Last year, LSD took a tentative, presumably groovy step back into the medical limelight when it was the featured performer in a controlled human trial for the first time in 40 years. Its redebut involved a role as an anti-anxiety drug in 12 patients in Switzerland, most of them with cancer, and marked a new interest in LSD and other psychadelics for things beyond having a long, strange trip.
This resurrection of a drug that was made illegal in 1966, putting the brakes on a fairly robust research interest, reflects the fact that history can repeat itself. After all, the ‘60s and earlier were a great time to try these not-yet-illegal, mind-altering substances for a variety of human ills, or at least to try to figure out how they work.
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, where results of this most recent LSD trial appeared, offers up four pages of… hits … on LSD, from the 1950s through the 1970s, covering everything from therapeutic uses in psychotherapy to basic discoveries about how it works to why people like it (sample paper from 1973: “College students and LSD: Who and why?”. Sample phrase from abstract: “While there are students who use almost any and all drugs ….”).
But I don’t find much about using LSD for multiple sclerosis (MS), which is interesting because my grandmother took the trouble to visit a clinic in the 1960s on several occasions for experimental LSD treatments for her MS. Why is unclear, although some research had looked at LSD’s effects on spinal reflexes (in cats, research done at the US Army Chemical Warfare Laboratories (!)) and possibly something to do with myelin, the target of the neurodegenerative processes that result in MS. It was definitely something that researchers like Antonio Balestrieri, working in Italy in the 1950s, tried out in patients with MS and other neurodegenerative diseases, and I assume my grandmother was one of the “human subjects” of similar experimentation.
The physician who treated her was one T.T. Peck*, who had a clinic at San Jacinto Memorial Hospital in Baytown, TX. This self-described ‘country doctor’ came to his interest in LSD by way of peyote, which intrigued him based on a “Latin-American patient” having told him that he stayed healthy by chewing peyote buttons. Peck also tried LSD on a 5-year-old girl because she was “completely rebellious about everything.” That intervention does not seem to have been successful.
Given her typical non-tripping behavior, the mix of my grandmother and LSD must have been …interesting, even under controlled clinical conditions. As with the rebellious 5-year-old, LSD did not, however, do much for her MS, which progressed until she was in a wheelchair, where she stayed, ruling the world around her for 5 more decades.
According to reports, therapies like this in controlled clinical spaces didn’t carry a risk of permanent psychosis, but concerns about that popular perception were very much to the fore in the mid-1960s, and justifiably so, given the 1966 ban.
But before those rumors about brain damage and psychosis associated with LSD and those darned college students who would try anything, the drug carried a sort of cachet that made it rather popular in a certain set. Around the time my grandmother was taking her clinically controlled acid trips, people like conservative Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce were also giving it a spin as research subjects in a government-sponsored study of LSD.
Perhaps the most famous legacy of Luce’s meticulously journaled acid trips is a line that encapsulates the feeling of heightened consciousness associated with hallucinogens: “Capture green bug for future reference.” What did the green bug mean? What would secrets would it unlock? That part remains obscure.
Although some see the potential return of LSD, marijuana, and other currently illegal drugs as triumphant and hopeful, with therapeutic potential for anxiety and pain—which is a key feature of multiple sclerosis—others are a tad dismissive. One expert quoted in a Bloomberg piece published when the Swiss study was just enrolling in 2008 was particularly down on the renewed interest and super satisfied with the effectiveness of current pharmaceuticals:
Detachment from reality isn’t a good way to address illness, said Ken Checinski, a fellow of the U.K.’s Royal College of Psychiatrists. New antidepressants and psychological techniques make LSD irrelevant to modern medicine, while the potential side effects and findings of previous studies don’t justify renewed research, he said.
“Sometimes if patients take drugs such as LSD, they perceive benefit, maybe because they become detached from reality, but we all have to come back and live in the real world,” Checinski said.
That assertion, of course, begs some philosophical questions about perception and the real world and biological questions about the role that our sensory systems play in both. But it also elides the very real physiological effects that any psychoactive drugs can have that might be worth exploring. For now, they’re effects that we don’t understand well enough in part because of the four decades that they were the noli me tangere of research chemicals.
*As a family member informs me.