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Canada's Trippy History of LSD Therapy

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On a sunny day in 1952, Humphry Osmond decided he wanted to go for a walk. He invited his wife, Jane, to accompany him through a residential area of Saskatchewan. The two strolled along for several hundred yards before Osmond noticed a pig-faced boy staring at him from behind a window. Two men passed by the couple, hunchbacked, with their faces covered; the sun, he would later write, seemed to be charring him.

Osmond, a British psychiatrist born near London who had recently transplanted himself to Canada, was out of his mind on mescaline. The doctor had purposely dosed himself to observe the effects of the hallucinogenic drug, which he planned to administer to patients in area mental hospitals in the hopes of better understanding schizophrenia. Before long, the cheaper, more readily available LSD would become his therapeutic chemical of choice, with hundreds of patients—as well as doctors and nurses—all tripping in the name of science.

D-lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, was first synthesized by Swiss biochemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. Hofmann was experimenting with different compounds in search of a cure for migraines. While LSD didn’t provide it, it did capture his attention when some spilled on his hand. Within the hour, he felt dreamy and dizzy. A deliberate experiment with the drug a few days later had him giggling uncontrollably. He needed an assistant to escort him home—a path, he later said, that made him feel as though he were inside a Salvador Dali painting.

No one quite understood exactly how LSD worked on the brain. (Today, it’s believed the action it places on serotonin in the prefrontal cortex—which affects cognition and perception—can cause sensory hallucinations and prompt otherwise segregated portions of the brain to begin communicating with one another.) Hofmann’s employer, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, thought LSD might have a place in the emerging field of psychopharmacology, which used drugs to treat various psychological disorders.

Hofmann's accidental trip happened in 1943. In 1952, a batch of LSD was sent to clinics, including one in Saskatchewan, in the hopes it might be able to provide solutions for mental illnesses like schizophrenia. At this point, such afflictions were sometimes addressed with electroshock therapy.

Osmond, who had just moved to the area after finding England inhospitable to such research, was delighted to see Canada was far more agreeable to alternative therapies. He paired up with Canadian biochemist Abram Hoffer, who had worked in the psychiatric unit at Regina General Hospital and shared Osmond’s interest in trying to better understand the mechanics of mental illness through neurological function. Osmond believed schizophrenia, which can cause hallucinations, could be a metabolic disorder; replicating the symptoms with a drug would, he said, allow medicine to study the problem from the inside out.

Unable to find private backing for their studies, they made a successful appeal to the Saskatchewan government for financial support and circumvented the lack of available research subjects by observing their own reactions to mescaline. After Osmond’s pig-faced encounters, he turned most of his attention to LSD, which was cheaper and promised to deliver a far more potent disruption of brain chemistry.

Doctors and nursing staff at Saskatchewan Hospital in Weyburn volunteered to take the drug to allow Osmond and Hoffer to observe its effects. To them, the drug was the only venue to “experience” schizophrenia in the way sufferers did. But Osmond and his cohorts didn't seem all that debilitated by it.

"My experiences with these substances," he once said, "have been the most strange, most awesome, and among the most beautiful things in a varied and fortunate life."

Osmond and Hoffer both took LSD; they even gave it to their wives. In 1953, a journalist named Sidney Katz arrived from Maclean’s magazine to ingest it and report on the sensations. His article, which ran in October 1953, was titled “My 12 Hours as a Madman.”

Although LSD could mimic the symptoms of mental illness, it wasn't offering the kind of insight the men had expected. Instead, they realized that the drug promoted the same reality-skewing effects as an alcoholic in the depths of detoxification—known as delirium tremens, or the “DTs.” Alcoholics, who were suffering from what was then still considered to be a weakness of spirit rather than a disease, reported that the hallucinations and agitation present during the DTs were often what was needed for them to quit drinking entirely.

What if, the doctors reasoned, they could replicate that experience without the physical sickness that accompanied it? Could it cure people whose lives were at stake in a battle with the bottle?

Their idea was to take substance abusers and give them a single mega-dose of LSD, several times what a “street” dose would look like today. Two alcoholic patients at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital volunteered, ingesting 200 mcg of the drug—both made startling recoveries, with one stopping immediately and the other quitting after six months.

