Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Friday, June 24, 2016. I am Caleb Brown. The history of psychedelic drugs and government regulation has been decidedly anti-science. LSD and MDMA have shown great promise as therapies, but the reputation of those drugs and government prohibition prevented research for decades. That may finally be changing. Tom Shroder is author of Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal.
Is it fair to say that the beginning of psychedelic research was Albert Hofmann’s accidental consumption of LSD after he had synthesized it in a lab?
Tom Shroder: That was the beginning of the modern science of psychedelics. There had been some philosophers and physicians who have experimented with mescaline in the first part of the twentieth century. But that really never got much attention or went anywhere. It sort of had become almost forgotten by the ‘40s, when Hofmann had the accidental experience during the war. He was a research chemist at Sandoz and he was looking for a drug that was derived from a rye fungus that had been a scourge in the Middle Ages, but that had - somehow they figured out that it could be used for midwifery in order to hurry contractions. And from then on they were taking that element of the rye fungus and Sandoz was consciously looking for related compounds that also had medical utility, and Hofmann had this experience. Well, first of all, he had tested this compound LSD-25, just meant the twenty-fifth compound he had tested in the series, and nobody thought much of it. But Hofmann had this, what he later called the strange presentiment, that there was something about this drug that was quickly passed over and discarded. And he came back to it five years later, synthesized more of it, and just from absorbing some through his fingers he had this really huge psychological experience where he didn’t know if he was going crazy or what. But it took him awhile to figure out that he had accidentally absorbed some of this drug and that in fact he had stumbled on a drug that didn’t sort of deal with blood circulation as he had hoped, but instead it was a hugely psychoactive chemical that changed his entire perception of the world.
Caleb Brown: So Sandoz, officially, was the company that was responsible for the creation of this drug. What was the early thinking about what it might be used for?
Tom Shroder: Well, they called it Delysid. And you can go online and see little bottles labeled for research, and they sent it to universities and labs around the world and said we think this is a, you know, has a remarkable potential, possibly for the field of psychiatry. And the first thought was it mimicked psychosis, which was a very puzzling and difficult – impossible to treat – serious mental illness and they thought that by taking this and having a psychotic-type experience themselves, the psychiatrists might get insight into the disease and be able to figure out how to treat their patients better because they had never had any success in treating people with that condition. And very quickly some of the researchers who were self-experimenting with this, didn’t just have an experience of being insane, they had a very large experience where they’re – and a very expansive experience where they had tremendous insights about the world and their place in it. And they suddenly started thinking well this has huge potential to help people sort of, even healthy people, get a much sort of deeper insight into the meaning of life, even. So then they got really excited about that and they began using it to treat all sorts of conditions ranging from depression to addiction. And they were having tremendous success.
Caleb Brown: What did success look like at that time for treating those kinds of illnesses?
Tom Shroder: Well I mean they did a meta-study in about 1960 of all the research – of thousands of doses of psychedelics, mostly LSD at this point, that had been given to people with chronic and notoriously hard to treat psychological conditions, including the ones I’ve mentioned: Addictions, depression, alcoholism. And you know the official report on the study said that you know, some of the results were so positive they almost appeared miraculous. In Canada, the Canadian government declared that LSD treatment for alcoholism was no longer experimental, that in fact it was an improved treatment. And this was in the early 1960s. So, you know, like they would get some kind of situation where people with long-term and where there had been multiple attempts to treat them and that had failed, hardcore psychiatric illnesses where they’d get like, you know, a 70s percent response rate of dramatic improvement which was completely unheard of. These were situations where, previous treatment, you know they’d be lucky if they broke double digits in a positive response rate.
Caleb Brown: So what was American intelligence agency’s interest in this burgeoning research?
