The Acid Test (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

Part of the appeal of LSD and newer mind-altering drugs such as mescaline and psilocybin was the promise of "unlocking" inner potential and making people more creative as a result.  Robert E. Mogar of San Francisco State College wrote in 1965 about how LSD boosted sensitivity to all stimuli and arousal but he also pointed out that people were often affected in radically different ways.  What might be a powerful religious experience for one person might prove to be a "bad trip" for another.   He suggested that this variability was due to the past history and personality of the user as well as how prepared the user is for what would be happening.    He also argued that, despite the uneven findings being reported so far, that LSD was a powerful tool for psychotherapy and could be used in treating a wide range of disorders. 

Mogar enthusiastically pointed out that: 

Used either as an adjunct or as a primary treatment method, LSD has been found to facilitate improvement in patients covering the complete spectrum of neurotic, psychosomatic, and character disorders. Particularly noteworthy are the positive results obtained with cases highly resistant to conventional forms of therapy. High remission rates among alcoholics, for example, have frequently been reported following a single, large dose LSD session. Based on their findings with over one thousand alcoholics, Hoffer and his co-workers concluded that LSD was twice as effective as any other treatment program (1965). Other chronic conditions carrying a poor prognosis which have responded favorably to psychedelic therapy include sexual deviations, criminal psychopathy, autism in children, and adolescent behavior disorders.

As part of his own research, Megar reported high recovery rates for his patients, whether in group or individual psychotherapy.   Research with hundreds of  alcoholics showed that LSD was twice as effective as conventional treatment in controlling problem drinking.    In some cases, permanent improvement occurred after a single LSD session.   Though the results were controversial, with other researchers disputing the value of psychedelics in treament, LSD research began expanding into other directions.

One experiment was carried out under the direction of Harvard psychedelic guru Timothy Leary at a maximum-security prison in Concord, Massachusetts.  From 1961 to 1963, Leary and his research team used psilocybin as an  aid to group psychotherapy for thirty-two young offenders to see if it helped curb recidivism rates.    As Leary and his colleagues would later report, nearly ninety percent of the research subjects described the psilocybin experience as being positive while sixty-two percent described it as life-changing.   Leary also examined the offenders in terms of short-term recidivism rates and enthusiastically reported that they had gone down for his subjects.  Though all of the offenders were considered to be at high risk of returning to prison soon after their release, only one in four actually did.   Only two of them actually committed new offenses which was a radical change given that they were all chronic offenders.  

Unfortunately, longer-term followup showed that Leary's early enthusiasm was premature since recidivism rates quickly returned to normal.  Leary acknowledged that psychedelics weren't "magic bullets" that could solve all problems.  "The main conclusion of our two-year pilot study is that institutional programs, however effective, count for little after the ex-convict reaches the street," he would later report.  "The social pressures faced are so overwhelming as to make change very difficult."    While he continued to advocate the use of psychedelics in treatment, few prisons felt inclined to try further experiments.  Timothy Leary and fellow drug guru Richard Alpert were fired by Harvard in 1963, largely as a result of their drug advocacy.

But there were still other directions for psychedelic research.  In a 1966 experiment carried out at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California, psychologist James Fadiman and a research team studied whether psychedelics could be used to boost creative problem solving.  The twenty-seven research subjects came from a variety of professions such as engineering, physics, mathematics, architecture, and creative design.  Most of them had no prior experience with psychedelics and were asked to bring a professional problem that they had been working on for three months without success.  Along with describing their problem to the researchers, they also completed a series of psychometric tests.  

On the day of the experiment, the subjects were given a controlled dose of mescaline sulphate and then completed a battery of tests.  Afterward. they were given four hours to work on their chosen problems before the experimental session was terminated.   A few days later, each research subject completed a subjective dscription of what they experienced and also completed questionnaires some time later.   According to Fadiman, the research participants reported greater confidence in solving problems as well as an overall boost in creativity and ability to visualize problems.  Many of the participants also reported being able to solve the problem that they had been asked to bring to the experiment.  The kinds of problems solved the psychedelic exposure included  new mathematical theorems, architectural designs that were later approved by clients, improvements in engineering and creative design, and work on new space probe experiments. 

Fadiman and his colleagues were not the only ones conducting research into how psychedelics such as LSD and mescaline enhanced performance.  Still, the legal situation surrounding LSD became far more perilous for researchers by this time.    By the mid-196s, the backlash against LSD meant greater government control and the push was on for a comprehensive ban.   LSD became illlegal in California in 1966 though this failed to stop the psychedelic "Summer of Love" in the following year.  With the passage of the Staggers-Dodd Bill in 1968, LSD became a controlled substance making possession and manufacture a criminal offense in the United States.   Other hallucinogenics, including mescaline MDMA, and  psilocybin were declared Schedule 1 controlled substances with the passage of new legislation in 1970.  The last FDA-approved study 41z8o7KIXQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]investigating LSD in treatment ended in 1980.

Despite being driven underground, the psychedelic culture still flourished, if more discreetly.   New innovations such as "Orange Sunshine", "windowpane" geltabs, and LSD-impregnated blotter paper hit the streets even with heavy police crackdowns.  Counterculture drug advocates began celebrating "Bicycle Day" in 1985 to celebrate Albert Hoffman's discovery and is has continued to be quietly commemorated ever since.   Timothy Leary died in 1996 while Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who started it all, lived long enough to see a partial renaissance of scientific interest in hallucinogenics in treatment.  

By the time of Hoffman's death in 2008, controlled studies looking at LSD and other hallucinogenics in treating specific conditions such as PTSD and anxiety had quietly resumed in different parts of the world.  While still illegal in most countries, a new generation of hallucinogen researchers, especially researchers in Switzerland, have challenged the decision to classify hallucinogens as having no medical value.   As new studies come out, the ongoing clash between this new wave of medical research and existing drug laws will set the stage for a serious reappraisal of how hallucinogens will be used in future.  

Though we aren't likely to see a repeat of the psychedelic 1960s, the new few decades should prove to be interesting.


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  • The Acid Test (Part One of Two)
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