The results attracted the attention of psychiatrist Colin Smith, who gathered 24 patients diagnosed with chronic alcoholism who had been admitted to the University Hospital in Saskatoon for treatment. Some received up to 400 mcg of LSD in an attempt to mimic the DTs. In a three-year follow-up, Smith noted that six subjects reported they hadn’t touched a drink since; six others had cut down their habit significantly. As the number of studies grew to involve at least 700 patients, the percentage remained largely stable. A 40 to 50 percent success rate was, at the time, better than other therapies. In one study, Osmond even demonstrated that same efficacy among subjects who had tried and failed the program at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Hoffer and Osmond now began to suspect that LSD was having another effect: Patients dosed with the drug were experiencing such an expansion of their consciousness that their entire philosophies were being questioned. LSD was giving them a fork-in-the-road moment of clarity that separated their mind from their reality. It was the key to unlock a substantial amount of treatment in a short period of time, the men felt. A single dose, they theorized, could be worth 10 years of talking it out.

By the 1960s, Hoffer and Osmond had dosed over 2000 subjects with LSD in Saskatchewan. Almost half remained sober a year after the therapy.

But within just a few years, LSD had become a popular target of the press, which reported on civilians losing their minds and committing criminal acts while on the drug. One man had killed his mother-in-law; another mistakenly allowed his niece to ingest an LSD cube, sending her into hysterics. The demonization of the drug made it difficult for medicine to continue exploring the therapeutic potential. And despite the promising results showing the potential for LSD to treat alcoholism, the Addictions Research Foundation (ARF) based out of Toronto made a reasonable point in a series of articles in the Quarterly Journal for Studies on Alcohol [PDF]: none of the studies were controlled. Patients who were tripping also had access to music, art, and other stimulus that made it difficult to account for LSD’s role in their recovery. When the ARF tried to replicate the results by blindfolding and restraining subjects while on acid, they failed.

By 1968, LSD was illegal and off-limits in both Canada and the United States; the latter had seen the CIA secretly dose private citizens with it in an ill-advised program known as MK-ULTRA. Osmond and Hoffer’s efforts would be permanently suffocated, and LSD would retain a stigma that made any future application all but impossible.

Only recently have hallucinogens crept back into research, with New York University conducting studies on psilocybin (mushrooms) in cancer patients; other researchers are looking into MDMA’s effects on post-traumatic stress. It's a tradition of unconventional work that harkens back to Saskatchewan nearly 65 years ago.

None of this would likely surprise Osmond. In a letter to author Aldous Huxley in 1956, a few years after introducing the author to the drug, the psychiatrist celebrated the effects of LSD. During the correspondence, he coined a word that would grow to become synonymous with the drug culture in the coming decades. "To fathom hell or soar angelic,” he wrote, “you'll need a pinch of psychedelic."

Additional Sources: “Flashback: Psychiatric Experimentation with LSD in Historical Perspective,” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 50, No. 7 [PDF].

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15 Products You Can (Usually) Only Buy in Canada
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Canada is widely known for its hockey, maple syrup, and brutally cold winters. But you can bet your back bacon that Canadians also enjoy some special products only available in the Great White North, many of which are completely unknown to its neighbors to the south, at least outside of specialist importers. Here’s a salute to some of the items that are usually only available on Canadian soil.

1. CANADIAN MILK CHOCOLATE

Crispy Crunch, Smarties (the Canadian kind), Aero, Wunderbar, Caramilk—while the names and textures of these candy bars may differ, they all contain the same unique “Canadian” chocolate taste. Apparently, there is a Canadian preference for a sweeter, creamier milk chocolate, as opposed to the gritty, bitter taste of American chocolate. In 2013, The Hershey Company changed its formula to develop a milkier, creamier chocolate “that is unique to Canadian chocolate.” Even Canadian versions of popular American chocolate bars, such as Kit Kat and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, taste completely different, as documented in a 2009 Food Network survey.