Tom Shroder: Well that began because the Nazis had been experimenting with mescaline, which is another kind of naturally occurring psychedelic drug, as a kind of enhanced interrogation technique. They were trying to – they were giving it to people that they were interrogating and sometimes physically torturing, and they were hoping that maybe that would cause them to reveal all their secrets. And there was mixed reports on that, whether it was either you know, some people called it useless, but other people said well, in the hands of the right interrogator, it could be useful. And so after the war the CIA got a hold of these reports, these Nazi reports. And so they began a decades-long process of seeing if LSD could somehow be used in warfare. And it was either to confuse the enemy, I mean they had this sort of ironic thing were at some point they were testing it to make people tell the truth, make enemies that they were interrogating tell the truth. And then they thought that well, they could give it to agents so that if they ever got captured, the agents could take it and be rendered incapable of telling the truth. So I mean it was just crazy. And they did really, really irresponsible things like giving it to people in unsuspecting circumstances - the CIA owned a whorehouse in San Francisco. And the johns would come in and they’d have drinks and they’d spike the drinks with LSD just to see what happened. And of course one thing that the early researchers found very quickly was with this particular drug one of the most important things was both the setting it was given in and the mindset of the people that were taking it. So people had to feel safe and secure and the setting had to be, in fact, safe and secure. And they had to have - be intentionally taking it for the purposes of growth and healing. And under those conditions they had extremely good results. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some difficult experiences, but those difficulties usually resolved into a big advance in dealing with their issues. What happened was the drug tended to bring these difficult issues to the surface, where they could be explored and resolved. But when someone is taking it in its extremely suggestive state, so if it is given to someone who doesn’t know why they are suddenly feeling so weird and the anxieties begin to take over, it can turn into a real nightmare. And that’s what was happening. And in some cases it provoked suicides. But the odd thing about what was going on with the CIA was it also gave the experience - they were funding, clandestinely funding, all this sort of poorly controlled research. And there were a lot of people who were dosed with LSD who happened to have a really positive experience with it, and among them was a guy named Stanley Owsley.
Caleb Brown: Now, it’s worth noting Stanley Owsley’s grandfather was the governor of Kentucky, I believe.
Tom Shroder: He was a senator from Kentucky.
Caleb Brown: And Owsley is better known as Bear.
Tom Shroder: Right.
Caleb Brown: He was the soundman for the Grateful Dead for decades.
Tom Shroder: And he thought that this was such a profound experience that he thought maybe if enough people did this drug it could bring about world peace, because that’s the effect it had on him, of feeling a connectedness and a closeness to you know, everybody in the world. And so he was a chemistry major and he sort of holed up in the Berkley library for three weeks with his girlfriend and read everything he needed to read to learn how to produce LSD on his own. And he began manufacturing this, thousands and thousands of doses, of fantastically pure LSD. And he said his motivation was he wanted to know what he was putting in his body, because when he bought something on the street who knew what was in it? And so this LSD really created an entire - the entire psychedelic scene in San Francisco. And it sort of spread to the college campus and outward to other college campuses and it became a real phenomenon among youth. And this was just at the time where the Vietnam War was going on and the draft was going on and there was a whole sort of youth revolt against what was happening in the American government and that all got wound up together with this idea of taking these psychedelic drugs. And it was extremely threatening to the power structure.
Caleb Brown: Okay, so by the late 1960s when it becomes known that there is this broad group of people taking LSD…
Tom Shroder: Yeah.
Caleb Brown:…particularly in San Francisco.
Tom Shroder: Thanks ultimately to the CIA.
Caleb Brown: Right, and sort of with levels of attenuation, yeah.
Tom Shroder: Yeah, in an indirect way, yes.
Caleb Brown: So I guess what was the public response and what did that response do to the possibility of legitimate research in that area?
Tom Shroder: Well, the response was huge. I mean you’d have to describe it almost as a hysterical response. And you know, and there started to be all these headlines about you know, people who were - who did LSD and they suddenly became rapists or they thought they could fly and flung themselves off of high-rises or they thought they were invulnerable and ran in front of cars and you know, were plowed down. I mean these headlines were all over the place.
Caleb Brown: And some of them were real - some of them were actual events.
Tom Shroder: There were a few actual events but a lot of them were either exaggerated or had other causes involved. And in fact when they studied exactly, you know, the effects in careful study what effects these drugs had you know, there was a chance for a psychotic action, but it was very rare in the controlled studies and it was usually people who had prior history of severe mental illness. You know, reasons why people should definitely not take LSD. But, and then it became politically, a big political football, and they had hearings in the Senate and they decided that they were going to shut down all research and declare this on Schedule I, which was the most restricted class of drugs, including heroin and cocaine and things like that.
Caleb Brown: So the interaction here of politics and science is I think particularly interesting, because there had been research that had been done…
Tom Shroder: Oh it had been voluminous…
Caleb Brown:…on LSD for more than a decade.
Tom Shroder: Yeah, for at least you know, closer to two decades.
