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The Substance: One Drop Changes Everything

by Martin Witz
Icarus Films, New York, USA, 2011
81 mins., colour/b&w. Sales, $398
Distributor’s website: http://www.icarusfilms.com.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


LSD (The Substance) has been variously hailed as the wonder drug of all time and also the most evil chemical ever produced. This film shows the history of LSD from its discovery by Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann in 1943, through to the present.

The Substance by Martin Witz runs for 81 minutes, is shot in both colour and black & white and contains a great deal of interesting, and for me, nostalgic footage. The interviews with such luminaries as Timothy Leary, Stanislav Grof, Albert Hofmann himself, Nick Sand, and Ralph Metzner are fascinating and help us understand just what the fuss was (and is) about with this amazing chemical substance.

Hofmann discovered Lysergic acid diethylamide quite by accident. He was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant and isolated this 'strange' substance that came from the fungus growing on rye grass/grain. He subsequently experimented on himself and as the sub-title of the film says, “One drop changes everything”. Hofmann, who was close to 100 years old when interviewed, reiterated this statement. As anyone who has taken LSD will attest to, it does open “the doors of perception” and gives a glimpse of unseen or unimagined worlds.

The film traces the development of LSD in the Sandoz chemical-pharmaceutical laboratories in Switzerland to its 'escape' from the laboratory and its various incarnations as a weapon in the Cold War investigated by the American military and CIA; its extensive testing and use in psychiatry; its adoption by the hippie generation as the spiritual drug of choice; to it eventually being banned in all Western countries. 

Let's face it, you can't have young people preaching love and peace walking around with flowers in their (long) hair when they should be killing other human beings in totally unjustified wars. As footage in the film shows President Richard Nixon (of all people) labelled Leary as the most dangerous man in the USA! Ronald Reagan expresses similar sentiments concerning the dangerous nature of LSD.

As Hofmann himself insists, giving LSD willy-nilly to unprepared young people is both dangerous and irresponsible — both Leary and Sand advocated this 'acid' for everyone approach together with … “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out”! LSD is closely related to Psilocybin that is found naturally in many types of mushrooms. This psychedelic, hallucinogenic drug has been used for thousands of years, but only after appropriate physical and psychological preparation (fasting, instruction, and so on) and with the guidance of elders or experienced users. That is, it is seen as a 'sacred' substance not for everyday mindless consumption. Currently new research is being carried out with this class of drug at John Hopkins’ Hospital for the alleviation of pain and suffering associated with various life threatening illnesses such as cancer.

The film is well crafted with some excellent photography but a little on the sterile side. I think it would have benefited from a 'trippy' background sound track and some more psychedelic imagery interwoven throughout; after all it is dealing with one of the most potent audio/image distorting drugs in existence. This minor criticism aside, The Substance: One Drop Changes Everything is an important film and its collection of rare archival footage will remain a great asset to historians and the general public alike.

Last Updated 1st April 2013

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