2. KRAFT DINNER (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH KRAFT MACARONI AND CHEESE)


Kraft Dinner, or “KD” as it’s affectionately (and now formally) known in Canada, is the country’s unofficial official food. It been reported that Canadians consume 1.7 million boxes of the neon-colored pasta tubes a week, out of the 7 million sold globally. Yes, you can get similar pasta-and-powdered cheese concoctions in the United States, but you can’t find the “KD” packaging anywhere in the U.S., and there tend to be more varieties of the pasta in Canada as well.

3. BUTTER TARTS

These yummy desserts—pastry tart shells filled with maple or corn syrup, sugar, butter, and raisins—are a distinctly Canadian treat. Some articles have traced their origins to pioneer cookbooks published in the early 1900s. However, a 2007 Toronto Star article suggests they date back to the mid-1600s and the arrival of the filles de marier, or imported brides, from France. Regardless, these desserts are a seasonal staple at the Canadian Christmas snack table. And while some small American bakeries might offer butter tarts, in Canada processed, pre-packaged versions are found at most convenience stores around the country.

4. MILK BY THE BAG


Kevin Qiu, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, that’s really a thing. You may think milk in a bag defies the laws of physics come pouring time, but the bags are smartly placed in a pitcher container and the corner is snipped off at an angle for easy pouring. Bags of milk are still popular in Ontario, Quebec, and Eastern Canada, but have been phased out in other parts of the country. Some American states have flirted with the idea of bringing bagged milk to the masses, but the practice doesn’t look like it’s catching on.

5. MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT CO-OP


m01229, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Similar to the U.S.-based REI, Mountain Equipment Co-op was founded in 1971 by four mountaineering friends who wanted to offer Canadians a low-cost way to purchase outdoor equipment without having to go to the States. Today, MEC still runs as a co-op, offering memberships for $5 (you need one to purchase anything at the store). It’s found in 18 cities across the country and boasts 4.5 million members from Canada and around the world.

6. HICKORY STICKS

Picture julienned, thick-cut potato chips with a tangy, smoky flavoring and you have Hickory Sticks. They're also one of the few remaining products under the Hostess name in Canada, as Hostess was bought out by Lays in the 1990s (the Canadian potato chip brand is completely unrelated to the Twinkie hawker). These products have survived the test of time … as has the decidedly unglamorous brown packaging.

7. SWISS CHALET

Mention the words “Quarter Chicken Dinner” to any Canuck and the words “Swiss Chalet” will immediately come to mind. The restaurant is known for chicken, ribs, and one-of-a-kind dipping sauce. Bonus point for anyone who remembers the cheesy Swiss Chalet TV commercials of the 1980s with iconic images of those juicy succulent chickens rotating on skewers.

8. CAESARS

Americans may have their Bloody Marys, but the Canadian hangover cure (and cause) has always been found in a Caesar. Similar to a Bloody Mary, the recipe typically calls for 1-2 ounces of vodka, two dashes of hot sauce (Tabasco is commonly used), four dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and 4 to 6 ounces of Clamato juice. Don’t forget the celery salt and pepper on the rim! The crowning glory are the stalks of celery, olives, limes, and other greenery that may accompany it. Serve over ice and enjoy.

9. RED RIVER CEREAL

Who would have thought that a blend of wheat, rye, and flaxseed mixed with boiling water would be such a hit? Named after the iconic Red River that flows north into Winnipeg from the U.S., the hot cereal has been a staple in many homes since 1924. Red River Cereal was once imported into the U.S. by Smuckers foods of Canada, but it appears to have been discontinued.

10. MCCAIN DEEP N’ DELICIOUS CAKE

McCain Deep n’ Delicious cakes are a fixture in Canadian freezers around the country. The moist cake is available in vanilla, marble, chocolate, and other flavors, topped with a sweet icing. The treat comes in a metallic aluminum foil tray with a resealable plastic dome lid that is often superfluous, as the cake is usually eaten entirely in one sitting. Pass the fork, please!

