Canada's Trippy History of LSD Therapy
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].