Emerging from the Drug War Dark Age: LSD and Other Psychedelic Medicines Make a Comeback
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The return flight from Switzerland was a mix of hope and solemnity for Rick Doblin, the only American to attend the funeral of Dr. Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD who had just died at the age of 102. Doblin, a Harvard-educated Ph.D and founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, an organization that conducts legal research into the healing and spiritual potentials of psychedelics and marijuana, had spent his entire career trying to break through the virtually impenetrable wall of obstinacy that surrounds psychedelic compounds and their potential benefits to society.
More than anyone else in his field, Doblin is all too familiar with what he refers to as the "40-year-long bad trip" that researchers like him have faced in dealing with the fallout from the introduction of LSD and other psychedelic compounds to the Western psyche in the mid 1960s. This 40-year intellectual Dark Age, Doblin says, has been characterized by "enormous fear and misinformation and a vested interest in exaggerated stories about drugs to keep prohibition alive."
We've all heard the tales of kids jumping off rooftops because they think they can fly, of otherwise normal people taking a single hit of LSD and "going insane," and of course the all-pervasive myth of the "acid flashback." Although there were acid casualties, most were rare or aberrant tragedies, most often occurring in individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions who never should have taken LSD in the first place. Most of the tales are apocryphal at best, intentional propaganda meant to discourage use.
An Era of Censorship
Why would our government embark on this 40-year Inquisition to burn the psychedelic prophets at the stake and wipe clean from the Earth the true history of psychedelic culture, as if it were the secret of the Holy Grail and the Merovingian dynasty? Why has the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s -- one of the most powerful revolutions in human consciousness in all of history -- been reduced to pejorative tales of tie-dyed morons skipping through Golden Gate Park in an orgy of self-indulgence? Why would something that the government claims does not deserve respectable attention be the recipient of such Draconian repressive measures? Could it be because, like the secret of Mary Magdalene, the truth could bring the whole order crashing down?
The answer, my friend, blew away in the wind. The extent to which LSD fomented the cultural revolution of the 1960s has all but disappeared in a miasma of drug war propaganda. But do not be fooled. This was no hippie-dippy bullshit. In its time, LSD was more dangerous to the ruling order than Mao, Che or the Founding Fathers themselves. As the New York Times obituary for Hofmann read, "[LSD] was no hustler from a shotgun lab in Tijuana, after all, but a bourgeois revolutionary, born into establishment medicine and able to travel the world and enter societies from the top down, through their most hallowed institutions."
The U.S. government threw everything but the kitchen sink at getting (certain) Americans to stop "turning on," launching the drug war that eventually locked up millions of drug users. They handed down ridiculously disproportionate federal sentences to LSD makers that would have made Pablo Escobar commit suicide. But it wasn't the "turning on" part that they feared, for there are many benefits to having a population otherwise occupied in a false reality. No, it was the "tuning in" and "dropping out" part that kept them awake at night.
Although it may be difficult for the uninitiated to understand at face value, LSD and other psychedelic compounds can have a profound life-altering affect on the user that, more often than not, serves to connect them (or reconnect, as the case may be) to the universal compassion and love for life that is inherent in our species. It invariably causes them to question the validity of the status quo, to examine their life and what surrounds them in terms of beliefs and values.
And in this epoch of industrial civilization, the last thing a corporate culture that survives on war, aggression and consumer spending needs is a consciously awakened population of people who inexorably choose to leave said culture in droves because they see it is killing the planet, themselves, and each other. This is precisely, to the letter, the meaning of "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out."
But even for those who would call this hyperbole, what was lost in all the derision and urban myths about LSD and other psychedelic compounds like ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin and iboga -- plant medicines thousands of years old -- was the fact that they are miraculously powerful medicines, with the ability to effectively treat, and in some cases, cure some of the most debilitating illnesses and disorders plaguing humanity: addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and migraine and cluster headaches. They are also effective palliatives for the sick and dying.
Something with such legitimate potential to heal can only be kept in the bottle for so long. In fact, these transcendent therapies are now ebbing back into mainstream respectability. Doblin will be the first to tell you that times are changing, driven by too much government repression, too much scientific orthodoxy, and, perhaps more than any other factor, our culture's desperate need to learn how to handle what he calls our "collective emotional state."
"We talk about the veterans suffering PTSD, but it's really a culture-wide phenomenon," he said. "We're at a place where technology and the structure of contemporary life have taken us so far away from our emotions as to create pathological conditions. The systemic violence and selfishness and greed that are in our society need treatment."
Doblin was one of the first to break through that wall of obstinacy and challenge the Inquisition. He got the U.S. government to approve clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy for returning veterans and victims of violent crime or abuse who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In many ways it was this Newtonian breakthrough that finally challenged the orthodoxy that reigned over the 40-year Dark Age. Western governments had to ask themselves what was more important to them: their irrational and erroneous drug propaganda, or the possibility that the millions of lives they had devastated by war, violence and iniquitous economic policies might actually be repaired. In this, the seeds of a psychedelic renaissance were planted.
A Return to Respectability
Much greater than usual media attention accompanied the most recent World Psychedelic Forum held in March in Basel, Switzerland, the home of Albert Hofmann. A headline in the May issue of the staid British medical journal The Lancet -- known for challenging the Pentagon's Iraq casualty numbers -- read, "Research on Psychedelics Moves into the Mainstream."
