July 20, 2019

Tapping the Potential of LSD

“In the fall of 1951, Humphry Osmond, a thirty-four-year-old British psychiatrist, travelled from London to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to become the clinical director of the town’s mental hospital. About 110 kilometres southeast of Regina, Weyburn was a small community in the middle of nowhere, and its grubby, ill-equipped hospital was sometimes referred to as the last asylum in the British Commonwealth. The building was a mess, and it wasn’t uncommon for its ceilings to be spattered with patients’ feces. “Screams, stench, nudity—it was a place to keep out of your dreams,” was how Osmond poetically described it. But this prairie outpost was also a haven.

Back in London, Osmond had become fascinated by hallucinogenic drugs, particularly lsd and mescaline, which is found in the peyote cactus. He thought that these substances had the potential to unlock the mysteries of mental illnesses, but the British psychiatric community, still enthralled by Freud and psychoanalysis, was dismissive of Osmond’s outré biochemical theories. Saskatchewan, in contrast, was a hospitable place for new ideas of all kinds: it had the first democratic socialist government in North America, and the groundwork was being laid for the creation of medicare. Tommy Douglas’s ccf government had begun to reform hospital conditions, administration, and training, and it had also initiated a massive recruitment drive in medicine, bringing in the best researchers from around the world and granting them almost unlimited freedom and resources. Osmond was one of those researchers, and at Weyburn—initially, at least—he was considered a visionary.

Along with his colleagues John Smythies and Abram Hoffer, Osmond found that mescaline produces symptoms that are almost identical to schizophrenia, and he hypothesized that the drug could be used to essentially induce schizophrenic symptoms in healthy patients in order to help develop treatments for the illness. Osmond later experimented with lsd, finding particular success in using it to treat alcoholism. What Osmond realized was that the drugs’ promise wasn’t due to their ability to mimic madness but rather their ability to do something more nebulous, less quantifiable, and more revolutionary: induce a radical reorientation in what users saw, felt, and thought. As anyone who’s taken psychedelics knows, the drugs can refresh and enlarge the world even as they provide a glimpse of other meaningful worlds.”

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