Acid Test

Tales from within Berlin’s microdosing scene

Words By Alex Rennie
Photos By Patricia Tarczynski

Lysergic acid diethylamide – more commonly known as ‘LSD’ or ‘acid’ – is a drug that has long been affiliated with marathon benders, hippy culture and tie-dye visuals. 

Yet these associations are being completely overhauled by microdosing, the practice of taking tiny amounts of acid to boost creativity, productivity, and even deal with mental health issues such as depression. Eager to score the inside scoop, we talked with some of Berlin’s microdosers to find out how this traditionally recreational psychedelic substance is being put to use in an entirely new context.

LSD’s tumultuous history began in 1938, when it was first synthesised by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman at Basel’s Sandoz Laboratories while he was trying to develop new circulatory and respiratory stimulants. In 1943, utterly by chance after accidentally ingesting the drug, he discovered its strong psychoactive qualities. Three days later, Hoffman intentionally took 250 micrograms (μg) of LSD, famously first feeling the buzz as he cycled home.

The following half century saw LSD transform from a promising medication into a controlled substance. Numerous CIA-led experiments, the Vietnam War, a massive counter-cultural revolution in the 1960s and the subsequent 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Drugs resulted in LSD being denigrated as a harmful recreational drug, consumed en masse by vociferous hippies all looking to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Its apparent threat to the moral fabric of society was judged too grave, and most research into LSD ground to a halt.

Today, LSD is strictly regulated around the world. In Germany, the drug is classified as an Anlage I substance. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, substances that fall into this category are defined as, “Narcotic drugs not eligible for trade or prescription.” Under Germany’s drug policy, or Betäubungsmittelgesetz, distribution and possession of acid is a criminal offence, although prosecutions seldom occur for small quantities intended for personal use.

However, this socio-judicial overhang is slowly ebbing away. A reinvigorated scientific interest in psychedelics has emerged, and a host of studies have cropped up that seek to explore the potential benefits of LSD in treating psychological conditions such as anxiety and PTSD. Perhaps the biggest driver of this renaissance is microdosing, a trend popularised by hyper-smart techies holed up in Silicon Valley looking for an edge in a competitive corporate landscape. But it’s not all software engineers and complex algorithms. Microdosing is thriving in Berlin, and there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Our first port of call was Susan (not her real name), a radio journalist who put together a story on microdosing for Deutschlandfunk in April. Over a glass of wine, Susan explains how she was switched on to the idea after hearing it talked about amongst her yoga circles. “I ran into a few people who started dropping the term ‘microdosing’ at my yoga practice; it was the first time I’d heard of it,” she says.

With microdosing, people are trying to self-optimise, they want to work better.

After a few more conversations, she realised microdosing was much more widespread than she initially thought: “A couple of months later another friend mentioned they were trying it, and I thought, ‘you too?’” The idea had presented itself. In the process of producing her story she reached out to a handful of microdosers, as well as Dr Henrik Jungaberle – a Berlin-based psychologist involved in drug prevention programmes and research.

Dr Jungaberle asserts that microdosing is a proxy for enhancement. “With microdosing, people are trying to self-optimise, they want to work better,” he says. “People today experience real boredom, everyday life may be monotone. It’s a tool to make things more enjoyable.” In his opinion, there are parallels with Ritalin usage, especially as a means of driving up productivity.

As part of her groundwork, and in true gonzo style, Susan decided to experience microdosing for herself. “I wanted to try it because people were saying it opens up different pathways in your mind,” she says. “I wanted to see whether it’s bullshit or not, to know what it does and doesn’t do.” But in embarking on this endeavour, she discovered one of microdosing’s biggest drawbacks: how to measure an accurate dose.

Typically, one tab of acid contains 100μg of LSD. The best way to siphon off a microdose – between 5–15μg according to Dr Jungaberle – is to soak a tab in 100ml of distilled water overnight. Storing it in the fridge preserves its potency for approximately one month. Using a syringe or pipette and taking it neat or in tea is the most precise way to hit the sweet spot, though more haphazard microdosers simply snip off a tiny corner of the tab and hope for the best.

Susan recounts sampling her first microdose one Saturday. Shortly afterwards as she went to meet a friend in a café, it quickly dawned on her she’d had more than enough. “When I got there I was super hyperactive, my friend asked me why I was being so giggly. I told him about microdosing. He got me to look him in the eye, and he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re high!’” She estimates she took about 30μg, double the ideal amount. The following time she tried it, it didn’t have much of an effect. Dr Jungaberle notes that this is quite common: “Obviously the dose depends on the individual, its effects can vary. There are people who’re very sensitive to LSD and people who won’t feel anything on such a small amount.” It’s hard to gauge how to hit the jackpot in this psychedelic lottery.

In retrospect, Susan is sceptical of how microdosing has been extolled as a means to increase productivity and creative output: “I think it’s a bit hypocritical using it to achieve something; it feeds into our digital, non-stop, don’t sleep, we’re all replaceable world.” Though this critique has traction, it doesn’t quite gel with the reality of other Berliners who’re readily portioning out their own micro-odysseys.

