Pharmacy Fact: Clinical Research into Psychedelic Medicine Flourished for Decades Before Criminalization

Trials assessing psychedelic medicine were conducted in the United States for several decades before they were criminalized in 1968, with government and military funding provided for research in the field.

Despite the current illegality of most psychedelic drugs at the federal level in the United States, the US government has not always been averse to the exploration and funding of research into the benefits of psychedelic medicine.1,2

Until 1968 when psychedelics such as psilocybin, or mushrooms, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were made illegal and classified as Schedule I drugs, the government had funded a vast quantity of the research into the potential benefit of these drugs for human health, and specifically, mental health.1

In particular, LSD took a primary role in the research conducted throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s into the potential therapeutic benefit of psychedelic medicine. First developed in 1938 by Swedish chemist Albert Hofmann, LSD was accidentally synthesized by Hoffman in his lab, according to his notes. After this accident, he then proceeded to accidentally ingest it, according to his notes. Following this series of serendipitous events, Hofmann noted the resulting mind-altering effects the drug seemed to induce.1

Because Hofmann was conducting this research on behalf of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the company was impressed by the properties Hoffman claimed this new drug possessed. Following the drug’s development, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals began to bring it to the attention of other clinical researchers working in the United States in 1949.1

However, LSD was not the first psychedelic that researchers in the United States examined to ascertain data as to its therapeutic benefit. In 1947, the US Navy conducted mescaline studies in the hopes of determining its efficacy and value as a truth serum, and US medical researcher Humphry Osmond investigated the molecular similarity between mescaline and human adrenaline around the same time period.2

During trials assessing the therapeutic value of LSD for treating mental health disorders, researchers believed it was ethically important for them to first ingest the drug themselves—as was the common practice of the time—before releasing it to the public for consumption. And with LSD, this ethical impulse was no different.1,2

For approximately 15 years following its introduction to medical researchers in the United States, a multitude of psychedelic medical trials were conducted. As a result, psychedelic drugs became freely available among thousands of medical professionals and their colleagues, and, sometimes, close acquaintances.2

For much of that time, psychedelics, such as LSD, were believed to act as a psychomimetic, which is a drug that mimics mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.1 During studies conducted in the early 1950s, researchers used LSD themselves in the belief that it could improve their understanding of the experiences of their mentally ill patients.2

Additionally, studies were conducted with volunteers, who were given LSD before being made to take “lengthy psychological and intelligence tests.”The researchers found these tests less fruitful than they had hoped in retrieving information as to the deeper nature of mental illness.1

Instead, participants in the study responded in vastly variant ways, as some subjects experienced euphoria whereas others felt anxious, empty, and lonely. This led researchers to assume, for a time, that these experiences were similar to those of patients suffering with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.1

Despite the few resources available to verify this assumption, this anticipated effect of LSD inducing a state similar to that of schizophrenia was upheld by other researchers in the medical community, and then broadly disseminated to the public.1

Occasionally, these assumptions regarding LSD’s ability to induce schizophrenia were validated by some medical professionals’ own personal research in the form of self-administration and certain studies involving small cohorts of volunteers. This assumption went on to support what would lead to a much longer term mistrust of psychedelic medicine within US society more broadly.1,2

However, this mistrust did not dissuade everyone from further investigation into the effects of psychedelic drugs, with researchers such as Sidney Cohen, a clinical professor in pharmacology, who self-administered LSD in 1955. In his notes, he explained that he expected the drug to induce a sensation of paranoia, but he was shocked that what he experienced instead was “the worries and frustrations of everyday life vanished; in their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly, inner quietude.”1

Based off his experience, Cohen made efforts to redefine taking LSD as allowing for a “shift of consciousness.”1 Other intellectuals of the day, such as author Aldous Huxley, shared Cohen’s perception of drugs such as LSD and mescaline as being able to allow for an altered state of mind that could induce a vision of "how one ought to see, how things really are."1,2

The impact of psychedelics on intellectuals and intellectual thought was not new to those living during the 1950s. Even in the 1880s, philosopher William James wrote of the mystical effects of nitrous oxide and its ability to help him to better understand the writings of Hegel. Not dissuaded by this revelation, James went on to experiment extensively with peyote, the effects of which he published in the British Medical Journal in 1896.2

In the next year after James’ article was published extolling the benefits of peyote, mescaline was successfully isolated.2 Approximately 40 years later, Albert Hoffman would accidentally synthesize LSD, and then another 10 years after that, Hoffman would less accidentally synthesize psilocybin in the 1950s.1

By the mid 1960s, more than 40,000 patients had been administered LSD during clinical trials with over 1000 scientific papers published regarding the study findings as to the efficacy and safety of the drug.1 Despite these efforts and several international conferences held regarding the effects of psychedelic medicine and its impact as a treatment in the field of psychiatry, by the late 1960s, negative associations with psychedelic medicine persisted within the social consciousness of the United States. Eventually, these public attitudes led to their criminalization in 1968. With this criminalization, all federal funding for further research was eliminated, and psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin were classified as Schedule I drugs, which establishes them on a federal level as having no accepted medical use and a high risk for potential abuse.1,2

Currently, following the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting catastrophic rise in mental health issues, psychedelic medicines such as psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and cannabis are finding a new place in the field of medical research. In many ways, the desperate need of today may call for desperate measures for tomorrow, with renewed hope for finding new medicines to treat the needs of a growing number of patients who are living and suffering from mental illness.

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