Weyburn hospital led in LSD treatment for alcoholics
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.