LSD and Health

Kool-AidYet again medical science is testing those darn boundaries; this time the drug is LSD. Then again, medicine was considering the ways LSD might have therapeutic value a long time ago. In the 1970s LSD research was banned out of fear that it caused mental illness. As the Guardian reported, “A growing number of people are taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy to help them cope with a variety of conditions including anorexia nervosa, cluster headaches and chronic anxiety attacks.”

The problem we face is that some folks just want the drugs for recreational use. The symptoms and disorders at issue seem difficult to quantify. Is a drug as potent as LSD (“A single dose of LSD may be between 100 and 500 micrograms — an amount roughly equal to one-tenth the mass of a grain of sand. Threshold effects can be felt with as little as 25 micrograms of LSD“) really helping people? Some have been able to use LSD once or twice a year as part of programs to curb alcohol abuse and others have seen success in preventing chronic abuse of other substances. Research at Harvard indicates that cluster headaches and intense pain have been reduced. And researchers at Berkeley are pursuing the way in which LSD affects creativity.

If any if this research is fruitful, it seems to me that the government should be more willing to allow researchers to explore ways to the true benefits of drugs and cope with the social problems as a separate matter.

As a side note, with a Bay Area-Harvard connection emerging, maybe we’ll have another round of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test with modern Merry Pranksters and magic buses touring the country. If so, and Wolfe wrote a follow-up to his book, that would be interesting too. In any event, if you have not read the book, do so. It is an excellent bit of writing and a great study of one way to understand the United States of the book’s era.

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8 Responses

  1. It would seem that if these drugs have benefit, they could be handled with the same precautions as opiates that are routinely used for pain control. The real problem is that these drugs have a stigma associated with them based on their inappropriate use in the past.

  2. ParatrooperJJ says:

    You are kidding right? The DEA won’t allow any research to be done if the results are positive and can be used to influence a decision to reschedule LSD.

  3. Deven,

    It’s hard to post about LSD and the government’s role in sponsoring research on it without acknowledging the CIA and US Army’s role in testing LSD on unsuspecting persons (i.e., without consent) as a “mind control” agent. (I am not making this up, nor is this X-Files. There is extensive evidence of the latter going on for years, involving evaluation of psychoactive agents in testing on both unwitting soldiers and on indigent black prisoners at Holmesburg Prison).

    Given this history, I think one should be exceedingly careful about recommending the U.S. government of all actors should be more open to allowing experimentation of LSD.


  4. Deven says:


    Just to be clear, are you saying that we should not trust the government here because they lied in the past or are you saying we should not trust the medical researchers at Harvard etc. because of that behavior? It seems that one could argue that the government will misbehave if such drugs are now legal for testing purposes. But that assumes that those running those programs would obey such laws and have not been engaging in ongoing tests in the interim.

    In other words, as one person asked, couldn’t we regulate these drugs the same way as we regulate opiates?

    I don’t claim to know huge amounts about this area. I am truly asking what I might be missing in your comment.

  5. Deven,

    You ask good questions, but they are difficult to answer without reflecting on the larger context of unethical human subjects research in the 20th century. Most people’s knowledge of the latter begins and ends with the study of untreated syphillis in the Negro male (erroneously referred to as the Tuskegee Syphillis Study), and Tuskegeee tends to act as a placeholder.

    In truth, the history of unethical research is vast and deep, which presents us with a serious moral problem. The tendency in contemplating unethical research is simply to assert that the perpetrators were moral monsters, and that we aren’t moral monsters, and hence the history is inapplicable. (I see some of this implied in your response). This is precisely how American researchers viewed the Nazi experiments, after which the former proceeded to engage in a significant number of horrifying protocols.

    However, if we understand that we are really dealing with hundreds of seemingly virtuous people who engaged in conduct we retrospectively view as morally monstrous, the option of viewing the responsibility for the conduct as the product of monsters seems exceedingly dubious. In this respect, Arendt was absolutely correct.

    Thus, the point I was trying to make is not that we ought not do experiments with LSD, nor even necessarily that the government should not sponsor such research. However, given the extensive history of unethical human subjects research, large segments of which were sponsored if not conducted by the federal government, I think the general point is that we proceed at our peril if we blithely assume that because we are not moral monsters, none of the heavy weight of our conduct WRT to powerful psychotropic agents and human experiments has any relevance to our plans.

