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MAPS Bulletin Spring 2014: Special Edition: Psychedelics and Education
 
Media > Recent and Archival
May 15, 2007

Peaking on the Prairies

By: Jake MacDonald

The Walrus

The Walrus published a fascinating article entitled"Peaking on the Prairies" that describes Dr. Humphrey Osmond's extensive psychedelic therapy research program in the 1950's.


PEAKING ON THE PRAIRIES

by Jake MacDonald
  From the June 2007 edition of The Walrus

Long before touching down in San Francisco, LSD was primed to become a   psychiatric wonder drug in Saskatoon.

All summers have their own record album, or at least they used to, and in   1967   the record that changed everything was simply called The Doors.  I first   heard   it on a weekend in July when, with some friends, I drove to the Lake of the   Woods district east of Winnipeg, climbed into a cramped tin boat with about   ten   people, blundered past nameless islands in the dark, and somehow found the   cottage that someone’s parents had entrusted to their son for the weekend.   (   “Just use your judgment, dear.” )

At least a hundred teenagers were crowded into the second storey of the big   boathouse, everyone drinking, and in one corner, a guy I recognized from   school   in Winnipeg was pretending to be a boulder while another guy was crawling   over   him pretending to be a river.

This was not a typical high school beer party; it was a Dionysian revel with   everyone lit up and barefoot girls dancing in slow motion to a record I had   never heard before.

When the record ended someone would turn it over and play it again, the same   record over and over, and more than anything else the hypnotic chanting of   Jim   Morrison’s baritone voice set the tone for the night: Your fingers weave   quick   minarets /Speak in secret alphabets /I light another cigarette /Learn to   forget   .  .  .

At daybreak, with a white-hot sunrise in the screens and unconscious people   lying about, I sat on the floor with a few others and listened to a guy I   knew   from school telling stories about a drug called lsd.  He was a little older   than   the rest of us, owned a 1967 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and was regarded   as   the sort of guy who knew what was cool and might even explain it to you.   “You   have to try lsd,” he said.  “It’s incredible.  You look at that carpet, and   it’ll turn into an alligator.” I had never taken acid, but I liked the sound   of it.

As it turned out, purchasing lsd in Winnipeg wasn’t easy.  But one Saturday   afternoon in late October, a friend and I went to a pool hall where we met a   fifteen-year-old nicknamed Ringo, who sold us two hits of Blue Microdot for   $6   each.  He explained that a trip lasted about eight hours.

With a midnight curfew this presented a problem, but I gobbled mine down   just   before dinner anyway.

At first, nothing happened and everything seemed normal.

My sisters dressed for their dates while my dad, with his trusty rye and   coke in   hand, adjusted the rabbit ears and settled into the La-Z-Boy to watch Hockey   Night in Canada.  But when I went outside, I saw something remarkable.  It   was a   young tree, leafless now, emerging from the frozen ground and extending its   graceful, slender fingers up toward the moon.  It was just one of those   fast-growing weed trees they plant in new suburbs, but it was one of the   most   beautiful things I had ever seen.  And it wasn’t beautiful just because I   was   affected by lsd.  It had an inherent beauty that I hadn’t noticed before.

That was many years ago, but I still remember that exquisite tree.  Once   you’ve   taken lsd, a tree never looks quite the same again.

The psychedelic properties of lsd ( lysergic acid diethylamide ) were   discovered   by accident.

In 1943, while millions of people were busily slaughtering each other across   Europe, a young chemist named Albert Hofmann was doing research in neutral   Switzerland.

His subject was ergot, a cereal-grain fungus with a formidable reputation.   In   medieval villages, ergot was known to cause a fearsome plague called St.   Anthony’s Fire.  One of the derivatives of ergot that Hofmann experimented   with   was lysergic acid.

