There is no way of doing proper justice to the full range of research into LSD that occurred during the two decades following its discovery in the 1940s although some prominent pioneers tend to stand out.
One of these early pioneers was Dr. Humphry Osmond. Born in 1917 in Surrey, England, Osmond trained to become a psychiatrist and later became a Senior Registrar at a psychiatric unit at St. George's Hospital in London. With his colleague John Smithies, he began researching the effects of mescaline on the human body and became one of the early advocates for a biochemical explanation for schizophrenia. Given the strong Freudian bias among British psychiatrists during that period, Osmond's determination to continue with his research meant that he would need to leave Great Britain altogether. Answering an advertisement in the Lancet for a deputy director of psychiatry at a Canadian mental hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Osmond and his family moved to Canada in 1951.
Within a year of arriving in Canada, Osmond launched his biochemical research program and joined forces with another early pioneer, Abram Hoffer. As a Canadian psychiatrist who had been hired as a research psychiatrist by the Saskatchewan department of Public Health, Hoffer had a keen interest in the biochemical roots of schizophrenia and quickly recognized the importance of Osmond's mescaline experiments. They began to work together and soon discovered that LSD was an even better drug than mescaline in producing psychotic symptoms in normal test subjects. Osmond and Hoffer decided to explore the therapeutic value of LSD in modifying behaviour and settled on alcoholics as test subjects.
The hypothesis that guided them was straightforward enough: since research subjects reported increased self-awareness after taking LSD, could alcoholics develop new insight into their drinking as well? They further argued that the delirium produced by LSD in many ways resembled the experience of delirium tremens in alcoholics drying out from alcohol. If the experience of delirium tremens often forced alcoholics to accept that they had "hit bottom", could LSD delirium produce a similar outcome? In 1953, Osmond and Hoffer tested the effects of LSD treatment on two chronic alcoholic patients at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn, and reported an astonishing 50 percent success rate. Osmond was emphatic in stressing that the key to their success was not LSD but rather the "insight" that the LSD provided. A second study published in 1958 involving 24 patients at University Hospital in Saskatoon also found that 50 per cent of the patients reported either total abstention or at least significant reduction in drinking over a three year period. Unfortunately, the highly subjective nature of LSD use and the difficulties involved in replicating Osmond and Hoffer's results made their colleagues reluctant to accept their conclusions. Critics also noted that a minority of patients taking LSD reported negative experiences although these "bad trips" could be mitigated through the use of empathetic staff. Osmond and Hoffer would go on to treat hundreds of alcoholics under carefully controlled conditions.
The Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) challenged Osmond and Hoffer's research by questioning their methodology, particularly the lack of proper controls. ARF researchers, Reginald Smart and Thomas Storm, conducted their own LSD study in which patients were either blindfolded or restrained to control for the effect of additional stimuli that might bias the research findings. Their results were challenged by Osmond in turn and he questioned the rigidity of the methodology that ARF used in their study. A research study by Weyburn psychiatrist Sven Jensen was published in 1962 that compared alcoholics who received LSD treatment with patients receiving group or individual treatment. Jensen found that 38 of the 58 patients who had received LSD remained abstinent over the follow-up period compared to only a small minority of patients who had received conventional treatment.
While the controversy was raging, a moral panic was brewing elsewhere. The growing use of LSD as a recreational drug, aided by counterculture gurus such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass), as well as its role in the student activist movement of the 1960s led to hysterical denunciations of the dangers resulting from rampant LSD use. Humphry Osmond may have unintentionally fanned the hysteria by his own actions (not only did he coin the word "psychedelic" but he was also the one to introduce Aldous Huxley to mescaline and LSD in the 1950s). By 1966, LSD was on the FDA's list of illegal narcotics and Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company (the only legal provider of the drug) voluntarily ceased production. LSD research was subsequently banned across North America by 1968.
And so it stands. Humphry Osmond died in 2004 after a long and illustrious career. Abram Hoffer remains active in the highly controversial field of orthomolecular treatment for schizophrenia. Alfred Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who started it all, lived well into his 90s and never failed to be frustrated by the worldwide prohibition on his discovery. While he conceded in interviews that LSD can be potentially dangerous, he also stressed its therapeutic value as reported by researchers such as Osmond and Hoffer.
Could LSD have developed into a viable treatment for alcoholism if events had gone differently? The use of MDMA ("ecstasy") in therapy has generated considerable interest but the current political climate probably ensures that LSD will stay illegal for the foreseeable future.
*A hat tip to Dr. Erika Dyck of the University of Alberta for kindly providing me with reprints of her publications on this fascinating topic.