    Indeed, there is a provocative thesis that the history of unethical human subjects research in the 20th century is a history of making unuseful bodies useful to the state.

    As for your question about opiates, I should disclose my dissertation was on the undertreatment of pain in the U.S., but there is widespread agreement that the regulatory regime WRT opioids is nothing short of a disaster. If indeed that regime is the model for experimenting on LSD, I submit we have absolutely no business opening up the latter.

  6. Deven says:


    Thanks again. You make it fun to blog.

    I am not sure I think we are not moral monsters. Scratch that. I am sure that we all too easily slip into complacent views and fail to see how we have strayed. (Nice Arendt point by the way). In short, I agree that glib or facile idea about let it happen and it will be good are dangerous and really hope my post did not make people think that is what I meant.

    The history you note and explain is quite important. Nonetheless, what is the solution? I have my ideas on this point. Before sharing them, I wonder whether there is a way to curb the behaviors you note and gain the benefits of science. If opiates further show that we are not good at managing this area, I really wonder what system would make sense. As a hint of what I am thinking, I believe a system that gave individuals strong control over their bodies, that did not gloss over individual interests as informed consent, and that provided strong remedies for the behaviors you identify is a place to start. That being said, I am all ears about more on the topic and plan on sharing more of my ideas in full post.

  7. Deven,

    Thanks much for the kind words.

    By way of a “short” response to your question: what is the solution?

    This too requires a much longer answer than a blog comment can do justice. But in short, I think Hans Jonas and Jay Katz were right, and the general way in which the research imperative dominates current thinking is wrong. We should not do any research on human subjects unless we have a damn good reason to do so. The majority of human subjects research, while well-intentioned, falls far short of this standard in my book. [The reasons why they fall short turn on a much larger debate, one that is really central to my research in public health ethics, that queries what are the prime determinants of population health? Inasmuch as the answer is not the technical innovation that overwhelming dominates human subjects research, our priority should be focusing on those prime determinants rather than the technical innovations.]

    Currently, we do research on humans unless we have a reason not to. This is inadvisable, IMO, and for a variety of reasons, I am excessively dubious that procedural protections are sufficient. Of course, I certainly recognize I am in a distinct minority on this point.)

    In any case, I eagerly await the full post!

  8. I too eagerly await the full post.

    My small bit of anecdotal evidence involves personal experimentation with acid (and a certain sort of mushroom) over three decades ago in the quest for alternative states of consciousness (that’s what many of us ‘valley boys’ did in those days). I’ll report quite a favorable series of experiences, the most memorable of which took place on my 18th birthday. Like others of my generation,* I went from use of psychedelics to the exploration of spiritual praxis (after all, the Vedic brahmins had their soma!). Drugs of this sort are very powerful of course and one’s experiences seem intimately tied to one’s existing mental dispositions and character or simply prevailing state of mind. One thing I learned: outside a formal therapeutic setting, character and motivation were largely reliable predictors of the sorts of experiences one would have (thus I became fairly adept at judging whether or not someone was going to have a positive experience or not). Alas, many individuals should avoid such drugs as their character and state of mind are not all properly suited to dealing with their powerful effects.

    Before he became a celebrity doctor, Andrew Weil published a wonderful book, The Natural Mind (1972), that in part examines the use of psychedelics for the sorts of reasons stated above.** One of the memorable quotes from that book: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Unfortunately, with many folks that doesn’t happen, and various kinds of occurrent or episodic mental illness or addiction await them.

    As I’m quick to tell my students, achieving alternative states of consciousness through traditional meditation techniques known in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (provided, of course, one has an integrated ego or secure sense of personal identity to begin with) is much safer and more sane, even if it entails far more self-discipline and hard work than the ingestion of psychedelics (and it has a pedigree going back to Stoic ‘exercises’ and similar forms of classical askesis, both East and West).

    As to the research question: I’m not IN PRINCIPLE opposed to such research, believing that there may be some therapeutic benefits from such drugs for at least some individuals. Of course the tricky and messy parts come with the details….

    *cf. Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert):