Houston, Texas, USA : This year marks the 75th anniversary of of the drug Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) which was criminalized after becoming synonymous with the burgeoning American counterculture of the 1960s.
Lysergic acid diethylamide was labelled a “problem child” by the man who discovered its hallucinogenic properties in 1943: as it turns 75, the drug known as LSD may now be changing its image.
The late Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann famously learned of LSD’s psychedelic effects when he inadvertently took a small dose while doing lab work for pharmaceutical company Sandoz.
He wanted the drug to be medically researched, convinced it could be a valuable psychiatric tool and lead to a deeper understanding of human consciousness.
But through the 1960s, LSD became synonymous with counterculture and anti-authority protests.
By the early 1970s, it had been widely criminalised in the West, prompting Hofmann to publish his 1979 memoir, “LSD: My Problem Child”.
The book, in which Hofmann sought to reassert LSD’s potential medical benefits, is featured in an exhibition at the Swiss National Library in the capital, Bern, to mark 75 years since the discovery.
Hofmann died in 2008 at the age of 102 but he likely would have been pleased by a series of recent developments.
After decades as a medical outcast, LSD has attracted renewed clinical interest and there has been evidence that it can help treat anxiety and depression.
Such developments were what Hofmann was hoping for at the time of writing “My Problem Child”.
“If we can better understand how to use it, in medical practice related to meditation and LSD’s ability to promote visionary experiences under certain circumstances, then I think that this ‘problem child’ could become a prodigy,” he wrote.
He had discovered LSD while working with a fungus called ergot, which attacks cereal grains like rye and had previously been used for a variety of medical purposes. At the time, Sandoz was using it to make migraine medication.
Hofmann unknowingly created LSD when he combined the main active agent in ergot—lysergic acid—with diethylamide. After accidentally ingesting a trace of LSD, he began to feel strange and later on deliberately took larger amounts to better understand the drug’s effects.
In a bestselling book published in May entitled “How to Change Your Mind”, the renowned American author Michael Pollan notes that LSD was the subject of widespread experimental research through the 1950s and 1960s and attracted the interest of leading psychiatrists.
“When Hofmann published his book in 1979, LSD was completely prohibited. There was no research,” said Hannes Mangold, curator of the National Library exhibit called “Problem Child LSD turns 75.”
“What’s interesting is that for the last 10-15 years, research has once again been authorised and LSD as medicine has re-emerged.”
A non-profit organisation that has been at the forefront of driving the new wave of research is the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in Santa Cruz.
MAPS receives mostly private funding from large and small donors to support medical research into controlled substances.
Brad Burge, director of strategic communications at MAPS, told AFP that the organisation had raised nearly $30 million (26 million euros) for further research to build on a Phase II LSD study which, he said, found positive indications that the drug can successfully treat anxiety.
MAPS funded the Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser to conduct the Phase II study, which was published in 2014 and was the first controlled study of LSD in more than four decades.
“We kind of brought it full circle, back there (to Switzerland),” Burge said.
He said that in the early years following Hofmann’s discovery, Sandoz had sent out batches of LSD to any interested researcher, hoping someone would define a clear, marketable purpose for the drug.
“It was 1950s crowdsourcing,” Burge said.
In 1970, the administration of former US president Richard Nixon listed LSD as a “Schedule 1” narcotic, a classification given to drugs that Washington considers highly dangerous with no medical benefit.
MAPS and others have argued that the decision was more about politics than public health as Nixon was interested in cracking down on various groups with which LSD had—accurately or not—become linked, including hippies and opponents of the Vietnam war.
But the effect of the Schedule 1 designation was to bring serious research on LSD to a halt, both in the United States and among foreign laboratories worried about American reprisals, Burge said.
Mangold told AFP that the LSD research landscape was effectively dormant for nearly four decades and only began to change following a 2006 conference in the Swiss city of Basel to mark Hofmann’s 100th birthday.
A ‘comeback’ ?
Scientists from numerous countries left the Basel symposium resolved to pursue new research and asked their regulatory authorities for permission to work with LSD, Mangold said.
Burge said that a key finding of the Phase II MAPS trial was that none of the 12 patients who participated had adverse reactions.
Given the risks of taking a powerful psychotropic in an unsupervised context, proving that LSD could be safely administered by medical professionals was essential to advancing further research, he said.
In the study, Gasser focused on patients diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, who participated in LSD-assisted psychotherapy during which they were guided in confronting anxieties and painful experiences while under the influence.
The qualitative results of the study showed participants experienced a reduction in anxiety, but found that further research was needed to define model medical uses for LSD.
“It’s still early, but it is now conceivable that LSD could make a comeback as a (therapeutic) drug,” Mangold said.
The real promise of LSD, MDMA and mushrooms for medical science
Psychedelic science is making a comeback.
Scientific publications, therapeutic breakthroughs and cultural endorsements suggest that the historical reputation of psychedelics —such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline (from the peyote cactus) and psilocybin (mushrooms) —as dangerous or inherently risky have unfairly overshadowed a more optimistic interpretation.
Recent publications, like Michael Pollan’s How to Change your Mind, showcase the creative and potentially therapeutic benefits that psychedelics have to offer —for mental health challenges like depression and addiction, in palliative care settings and for personal development.
