See, kids? Acid is fun and tastes like strawberries and smiles.
The University of Saskatchewan has a long and obscure history with mental health research. In the ’60s, professors Humphry Osmond, Abram Hoffer and Duncan Blewett used LSD therapy on both themselves and their patients to produce groundbreaking research and discoveries into the nature of mental illness and addiction before the drug was criminalized in 1969.
Feb. 3 saw the launch of the Abram Hoffer Orthomolecular Collection Exhibition, an exhibit in the Murray Library showcasing collected writing and books from Hoffer.
The launch was accompanied by a screening of director Gordon McLennan’s The Psychedelic Pioneers, a short documentary chronicling the early use of LSD in psychiatric settings on our very doorstep: the U of S and the Weyburn psychiatric centre.
The film tells the stories of Osmond, Hoffer (not to be confused with LSD’s inventor, Albert Hofmann) and Blewett. The story concludes with the popularization of the drug through famous people like Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, widespread media backlash and the inevitable scheduling of LSD as an illicit and dangerous substance.
The film was introduced by the history department’s Erika Dyck, a major consultant on the film who helped ensure its accuracy. After the film ended she led a discussion on the content of the documentary, and later met with the Sheaf to discuss her own work in more detail.
The Sheaf: What is it about psychedelics that piqued your interest initially to do all this work?
Erika Dyck: It started when I was doing my master’s research on [psychiatric] experiments on humans in Canada. I went to Toronto, started digging around in the medical school library, and found all this stuff on LSD in Saskatchewan. I was a little embarrassed growing up here and not knowing anything about that. At that point I got really excited and started digging deeper into the LSD story. I realized that this had been something more than a few guys that had “dropped acid” at some point. There was a real rigour and method to what they were doing – they really believed it was progressive, it was scientific.
Sheaf: The documentary goes into detail on some of the early work done with acid, possibly the most notable being huge success with enabling alcoholics to re-evaluate the nature of their addictions. It wasn’t long before serious skepticism, both inside and out of the medical community, arose. Can you explain some of the arguments used by people calling this drug dangerous?
Dyck: My PhD dissertation more or less deals with this topic. I had to play devil’s advocate [to Osmond and his associates] a lot. One argument I heard a lot is that if you were a researcher and you took LSD, that would make your research invalid. You were no longer objective, and you were no longer controlling your experiments. The Addictions Research Foundation in Toronto had a study where they strapped their patients to beds and injected them with LSD, stating that it was an unbiased way to test the drug’s effects, but this didn’t give us any insight into the actual dangers of LSD. Other drugs were tested this way, and we know that doing this caused problems for people, but that could happen under a placebo effect too. I never found any medical articles that claimed LSD caused chromosomal damage, birth defects, etc. It was only in the newspapers. MPs at the time were citing “medical evidence” of the drug’s danger purely from sensationalist headlines from non-scientific authors. One of the people who was leading the [illegalization] charge in the Senate was Hartland Molson, [president and later chair] of the Molson brewing company.
Sheaf: You’ve written a book, researched a documentary and written at least 10 scholarly papers, not to mention numerous talks and interviews related to psychedelic drugs. Has the controversial nature of your topics caused any scrutiny or scorn from institutions, scholarly or otherwise?
Dyck: Not really, no. I started this project as a PhD student and I didn’t really know what I was doing. As I moved into this world and started having these discussions, I started contacting some of the people who were main players at the time, and was worried how they would want me to represent them. I did interview people who were on the negative, the “no” side, but due to the nature of the project looked more at the people who were directly involved in the experiments. I felt drawn to their side of things and I spent more time with them. I actually had to be careful not to “hype up” many of the theories which had allegedly been proven wrong. I don’t feel that I had undue influence from anybody.
Sheaf: As a historian, you’ve probably seen a lot of patterns in human behavior emerging here. The revolution that was LSD seems to have been reborn in things like MDMA in the rave culture, or even more recently with the huge palette of novel psychedelic drugs invented by independent chemists like Alexander Shulgin. These “designer drugs” often have a very small window from when they’re first prepared to when labs in China are mass-producing them for North American college kids to take. Is it inevitable that this cycle will continue until the government concedes it cannot stop psychedelic experimentation?
Dyck: I’d like to say yes, but I really don’t know if I believe that. When I look back, there are lots of case studies of the government trying to control substances and really failing. A concept that I discovered in my research is the “Just Say Know” movement — a play on Richard Nixon’s “Just Say No” campaign. It’s a term that I’ve stolen for some of my own work. I was really impressed with some of the medical folks that I interviewed, who told me that the more we try to control drugs, the deeper they will be pushed underground. Not everyone will go underground, but not everyone drinks alcohol either. The more you push the manufacture and distribution of these things underground, the less a society can know about the things we are putting into our bodies. It actually makes it more difficult to control things if we don’t allow them to be experienced. I found that view to be really compelling and if anything, that would be where my position is in this debate. I’m not saying it should be complete anarchy, and everything has the same priority. I think having some knowledge about drugs through education, having some knowledge about chemistry and its effects on the body, is a good thing. [It enables] people to make informed decisions about choices that they’re going to make anyway.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf, man