Friday, October 9, 2009

White Rabbit Redux

White Rabbit Redux

Dust off your old Jefferson Airplane albums. Acid may be making a comeback.

Scientific American reports that two new clinical studies are underway examining the use of LSD in psychotherapy [1]. One of these is in Switzerland, funded by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The second is at U. C, Berkeley, funded by the Beckley Foundation of England.

The 1950s were the glory days of psychedelic research. Hundreds of studies, involving thousands of patients and hundreds of thousands of doses of LSD were published  [2]. Mescaline (peyote) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms, or ‘srooms) also received a lot of attention.

The study of psychedelics blossomed in the ‘50s. Investigators flourished in literature, art, medicine, basic science and politics.

Aldous Huxley led the way in literature. His Doors of Perception was seminal. He introduced Dr. Hofman to mescaline and psilocybin, resulting in their synthesis. He then took LSD to Harvard, where Leary was researching with psilocybin and also introduced Leary and Allen Ginsburg to each other. William Burroughs failed with his Texas marijuana farm and moved to Mexico, where he lured Ginsburg onto his South American quest for yagĂ©. On the West Coast, Ken Kesey met LSD as an experimental subject at a mental hospital where he worked. When One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made it big, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters tried to turn the Nation on with their “acid tests”.

(FUN SIDE NOTE: Neal Cassady was the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, the novel that introduced many of us to the idea of drugs. He was also the driver of Kesey’s bus, named “Furthur”, when the Pranksters made their cross-country voyage to meet Leary. I have sometimes said that Kesey put a bunch of Beats on the bus, Cassady drove them around the country, and the first hippies disembarked.)

By 1950 Sandoz was sending samples of LSD to interested doctors – the standard way of testing new drugs and building markets for them before the FDA started requiring proof of efficacy in 1962. This surprising new drug created quite a buzz.

Several doctors, following the lead of the literary adventurers, tried to study the effect of acid on creativity and the arts. However, no good theories of the brain existed at the time, and modern methods of study, including scans, were still some thirty years in the future. So after watching painters paint while tripping and afterward and talking to poets who were buzzed, these experiments didn’t really lead to anything.

But the fifties was also the time when the first real psychopharmacological breakthroughs were made. Many doctors were therefore willing to try LSD as an adjunct to the kinds of therapy they were already doing. It demonstrated some success in several areas.

Grief and transition counseling was one of the most promising. Those who had experienced the loss of a spouse or close relative or those facing a terminal diagnosis in themselves or a family member seemed to cope with the situation much better after one or two counseling sessions involving acid.

Couples therapy, or working with those having relationship problems, also progressed better when the work involved doses of acid.

Therapists working with disorders now classified as Post Traumatic Stress, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder also tried using LSD with their patients. These efforts, too, showed marked success.

Researchers in Canada used LSD in treating alcoholics who had not been successful in earlier attempts at treatment. They reported cure rates without relapse of around fifty per cent, levels no other therapy has reached.

Over all, several thousand studies were published. First, they demonstrated the drug to be remarkably safe. Almost no significant adverse effects have been noted. They also indicated high levels of successful treatment. However, measured against the stringent standards for drug testing that have developed since 1962 under the changed FDA protocols, few of these studies would be considered sufficiently rigorous today.

But the dark side experimented with acid as well. Even before 1945, the OSS was looking at mind-altering drugs, and when the CIA took over the job, it continued the research. Both the CIA and Army Intelligence became interested in LSD early and started experiments that continued for over a decade. The CIA first tried acid as a truth serum. When that didn’t work, they experimented with the ideas of secretly dosing enemy commanders or politicians so that they would act crazy and lose credibility or with dosing water supplies so that populations would become uncontrollable. These experiments involved secretly dosing unknowing subjects, including drafted soldiers and hospitalized mental patients. Almost all reports of adverse incidents come from these experiments on unknowing subjects.

These failures led the military to pressure Congress to outlaw LSD. In 1968 acid became illegal under federal law. But doctors continued using mescaline and psilocybin until they were banned with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act.

Soon after that, MDMA became available, and doctors quickly adopted it with good results. When the DEA began its process to place MDMA in Schedule I, the CSA classification for drugs that have no medical use and which may not be possessed legally, over 250 therapists filed protests, stating that it was essential to their practice.

When the DEA placed MDMA in Schedule I, The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was formed. Partly in response to MAPS’s urging, the FDA convened a Technical Panel in 1995 to establish guidelines for research on psychedelics.

Since then, research has picked up. Most of us are aware of the large number of studies on marijuana, but the other drugs have experienced resurgence as well.

MDMA has completed clinical safety trials, and Phase III trials on treatment of PTSD have been going on for several years. These look to be very successful.

Ibogaine is being tested in Mexico as an adjunct to treatment of opioid addiction. This use look similar to the work using LSD with alcoholics conducted in Canada in the 1950s. Incidently, those researchers were the ones to coin the term “psychedelics”. Also, the Native American Church has had very good results working with alcoholics in its peyote rituals. The active ingredient in peyote is mescaline.

So, the bus is freshly painted, and Jerry and The Dead are cued up on the iPod. Get those wildly colored outfits out of the back of the closet and dust them off. Let’s all get on the bus: it’s time to go "Furthur".

[1] Stix, Gary, “Return of a Problem Child: LSD makes a comeback as a possible clinical treatment”, Scientific American, October, 2009, p. 18. See also Marsa, Linda, “The Acid Cure”, Discover presents The Brain, Fall 2009, p. 54.

[2] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, Grove Press, 1994, is the standard history of LSD studies, although much significant information about the CIA has come to light since its publication. I recommend it to anyone looking for more information on the topics I cover here.


  1. I have heard rumors that Leary worked for the CIA.

    What better way to keep track of the Black Panther goings on in Algeria?

    I saw Eldridge Cleaver at the Berkeley Community Theater before he left for Algeria.

  2. His biography by Robert Greenfield doesn't show this, but he did clearly work with the cops and prosecutors when he was convicted and trying to get out of prison.