Major scientific journals have published articles showing evidence-based reasons for supporting research in psychedelic studies. These include evidence that pscilocybin significantly reduces anxiety in patients with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, that MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetaminecan; also known as ecstasy) improves outcomes for people suffering from PTSD and that psychedelics can produce sustained feelings of openness that are both therapeutic and personally enriching.
Other researchers are investigating the traditional uses of plant medicines, such as ayahuasca, and exploring the neurological and psychotherapeutic benefits of combining Indigenous knowledge with modern medicine.
I am a medical historian, exploring why we now think that psychedelics may have a valuable role to play in human psychology, and why over 50 years ago, during the heyday of psychedelic research, we rejected that hypothesis. What has changed? What did we miss before? Is this merely a flashback?
Healing trauma, anxiety, depression
In 1957, the word psychedelic officially entered the English lexicon, introduced by British-trained and Canadian-based psychiatrist Humphry Osmond.
Osmond studied mescaline from the peyote cactus, synthesized by German scientists in the 1930s, and LSD, a laboratory-produced substance created by Albert Hofmann at Sandoz in Switzerland. During the 1950s and into the 1960s, more than 1,000 scientific articles appeared as researchers around the world interrogated the potential of these psychedelics for healing addictions and trauma.
But, by the end of the 1960s, most legitimate psychedelic research ground to a halt. Some of the research had been deemed unethical, namely mind-control experiments conducted under the auspices of the CIA. Other researchers had been discredited for either unethical or self-aggrandizing use of psychedelics, or both.
Timothy Leary was perhaps the most notorious character in that regard. Having been dismissed from Harvard University, he launched a recreational career as a self-appointed apostle of psychedelic living.
Drug regulators struggled to balance a desire for scientific research with a growing appetite for recreational use, and some argued abuse, of psychedelics.
In the popular media, these drugs came to symbolize hedonism and violence. In the United States, the government sponsored films aimed at scaring viewers about the long-term and even deadly consequences of taking LSD. Scientists were hard-pressed to maintain their credibility as popular attitudes began to shift.
Now that interpretation is beginning to change.
A psychedelics revival
In 2009, Britain’s chief drug adviser, David Nutt, reported that psychedelic drugs had been unfairly prohibited. He argued that substances such as alcohol and tobacco were in fact much more dangerous to consumers than drugs like LSD, ecstasy (MDMA) and mushrooms (psilocybin).
He was fired from his advisory position as a result, but his published claims helped to reopen debates on the use and abuse of psychedelics, both in scientific and policy circles.
And Nutt was not alone. Several well-established researchers began joining the chorus of support for new regulations allowing researchers to explore and reinterpret the neuroscience behind psychedelics. Studies ranged from those looking at the mechanisms of drug reactions to those revisiting the role of psychedelics in psychotherapy.
In 2017, Oakland, Calif., hosted the largest gathering to date of psychedelic scientists and researchers. Boasting attendance of more than 3,000 participants, Psychedelic Science 2017 brought together researchers and practitioners with a diverse set of interests in reviving psychedelics —from filmmakers to neuroscientists, journalists, psychiatrists, artists, policy advisers, comedians, historians, anthropologists, Indigenous healers and patients.
The conference was co-hosted by the leading organizations dedicated to psychedelics —including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and The Beckley Foundation —and participants were exposed to cutting-edge research.
Measuring reaction, not experience
As a historian, however, I am trained to be cynical about trends that claim to be new or innovative. We learn that often we culturally tend to forget the past, or ignore the parts of the past that seem beyond our borders.
For that reason, I am particularly interested in understanding the so-called psychedelic renaissance and what makes it different from the psychedelic heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.
The historic trials were conducted at the very early stages of the pharmacological revolution, which ushered in new methods for evaluating efficacy and safety, culminating in the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Prior to standardizing that approach, however, most pharmacological experiments relied on case reports and data accumulation that did not necessarily involve blinded or comparative techniques.
Historically, scientists were keen to separate pharmacological substances from their organic cultural, spiritual and healing contexts —the RCT is a classic representation of our attempts to measure reaction rather than to interpret experience. Isolating the drug from an associated ritual might have more readily conveyed an image of progress, or a more genuine scientific approach.
Today, however, psychedelic investigators are beginning to question the decision to excise the drug from its Indigenous or ritualized practices.
Over the past 60 years, we have invested more in psychopharmacological research than ever before. American economists estimate the amount of money spent on psychopharmacology research to be in the billions annually.
Rethinking the scientific method
Modern science has focused attention on data accrual —measuring reactions, identifying neural networks and discovering neuro-chemical pathways. It has moved decidedly away from larger philosophical questions of how we think, or what is human consciousness or how human thoughts are evolving.
Some of those questions inspired the earlier generation of researchers to embark on psychedelic studies in the first place.
We may now have more sophisticated tools for advancing the science of psychedelics. But psychedelics have always inspired harmony between brain and behaviour, individuals and their environments, and an appreciation for western and non-western traditions mutually informing the human experience.
In other words, scientific pursuits need to be coupled with a humanist tradition —to highlight not just how psychedelics work, but why that matters.