Andrew M Brown

Psychedelic revival

Mind-bending drugs are making a comeback in the field of psychiatry

Psychedelic revival
Text settings

Acid is back. For the first time since the 1960s there are signs of a rekindling of serious interest in psychedelic drugs — conferences, clinical tests, and a full-blown study is planned, with human subjects. LSD belonged to history — to grizzly-haired hippies and travellers, the ‘counter culture’. Now, an informal alliance of psychiatrists, therapists and psychopharmacologists are seeking to shine a fresh light on to psychedelics, the group which includes LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). MDMA (ecstasy) is also in this category.

There are two main areas of interest: what psychedelics reveal about how the brain works; and their potential as medicines. There is a third, fuzzier angle: the hippies’ conviction that these are quasi-sacred substances, and that they act as a doorway into a mystical experience. In hippy terms, once you’ve passed through that gate, you’re ‘experienced’; you’ve ‘passed the acid test’. It’s a notion going back to Albert Hofmann, the idealistic Swiss chemist who first synthesised LSD, and beyond, to tribal cultures that use plants to induce visions.

Dr Ben Sessa is a consultant psychiatrist and one of the doctors planning a major trial of MDMA, in Cardiff. He lives with his family in the west country. He is, by his own account, exceedingly cautious. But even he has a hunch the hippies were on to something: ‘I can imagine a day when [psychedelics] are seen as having a value, for healthy people to have a life-affirming experience, not in a hedonistic way but for expanding normal life.’ He has taken psilocybin himself, under clinical supervision.

For hardcore enthusiasts, LSD never went away, despite the fact that it was made illegal in 1966 and is a Class A drug, attracting a maximum life sentence for supply. They cherish misty-eyed memories of ‘free festivals’ in the 1970s, where naked women jigged around at Stonehenge with ‘got any acid?’ daubed on their bodies. They may have settled down, but they still subscribe to the alternative value system that LSD inspired. And they despise LSD’s mindless use as a ‘party drug’.

The history of acid bears witness to the fact that man does not cope well with mind-altering chemicals. In Basel in 1938, Albert Hofmann was studying the alkaloids of ergot (a fungus found on rye) for medical use. He discovered the 25th molecule of lysergic acid, but it failed to work as hoped. For some reason — ‘a peculiar presentiment’, in Hofmann’s words — he decided to take a second look a few years later. Synthesising the drug again, he must have absorbed some, because his mind was flooded with dreamlike disturbances of perception.

Hofmann believed he was dealing with a drug that would surely have some therapeutic application. He appreciated its consciousness-expanding properties, too. He didn’t foresee that, given half a chance, people would take it for fun and to excess. He came to see LSD as his ‘problem child’.

In the early days, however, acid seemed to hold great promise. British doctors tested it on patients through the 1950s and early 1960s, to see if it would unlock memories buried in the unconscious. The experiments must, in truth, have been disturbing for many participants: there was minimal ethical supervision or understanding of the importance of ‘set and setting’, the terms the American psychologist Timothy Leary (in one of his few sensible observations) used to mean state of mind and environment. If the set and setting aren’t right, the subject is more likely to have a bad ‘trip’ that leaves a permanent psychic scar. MI6, meanwhile, conducted its own harrowing ‘field trials’ at Porton Down to find out whether LSD was of use as a chemical weapon or a truth serum. The ‘volunteers’ were not even told what was in their LSD-laced sugar cubes.

It’s hard to picture how optimistic the mood was in the 1950s. As Andy Roberts notes in his excellent history of LSD in Britain, Albion Dreaming, the civilian experiments were reported favourably; acid was seen as a marvellous ‘Alice-in-Wonderland drug’. Frankie Howerd sampled LSD therapy; so did Sean Connery.

The relaxed atmosphere did not last, though. Acid spread from the consulting rooms into urban bohemia. By the mid-1960s a psychedelic subculture was growing up, and the change in the law in 1966 didn’t reduce the number taking the drug — that grew steeply through the 1960s and 1970s, driven by the flower power generation. LSD became a worry, as did the vast, anarchic folk festivals where tens of thousands of acid-heads gathered, and sometimes clashed with police. Studies into therapeutic uses of LSD were abandoned.

So Dr Sessa’s Cardiff experiment will be the first of its kind in Britain since the 1960s. The subjects, who will take MDMA during a course of psychotherapy, are expected to be patients suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a horribly disabling condition. The traumatic memory can be impossible to shift, leading to suicide or the pursuit of oblivion through addiction. Dr Sessa believes that MDMA, an ‘empathogen’, offers more hope. It is easier to use than LSD, he thinks, because the effect is more predictable. MDMA is not a cure, but other studies suggest that the drug may help the talking therapy to work better, and effect a permanent improvement. ‘What MDMA does is allow the person to revisit trauma without being overwhelmed. So they can do trauma-focused psychotherapy and it gives them a bullet-proof vest or life raft to go into battle with their trauma. It doesn’t numb you. You’re in the moment. But you’re protected from the fear.’

As for the dangers, he thinks they are worth it when weighed against the potential benefits. ‘Neurotoxicity? I’d put my name on the line: the doses we are using are not going to cause any harm.’

Dr Sessa seems to be alive to the risks of born-again zeal, and the egomania that tainted the work of celebrity clinicians of the 1960s such as R.D. Laing and Timothy Leary. His relationship with the wackier end of the pro-LSD lobby is friendly, but detached. ‘There’s an awful lot of terribly unhelpful pseudoscience around. The hippy community is great, but they can be a thorn in the side.’ In short, he wants to do this research for his patients, and he doesn’t want the hippies to spoil it.