On April 16, 1943, Hofmann was brewing up a compound of lysergic acid when   he   accidentally came into contact with the substance, either by inhaling it or   spilling a drop on his skin.  Shortly thereafter he began having sensations   so   bizarre and disturbing that he went home, where he sank into what he later   described as “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by   an   extremely stimulated imagination.  In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed .   .   .  I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary   shapes with [an] intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

Intrigued by the experience, Hofmann waited three days and then   self-administered 0.25 milligrams of the same compound, lysergic acid   diethylamide.  He considered it a safe dosage, small enough to have no   lethal   effect.

But lsd is potent, and he had given himself about five times what would   later   become a standard dose.  This lsd trip was far more intense, with   frightening   hallucinations of witches and masks, followed by profound realizations of   the   power of the natural world.

In his memoir, written many years later, Hofmann recalled that the   experience   taught him that people’s sense of reality was fragile.  “What one commonly   takes   as the reality, including the reality of one’s own individual person, by no   means signifies something fixed, but rather something that is ambiguous .  .   .   there are many realities.” He believed that lsd might have potential as a   tool   for psychiatric research, and in 1947 his employer, Sandoz, a Swiss   pharmaceutical company, began to bottle it under the trade name Delysid.

In 1952, Sandoz’s Montreal branch sent a package of lsd to Saskatchewan,   where   several psychiatrists hoped to experiment with the drug as a treatment for   mental illness.

Saskatchewan might seem like an odd place for research into mind-bending   drugs,   but during this period the province was one of North America’s most dynamic   environments for research into mental illness.

This was due in part to the generous funding of public medicine by Tommy   Douglas   and his ccf government, but also to the crusading work of Dr.  Humphry   Osmond   and Dr.  Abram Hoffer.

Hoffer was the son of a Justice of the Peace and he had grown up watching   rcmp   officers bringing people home, where his dad would conduct impromptu   hearings in   the kitchen.

If a guest were deemed a lunatic—one well-dressed and cordial gentlemen   insisted he was the Prince of Wales—Hoffer’s father would commit him to a   mental hospital, from which such patients rarely returned.

Back then, the treatment for schizophrenia ( a fairly standard diagnosis )   consisted mainly of inducing patients into comas using insulin, which caused   some to die.  Electroconvulsive therapy was also a common treatment   technique—  induced without anaesthetic, the convulsions were known to break patients’   bones.

Having seen first-hand the plight of these harmless individuals, Hoffer   became   interested in mental illness.

Later, when he became a doctor, he decided to study psychiatry because so   little   was known about mental disorders.

Hoffer’s English colleague, a British doctor named Humphry Osmond, had tried   to   get approval for using mescaline to treat schizophrenia, but was rebuffed so   emphatically by English medical authorities that he vowed to move as far   away   from the country as possible.

Saskatchewan, with its robust funding and wide-open ideology, seemed about   right.  Osmond met Hoffer soon after he arrived in the province, and the two   psychiatrists formed an instant friendship.  Both believed that the   prevailing   ideas about mental illness were fundamentally wrong.

They hypothesized that schizophrenia was partly biochemical in origin.   Osmond   knew lsd, like mescaline, was a psychomimetic ( madness-mimicking ) drug   that   produced psychological effects similar to schizophrenia.  He reasoned that   if   they could learn how to construct psychosis with lsd, they might also learn   how   to deconstruct it with a chemical antidote.

Osmond and Hoffer launched their studies in 1952, with start-up funding from   the   Saskatchewan government.  One of the first tests took place in the Munroe   Wing   of the Regina General Hospital.  Believing that the experience would help   them   to understand their debilitated patients, a number of doctors and nurses at   the   hospital volunteered to take lsd.  The volunteers prepared themselves for an   unpleasant day-long bout of hallucinations and paranoia, but the results   were   surprising.  In written reports, most of the volunteers said their lsd   experience provided them with moments of insight that they found both deeply   affecting and difficult to describe.

Other psychiatrists from across the province soon joined the team, and   chronic   alcoholics volunteered to take lsd under their supervision.  At the time,   many   psychiatrists considered alcoholism to be a character flaw—not a   biochemical   disease—and it was widely believed that alcoholics seldom quit drinking   until   they hit rock bottom and experienced all the grisly side effects of alcohol   poisoning, such as the nightmarish hallucinations associated with delirium   tremens.

