The Psychotherapy Movement: Acid’s Long Trip Back to Clinical Research
Carolyn Gregoire | Issue date: 9/29/09
After nearly 25 years of suffering from debilitating cluster headaches – commonly referred to as “suicide headaches” because of their length and intensity – Bob Wold was faced with a difficult – and unusual – decision: get brain surgery or take a tab of LSD.
Six years ago, his clusters became nearly unbearable. Wold was scheduled for several surgeries when he learned that acid, though controversial, was a known cure for clusters. After a year of research, he decided to give LSD a try, and took a small dose – roughly a quarter of what is used for recreational purposes.
“When I took it, basically the only thing that I felt was that it took the pain away almost immediately, within half an hour,” says Wold. “It was something completely different from any other medication I had tried – it just totally cleared my head. I felt a little bit of a buzz for about four or five hours, but I didn’t see elephants or anything like that – no hallucinations at all.”
Taking at most two or three doses a year at the beginning of a headache cycle, Wold has found profound relief – unhindered by the drug’s other effects – from using small amounts of the consciousness-expanding tryptamine. Driven by his own success with LSD treatment, Wold founded ClusterBusters, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to researching the use of psychedelic substances to treat cluster headaches. The group is now funding research by Dr. John Halpern at Havard’s McLean Hospital, who has been administering modified LSD molecules to headache patients.
ClusterBusters is part of a global movement of progressive scientists and researchers who have set out to harness the positive therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs. While Wold’s organization focuses on cluster- headache treatment, research funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) is pioneering a whole new branch of psychotherapy which uses psychedelics to treat mental ailments such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. After a 40-year hiatus, the doors of psychedelic research are finally being reopened.
The psychedelic renaissance
On September 26, 2008, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved research using LSD-assisted psychotherapy for end-of-life anxiety in terminally ill patients. With FDA approval, data from clinical trials currently taking place in Switzerland is now accepted and used in the United States. The first legal dose of LSD in nearly four decades was administered by Swiss doctor Peter Glasser last May in a study funded by MAPS.
The decision marks a milestone in the campaign for the legalization of psychotherapy, as LSD is the latest psychedelic drug to be approved for research purposes on human subjects. Research involving less potent psychedelics, such as MDMA (also known as ecstasy), ketamine, and psilocybin – the hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms – has been underway for years.
“This is the first study with human subjects using LSD in more than 35 years, since they shut down all the research with LSD and human subjects in the 1960s,” says Randolph Hencken, Director of Communications for MAPS. “The most remarkable thing about this trial is that we’ve been able to overcome the stigma associated with LSD and get back to research We say that we’re in a ‘psychedelic- research renaissance’ because there are more studies using psychedelics on human subjects now than there have been in 40 years.”
So far, the results of the studies in Switzerland and at Harvard have been positive, and the number of studies on psychedelic substances is multiplying. Two Vancouver psychologists, backed by MAPS, received an exemption from Canadian narcotics laws to administer MDMA to PTSD patients. Research on the effects of LSD on the brain is also underway at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Pacific Medical Center.
“We’re doing this research for serious illnesses – obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and a lot of other things – and seeing really good results,” says Wold. “Some people are willing to put their name, their reputation, and their profession on the line to research this stuff and I think that it’s finally doing some good.”
Harnessing the therapeutic and healing power of LSD was the lifelong dream of Dr. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who synthesized the chemical in 1943. Though Hofmann died last April at the age of 102, he was able to witness the roots of a psychotherapy revolution in his last years.
Hofmann’s problem child
Hofmann synthesized the chemical compound lysergic acid diethylamide from the ergot fungus, a grain fungus that grows on rye. Soon after, on a day that acid enthusiasts would forever after refer to as “Bicycle Day,” Hofmann purposely ingested the sizable amount of 250 micrograms of LSD (a threshold dose is 20 micrograms, making it the most potent drug in existence), and as he biked home, he began to experience intense shifts in perception and a profoundly altered state of consciousness.
“What stimulated Hofmann was to see whether or not you could harness the energy of naturally occurring lysergic acid. So he came up with a very close derivative, which is lysergic acid diethylamide,” says Joseph Schwarcz, a professor in the Chemistry Department at McGill who lectures on the historical development of LSD in the World of Drugs course.
Over the course of his lifetime, Hofmann took hundreds of doses of LSD, and was well aware of both its benefits and dangers. In his autobiographic account LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann chronicles the drug’s degradation from researched chemical with enormous healing potential, to the oft-abused recreational drug and counterculture emblem that it became in the 1960s. Hofmann advocated therapeutic and psychiatric use of the chemical that made him “aware of the wonder of creation,” and he was deeply troubled by its rampant misuse. When LSD was declared a Schedule I drug and prohibited in mid-60s, it was driven from psychotherapy research labs to the black market.
Thirty-six years in the dark
The lack of medical research since the 1960s is mainly due to the drug’s illegality.
“People, governments, scientists all became scared to do research with psychedelics All the research started going underground at that point. Drug prohibition and fear were the big roadblocks,” says Hencken.
Wold agrees that the difficulty of finding Schedule I researchers who can work with a Schedule I substance has been a major hindrance to research. In addition, both Wold and Hencken cite the stigma against LSD as a result of its recreational abuse as a main obstacle in securing funding and public support for psychotherapy research.
