LSD research in Canada sees a resurgence

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Ever since the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, LSD has had a tainted reputation of being a party drug that young people of the time used for a variety of reasons, from spiritual awakening to simply recreational use. However, recent research suggests that the psychedelic substance can yield benefits beyond the imagination.

Research surrounding the drug began in 1938 with Albert Hofmann, who was a part of the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories located in Basel, Switzerland. After several experiments, one in LSD - Jeremy Britzwhich he took a very high dose of LSD himself, he concluded that the substance could act as a very effective psychiatric tool.

In the 1950s, research into the question of whether or not LSD could be useful in psychiatric settings began at other institutions and a Saskatchewan-born psychiatrist named Abram Hoffer was tasked by the province of Saskatchewan to develop a research program in psychiatry. In 1951, another psychiatrist named Humphry Osmond came to Weyburn, Sask. from England, having had already begun working with hallucinogenic drugs to investigate schizophrenia.

Erika Dyck, a professor in the department of history at the University of Saskatchewan, is a Canada Research Chair in the history of medicine. Her first main body of research was in psychedelic science and the use of LSD in medical experiments throughout history. She describes the two types of research being conducted in Saskatchewan during the 1950s.

“One was to take LSD for staff and for researchers to try and generate an appreciation for what it’s like to have a psychotic experience, so to simulate schizophrenia for example, or hallucinations in particular. The other piece of it was for use in therapy for alcoholism,” Dyck said.

Although research into psychedelic substances had been mostly halted, recently it is beginning to regain momentum. Dyck further speculates on the resurgence of LSD in contemporary research, and how students wanting to get into the field can get involved.

“Health Canada has approved psilocybin research, and there’s a research unit at UBC. So in terms of the contemporary research, there is one opportunity, really, within Canada to get involved. But increasingly people are looking at interdisciplinary research that will allow us to get some insight as to why LSD, in particular, but also psychedelics more broadly have been characterized this way,” Dyck said.

Dyck also speaks to the way in which LSD therapy would work in a clinical setting.

“In this sense, it was used as a very intense psychotherapy session, to try to really condense a lot of the way that psychotherapy reveals insights into your behavior. They would collapse about 10 years of psychotherapy into eight hours.”

Dyck goes further to describe the effects that LSD had on the researchers, staff and patients and how the rest of the scientific community responded.

“They had quite amazing results; they claimed to have had better results than any other form of intervention. Those were published findings, and of course they were criticized for these claims. But they also got a lot of international attention in other research units all over the world, particularly in New York where they were picking up these matters,” Dyck said.

Dyck also spoke about how tobacco and alcohol can be more damaging for people, both individually and as a society, than psychedelic substances.

“They are actually much more harmful to us in terms of traffic accidents and time spent in hospital, and collateral medical problems such as heart disease and all these other kinds of things that are associated with smoking, in that case, or liver disease, for drinking,” Dyck said.

Dyck thinks that researchers are beginning to ask these important questions about why research on these substances has been shut down in the past.

“We’ve seen publications over the last five or six years that have really gone after this question with much more rigor, asking why these particular drugs, when they showed medical promise 60 years ago, why they were pushed aside. Because the evidence is really more social evidence than it is clinical evidence,” Dyck said. 

Dyck encourages students interested in this field of research to explore the opportunities available through the U of S.

“There are a variety of historical, some political, some drug policy kinds of research, and there’s a lot of opportunity to explore that here.”

Kay-Lynne Collier

Photo Graphic: Jeremy Britz / Graphics Editor