The Lancet article identified a number of early-stage clinical trials being conducted on various "anxiety and neurotic disorders" using psychedelic compounds. As previously mentioned, Doblin and MAPS are conducting three parallel studies in Israel, Switzerland and the United States on the use of Ecstasy for treating PTSD. MAPS has also funded the work of controversial Harvard researcher John Halpern and Yale researcher Andrew Sewell, who are studying LSD and psilocybin as treatments for cluster headaches. (Information about their research is available on clusterbusters.com and Erowid, an online clearinghouse for reliable data on virtually every psychoactive plant and chemical known to humans.)
Harvard University, which conducted the last legal research on LSD in the mid-1960s and was the site for one of Halpern's studies on the effects of MDMA on dying cancer patients, is once again considering clinical trials to support Halpern's research.
And in a major milestone, on May 13 of this year, Swiss doctor Peter Gasser administered the first legal dose of LSD in more than 36 years. It was for a study of anxiety in palliative care, which helps terminally ill patients transition more peacefully -- and with as little pain as possible -- into death.
Other complexes like addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder are being treated with what are called the "shamanic plant medicines": ayahuasca, the Amazonian vine preparation whose psychoactive component is dimethyltryptamine (DMT); peyote, the North American cactus whose psychoactive component is mescaline; and iboga, an African rainforest shrub.
Addiction is one of the most important new fields of study, not only because of the sheer numbers of afflicted, which the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates at 23.6 million persons a year at a cost of $181 billion. According to a newly released report from the World Health Organization, the United States is the world's most addicted society. Of those who are lucky enough to get treatment, half eventually go back to heavy use, and 90 percent suffer brief or episodic relapses for the rest of their lives. This makes the search for an effective and long-lasting new treatment more attractive -- and more pressing -- than ever.
The Healing Potential of Psychedelics
Unlike other treatments, which have shown pitifully low success rates, psychedelic-assisted therapy focuses on the emotional context under which a patient suffers addiction, not the use of the drugs themselves. "This," says Tom Roberts, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University and the co-editor of a new two-volume compilation, Psychedelic Medicine , "is what makes them uniquely effective. They allow negative ideas and feelings -- where most addictions have their origins -- to surface into consciousness. With the guidance of a mental health professional, the person can let them go." Once these negative feelings are gone, Roberts says, the person no longer feels the need to deaden them with drugs or alcohol.
Psychedelic-assisted therapy for addiction pokes a hole in conventional wisdom about drug use, which goes something like this: If, under American law, all illegal drugs are bad for you, how can you then treat an addiction to one drug with another purportedly dangerous drug? This shortsighted line of thinking has been keeping psychedelic compounds illegal in spite of evidence pointing to their benefits.
Indigenous peoples have been using psychedelics as traditional medicine for thousands of years. Ayahuasca and peyote have been used to treat toothaches, pain in childbirth, fever, breast pain, skin diseases, rheumatism, diabetes, colds, blindness, parasites and more. They have also been used as spiritual medicines to cure emotional disorders. Native Americans use peyote to treat the astronomical rates of alcoholism found on the reservations, reportedly with great success, although hard figures are difficult to obtain due to the legal protections given to the Native American Church.
And Western scientists have known of the healing capabilities of psychedelics for decades.
In 1954 two chemists, D.W. Woolley and E. Shaw, published an article in Science magazine that argued that the neurochemical serotonin was the likely culprit behind most major mental disorders, writes Dirk Hanson in Addiction: A Search for a Cure . The worst of the bunch were depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. Woolley and Shaw also confirmed in their study that the most powerful known manipulator of serotonin was LSD because it had an "eerily" similar chemical structure.
Later in the '50s, a well-known LSD "apostle" named Alfred Matthew "Captain Al" Hubbard started peddling the idea that LSD might hold considerable psychotherapeutic potential. With the assistance of Aldous Huxley and other prominent acid-taking intellectuals, Hubbard gave LSD to Canadian researchers Abram Hoffer, Ross Mclean, and Humphrey Osmond, who studied it as a treatment for alcoholism, while a similar study was conducted at the Stanford Research Institute.
Later, Stan Grof worked with street-level addicts while Timothy Leary conducted psilocybin therapy on prisoners. Even Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an acid enthusiast, promoting LSD as a "gateway to an accelerated spiritual awakening." Wilson noticed that the turnaround in alcoholics did not happen until they hit bottom, and LSD, because it surfaced difficult emotions, hastened an alcoholic's bottom and helped them avoid more catastrophic bottoms.
The therapy is reinforced through the "afterglow" effect of a "transcendent psychedelic event" (a trip), which Psychedelic Medicine says is "characterized by an elevated and energetic mood and a relative freedom from concerns of the past and from guilt and anxiety." There emerges an "enhanced disposition and capacity to enter into close relationships." The "afterglow" usually lasts anywhere from two weeks to a month and then gradually fades into a series of memories that are thought to continue affecting attitude and behavior.
All of these researchers stress that psychological professionals must guide psychedelic sessions, and that full recovery is only possible through continued therapy.
"After 40 years of review," Doblin takes great care to mention, "we can accurately say it's not a miracle cure." Psychedelic-assisted therapy has powerful healing potential, he says, but "does not work for people who don't really want to look at their inner conflicts."
Charles Shaw, a Chicago-based writer, is a regular contributor to AlterNet. He is the former editorial director of the Conscious Choice publications and a contributor to Reality Sandwich and the Huffington Post. He is currently writing Exile Nation, a drug war memoir.