Hoffer and Osmond speculated that lsd might reproduce the psychosis   associated   with “rock bottom” but without the dangerous and sometimes fatal results   that   accompanied a serious bout of DTs.

Later, in 1955, psychiatrist Colin Smith conducted a further lsd experiment   at   University Hospital in Saskatoon, which had a remarkable effect on the   twenty-four alcoholics involved.

Follow-up surveys revealed that six reduced their drinking significantly,   found   jobs, and reconnected with friends and family.

Another six swore off alcohol altogether.  Again, the psychiatrists were   surprised to learn that none of the volunteers had reported being   traumatized or   otherwise scared straight by their lsd experience.  Most said that they had   gained new understandings of themselves and had had redemptive visions.

One described a beautiful spiral staircase leading upward and a mysterious   voice   offering powerful insights into life.

Meanwhile, in the United States, government intelligence agents were   becoming   interested in psychotropic drugs.

The cia was particularly keen to find a chemical can opener for the brains   of   enemy agents.

Nazi scientists had experimented with mescaline on prisoners at Dachau, and,   after the war, some of these scientists were brought to the US to work on   government-funded research.

The cia had been tinkering with heroin and mescaline as interrogation aids,   and   with lsd the spy agency believed it had finally found its longed-for truth   serum.

Bundled together, these top secret experiments were funded under a program   called mkultra that ran from 1953 to 1964.  Though most of the program’s   files   were destroyed in 1973 by order of then cia director Richard Helms, the US   Senate and the Rockefeller Commission later determined that mkultra involved   thousands of unwitting subjects at more than thirty universities and other   major   institutions in the US and Canada.  The experiments generally tested the   efficacy of various mind-control tactics using radio waves and psychoactive   drugs.

In one experiment, mkultra agents secretly dosed as many as 1,500 American   soldiers with lsd and made them perform simple drills and parade marches   while   peaking on acid.

In another experiment, labelled Operation Midnight Climax, agents rented an   apartment in San Francisco and hired prostitutes, who picked up citizens and   brought them back to the space.

The subjects consumed drinks spiked with lsd and tried to have sex while   agents   filmed the proceedings through a one-way mirror.

In 1953, the cia held a three-day professional development workshop in a   wooded   retreat at Deep Creek Lodge in Maryland and dosed people with lsd without   their   knowledge.  One of the group members, a biochemist named Frank Olson, had a   history of emotional difficulties, and shortly after the conference he   plunged   through a window and fell thirteen storeys to his death.  ( Olson was   allegedly   uncomfortable with his work in chemical weapons, and some believe he was   murdered by the cia.  The controversy was serious enough that his body was   exhumed forty years later, after which the head of the medical forensic team   declared that the body showed injuries “rankly and starkly suggestive of   homicide.” ) Another infamous mkultra covert operative was the president of   the   Canadian Psychiatric Association, Dr.  Donald Ewen Cameron, who used   electroconvulsion, paralytic drugs, and lsd to conduct brutal “psychic   driving”   experiments on unwitting subjects at McGill University’s Allan Memorial   Institute.

A mid all this cloak-and-dagger experimentation, a mysterious cia operative   named Al Hubbard decamped from the United States and moved to Daymen Island,   near Vancouver, where he built a manor home on a sprawling twenty-four-acre   estate, complete with an aircraft hangar and a large yacht.

Hubbard was a mysterious figure.

With his shaven head and .45-calibre pistol, the self-appointed “Captain”   Hubbard—who had taken acid as part of his cia training—was a   barrel-chested and jovial eccentric who reputedly presided over his secluded   hideaway like a swell Colonel Kurtz.  According to those who knew him,   Hubbard   was always vague about his specific duties with the cia.  In any event, he   arrived in British Coumbia with several million dollars, broad connections   in   the US security establishment, and a very non-military enthusiasm for lsd.