A week later, Max (also not his real name) sits in the spring sun beside Wedding’s lesser-known Schiffahrtskanal, a secluded stretch of water bordering the western edge of the district. It is midday and it seems a beautiful enough location without psychoactive drugs – but Max is here to bare all about his psychedelic encounters. Originally from the US, he’s been living in Berlin on-and-off since the early 2000s. He divides his time between photography, filmmaking, and teaching English. He’s been consistently microdosing 10μg of diluted LSD every fourth day for the last three months.

Before leaving his flat, Max carefully measured out a tiny droplet of acid and swallowed it. It’s striking how lucid he is. Not only that, his answers are thorough and crammed with information. But how does he feel? “I’ve got that butterfly feeling in my stomach, and the acid taste in my mouth is slightly apparent,” he says. “The colours are brighter and I can hear the birds, they’re fucking loud as shit right now!”

Society has definitely portrayed LSD as something scary, and that shapes our views on these kind of things. It’s time to get past it.

Echoing Susan’s reservations, Max explains how his first foray into microdosing wasn’t a calculated one: “I started off with the slap-dash approach. It’s OK if that’s your entry point. But if you want to be more serious about it, when it can be an addition to your week and help your productivity, it’s better to figure out how to do it properly.”

Having tailored the right amount to his needs, Max expands on how microdosing aids his daily routine: “There are days when you wake up and you feel tired and sluggish, you’re forgetful. It’s about not being that; it makes you a better version of yourself. You’re getting closer to peak performance: you’re happy and in a good mood, you’re sharp, ready and focused. For me, it’s less about creativity and more about efficiency. My ability to empathise with the world around me and the people that I talk to is greater, too.”

So far, Max’s motives resonate with Susan and Dr Jungaberle’s assessments. This link wavers when Max digs deeper into the reasons behind his experimental assays. It was in the midst of a severe bout of depression, he decided to revisit acid. “I started doing LSD again as therapy for myself, to get into a better state of mind. The first time I did LSD again I had a very clear view of whatever pit I had fallen into.”

Beyond the efficiency, Max’s stance on microdosing is one that’s strikingly holistic. “As a tool it is incredibly useful, I’ve cleaned out that emotional closet in my life a handful of times, not just microdosing but also macrodosing,” he says. “If you go into it wanting to resolve problems, it’s extremely helpful. If you’ve ever tried to be creative whilst you’re stressed out with normal life shit, it’s so hard to do.”

After an hour in the sun discussing how microdosing “connects these different parts of the brain that wouldn’t normally be connected,” Max finishes on a poignant note concerning its paradigm-shifting potential. “Society has definitely portrayed LSD as something scary, and that shapes our views on these kind of things. It’s time to get past it. I think this can be a norm, as well as a wonderful helping hand in the growth of our human consciousness.”

It’s tricky to argue that Max’s personal experience is solely centred on self-optimisation in the Silicon Valley sense. In fact, his microdosing mentality seems more to do with therapeutic factors than anything else. His belief that acid could one day slot into the normative framework is both upbeat and infectious. It’s also an ideal shared by Kjartan Nilsen, a Norwegian filmmaker with a background in medicine.

Having landed in Berlin three years ago, Kjartan established The German Psychedelic Society last June. “We want to be a platform for psychedelic users, a space where people can connect, exchange knowledge with each other and participate in seminars and social events,” he says. Their last event in April at Prenzlauer Berg’s Musik Brauerei attracted around 250 guests.

Like Max, Kjartan also extolls the virtues of microdosing, though he only dabbles in it every now and then: “It’s been very beneficial for me. I become more focused and my creative output is higher, and it also has a strong spiritual side to it; I become more aware. From morning to evening, I’m experiencing this ‘flow’ state. Even though this sounds kind of floaty, it removes the ego, the mask that you’re carrying in your daily life, and you see others as an extension of yourself.”

There’s definitely something major happening right now. I think these drugs will play a key role in the future, in psychiatry and other fields of medicine.

Kjartan is clued up when it comes to current research. He spends some time fleshing out recent scientific investigations into LSD, including Imperial College London’s now notorious fMRI scans of brains on acid. Though he admits “we need more science” concerning microdosing, he references American psychologist James Fadiman’s qualitative work as an encouraging benchmark. “His studies are quite promising: 99% of users report positive effects, and a slight percentage are reporting an emotional release during microdosing sessions,” he says.

But we have to ask: what about the risks? Is Kjartan not concerned that repeated LSD use could inflict harm? “Certainly, there is risk,” he agrees. “But I would argue that the risk is minimal because we already know that psychedelics are the least harmful group of substances on the market today.” Harkening back to Dr Jungaberle’s responses, Kjartan’s confidence is well-founded. “LSD is one of the least damaging substances that exists, certainly less harmful than alcohol,” says the German scientist.

So could it be that we’re on the cusp of something truly revolutionary? Kjartan thinks so: “There’s definitely something major happening right now. I think these drugs will play a key role in the future, in psychiatry and other fields of medicine.”

Perhaps it’s too premature to assess what the future holds. Nevertheless, this reinvigorated surge in psychedelic science does seem to be a convincing marker of things to come. And as microdosing becomes more visible in the public domain, it may well begin to dissolve the perceived danger that LSD poses to society’s mental wellbeing. Kjartan is quietly optimistic: “A lot of information that people have on psychedelics are based on myths spread throughout the media. But the evidence is telling us that these are some of the least harmful substances that exist, and that they even have great personal benefits, spirituality and creatively. Times are changing.”

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