Friday, March 16, 2012

LSD and Alcohol: The History

Back when acid was legal.

After last week’s blitz of coverage concerning studies done in the 60s on the use of LSD for the treatment of alcoholism, I thought it would be useful to provide a bit of background; some pertinent psychedelic history to help put this information in perspective:

It may come as a surprise to many people that throughout the 60s, there were LSD clinics operating in England and Europe. European LSD therapists tended to use very low doses as an adjunct to traditional psychoanalytic techniques. But North American researchers took a different, bolder approach. When “psychedelic” therapy began to catch on in Canada and the United States, therapists typically gave patients only one or two sessions at very high doses. These early efforts were aimed at producing spontaneous breakthroughs or recoveries in alcoholics through some manner of religious epiphany or inner conversion experience. The only other quasi-medical approach of the day, the Schick Treatment Center’s brand of “aversion therapy,” was not seen to produce very compelling long-term recovery rates, and subsequently fell out of favor. In this light, the early successes with LSD therapy, sometimes claimed to be in the 50-75 per cent range, looked noteworthy indeed. However, the design and criteria of the LSD/alcoholism studies varied so widely that it has never been possible to draw definitive conclusions about the work that was done, except to say that LSD therapy seemed to be strikingly effective for certain alcoholics. Some patients were claiming that two or three trips on LSD were worth years of conventional psychotherapy—a claim not heard again until the advent of Prozac thirty years later.

 “I’ve taken lysergic acid several times, and have collected considerable information about it,” Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, disclosed in a private letter written in 1958. “At the moment, it can only be used for research purposes. It would certainly be a huge misfortune if it ever got loose in the general public without a careful preparation as to what the drug is and what the meaning of its effects may be.”  Like many others, Wilson was excited by LSD’s potential as a treatment for chronic alcoholism. Even Hollywood was hip to the new therapy. Cary Grant, among others, took LSD under psychiatric supervision and pronounced it immensely helpful as a tool for psychological insight. Andre Previn, Jack Nicholson, and James Coburn agreed. (It could be argued that the human potential movement began here).

No drug this powerful and strange, if American history was any guide, could remain legal for long. Unlike their colleagues in the intelligence agencies, politicians and law enforcement officers didn’t know about Mongolian shamans and their fly agaric mushrooms; about European witches and their use of psychoactive plant drugs like nightshade and henbane; about Persian sheiks with their cannabis water pipes; Latin American brujos with their magic vines.

But for the CIA, the big fish was always LSD.

What interested the Central Intelligence Agency about LSD was its apparent ability to produce the symptoms of acute psychosis. Operation ARTICHOKE was designed to ferret out LSD’s usefulness as an instrument of psychological torture, and as a possible means of destabilizing enemy forces by means of aerosol sprays or contaminated water supplies. (The drug’s overwhelming potency made such parts-per-billion fantasies a possibility.)

The agency knew where to turn for a secure American source of supply. Eli Lilly and Co., the giant drug manufacturer, was already involved in LSD research on behalf of the U.S. government. The trouble was that LSD was expensive, and all roads led to Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. Organic LSD had to be painstakingly extracted from ergot, a fungus that grows in kernels of rye. Eventually, Sandoz and Eli Lilly successfully synthesized LSD in their own laboratories. With the advent of a reliable domestic supplier of synthetic LSD, the CIA under Allen Dulles was assured of a steady source for experimental purposes.

When LSD did not pan out as a reliable agent of interrogation, CIA investigators turned their attention to its purported ability to mimic acute psychosis—its “psychomimetic” aspect—which researchers were praising as a new avenue toward a biological understanding of schizophrenia. The CIA funneled grant money for LSD research into the academic and commercial R&D world through a host of conduits. Various experiments with non-consenting subjects—typically military or prison personnel—showed that LSD could sometimes break down established patterns of thought, creating a “twilight zone” during which the mind was more susceptible to various forms of psychological coercion and control. Perhaps, under the influence of LSD, prisoners could be transformed into counter-espionage agents. It also occurred to the CIA that the same drug could be used on their own agents for the same purposes. Numerous CIA agents took LSD trips in order to familiarize them with acid’s Alice-in-Wonderland terrain. Some of these unusual experiments were captured on film for use in military training videos.

One place where ARTICHOKE research took place was the Addiction Research Centre at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky—the same hospital that specialized in the treatment of hardcore heroin addicts. Lexington was part hospital and part penitentiary, which made it perfect for human experimentation. The addict/inmates of Lexington were sometimes given LSD without their consent, a practice also conducted at the federal prison in Atlanta, and at the Bordentown Reformatory in New Jersey. 

In 1953, then-CIA director Allen Dulles authorized Operation MK-ULTRA, which superseded earlier clandestine drug investigations. Under the direction of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a chemist, the government began slipping LSD and other psychoactive drugs to unwitting military personnel. During a work retreat in Maryland that year, technicians from both the Army and the CIA were dosed without their knowledge, and were later told that they had ingested a mind-altering drug. Dr. Frank Olson, a civilian biochemist involved in research on biological warfare, wandered away from the gathering in a confused state, and committed suicide a few days later by leaping to his death from an upper floor of the Statler Hilton in New York City. The truth about Olson’s death was kept secret from his family, and from the rest of the nation, for more than twenty years. In 1966, LSD was added to the federal schedule of controlled substances, in the same category as heroin and amphetamine. Simple possession became a felony. The Feds had turned off the spigot, and the research came to a halt. Federal drug enforcement agents began showing up at the homes and offices of well-known West Coast therapists, demanding the surrender of all stockpiles of LSD-25. The original acid elite was being hounded, harassed, and threatened in a rancid atmosphere of pharmaceutical McCarthyism. Aldous Huxley, Humphrey Osmond, even father figure Albert Hoffman, all viewed these American developments with dismay. The carefully refined parameters and preparations, the attention to set and setting, the concerns over dosage, had gone out the window, replaced by a massive, uncontrolled experiment in the streets. Small wonder, then, that the circus atmosphere of the Haight-Ashbury “Summer of Love” in 1967 seemed so badly timed. Countercultural figures were extolling the virtues of LSD for the masses—not just for research, not just for therapy, not as part of some ancient religious ritual—but also just for the freewheeling American hell of it. What could be more democratic than the act of liberating the most powerful mind-altering drug known to man?

It is at least conceivable that researchers and clinicians eventually would have backed away from LSD anyway, on the grounds that the drug’s effects were simply too weird and unpredictable to conform to the rigorous dictates of clinical studies. Nonetheless, researchers had been given a glimpse down a long, strange tunnel, before federal authorities put an end to the research.

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