Osmond met Hubbard through their mutual friend, Aldous Huxley.  Osmond had   become acquainted with Huxley when they both lived in England and had   provided   him with his first dose of mescaline, which the author used as inspiration   for   his book The Doors of Perception.  ( Huxley got the title from William   Blake,   and Jim Morrison later borrowed it for the name of his band.  ) Huxley kept   in   touch with Osmond and in one of his letters suggested that Osmond contact   his   pal Hubbard.  In 1953, Osmond and Hubbard met for lunch at the Royal   Vancouver   Yacht Club.  Osmond later recalled, “Hubbard was a powerfully built man,   with a   broad face and a firm handgrip.

He was also very genial, an excellent host.”

At Osmond’s invitation, Hubbard travelled to Saskatchewan, where he met   Hoffer   and observed the work of the two psychiatrists.  It was Hubbard’s theory   that   lsd didn’t produce a “model psychosis” so much as a different way of seeing   the   world, one that offers us a clearer view of ourselves and our relationship   to   nature.

He said he wanted to introduce the top executives from Fortune 500 companies   to   lsd, and argued that humanity could be saved by psychedelic drugs.  ( The   word   psychedelic was coined by Osmond in a letter to Huxley.  ) Hubbard also   wanted   to start his own quasi-medical facility and in 1957 he linked up with   Vancouver   doctor J.  Ross MacLean to open an lsd clinic in New Westminster.

The Hollywood Hospital was a stately mansion that had served for years as a   detox centre for Vancouver’s more affluent drunks.

It remained so, but Hubbard and MacLean also turned it into a walk-in lsd   boutique.  Anyone with $500 was welcome.

Patients would check in, get a physical examination, fill out an mmpi   psychological profile, and disclose in writing their personal histories,   complete with “hang-ups.” After taking lsd, they retired to the “therapy   suite,”   where plush sofas, a high-end sound system, and fanciful artwork encouraged   a   positive experience.  Providing a degree of medical respectability to the   initiative, Hubbard and MacLean occasionally played therapist—but the   real   day-to-day therapy was handled by an itinerant adventurer named Frank Ogden.

Ogden, a barnstorming Ontario aviator with no training in psychiatric   medicine,   had learned about the clinic from an article in Maclean’s magazine.  He   thought   of himself as an explorer and believed that the human mind was the ultimate   frontier.

Ogden, who now lives in Vancouver, recalls that he dropped everything and   flew   out to the clinic to see if he could get a job.  “I told them I was well   qualified to work as a guide into ‘inner space’ because I’d flown flying   boats   and survived helicopter crashes, and set a dangerous high-altitude record in   a   little single-engine Mooney.  I told them adventure was my game.”

Ogden worked for free for a spell to prove himself and became the Hollywood   Hospital’s main therapist after Hubbard quit.  “Over the next eight years, I   worked with more than 1,100 patients,” he says.  “The majority arrived with   problems and left as better people.

It wasn’t always a pleasant experience for them, but nothing worthwhile is.   The   most difficult patients were psychiatrists and engineers.

They were rigid in their thinking and they often had a hard time.”

While the hospital was named after the abundant holly trees in the area, the   name was also appropriate, as it turned out, because many of the patients   were   celebrities—Cary Grant, Ethel Kennedy, and jazz crooner Andy Williams,   among   others.  ( Williams signed up partly because of his marital problems.

He continues to perform, and says that the acid he took in Vancouver helped   him   understand that “the only things important to me were family, friends, and   love.   Maybe that’s why I’m so cool.” ) Ogden says they had a lot of local   Vancouver   people too.  “I can’t mention their names because they’re still alive.

But we had a lot of wealthy housewives from the British Properties who drank   too   much and were in sexless marriages.

I remember one lady was frigid.

I touched the back of her hand and she had an orgasm.

