to know what he was doing with 50 sheets of what looked like acid.
"They asked me a lot of questions," Lyttle says, "but I travel with a huge media kit full of magazine articles, and after going through all that, they realized it was a controversial and radical -- but legitimate -- art form. It isn't illegal to collect this kind of art, but it's one step away from something that is illegal."
At an art conference in Hawaii a few years ago, he met Annie Sprinkle, an outspoken ex-porn star now best-known for forays into sex therapy and outlandish performance art. Knowing she was interested in the sexual-therapeutic effects of psychedelics, Lyttle and Wollman asked her to collaborate on an extremely limited-edition set of "tit prints." Sprinkle dipped her breasts in colorful ink, then pressed them onto perforated sheets of paper atop a swirly fractal image, highlighted them with glittery nail polish, and signed each one.
"It was great fun," says Sprinkle, now a Ph.D. candidate in sexology. "I loved our collaboration."
Autographed blotter, Lyttle says, turned out to be a profitable idea, though the original intent was simply to stockpile all-too-ephemeral art that was generally consumed before it had time to accumulate much dust. Now, when he gingerly pulls out some sheets from a glassine envelope, he treats them like ancient manuscripts from a bygone era.
Lyttle donated some of his signed sheets to the MAPS organization, who raised more than $10,000 by auctioning them off. "Thom has done us a tremendous amount of good with blotter art," Doblin says. "Our operating budget last year was over a million dollars, and that really helps."
The sheets that Lyttle sent to Hoffman to be signed now sell on eBay and to serious art collectors for $3,000 or more; pieces signed by the late Timothy Leary command similar prices.
Just before Leary's death in 1996, Lyttle and Demarest visited his Hollywood Hills home. Even the weekend prior to his passing, they recall, Leary was autographing acid. "Ram Dass was sitting right next to us as he signed the last sheet," Lyttle recalls. Leary said that autographing blotter art made him feel like "the pope signing communion wafers."
Special Agent Joe Kilmer of the Miami Field Division of the DEA is happy to confirm that acid is virtually unheard of in this part of the country.
"Certainly not like California," he notes. It doesn't even rate. You'll find a few tabs at some of these raves, but it's mostly Ecstasy and ketamine. We see next to no LSD arrests in South Florida."
In fact, the last time Kilmer did see a lot of acid was right before he led its owner away in handcuffs. In February 1992, as part of an undercover sting operation, he helped bring down nine men who were part of a nationwide LSD distribution network. Kilmer arranged to buy 10,000 hits of acid by meeting a man named David Cutlip in a Fort Lauderdale motel room. "He was a relaxed, typically nonthreatening Deadhead," Kilmer recalls. "Just one more guy in a series of middlemen."
Cutlip, Kilmer remembers, was handed an eight-year sentence for his role to distribute LSD. As the agent says without a hint of regret, "That's heavy-duty time for a kid barely out of his teens." According to Kilmer, Cutlip didn't own much besides his sheets of acid, "just a skateboard and backpack. And his 450 Grateful Dead ticket stubs. That meant more to him than anything in the world."
With a disapproving tongue click, the agent scoffs, "He didn't even consider [LSD] to be dangerous."
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These sort of tales inevitably sour Lyttle's temperament. To him, the biggest hazard of taking acid is the danger of jail.
"Thousands of people are sitting in prison," he huffs. "If anything, we're moving backward in regards to [legalization], and I don't really see the lawmakers changing their positions."
Then Lyttle remembers his role as a scientist.
"I'm very careful not to condone or promote anyone breaking the law," he says. "But if anyone should decide to experiment, my role is to provide them with accurate information."