Wey­burn hospi­tal led in LSD treat­ment for al­co­holics

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - Local - By Bob We­ber

EDMONTON — Saskatchewan once used LSD to treat hun­dreds of al­co­holic pa­tients, and the prov­ince used to be so prom­i­nent in such re­search that the word “psy­che­delic” — now short­hand for an en­tire coun­ter­cul­ture — was coined in the Prairie town of Wey­burn.

A re­cently pub­lished pa­per has shone new light on the tri­als, which oc­curred over more than a decade at sev­eral psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals in the prov­ince. The re­sults not only drew in­ter­est from around the world, in­clud­ing from famed nov­el­ist Al­dous Hux­ley, but also re­veal much about how so­ci­ety views drug use, says med­i­cal his­to­rian Erika Dyck.

“We ac­cept all sorts of dif­fer­ent drugs in our so­ci­ety, and yet the ones we ac­cept and the ones we don’t ac­cept I don’t think are al­ways mit­i­gated by med­i­cal fac­tors,” Dyck said Thurs­day from the Univer­sity of Al­berta.

Her pa­per fo­cuses on the work of psy­chi­a­trist Humphry Os­mond, who came from Lon­don, Eng­land, to the large men­tal hospi­tal at Wey­burn in 1951. At the time, doc­tors thought that hal­lu­ci­na­tions ex­pe­ri­enced by ad­vanced al­co­holics helped some suf­fer­ers quit drink­ing.

Os­mond and his Cana­dian col­league, Abram Hof­fer, the­o­rized that LSD could sim­u­late that ex­pe­ri­ence. From 1953 to the mid-’60s they tested their the­ory on at least 700 pa­tients. Other stud­ies were con­ducted in Saskatoon.

The doc­tors found that about half of their sub­jects had re­mained dry for at least 18 months af­ter tak­ing a sin­gle dose of LSD that was any­where from 10 to 100 times the size of what is now con­sid­ered a nor­mal street “hit.”

Dyck said the doc­tors, in­stead of re­ly­ing on purely phys­i­o­log­i­cal means to treat al­co­holics, used LSD to reach into a pa­tient’s psy­che.

“At the heart of the en­ter­prise lay a de­sire to pro­duce an ex­pe­ri­ence that deeply af­fected re­search sub­jects to the ex­tent that they might change their be­hav­iour,” Dyck writes in her pa­per.

The LSD treat­ment, which many pa­tients de­scribed as spir­i­tual, at­tracted in­ter­est from Al­co­holics Anony­mous, whose 12-step pro­gram in­cludes the recog­ni­tion of a higher power.

Dyck said Os­mond and Hof­fer sup­plied LSD to one of AA’s founders, who re­mained sup­port­ive even af­ter he de­cided to stop tak­ing the drug.

An­other of Os­mond’s cor­re­spon­dents was Hux­ley, au­thor of Brave New World and the non-fiction work Doors of Per­cep­tion. It was in a let­ter to Hux­ley that Os­mond coined the term that would come to de­scribe an en­tire decade.

“To fathom hell or soar an­gelic, you’ll need a pinch of psy­che­delic,” he wrote in the fall of 1956.

Sev­eral of Os­mond’s pa­tients con­tacted Dyck dur­ing the course of her re­search to tell her they have re­mained dry ever since their treat­ment.

“They claimed that it changed their lives,”

she said. “They were very, very loyal who de­vel­oped those treat­ments.”

But the Saskatchewan re­sults were soon at­tacked by in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the Toronto-based Ad­dic­tion Re­search Foun­da­tion. It ar­gued Os­mond’s re­search, in which sub­jects were given the drug in com­fort­able sur­round­ings and stim­u­lated with art or mu­sic, was poorly de­signed and proved noth­ing.

In con­trast, the foun­da­tion some­times blind­folded or re­strained its LSD test sub­jects to iso­late the ef­fect of the drug. It failed to re­pro­duce the Saskatchewan re­sults, a find­ing that, com­bined with grow­ing so­cial con­cern about LSD, even­tu­ally led to the end of re­search into such ther­apy.

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