I saw her at a social event a few months later and she joked, ‘You’re not   going   to do that to me again, are you? ’ “

By 1959, Hubbard was getting impatient with MacLean.  Hubbard believed that   lsd   should be available to everyone, rich and poor, while MacLean, who had   acquired   a big house on Southwest Marine Drive, preferred to treat the hospital as a   lucrative private clinic.

Hubbard decided to give up his share in the clinic and move to California,   where   he became a sort of Johnny Appleseed of psychedelia, giving free lsd to   everyone   from housewives to celebrities such as James Coburn, Stanley Kubrick, Ken   Kesey,   and the Grateful Dead.  Hubbard also became acquainted with a Harvard   professor   named Timothy Leary, who would do more than anyone else to promote the   non-medical use of lsd among young people.

With his love beads, boyish enthusiasm, and rugged good looks, Leary kicked   the   lsd campaign into high gear.  Ecstatically stoned and surrounded by avid   young   female fans, Leary toured college campuses urging students to “turn on, tune   in,   and drop out.” Abram Hoffer later wrote that he always feared lsd would   become a   street drug and, thanks to what he described as “the irresponsibility of   Timothy   Leary,” his fears were realized.

In 1966, Hoffer went to the University of California campus at Berkeley to   present a research paper on the clinical uses of lsd.  He says he received a   polite response.

Afterward, he watched Leary make a presentation—the Harvard prof was   received   “with wild abandon” by the students, even though Hoffer couldn’t understand   what   Leary was trying to say.  Public health authorities were alarmed by the   craze,   and later that same year lsd was banned in California.  By the end of 1967 —  the same year the Doors’ first album was released—use of the drug was   banned   in every state, even when supervised by legitimate researchers.  Lawmakers   in   Canada followed suit, and lsd was soon prohibited by most countries in the   Western world.

If you wanted to conduct your own experiments with lsd, you had to go   looking   for someone like Ringo.

Psychiatrists and biochemists never figured out exactly what lsd does to the   human brain, and since the drug was banned there hasn’t been any research   into   the mystery.

It is believed that the compound is absorbed by the body and disappears in a   short period of time, but its effect on the human psyche can endure for many   hours and sometimes days.  Obviously, the psyche is a complicated matter.

In layman’s terms, one might think of it as a structure, a rickety play fort   that arises from the mud of childhood and eventually becomes a proud   high-rise,   containing all our accomplishments, defeats, jealousies, ambitions, biases,   longings, and stored memories.

This is our hard-earned “identity,” and it becomes a sort of psychic   headquarters from which we interpret and evaluate the world.  lsd functions   like   a chunk of plastic explosive attached to the main load-bearing post in our   underground garage.  The chemical doesn’t need to stick around.

It only needs to cut one post and gravity does the rest.

What emerges from the smoke and dust of the collapsed psyche is a naked baby —  the same wide-eyed infant that looms enormous in the final scene of Stanley   Kubrick’s lsd-influenced film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Without the mediating   structure of identity, the world becomes a terrifyingly vivid place.

Music, colours, texture, taste—all suddenly regain the distracting power   we’ve spent so many years training ourselves to ignore.  We ignore the world   so   that we can take care of business.

After all, how efficient would we be if we couldn’t step outside without   pausing   to stare in slack-jawed amazement at every tree?

Eating, too, would be an enormous problem.

After meeting up with my similarly dosed pal that October evening in   Winnipeg,   we walked to a large park, where we sat like fakirs in the darkness,   listening   to the potent silence of the woods, listening to acorns occasionally falling   to   the leafy floor with a startling crash.

Eventually we decided it would be a good idea to get something to chow down   on.   This turned out to be not so much a bad idea as a very complicated one.   Under   lurid fluorescent lights, surrounded by strange people, it took enormous   concentration to deal with the simple fact that the world contained   something as   bizarre as pizza, and that one was expected to eat it.  Each bite seemed to   contain so much flavour that I sat walleyed for long minutes, trying to   process   the information contained in a morsel of pepperoni the size of an asterisk.

lsd seems to destroy the processing system by which we interpret everyday   reality.

