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Psychologist Andrew Feldmar. (Christopher Grabowski for The Globe and Mail)
Psychologist Andrew Feldmar. (Christopher Grabowski for The Globe and Mail)

High hopes: Why science is seeking a pardon for psychedelics Add to ...

Yet therapists who dare to use them can lose their licences, or even face prosecution. Shortly before the airing of a Nature of Things documentary on Vancouver addictions specialist Gabor Maté’s use of ayahuasca, Mr. Lucas says, Health Canada “basically ordered him to stop.”

“The resistance,” according to Mr. Lucas, “is purely ideological. It’s a direct result of 70 or so years of the war on drugs, and a real fear in Western culture of altered states of consciousness. Which is a tragedy, because our current approaches to treating trauma simply aren’t working.”

The current advocates of MDMA and plant-based hallucinogens in therapy are adamant that they do not expect, or want, to see them used as party or street drugs. John Halpern, the Massachusetts psychiatrist who heads the team using psilocybin to treat cancer-related end-of-life anxiety, told The New York Times: “We want to be anti-Leary. We are serious sober scientists.”

“The future,” a far-sighted Viennese analyst once speculated, “may teach us how to exercise a direct influence, by means of particular chemical substances, on the amount of energy and their distribution in the mental apparatus. It may be that there are other still undreamt-of possibilities of therapy.”

That was Sigmund Freud, writing in 1938, the same year that Albert Hofmann, a young Swiss chemist, first synthesized LSD.

Hoffman died at the age of 102 in 2008, having lived just long enough to see official Swiss approval for an examination of whether his “medicine of the soul” can reduce the anxiety that terminal cancer patients suffer when contemplating their fate.

Financed by MAPS and supervised by a psychiatrist, the study’s research phase has concluded, and publication of the results is expected this spring – the first scientific paper on the therapeutic effects of LSD on humans in more than 40 years.

If the findings are as positive as the researchers are suggesting, patients around the world may be forgiven for wondering why, to paraphrase Cary Grant, they didn’t do it sooner.

Trippy Canada

Cary Grant was far from the only household name to undergo psychedelic therapy. Composer André Previn, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce and swimming sweetheart Esther Williams all spoke glowingly of LSD. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing in London treated author Edna O’Brien and actor Sean Connery for a fee and, in the case of fellow Scot Connery, a bottle of fine single malt. Laing was famous for taking the drug at the same time as his patients (in her recent autobiography, O’Brien reports observing his transformation into a giant rat).

Canada played a leading role in the psychiatric use of hallucinogens, for good and for ill. In the early 1960s, Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute was the site of the illegal, CIA-backed MKUltra project, which used shock therapy, tape loops, sensory deprivation and LSD in a bid to erase memories and personalities.

In fact, the term psychedelic (“manifesting a clear mind”) was coined in Saskatchewan. While on staff at the Weyburn Mental Hospital, Humphry Osmond, the British psychiatrist who introduced Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to mescaline, encouraged staff volunteers to take LSD so that they could sympathize with schizophrenic patients.

After he and Canadian colleague Abram Hoffer saw in LSD a potential treatment for alcoholism, he administered it to history’s most influential recovering drunk: Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder “Bill W.,” who then founded a New York salon where alcoholics could also achieve “spiritual awakening” (something, not surprisingly, played down in AA literature).

By the seventies, the only institution in North America still using LSD in therapy was Hollywood Hospital, a New Westminster, B.C., mansion where patients paid up to $1,000 for a 12-hour trip. They reportedly included crooner Andy Williams, futurist Frank (Dr. Tomorrow) Ogden, Ethel Kennedy and Greenpeace co-founder Ben Metcalfe.

I encountered a former Hollywood Hospital patient in the Kootenay Mountains in the early 1990s. A soft-spoken Buddhist monk in his late 60s, he told me that, before his treatment, he had been drinking himself to death on Vancouver’s Skid Row.

LSD, he said, allowed him to embrace his repressed sexuality and now, two decades on, he was living, sober and apparently fulfilled, in an A-frame built with his long-time partner, a much younger, and very handsome, man.

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