11. PRESIDENT’S CHOICE PRODUCTS 


What started out as a desire to make top-quality generic-brand products in the 1980s has since grown into a best-selling national empire. The President’s Choice line was spearheaded by the late Dave Nichol for the Loblaw chain of stores in 1984 as way to bring a “higher end” generic brand of products to consumers. Some of the first items included PC Beer and The Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie, which hit the shelves in 1988 and is still one of its top-selling products today. While the company did expand to selling some of its products in select grocery stores around the U.S., the PC brand has largely been phased out of the United States, save for a few stores in the Chicago area.

12. LAURA SECORD CHOCOLATES

Take the name of a Canadian war hero and mix in some cocoa, sugar, and butter, and you have a recipe for national chocolate-making success. Laura Secord was an American-born pioneer woman in what was then Upper Canada (the forerunner of Ontario), who successfully warned the Canadian and British forces of an impending Yankee attack during the War of 1812. To the delight of many sweet-toothed Canadians, her legacy did not stop there. In 1913, Frank P. O’Connor opened the first Laura Secord candy shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street. Today, over 100 stores are found across Canada—boasting more than 400 products, including the marshmallow Santa Claus, a seasonal favorite stocking-stuffer. The chain does deliver to the U.S., but there are no locations south of the border.

13. DUNK-A-ROOS 

The Betty Crocker kangaroo-shaped cinnamon-flavored graham cookies dunked in sweet, sweet icing are still sold in grocery stories in Canada despite being discontinued in the United States. Americans will either need to cross the border to pick them up, pay at least five times the retail price for the product on sites like Amazon, or come up with their own homemade remedy for their sugar craving.

14. HAWKINS CHEEZIES

The original Canadian Cheezie was actually created in Chicago after the Second World War by James Marker and W.T. Hawkins. According to the product’s website, the duo perfected their recipe by extracting cornmeal into finger-like shapes, frying them in shortening, and then dusting them with aged cheddar cheese. The plant moved to Ontario, Canada, in the 1950s and the product has remained north of the 49th parallel ever since. Some have said the snack is similar to a Cheetos Crunchy, but others claim there is only one Cheezies.

15. LE CHÂTEAU

Long before U.S. chains such as H&M and Forever 21 graced the storefronts of Canadian malls, Le Château was the go-to store for affordable, Euro-chic clothing and accessories. The Canadian clothier first got its start in 1959 as a family-run store in downtown Montréal. Today there are more than 200 retail locations across Canada. In the late ‘80s, Le Château opened more than 20 stores in the U.S., but closed them about a decade later after reporting significant losses in those markets. The company boasts a small international presence in countries such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia, but the name recognition of Le Château in Canada is as Canadian as poutine. (Le Château founder Herschel Segal is also co-founder of another Canadian business, David’s Tea, but that one is now widely found in certain parts of the U.S.)

This article originally ran in 2016.

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Happy Canada Day! What Exactly Is Canada Day?
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Happy Canada Day! On July 1, 1867, the nation was officially born when the Constitution Act joined three provinces into one country: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Canada province, which then split into Ontario and Quebec. However, Canada was not completely independent of England until 1982. The holiday called Dominion Day was officially established in 1879, but it wasn't observed by many Canadians, who considered themselves to be British citizens. Dominion Day started to catch on when the 50th anniversary of the confederation rolled around in 1917. In 1946, a bill was put forth to rename Dominion Day, but arguments in the House of Commons over what to call the holiday stalled the bill.

The 100th anniversary in 1967 saw the growth of the spirit of Canadian patriotism and Dominion Day celebrations really began to take off. Although quite a few Canadians already called the holiday Canada Day (Fête du Canada), the new name wasn't formally adopted until October of 1982.

HOW TO CELEBRATE?

There are many ways to celebrate Canada Day. First: What's a patriotic celebration without a parade? There will be parades held in cities, towns, and villages all over Canada today. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have an established group called the RCMP Musical Ride. These 32 officers, who are rotated after three years' service, perform equestrian drills for the public throughout Canada.

Other Canada Day traditions that are gaining footholds are picnics, festivals, sporting events, and fireworks.

Many Canada Day events are planned all over the country, including Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria.

The lyrics to "O Canada" can be found here. Hear the French version as well.

Portions of this article originally appeared in 2010.

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