Caleb Brown: So did that research, which you said was remarkably positive, did that in any way inform the decision to place it as…
Tom Shroder: No, it was entirely ignored. And in fact it was, once this drug was placed on Schedule I, all the research programs in the United States and mostly around the world just shut down cold. People who had devoted long careers to not only research, but actually using the drug therapeutically, just either, they either had to stop and completely disassociate themselves from that kind of research, or just become underground practitioners, which some did. But most just stopped. And it was at the point where even an expression of interest in any kind of research or academic setting could destroy a career. It really became kind of you know, the litmus test of whether you were going to be respected in the research community or ostracized. And anybody who had an interest in this would be completely ostracized. So it shut down research which - and at that point this was the most investigated and researched psychoactive drug in history - to a point where one researcher told me, when I was researching the book, that it was almost as if LSD had become undiscovered overnight. And for thirty years nobody did any kind of approved research. They weren’t even doing you know, like animal research, which is really unusual.
Caleb Brown: You would expect that scientists should have a healthy disregard for government. I mean…
Tom Shroder: Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to university presidents.
Caleb Brown: So, was that what was driving a lot of this?
Tom Shroder: Yeah.
Caleb Brown: Was just…
Tom Shroder: It was instant.
Caleb Brown:…not only your career will be tossed aside because of who funds the research?
Tom Shroder: Well it wasn’t who funded, it was just the nature of the research. That you know, if you were - it became, overnight, it became hey, if you’re interested in psychedelic drugs you must be some kind of demented hippie, you know, who wants to overthrow the government. That was sort of the response that people were getting. And they learned that they just could not even talk about it. So, and there was this whole history of the dangers of the drug being really exaggerated. So, but there were a handful - and this is what you know, I’m really - the story I’m trying to tell on Acid Test, which is this handful of people who had enough experience with the therapeutic value of these drugs that they just couldn’t stomach the idea that they were going to be lost to history and just thrown out. So you know, as I said, there was an underground community of therapists who continued using this, from everything from marriage counseling to treating severe depression to treating people who had traumatic experiences and persistent trauma as a result of that, which would later become known as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And so there was this underground community where hundreds of psychiatrists were still treating people at the risk of being arrested. But there were more of them who didn’t, but they - and as they rose in their professions and they became sort of in control of research programs, et cetera, they harbored within them this understanding that this drug had been misunderstood and had been abandoned at great cost.
Caleb Brown: There’s a related story that you tell here that has some of the similar elements to it as the story of LSD in its research, that is ecstasy, or MDMA.
Tom Shroder: Yeah, and that was - MDMA was a novel psychedelic that was synthesized and it was - and sort of spread around in a small, tight community of people who experimented with psychedelics illegally, and it sort of, it became known by a psychiatrist out in California who thought it had amazing potential for therapy, even more than LSD, because LSD the effects are so varied they are kind of unpredictable, but this one seemed much tamer and it sort of, what happened was people’s fears quieted and their insights seem to be stimulated. So they were able to look at themselves in a way that they never could look at themselves before. And they were able to approach areas that were giving them problems in a fearless and yet very perceptive way. And so you can see that those, that combination would be very effective in dealing with all sorts of psychological problems, not even necessarily severe psychiatric illnesses, but just the problems of normal life. Like you know, tangled knots in your marriage or anxiety disorders, you know, and even mild to severe depressions. And it was being very effective and since it was a novel drug it wasn’t as yet classified as illegal.
Caleb Brown: It was effectively completely unregulated for a time, wasn’t it?
Tom Shroder: It was unknown to the regulatory agencies. So you know, you can’t make something illegal if you don’t even know it exists. So what happened was, however, the people who were using this knew that the DEA was going to eventually crack down and put it on Schedule I. And they decided - and the thing about Schedule I is it has several requirements. One of the requirements is the drug can have no accepted medical use. Another requirement is that it can’t be administered safely under medical supervision. And the third thing is that it can’t - it can’t be administered under medical supervision and it has to have high potential for addiction. And the truth was that none of these, the studies had shown that none of these three facts applied to MDMA. So what they decided to do was they were going to start gathering the therapists who used it to show that it had an accepted medical use, and gathering the scientific data. They did some animal studies themselves and even tested it on humans to get data to show that it could be safely administered in a controlled situation. And they also did lab studies that prove that it was very far down the list of addictive substances. It wasn’t very addictive at all. And interestingly the way they did that was they let lab animals self-administer the drug. They had a choice between water or something spiked with the drug and they would observe to see what the animals chose to do over time. With cocaine the animals would get very addicted to it and they would choose that over the water, but with this they would do it once and then start going back to the water again. So anyway it wasn’t all that addictive and you know, it had extremely useful medical use. And so they had that all prepared and sure enough the DEA said, they announced that they were going to put it on Schedule I, and there was a year of legal proceedings about it and testimony. And at the end of this the judge, which was an administrative judge, not a trial judge, agreed with every single point that the pro-MDMA people made. Said yes, it is medically useful. No, it’s not addictive. And yes, it can be administered safely under medical supervision. And then the DEA, since they didn’t have to do what the administrative judge said, just ignored him. And basically they just said no, we’re going to put it on Schedule I anyway, and so MDMA became illegal.