“A lot of researchers and doctors just don’t want to be associated with it at all because of the fact that it’s illegal, and a lot of people are reluctant to donate money for funding because they don’t want to be seen as donating money to work with illegal drugs,” says Wold. “It’s been a long, slow road.”
As the most potent and arguably the most misunderstood psychedelic drug, LSD has, to its detriment, long been associated with the youth movement, rebellion, and counterculture. Acid’s return as a focus of psychotherapy research after a four-decade adjournment is part of a broader cultural cur
rent of 60s nostalgia, which has taken the forms of remarketing The Beatles, Gap’s wildly successful 1969 Jeans ad campaign, and the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock.
The veil of fear and mystery that has surrounded LSD since the 60s is, it seems, beginning to lift.
“LSD has made pretty big advances over the past five or 10 years just because people are trying to get this research going again and showing that it does work. Everyone’s starting out really small with whatever funding they can find in different areas and showing the positive results with it is what’s helping us turn a corner,” says Wold.
From the black market to the medical market
It will likely be years before LSD research enters the mainstream and is legalized for use in therapeutic treatment. According to Hencken, another generation will likely pass before LSD becomes completely acceptable in society.
“I really don’t see it being available by prescription for years and years and years,” says Wold. “What I see happening with LSD and psilocybin is that hopefully you’ll be able to go get it prescribed in a hospital or at a clinic, not over the counter at a pharmacy.”
ClusterBusters and MAPS are endeavoring to make LSD legal as an alternative to antidepressants which tend to cover up pain or anxiety and create dependence. But many scientists, including Schwarcz, question whether LSD would provide positive benefits that can’t be obtained from other drugs with a similar chemical structure.
“LSD is what is called a serotonin psychedelic because the chemical structure is so similar to that of serotonin. And there’s a lot known about serotonin and serotonin mimics,” says Schwarcz. “I don’t know where LSD would fit in there or why there would be a need to look at this when there are so many other serotonin mimics.”
Hencken and Wold, however, argue that LSD and antidepressants that mimic serotonin are on the same pages of very different books.
“There’s nothing that’s legal on the market that compares to LSD,” says Hencken. “What we have are sedatives; we have things that mellow people out or numb them so they don’t feel anxiety. But we don’t have anything that allows them to explore the issues that have caused them that anxiety in the first place.”
Another significant discrepancy is that while antidepressants must be taken on a daily basis, psychotherapeutic use of LSD would require that the drug be administered only a handful of times. Wold finds that while a couple of doses is sufficient to end an excruciating months-long cycle of headaches in only a week or two, he believes that this may be another obstacle in the way of LSD’s legal status.
“Pharmaceutical companies really aren’t interested in funding this kind of work because they can’t sell a pill for someone to take four times a day for the rest of their life when [instead] you can take two doses a year and you’re all done,” says Wold.
Although concerns regarding regulation and control of the substance are cited by those opposed to its illegality, regulated use of LSD may drive the drug out of the black market and into the medical market.
“Having LSD available from a trained psychiatrist or psychologist or MD is a much better situation than we have currently. In the U.S., 600,000 people try LSD for the first time each year, and rarely in a circumstance that’s guided,” says Hencken. “We would rather see a situation where people could go and use these powerful medicines in a safe situation under the care of somebody who’s been trained These drugs are more dangerous unregulated than they would be regulated.”
Schwarcz agrees that there are safe and dangerous ways to use drugs, but that drugs are not safe or dangerous in and of themselves, so appropriate regulations should therefore be designed.
“If it’s significantly better than what exists, you can design proper regulations and proper control. But from what I’ve seen, that isn’t the case,” says Schwarcz. “My guess would be the benefits are not going to outweigh the risks, and that it’s not going to supplant anything that’s out there.”
Barbara Davis,* U3 English literature and history, took acid for the first time the way that most young people do – as a party drug. But after extensively researching the drug, she discovered that it could benefit her therapeutically.
“The third time I took LSD, I went through a massive phase of research actually looking into the therapeutic uses, reading stuff by Albert Hofmann and Timothy Leary. When I took it after that, I literally confronted all the demons from my previous life and I was able to accept that it was okay,” says Davis. “It was really a huge deal. I’m bipolar, and after that, for a week, I felt entirely cured. I wasn’t having any mood swings – I accepted everything.”
For Davis, the greatest benefit of using the drug as a form of self-medication is the lasting sense of self-acceptance, which persisted well beyond the week after her trip. Though she obtained the drug illegally and took it without psychiatric guidance, her use of LSD to treat bipolar disorder gave her relief that antidepressants like Prozac and anti-anxiety medication like Valium never provided.
“LSD is special because it makes me reevaluate the world and see how beautiful the world is and how it can be free of all of its boundaries,” she says. “That really affected me and my general outlook.”
If psychedelic research continues with the success it so far has, those suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a slew of other mental ailments may find similar results to Davis, but in a regulated – and most importantly, legal – clinical setting.
“What we have on the market now are band-aids,” says Hencken. “And what we’re developing with psychotherapy is actual psycho-spiritual surgery.”
*Name has been changed.
This report in Canada’s Mcgill University Student paper is an excellent overview of the current status of LSD research and has quotes from MAPS Director of Communication Randolph Hencken, M.A..