When Bobby Kennedy Defended LSD

Originally appearing here. “Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly” ~ Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1966 In the spring of 1966, the conservative Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT), an alcoholic who was later censured by the Senate for political corruption, convened The Special Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency for three hearings on LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Around the same time, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) convened the Subcommittee on the Executive Reorganization of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, in the face of an FDA and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) anti-psychedelic hit job. He defended LSD against the rampant hysteria that it would either drive all users crazy or trigger a mass drop out from society. First, a brief history of LSD research. The hallucinogenic drug, first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman at Sandoz Laboratories and then re-synthesized in 1943, had been prominently used by psychiatrists and researchers for psychological therapy, as well as to treat alcoholism or heroin addiction with some fruitful results. The CIA and the Army’s Chemical Corps, on the other hand, were more interested in creating psychosis for interrogation purposes; incapacitating enemy military forces; creating Manchurian candidates for assassinations; or, in a grandly surreal scheme, dosing political leaders to sabotage their careers. For the government, LSD was about social and political control. For those in the psychiatric research field (who weren’t on the payroll of the CIA or Army), LSD, mescaline, mushrooms and other psychedelics held promise in creating a positive experience for those with mental illness. As noted in the book “Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties, And Beyond,” a lot of early researchers used loaded words like “hallucinations” and “psychosis” (“psychosis-inducing” was popular at the time), thereby imposing value judgments on LSD’s effects. They saw what they wanted to see: a substance that simply mirrored schizophrenia’s effects or didn’t have any positive effects. Dr. Humphry Osmond, the British psychiatrist who dosed Aldous Huxley with mescaline and coined the term “psychedelic,” was of a different mindset. Yes, he thought the effects of LSD had similarities with early schizophrenia, but he also saw applications for LSD far beyond treating alcoholism. Osmond and his right hand man, Captain Alfred Hubbard, the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” administered LSD to patients in the hopes of triggering a mystical experience that would have a positive therapeutic effect. It would require too much back-story to effectively detail the history of LSD research in the ’50s and early ’60s. The important thing to take away here is that diametrically-opposed research existed: that which either attempted to loosen the mind (led by Dr. Ronald Sandison) and trigger a mystical experience for therapy (Osmond and Hubbard), or create a derangement of the senses for biological warfare research (the CIA and Army Chemical Corps). Later psychedelic researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) were situated within the former categories, obviously. Their rather loose approach to LSD studies in the early ’60s, and progression to proselytization, coupled with an accelerating counter-culture helped spread panic amongst those who wanted to preserve the political and cultural status quo. It was within this cultural milieu that the Senate subcommittee (of which RFK was a member) heard testimony on the value of psychedelics like LSD. In Dodd’s LSD hearing, Senator Abraham Ribicoff remarked, “Only when you sensationalize a subject matter do you get a reform. Without sensationalizing it, you don’t. That is one of the great problems. You scientists may know something, a senator may know something, but only when the press and television come in and give it a real play because it hits home as something that affects all the country, do you get action.” At the same hearings, psychoanalyst and early psychedelic researcher Sidney Cohen’s offered his testimony. Cohen thought the acidhead “beatnik microculture” would set back LSD research for many years, and handed the Senate Subcommittee hysterical gold when he stated, “We have seen something which in a way is most alarming, more alarming than death in a way, and that is the loss of all cultural values, the loss of feeling of right and wrong, of good and bad. These people lead a valueless life, without motivation, without any ambition… they are deculturated, lost to society, lost to themselves.” RFK, whose wife had been treated with LSD and benefitted from the experience, adopted a quite different tone in his questioning of FDA and NIMH officials in his own subcommittee hearing on LSD. He was curious as to why so many LSD research projects were getting scrapped. When the officials evaded the questions, RFK got straight to the point. “Why if they were worthwhile six months ago, why aren’t they worthwhile now?” he asked repeatedly. “Why didn’t you just let them continue?… We keep going around and around… If I could get a flat answer about that I would be happy. Is there a misunderstanding about my question?” It would seem that the question was an acknowledgment on the part of Kennedy that the hysteria surrounding the counter-cultural use of LSD was what was driving the anti-LSD sentiment, not new research. Kennedy added: “I think we have given too much emphasis and so much attention to the fact that it can be dangerous and that it can hurt an individual who uses it… that perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.” Kennedy was also concerned with “FDA interference with the scientific investigation of so promising a drug as LSD,” but his sensible and objective pleas fell on the deaf ears of the political and medical establishment. We all know how the rest of the story played out: LSD was labeled a controlled substance and the sale and use of the drug, and all psychedelics, moved to the black market and far away from any legitimate research. The CIA and Army Chemical Corps, of course, were still allowed to conduct their studies on LSD, since the possibilities of biological warfare far outweighed any potential enlightened experience a civilian could derive from an acid trip. And we all know that the real story here isn’t that LSD was banned because of any threats of large-scale insanity and deaths—alcohol and tobacco have caused infinitely more deaths than LSD—but because the conservative political order saw a substance that they believed was fueling the counter-culture and they did what was in their power to bring it to an end. This philosophy reached its apotheosis with Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” which has no doubt become, like alcohol prohibition, one of the government’s most embarrassingly ineffective measures against substance abuse. I wish to leave the matter of psychedelics and government on a more positive though perhaps sad note. After the first Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1966, Richard Alpert spoke of a psychedelic population as a political force. His prediction would not come to fruition, but the sentiment still holds power. “In about seven or eight years the psychedelic population of the United States will be able to vote anybody into office they wanted to… Imagine what it would be like to have anybody in high political office with our understanding of the universe. I mean, let’s just imagine if Bobby Kennedy had a fully expanded consciousness. Just imagine him in his position, what
he would be able to do.” Who is to say that Bobby did not? Death and Taxes recounts Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s statements in support of LSD during a hearing in 1966. Kennedy, whose wife had been treated with LSD, suggested that too much emphasis was placed on potential danger instead of how LSD could be “very helpful in our society if used properly.”