Amid the world wars, Cold War, and culture wars, Swiss writer Walter Vogt called LSD “the only joyous invention of the twentieth century.” The psychedelic drug that would come to define the counterculture of the 1960s got its beginnings not as a recreational substance thrown around at music festivals, but instead as one of the century’s most exciting discoveries for academic fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology, and psychotherapy.
The seemingly innocuous little molecule was discovered in the 1930s by a then-unknown chemist, Albert Hofmann. The young researcher was synthesizing compounds found in medicinal plants at Sandoz Labs in Switzerland. In animal trials, LSD-25 was an abject failure, only serving to energize the mice. It wasn’t until 1943 that Hofmann somehow accidentally ingested it, then experiencing the world’s first acid trip with intense colors and dreamlike hallucinations. He intentionally took the drug several more times and, by then, he knew the molecule would be of great importance in psychiatric treatment.
Unlike the relatively short history of LSD, psychoactive plants like magic mushrooms have been used by humans for at least 10,000 years either as an intoxicant or for ceremonial purposes, according to fossil evidence. Among Native American tribes, a psychoactive cactus called peyote has long been used in healing ceremonies. The United States government worked for decades to ban the use of peyote by Native Americans but were largely unsuccessful due to the substance’s use as a form of religious expression. Peyote use is legal among members of the Native American Church in all states and to non-Native Americans in several states including Arizona.
The modern history of LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, are intrinsically linked and would be impossible to tell the story of one without the other. Magic mushrooms reemerged in the public consciousness in 1957 when LIFE Magazine published a photo essay by R. Gordon Wasson, who visited a native tribe in Mexico that used psychoactive mushrooms. Wasson sent a sample of these mushrooms to Hofmann who extracted the psilocybin and began producing two milligram psilocybin pills that were distributed to researchers. Like LSD and mescaline, researchers quickly became interested and psilocybin was administered to patients in clinical experiments and in therapy for a variety of conditions including obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders.
By the 1950s, LSD was not only intrinsic in psychotherapy but vastly helped in the new field of neurochemistry. It was in this decade that researchers first developed SSRI antidepressants, while researching the effects LSD has on the brain.
Researcher Franz Vollenweider believed that psychedelics worked so effectively for some mental disorders due to how they help patients develop new ways of thinking and overcoming rigid thought patterns, saying that “the psychedelic experience may facilitate neuroplasticity: it opens a window in which patterns of thought and behavior become more plastic and so easier to change.”
Researchers and therapists also used LSD in attempts to treat chronic alcoholism. One study found that nearly 50% of alcoholic patients who underwent LSD therapy were “improved” or “much improved” after three years of follow up. Another study in 1962 found that 66% of alcoholic patients who underwent LSD therapy abstained from alcohol, compared with 18% in the control group. Hofmann compiled the results of studies on LSD therapy for alcoholism over a thirteen year period and the results suggested that LSD could consistently have a significantly higher level of success in treating chronic alcoholism when compared with any conventional techniques.
For an initial renaissance period of about 15 years, psychedelic research continued with much vigor and high expectations about the bright future of these substances, with psychedelic drugs freely available to many medical professionals. As this period of psychedelic research drew to a close by the mid 1960s, over one thousand psychedelic research papers had been published, 40,000 patients had taken LSD during research trials, and the field had spawned several international conferences.
But this energy and excitement was halted with the advent of the 1960s culture wars. As students and hippies alike got their first taste of the mind expanding drugs, horror stories were splashed across newspapers warning of the dangers of reckless psychedelic use. The truth bubbled out over the CIA’s use of LSD in clandestine experiments on unwitting citizens, hoping to unlock the secrets of mind control. For much of the public, this was the first they were hearing about the new “miracle drug” of psychedelics. Psychedelics, and psychedelic research by association, were dragged through the mud in the media and in the eye of the public.
The backlash was insurmountable for psychedelic researchers. Researchers and institutions who had supported psychedelic research were embarrassed by the negative press and, with great public and political pressure, research was largely halted. In 1970 psilocybin and LSD were listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is for drugs considered to have a “high potential for abuse” with no accepted medical use. As the 1960s and 1970s faded away, the youth’s drug of choice shifted and psychedelics became a relic of decades past.
But around 2006, the ugly reputation of psychedelics among research scientists began to shift, partially due to the publishing of a research paper entitled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” The study found that 67 percent of the volunteers, who were given high doses of psilocybin in a controlled and comfortable environment while listening to classical music, “rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experiences of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life… to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or the death of a parent.”
With the publishing of the study and the public’s growing interest in alternative methods for tackling the country’s mental health crisis, a renaissance was sparked for modern psychedelic research. Early research hints that psychedelics may revolutionize methods of treating a variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction and more.
In 2018, author Michael Pollen published How to Change Your Mind in which he discusses his experience of trying psychedelics in his 60s. The book was a smashing success, both financially and culturally. For many, it provided the first glimpse into the troubled but medicinally revolutionary background of psychedelics. It was a #1 New York Times Best Seller and was named as one of the 10 best books of 2018 by the New York Times Books Review.
While the field is just picking up again after being so quickly destroyed decades ago, there are still many hurdles to jump in a society that has sunk billions of dollars and decades of effort into a war on drugs that often targeted the substances that are now being called breakthrough medicine by researchers.