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A Refresher Course on the Ups and Downs of LSD

Psychedelic expert Andy Roberts talks about bad trips, set and setting, and how to figure out how strong a tab is.
Max Daly
London, GB
​Photo by Troy Farah

The dark web has done a good job of making previously unavailable drugs very available. It's partly for this reason that, over the past couple of years, LSD has become increasingly popular among 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK. Getting hold of acid was generally harder than getting hold of coke or ecstasy, so nobody bothered. But now anyone can order anything they want, direct to their door.

As more people are taking acid, we thought it made sense to speak to an expert for a refresher course on the drug. Because people take drugs regardless of what you tell them, so it makes sense that they have the knowledge to take those drugs responsibly—to ensure they're not double-dosing their first time, freaking out and subjecting themselves to horrendous flashbacks for the rest of their lives.


That expert is Andy Roberts, author of Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain.

VICE: Is it common to have bad trips the first time you take LSD?
Andy Roberts: It depends on how you term a bad trip. It could be anything from unease, uncertainty, being worried and anxious to the full-blown horrors of being catapulted into another dimension: god, the devil and monsters and all that. It's a sliding scale, but yes, more people than we are generally aware of have bad or unsettling trips the first time they take LSD.

Why is it so easy to bum out the first time?
The perception about LSD is invariably good—that you will see pretty colors, music will sound fantastic. But the experience itself is so radically different from the expectation or anything you can read about it that people can't cope with that sudden leap from one state to another. It's a bit like a soldier learning about combat and then being involved in actual battle.

What was your first trip like?
I was a wannabe hippy; I really wanted to try it. I went to a friend's party and I bought two green microdots. I took one and thought, This is going to be fantastic. After 30 minutes nothing happened, so I took the other one—what could possibly go wrong? Thirty minutes after that I was being held down by ten people because I had completely lost it. I escaped from them, went into kitchen, and was telling people I wanted to commit suicide because I'd lost my mind. I tried to put my head in the gas oven. I was dragged out into the garden and they pinned me down on the lawn to keep me still. I looked up to the sky and the entire sky was full of 1,000-foot-high ice warriors on horses coming towards me in phalanxes. That freaked me out.


Then I was in the living room and everyone had crashed out in the dark. I became aware of the ultimate presence of evil telling me the entire world had been created for my benefit. I could see luminescent psychedelic maggots wriggling on the lamp and plopping on the floor with a big hiss. I spent the rest of the night with paranoid thoughts about how my life would be ruined because I'd taken this drug. I suffered the psychological aftereffects of that night for a year after. If I hadn't have had a girlfriend who looked after me for that year I would have probably ended up in a psychiatric unit.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: On the Anniversary of the First Acid Trip, What Do We Now Know About LSD?

Grim. I'm surprised you took any more acid. Why was that trip so powerful?
Because in the 1970s microdot acid was fucking strong—250 micrograms per trip. I didn't know that you have to wait at least one or two hours for the effects to start coming on, and so I got the full 500 micrograms and it hit me like a steam train. Now the strength of acid is nothing like that. Now the average tab is between 100 to 150 micrograms, maximum.

What's the biggest single cause of a bad trip?
Your mind. LSD will open up your subconscious so everything that has ever happened to you might come back to you—everything that is repressed and you have chosen not to talk about can come back to you. This is why they use LSD in psychotherapy, because it's a good tool for unlocking those things—not as good as MDMA by a long chalk. They have to be happy in themselves that there is nothing in there that is going to come out. It's individual to each person.


Is there any way of making sure you don't have a bad trip?
There's no surefire way. The people who I know who've been taking LSD for 40 years are still ultra careful about doing it—they never treat it with anything less than the ultimate respect. Having said that, you should make sure that you are not distressed about something. If you've got big relationship or emotional problems, for example, it's going to be magnified 100 times once it hits you because LSD is a sensory amplifier. If you start off in a bad state of mind it's not going to put you in a good state of mind.

