The history of Czechoslovak LSD is one of the greatest phenomena of the second half of the 20th century. How come for almost a quarter of a century, in a communist state, thousands of people, including many popular artists such as Karel Gott, were able to use psychedelic drugs entirely legally?
Why was 1960s Czechoslovakia the leading manufacturer and exporter of LSD? And why could psychiatrists there, under the guardianship of the secret police and military intelligence, experiment freely with this substance long after it had been banned all over the world?
The most unbelievable thing about this story is that it originated long before the era of Flower Power, the counterculture movement and the 1968 Prague Spring, in a past as distant and gloomy as possible: during the first years of communist rule in Eastern Europe.
In the autumn of 1952 – at the exact moment when the paranoically suspicious USSR leader Joseph Stalin unleashed a purge among the Kremlin doctors, accusing them of conspiring to assassinate him and other leaders – several young psychiatrists in Prague ingested for the first time a mysterious substance that had been sent from a laboratory in Basel. This is how the Czechoslovak adventure with LSD began.
The substance arrived in Prague in an entirely legal way. A standard shipment from the pharmaceutical company Sandoz was sent to Dr Jiří Roubíček, an associate professor at the Faculty of Psychiatry at the Medical University of Prague. It contained ampoules with an oily, transparent substance described as ‘lysergic acid diethylamide’, a substance first synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann. Initially considered useless, LSD attracted the attention of the company owners after Hoffman accidentally tested its effects on himself on 19th April 1943. Four years later, the first study summarizing the results of LSD tests involving healthy volunteers and patients in psychiatric hospitals was released. The article was attached to the parcel that landed on Roubíček’s desk.
Doctors in their patients’ shoes
Roubíček was a well-regarded researcher of phenomena related to brainwave activity, and the author of pioneering research on the application of encephalography methods in psychiatry. He regularly received various parcels from the Swiss company, but this one was particularly interesting. The description stated that the mysterious substance evoked hallucinations characteristic of mental illnesses. After a series of tests on animals, Roubíček decided to administer the substance to a group of healthy volunteers and explore how LSD would affect the human brain.
The initial experiments were carried out at a psychiatric hospital in Prague’s Bohnice district. The participants were given minimal doses – doctors already knew that just one gram of the substance would be sufficient to induce hallucinations in 10,000 people. Each volunteer drank a glass of water mixed with the hallucinogen and was locked in a padded room equipped with a one-way mirror.
The doctors then began testing the substance on themselves. “I was one of the first people in Czechoslovakia who took LSD,” the eminent psychiatrist Professor Jan Srnec recalled 60 years later. “It was something unbelievable. First of all, it was extraordinary that such a small dose could cause a complete disintegration of the psyche. Second, LSD had an entirely different effect on different people. In my case, it was a state of pure euphoria, elation.”
Thanks to LSD, psychiatrists were able to put themselves in their patients’ shoes. They could experience, in a controlled environment, the conditions faced by people with incurable mental illnesses. Many orthopaedists have shared the experience of a patient with a broken arm or leg. But how can someone relate to the condition of a person with severe schizophrenic delusions if they themselves do not experience any mental health issues? How can a psychiatrist help such a patient? LSD was the door through which Czechoslovak doctors entered the world of delusions and psychoses, and they left it wide open for those willing to explore.
The first to take advantage of this opportunity were artists, especially painters and graphic designers. Roubíček had acquaintances in the circles of artistic bohemia. So, he came up with the idea to invite some of them to take part in the experiment. In return, they were to express through visual means what other volunteers could only talk about.
The effect surpassed all expectations. The artistic depictions of hallucinations and visions were extremely suggestive, and news of the extraordinary substance quickly spread among non-conformist Czechoslovak artists.
One of them was Vladimír Boudník, the creator of an innovative graphic technique known as ‘explosionism’. Since the mid-1950s, the legendary Gentle Barbarian – the eponymous character of Bohumil Hrabal's 1973 novel – had been creating prints using filings randomly scattered on industrial sheet metal and imprinted in the graphic press. In this way, he obtained extraordinary visual effects reminiscent of drug-induced visions. Besides LSD administered under the supervision of psychiatrists from Bohnice, Boudník did not take any other drugs or hallucinogenic substances.
As a result, there were so many people keen to participate in the experiments that Roubíček and his colleagues decided to train a group of assistants. They could hardly cope with the demand on their own. Each session lasted about six hours, and in just a few years as many as 130 sessions were conducted in Bohnice with the participation of 76 volunteers. Roubíček turned to his students for help.
One of them was 23-year-old Stanislav Grof – currently one of the most well-known and controversial researchers of different states of consciousness. “In 1954, I took part in psychedelic sessions for the first time,” Grof remembers. “Initially I was only an observer, because the authorities of the faculty prohibited us from actively participating in the experiment. I have to admit that I could not wait to finish my studies in order to be able to take LSD myself.”
