It was a trip into the unknown, even for the doctors

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"THE LINES between research and recreation were terribly blurred. Responsible doctors were taking LSD while they were investigating it's effects on others. Everyone was taking it. There was a terrific overlap."

A former research psychotherapist, who spoke to The Independent yesterday of such alarming "research" prefers nowadays to remain anonymous.

But in the Sixties he was heavily involved in pioneering research into the non-recreational uses of LSD - a substance that doctors believed for a while could help unlock the mysteries of the subconscious.

Working in the United States and Britain with a number of other researchers, including R.D Laing - the Scottish psychotherapist best known for his work The Divided Self - he and his colleagues used the drug to "treat" a number of conditions, including paranoia and schizophrenia. He also was a heavy user of LSD himself.

Did it help either him or his "patients"? "That is a good question," he said yesterday, speaking from the US. "The answer is I'm not sure. I am sceptical."

LSD or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, first synthesised in 1938 by Swiss scientist Dr Albert Hoffmann, exploded onto the popular consciousness during the mid-Sixties when it was inextricably linked to the flower-power culture.

It was common knowledge and urban myth that writers like Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Koestler were dropping tabs. Everyone had heard of John Lennon strenuously but unconvincingly denying that his 1967 song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" had nothing to do with drugs.

But away from the well-publicised recreational use of LSD, in both Britain and the US the drug was being used behind the closed doors of laboratories and research centres - sometimes in legitimate medical investigations, sometimes for more questionable reasons.

According to one leading British psychiatrist, the prescribing of LSD in the early 1960s was random and irrational, and was done without full research back-up and without any idea of the possible effects on patients.

In at least some cases the amounts of LSD given to NHS patients were substantially more than those used by recreational users later in the Sixties, many of whom also suffered long term psychological side effects.

Dr Tonmoy Sharma, head of cognitive psychopharmacology at the Institute of Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley, says that LSD was used liberally by psychiatrists.

"LSD was used for a broad spectrum of conditions. I don't think there was any rationale there, it was used irrationally. Anyone who used it now would be up before the General Medical Council," he said.

"Prescribing of LSD was born out of the ignorance of psychiatrists at the time.

"They prescribed it because they believed it worked, but there was no research to show that it did work. There has to be logic in prescribing drugs.''

But in some cases there was a logic - albeit sinister.

As early as 1953, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, authorised the MKULTRA program, which would become notorious for the way it sometimes forced unusual tests on its "volunteers". Among its most notorious tests were those involving LSD, which the agency believed could be used to clandestinely manipulate and control foreign leaders or else to make interrogation subjects speak more freely.

In his history of the CIA, The Very Best Men, Evan Thomas describes how many of the agency's LSD experiments were conducted on unwitting subjects.

Many were carried out on prisoners or else customers of brothels set up and run by the agency, which had installed two-way mirrors. In one experiment seven volunteers in Kentucky were given LSD for 77 days straight.

"Precautions must be taken not only to protect operations from exposure to enemy forces but also to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles," one CIA auditor wrote.

It was against this backdrop that doctors in Britain and the US began experimenting with the use of LSD as a tool for dealing with a range of conditions.

"There was a change in the way in which people began to look at such conditions," said the researcher.

"The people doing this research were not acid heads but they considered LSD to be one of the tools for experiment and research.

"They also felt that by using the drug themselves they may be able to recreate some of the conditions that their patients were experiencing. You have to remember that LSD was a very big deal."

Who Was on It?

LSD, THE most potent hallucinogen, was first synthesised in 1938 by Switzerland's Dr Albert Hoffmann. The effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide were unknown until 1943 when he accidentally took some. It was later found that a dose equivalent a few grains of salt could produce "trips".

LSD was originally used as a research tool for mental illness. Cary Grant, The actor, received LSD at a respected clinic in the late 1950s having failed to "find himself" through yoga and hypnosis.

Writers such as Aldous Huxley and Allen Ginsberg "dropped LSD" in the name of science. Even some members of the clergy dabbled with LSD in search of religious experiences.

The explosion of illegal LSD taking in the Sixties' was partly due to Dr Timothy Leary. The Harvard psychology lecturer's slogan "Turn on, tune in, drop out!", became a central dogma for hippies.The Beatles song, "Lucy in the sky with diamonds", which describes a "trip", gave LSD world-wide recognition.

The popularity of LSD waned from its Sixties high point but in the 1980s it made a comeback as the Acid House scene became popular in nightclubs.

Comments