Timothy Leary, the person who spread the message of LSD around the world, had two words to say about how to trip properly: set and setting, your own mindset and the physical setting. If you combine them carefully and are aware of your dosing, that's the best way to ensure a good trip. Unless you're experienced, you want to be in control of your environment. The best thing to do is go where there aren't many people or stay in with people you know.

Going to see a band sounds like a good idea, but you have to navigate to the venue, there are big crowds, someone might bump into you accidentally. If you stay in a room full of friends, candles, nice music, everything chilled, that's a nice way to go, or if you go to the countryside where you're not going to be freaked out by bumping into straight people. People who aren't on acid can be terrifying to you; their faces can distort, you can get paranoid.


Is there anything you can do mid-trip if you are having a bad time?
Eating sugar and sugary things when you're on acid can help bring the intensity of the trip down a little bit. That's why in the old days acid used to come in sugar cubes. It's a matter of taking away all the rough environmental edges. If you were in someone's house and it was all going a bit pear-shaped you could do many things, like change the lighting, use candles to soften the whole vibe and incense to blot out bad smells. Put on your favorite albums—they're like a comfort blanket.

What about eating or drinking?
I would never advocate eating a meal because your body is too busy in the process of getting you high to be able to digest food properly. If you have a big lump of food in your stomach you can feel like you've swallowed a lead balloon or something. Or you can be sick. I wouldn't eat anything for several hours beforehand. Drink liquids because you sweat, but only small amounts of alcohol.

It seems trips can randomly take you anywhere. Can you influence the subject of a trip?
Yes. A lot of people turned to psychedelics originally because they felt it gave them some sort of spiritual or religious experience. Some pagans will surround themselves by little pagan statues, carvings and books as they are coming up and that will influence their trip.

There are a lot of new cheap psychedelics on the internet. What's the difference between LSD and its analogues?
I've used 1P LSD, but I wouldn't trust any of the other analogues of LSD. 1P-LSD isn't much like the real thing. It has some similarities and psychedelic elements, but doesn't have the depth, potency or complexity of real LSD.


Let's say I've just bought an LSD tab off someone with a picture of a pink flower on it. How could I get an idea of how strong it may be?
I would look on Erowid, MAPS, or Bluelight, [websites] where people post trip reports for different types of acid. Just look up the one describing the pink flower blotter. You might get an inkling from that, but even so I'd balance that up by only taking half the tab until you know what's what.

Any tips for virgin trippers before they take the plunge?
Take half a dose. Then give it three or four hours and if it feels comfortable then maybe take a full dose the next time. Never just take someone's word for it that a tab is weak or strong, because each person's psychology is different. Some people can knock back eight pints and continue with their life, whereas if I drank eight pints I'd be in hospital. If it's your first time, be with someone you trust who isn't taking it so they can guide you and look after you. If they're taking it for the first time they should have a sitter, someone who stays with them and checks they're OK.

Professor David Nutt has categorized LSD as one of the least harmful drugs around—far less damaging to the body than alcohol, for example. But he doesn't appear to factor in that the drug can put people in dangerous situations.
People might freak out and they have to be talked down—they may end up having psychiatric treatment. But considering the amount of people that have used LSD, the amount of accidents is very low. If people take precautions it's unlikely they will come to any harm. The only reason LSD became and still is a class A drug is because it fundamentally changes how one sees the world and all the social structures in it. As Terence McKenna said: "[Psychedelics] open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong."

Is LSD dangerous for the developing young brain?
People should not take LSD until they feel mentally ready for it, but that's never going to stop anyone taking drugs is it. There is no research into the effects of LSD on the young brain. I've met people who have taken LSD when they were very young—mainly people living in the hippie traveler community—and it didn't seem to affect them in any way whatsoever. But if you're that age and living in that environment, you're not worried about anything, and it's the worries in your mind that cause the problem. But I would advise people should not take it under the age of 16.

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