Three years later, Grof – already an employee of the Bohnice clinic – experienced his first LSD trip, assisted by his colleagues. “This event has transformed me completely. It was my spiritual awakening,” he says. “Everything that followed, my entire academic career, was a consequence of that extraordinary experience.”
Faith in the wonders of science
Up until the end of the 1950s, studies involving the use of LSD had already been carried out in several psychiatric clinics in Czechoslovakia, with several dozen volunteers participating. However, this number was soon to reach hundreds or even thousands. In 1961, Prague’s pharmacists succeeded in creating a Czechoslovak equivalent of LSD. From that point onwards, psychiatrists there had access to virtually unlimited quantities of the substance. The eminent psychiatrist Miloš Vojtěchovský recalled that each of his five colleagues who independently conducted LSD research in various institutions in the country received 100 doses of the hallucinogenic agent. Work on its application was in full swing.
The doctors were convinced that the new substance would allow them to understand how mental illnesses work – schizophrenia, cyclophrenia, neurosis, psychosis and depression, as they were called at the time. The advent of the 1950s and 1960s was a time of optimism and great confidence in the unlimited potential of science around the world. Penicillin – the first antibiotic – was finally widely available, the first transplants had been successfully performed, and previously unknown chemical substances affecting the human psyche, such as LSD, were the forerunners of unprecedented medical development in the second-half of the 20th century. It was believed that soon, thanks to scientific breakthroughs, it would be possible to cure all kinds of illnesses, including mental health disorders that were still the cause of irrational concern at the time.
Such confidence was particularly strong in the countries of the Eastern Bloc, where (as in the USSR) the cult of Scientism was strongly promoted, and numerous literary and film works depicted scientists almost as prophets or even saints. A particularly interesting example of this is the 1962 Czechoslovak popular science film Looking for Toxin X, featuring footage from an authentic LSD séance. A dose of the substance was given to a volunteer (a student of the Prague acting school, Petr Oliva), as well as to the entire film crew, including the cameraman. “After all, we had to see for ourselves what happens to a person then,” Oliva explained half a century later.
The filmmakers managed to convincingly show the course of the experiment. Thanks to special effects, the viewers could also see it from the perspective of the actor hallucinating, under the supervision of a doctor (the aforementioned Stanislav Grof). The main theme of the film is the search for the eponymous ‘toxin X’, said to be responsible for all mental disorders. The protagonists believe that LSD will soon help to locate it.
One of the most astonishing parts of the film is a seemingly trivial scene in which hundreds of ampoules of LSD leave the production line. This was indeed a prophetic vision. Four years later, Spofa's pharmaceutical plant in Komarovo began a steady production of LSD under a local name, Lysergamid. In the first decade, millions of units of LSD were produced and distributed free of charge to Czechoslovak clinics and psychiatric hospitals.
By this point, the number of participants in psychedelic sessions in Czechoslovakia had reached several thousand. Among them were well-known painters (such as Ivo Medek and Jiří Anderle), as well as young intellectuals, singers and students. According to an unverified account, one of them was the current Czech President, Miloš Zeman. A number of years later, Karel Gott reluctantly admitted that he too, “just once”, took LSD in the presence of doctors: “I returned to my earliest childhood memories, buried deep within my subconsciousness.”
Many participants of the psychedelic sessions, especially artists, recalled their explorations of LSD as unique, even formative experiences. However, others experienced so-called ‘bad trips’. Suicides soon followed. In several main centres – especially the psychiatric hospital in Sadska, near Prague – research was carried out on a mass scale. According to unconfirmed reports, one of the provincial hospitals carried out tests on children as young as three years old who were experiencing mental health issues. In another hospital, experiments were supposedly carried out on prisoners.
From subversion to profit-making
From the very beginning, the State Security and counter-espionage controlled the entire process of scientific exploration, as well as the production and export of Czechoslovak LSD. The secret police quickly became interested in the unusual substance. Initially, this was mainly due to their involvement in the selection of volunteers taking part in the early experiments. The fact that this was a kind of elite group, including a number of outstanding and simultaneously rebellious individuals, did not escape their attention. Several psychiatrists, among them Stanislav Grof, were recruited to report on their charges. The State Security soon became increasingly interested in the possibilities of using LSD for disruptive purposes (just as their opponents did, the American CIA). They contemplated introducing LSD into drinking water, or possibly spraying LSD into the air. Subversive actions aimed at the enemy’s staff were also considered.
The expected outcomes of such actions were the subject of another exceptional documentary film realized by Czechoslovak filmmakers. The protagonists of Experiment (1968) are four genuine officers of the Czechoslovak army who voluntarily take a dose of LSD. They are then tasked with drawing up a warfare plan, which of course they fail to do while the camera carefully records the complete mental disengagement of the military. The officers, however, appear quite satisfied. They take off their uniforms, giggle, and apparently have great fun. The narrator declares: “Hallucinogens give us hope for an imminent end to deadly wars.”
