A new study that looks back at LSD research conducted by a team of scientists in Canada more than four decades ago demonstrates the degree to which anti-psychedelic hysteria derailed promising scientific research for the treatment of alcoholism.
The original work, led by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond at a hospital in Saskatchewan, was one of the stranger chapters in Canadian scientific investigation. Dr. Osmond, who invented the term "psychedelic" and famously assisted the writer Aldous Huxley in experimenting with drugs, had observed that alcoholics would stop drinking if they suffered delirium tremens during withdrawal. He believed that LSD, in a single dose, could simulate such symptoms and have the same beneficial results.
That is precisely what happened when he tested his theory. In one study, half of all subjects who took LSD either stopped drinking entirely or reduced their alcohol dependency. The results from a control group were not nearly as good: "As a general rule . . . those who have not hadthe transcendental experience are not changed; they continue to drink." Despite these promising findings, and the fact the research was supported by the Saskatchewan and federal governments, the explosion of illicit use of LSD among the counterculture of the 1960s and fears fanned by authorities resulted in the outlaw of even scientific and clinical uses for the drug.
Erika Dyck, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Alberta, has produced a new study about the research in the journal Social History of Medicine. Dr. Dyck tracked down and interviewed some of the original patients treated with LSD and found that many had never touched alcohol again and, even 40 years on, spoke highly of the treatment. "I was surprised at how loyal they were to the doctors who treated them, and how powerful they said the experience was for them -- some even felt the experience saved their lives," said Dr. Dyck, who added that the drug has intriguing properties that should be explored further.
It may be that the crackdown should never have been applied to scientific research, but it is also the case that psychedelics do pose a potential hazard when taken casually or abused. Consequently, it is unlikely there will be a change in drug laws in this country any time soon. Still, it is interesting to consider that, had the Saskatchewan research continued, LSD use might have had a very different connotation and produced a different twist to an old adage: Tune in, turn on, sober up.