Caleb Brown: So researchers who might have otherwise wanted to do trials or some other research with MDMA, did they - were they suffering effectively the same fate as those with LSD in the ’70s?
Tom Shroder: Oh yes, it was shut down completely. And so that’s where the story of this man named Rick Doblin, who was really just - I mean he really was just a sort of psychedelic-doing hippie from a small college in Florida. He didn’t even graduate from the college. It was a new college in Sarasota, Florida, but he became interested in the potential of this and he went out and studied with a guy who had done more, when it was legal, more LSD therapeutic trials than any man in the world, and he became the leader of this sort of movement to convince the FDA to allow scientific trials. And he even went and got his Ph.D. in public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard because he figured he needed to understand how the system worked in order to deal with this. And it basically took - the DEA put MDMA on Schedule I in 1986 and it took Rick just about fifteen years before they started - they were going to start to do the first clinical trial. And in order to do that he had to prove that it wasn’t particularly dangerous to give to animals first and then humans, and then they had to show that it could be you know, done safely in a therapeutic setting. And they were just about to start this research when a government-funded chemist, who was basically paid to show the dangers of psychedelic drugs, said indeed, oh no, you can’t do these trials because it’s way too deadly. I’ve just done this trial where we lost all these lab animals who just died. Basically had a fatal reaction to the drug. And then a year later you discovered that he had to admit that the drugs he had tested was not MDMA, it was actually methamphetamine, and he claimed that the bottles had been mislabeled at the lab. And the irony being that this horrible, fatal drug that made it too dangerous to even experiment with, was already a prescription drug, methamphetamine was prescribed. So it took them a while to recover but then they began the first trials with MDMA early this century. And they did a trial with women who had, mostly women who had developed severe and persistent PTSD from sexual violence, and they had a remarkable - you know, there was only about twelve subjects, but 80% of the subjects were pretty much cured in the way that, I mean when you say that you know, there’s this outside tester who has nothing to do with the researchers who evaluates their level of PTSD. And even to get into the trial they had to rate severe on this scale, this accepted scale of PTSD. And then they tested them immediately following the treatment and six months after the treatment, and like 80% basically wouldn’t have been able to qualify as having PTSD.
Caleb Brown: Which is, that’s just a tremendously dramatic number.
Tom Shroder: Yes, and it’s a huge number. I mean, way more successful than - there are other treatments, but this was way more successful. And the thing about this was it didn’t require that they keep doing this drug in order to maintain the benefits, because they came back again an average of three years later and almost all of them had retained the benefits without any further use of the drug.
Caleb Brown: One might expect that the pharmaceutical industry would be interested in keeping a cure for PTSD off the market.
Tom Shroder: Especially since none of these drugs are patentable, they are all in the public domain. They are very cheap to produce.
Caleb Brown: But what was big pharma’s role?
Tom Shroder: Well, it was complicated because what happened was that as this small band of psychedelic pioneers were fighting against having this drug classified and they were fighting with FDA about how difficult it was to get it approved for research that actually the pharmaceutical industry also had their beefs with the way FDA made drugs so hard to do. And the history of that is, then in the ’50s this new drug for morning sickness called thalidomide came out and it was approved all over the world and the FDA was not…
Caleb Brown: Was it approved in the United States?