While such hopes were false, LSD turned out to be a true goldmine, or strictly speaking, a great source of foreign currency. A large part of Spofa’s production was exported to the West, with profitable sales of Lysergamid to Western Europe, the US and Canada, supervised by the State Security from the very start. At first, the export of the substance was entirely legal. In the West, the ban on the possession of LSD was gradually introduced from the mid-1960s (in the US, in 1966). Czechoslovak communists did not want to give up their profits from the trade, so until the mid-1970s they ran regular contraband operations (in one instance, LSD was sent to the US in books with pages soaked in the hallucinogenic substance). For this reason, the CIA came to the conclusion that these were in fact diversionary activities, aimed at the very foundations of American society. This was, of course, particularly true of the American youth, for whom taking LSD (or dropping acid) had become a generational experience.
There is no evidence that the Czechoslovak State Security deliberately shifted vast quantities of LSD to the West for purposes other than making financial profit. However, the Czechoslovak Ministry of the Interior was certainly aware of the consequences of its actions – it did not conduct any activity without agreement from Moscow. Paradoxically, it was Prague’s vassal attitude towards the USSR that contributed to the end of Czechoslovak LSD. In 1974, shortly after the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the first disarmament agreement with the American President Richard Nixon, Czechoslovakia ceased production of LSD and, following the example set by other countries, banned the use of the substance.
Psychedelia after the Prague Spring
Yet the Czechoslovak communists had their own reasons for concern. After the ‘allied’ invasion of August 1968, they managed to intimidate those in society following the Prague Spring mass protest, and introduced some sort of ‘peace’. 300,000 people fled to the West, hundreds were imprisoned, and the country plunged into lethargy. Against this background, non-conformist youth stood out all the more. Long-haired boys and girls held concerts for psychedelic bands (such as the famous Plastic People of the Universe) in country taverns or village barns. In the early 1970s, these young people had easier access to LSD than their peers in America.
Within a dozen or so months, the elite Prague-based subculture grew into a movement engaging youth all over the country. The authorities responded with brutal repression, including the criminalization of all psychoactive drugs except for tobacco and alcohol. The Plastic People musicians were imprisoned and a petition, launched in their defence by the playwright Václav Havel, became the foundation of the most famous Czechoslovak dissident movement: Charter 77.
A manufacturing, rather than medical, miracle
The Czechoslovak adventure with LSD lasted almost a quarter of a century. It began with an idealistic faith in science and ended with a State Security-led illegal export operation and widespread persecution of dissidents. What remains is a legend that only recently has been verified by a group of inquisitive reporters. In 2015, following months of squabbles involving the Czech media supervisory council, television viewers eventually got to see Pavel Křemen’s excellent documentary, LSD made in ČSSR. The director managed to persuade several people, including outstanding artists, intellectuals and psychiatrists, such as Stanislav Grof, to talk about their adventures with LSD. Křemen also unearthed the films Looking for Toxin X and Experiment in the archives and included extensive fragments in his work.
According to the Czech doctors interviewed in the documentary, they quickly began to question whether LSD could be effectively used in therapy. Even before his departure for the US in 1967, Grof came to the conclusion that LSD was not a source, but simply a catalyst of spiritual experiences. In the US, he became famous for creating ‘turbopsychoanalysis’, a form of therapy combining psychotherapeutic sessions with administering psychedelics to his patients. Later, he developed a natural technique of inducing different states of consciousness, the so-called ‘holotropic breathing’.
His younger brother, Pavel Grof, had more luck with pharmaceuticals. In 1967, at the same hospital in Bohnice, he was the first Czechoslovak doctor to administer lithium carbonate – a pioneering drug preventing psychosis – to a group of patients with bipolar disorder. In contrast to LSD, the inconspicuous lithium carbonate is still used to this day and has proven to be the philosophical stone of psychiatry, allowing a huge leap in the treatment of mental illnesses. “One day a miracle occurred. A MIRACLE. My doctor arrived with a new, wonderful powder in his hand. And then he shook my hand and discharged me from the clinic.” This is how one of Pavel Grof’s patients, the prose writer and reporter Ota Pavel, described lithium therapy.
When asked why LSD caused such a furore in Czechoslovakia, we usually hear that for the atheistic Czechoslovak society, a psychedelic trip was the most attractive form of satisfying their metaphysical needs. However, Professor Jiřina Šiklová, the godmother of Czech gender studies and a participant in the psychedelic séances (who also appears in Křemen’s film), might be closer to the truth. According to the sociologist, the leading role in this story belongs to the state’s well-developed chemical and pharmaceutical industry – Czechoslovak LSD became a common phenomenon because Czechoslovakia was the only country in the Eastern Bloc capable of manufacturing it on a mass scale.
In the US (as mentioned earlier), LSD has been illegal since 1966. In Poland, it is on the list of harmful psychotropic substances that are not useful in medicine. Since 1st January 2010, the possession of up to five tabs of LSD in the Czech Republic is legal, yet again…
Translated by Joanna Figiel