It opens the doors, as Huxley would have it, but this can be both an   exhilarating and terrifying experience.  It’s no fun listening to the   quacking   ignorance of our own opinions, suddenly realizing that so much of what we   thought to be true is in fact nonsense.  This is the stuff of the “bad   trip,”   and it’s such an integral part of the lsd experience that most experimenters   try   the drug only a few times.

During bad trips, our disgust with ourselves is projected outward, and the   world   can become a foul place.  ( When Dr.  Osmond took mescaline, he saw a child   turning into a pig.  ) Nonetheless, something important is going on.  After   the   psyche disintegrates, it necessarily rebuilds.

And the reintegrated psyche takes account of what it now knows and is   presumably   strengthened.  “I don’t believe in the notion of the bad trip,” says Frank   Ogden.  “lsd makes you face reality and deal with it.”

Odgen says he took lsd only three times when he was training to become a   therapist but, he says, “They were some of the most interesting and valuable   experiences of my life.  I learned things from lsd, and it still keeps me   young   in my thinking.” Now a sharp-eyed and energetic eighty-six-year-old, Ogden   has   in his office and writing retreat a fanciful whale-shaped houseboat at the   Coal   Harbour marina in downtown Vancouver.  He has fitted the interior with   digital   cameras, communications equipment, and warp-speed computer processors.   Billing   himself “Dr.  Tomorrow,” he travels the world giving talks about technology   and   future trends.

Ogden believes that scientific research into lsd was terminated prematurely,   and   he would like to see bona fide researchers get legal access to the drug.   Many   scientists agree.

In March 2006, Dr.  Ben Sessa, an Oxford psychiatrist, gave a speech to   England’s Royal College of Psychiatrists arguing that lsd’s potential   benefits   to medicine must be re-examined.  It was the first time in thirty years the   institution considered the issue.

A pilot study is also being planned in Switzerland.  lsd will be   administered to   several subjects suffering from anxiety associated with advanced-stage   cancer   and other life-threatening illnesses.  “lsd was used safely and effectively   thousands of times in clinical settings,” Sessa says.  “No one would ask   anaesthetists to forgo morphine use because heroin is a social evil.  And   there’s no valid reason to ban lsd research.”

Erika Dyck, a medical historian with the University of Alberta, has   conducted   the most extensive academic research into the early days of lsd   experimentation   and has spoken to some of Hoffer and Osmond’s former patients.

Her findings suggest that many are still extremely positive about the   experience.  “They can’t say enough about how helpful it was,” she says.   “lsd   triggered a psychological process that allowed them to see themselves.”

In January 2006, a large gathering of psychotherapists, medical doctors,   academics, and, of course, aging hippies met in Basel, Switzerland, for a   conference called lsd: Problem Child and Wonder Drug.  The conference was   ostensibly held to discuss the scientific importance of the drug, but, as   much   as anything else, people convened to celebrate the hundredth birthday of   Albert   Hofmann, the man who first experimented with lsd over half a century ago.

Bent and frail, supported by crutches and a burly Swiss guardsman, Hofmann   was   still bright-eyed as he walked onto the stage to thunderous applause.  In a   quiet voice, he told the audience he was concerned about the future of   humanity.   “All of life’s energy comes to us from the sun, via photosynthesis and the   plant kingdom.

Our lives are becoming increasingly urbanized, and I believe lsd is a means   of   rebuilding our relationship to ourselves and to nature.”

It has been forty years since the so-called summer of love, and Aquarian   dreams   of basking in the sun and returning to the Garden of Eden, naked and   hypnotized   by the wonder of it all, seem quaint and dated.  Today, even Jim Morrison   sounds   as corny as Rudy Vallee.  But old apocalyptic visions are still in play.   We’re   still destroying the environment and, to paraphrase Albert Hofmann, we need   to   hang onto any tool that will help us to see that tree.

Jake Macdonald is an award-winning journalist and the author of 2005’s With   the   Boys: Field Notes on Being a Guy.


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