Tom Shroder: No. Because the FDA laid their body down in front of it and refused to approve it against enormous pressure, saying that they thought it could be a dangerous drug and in fact thousands, possibly millions, of children were born with severe birth defects and the United States was spared that because the FDA had blocked the development of a bad drug. So that, understandably, the FDA kind of took that as their ethos, that their whole purpose was to block bad drugs. And completely forgetting that possibly their purpose should also be to help good drugs emerge and get on the market. And so this was at a time when there was still that block the drug attitude at the FDA and by trying to get the FDA to sort of be more permissive in trying to test and approve new, possibly good drugs and get them out to the public, and the - big pharma actually filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this thing on the side of the people supporting MDMA because they actually saw a benefit in loosening the whole process, the whole sort of drug approval process. They weren’t really thinking about you know, possible competition for their very lucrative drugs for all sorts of mental illness and possibly if they you know, looked into the future and saw the potential for psychedelic therapy to treat a lot of these drugs that require expensive drugs that people have to take continuously for the rest of their lives. Maybe they would be a little nervous about it. But in the beginning, at least, they weren’t thinking about that threat and they were trying to help ease the - what they saw as sort of overzealous government regulation of the research process.
Caleb Brown: So where does this research agenda of trying to first get access to these drugs for the purposes of research and then use them in the therapeutic setting, where does that agenda stand right now?
Tom Shroder: Well, there’s two factors. One is that in the beginning they had to jump through unbelievable hoops just to get these drugs approved for use in therapy. You know, they had to go through a whole thing of where they were going to be manufactured and what the standards were going to be, and then incredible security once, for instance, this guy Michael Mithoefer, who was doing the first trials with women who had PTSD as a result of sexual violence, he had to install the safe, bolt it to the floor in his office, and then they had to - he is renting out the neighboring office to somebody and they had to do a whole background check on that person for thinking that that person might drill through the wall into the safe from the adjoining office. And this to get something that on the street you could buy for probably like twelve bucks. I mean it was just ludicrous. And they kept sort of moving the bacon and as a result these studies took years to start. I mean there were you know, they were in process and should have started probably two or three years before they actually did. And it was very difficult to recruit people for these studies as a result of the stigma dealing with psychedelics. So basically it slowed the research process down. Now there have been enough of these around the country and around the world now so that the process is getting easier. But it’s very expensive to do this kind of research. And you would think that the government would have a huge stake in this, because I would say it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe as many as half a million returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be struggling with PTSD possibly the rest of their lives. And this costs, somebody at Harvard estimated that between the direct cost of the government in terms of paying for their medical care and pensions - and disability pensions - and the indirect cost to the economy of having you know, a half a million people in the prime of their lives sort of nonproductive, that over the next thirty years it would cost something like a trillion dollars to the American economy. And so you would think that you know - and there haven’t been very successful programs in treating these guys and women, and so what you would think that they would be real eager with something that’s as promising as this. But instead they look at it oh no, we can’t be seen as backing a drug of abuse because you know, that’s a big problem in the military, drugs of abuse. So they haven’t gotten a penny from the government to further any of this research.
Caleb Brown: And in fact significant hurdles.
Tom Shroder: There have been, yeah. I mean but they’re starting to you know, they’re starting to come around. The VA is actually going to - they’re not going to fund anything, but they are going to cooperate on a research project testing MDMA for PTSD therapy. And so you know, hopefully once they get the VA psych - you know VA psychiatrists have long been interested in participating but they’ve been really getting the chilly messages from above. Hopefully that will start to change and as these new programs go through with their participation and they can kind of participate in these huge success rates, that might get them excited and you know, what’s really sad is I would say that it’s inevitable now that within a certain amount of years these treatments will be available to the general public through prescription therapies. I mean nobody is going to ever go to CVS and get a vial of MDMA, but instead they’ll get a prescription to go to a treatment center and to have this therapy with a licensed therapist. And that is going to happen. There’s no question about it. They’ve gotten as far as, through their Phase 2 trials, which is where they are actually testing it for use and they’re going to - probably next year they’ll probably start Phase 3, which is where they expand it and test hundreds of people instead of dozens in places all over the country. And when that’s complete then you get the politics again because they’re going to have to reschedule it. But the science will be there, so it will be very, I mean who knows what kind of shenanigans will happen when that happens but the results have been consistent. They were consistent before even the modern clinical trials began because they had the whole history. And so this is going to happen. And the tragedy would be that it would take ten years instead of five. And I’m afraid that that’s you know, ten years might be what happens but you know, it could be if the government put their full weight behind it you know, it could maybe be three years. And there’s a lot of people who are suffering who could benefit from that sped-up process.
Caleb Brown: Tom Shroder is author of Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes, Google Play, and with Cato’s iOS app. And follow us on Twitter, @CatoPodcast.