LSD treatment for alcoholism gets new look

For the past five years, Dr. Erika Dyck has been unearthing some intriguing facts related to a group of pioneering psychiatrists who worked in Saskatchewan, Canada in the ’50s and ’60s.

Among other things, the University of Alberta history of medicine professor has found records of the psychiatrists’ research that indicate a single dose of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, provided in a clinical, nurturing environment, can be an effective treatment for alcoholism.

Her findings are published this month in the journal Social History of Medicine.

After perceiving similarities in the experiences of people on LSD and people going through delirium tremens, the psychiatrists undertook a series of experiments. They noted that delirium tremens, also know as DTs, often marked a “rock bottom” or turning point in the behavior of alcoholics, and they felt LSD may be able to trigger such a turnaround without engendering the painful physical effects associated with DTs.

As it turns out, they were largely correct.

“The LSD somehow gave these people experiences that psychologically took them outside of themselves and allowed them to see their own unhealthy behavior more objectively, and then determine to change it,” said Dyck, who read the researchers’ published and private papers and recently interviewed some of the patients involved in the original studies–many of whom had not had a sip of alcohol since their single LSD experience 40 years earlier.

According to one study conducted in 1962, 65 per cent of the alcoholics in the experiment stopped drinking for at least a year-and-a-half (the duration of the study) after taking one dose of LSD. The controlled trial also concluded that less than 25 per cent of alcoholics quit drinking for the same period after receiving group therapy, and less than 12 per cent quit in response to traditional psychotherapy techniques commonly used at that time.

Published in the Quarterly Journal for Studies on Alcohol, the 1962 study was received with much skepticism. One research group in Toronto tried to replicate the results of the study, but wanted to observe the effect of LSD on the patients in isolation, so they blindfolded or tied up the patients before giving them the drug. Under such circumstances, the Toronto researchers determined LSD was not effective in treating alcoholism.

The Saskatchewan group argued that the drug needed to be provided in a nurturing environment to be effective. However, the Toronto researchers held more credibility than the Saskatchewan researchers–who were led by a controversial, British psychiatrist, Dr. Humphry Osmond–and the Saskatchewan group’s research was essentially buried.

But Dyck believes there is value in the Saskatchewan group’s experiments.

“The LSD experience appeared to allow the patients to go through a spiritual journey that ultimately empowered them to heal themselves, and that’s really quite an amazing therapy regimen,” Dyck said. “Even interviewing the patients 40 years after their experience, I was surprised at how loyal they were to the doctors who treated them, and how powerful they said the experience was for them–some even felt the experience saved their lives.”

In spite of the promise LSD showed as psychotherapy tool, its subsequent popularity as a street drug, and the perception of it as a threat to public safety, triggered a worldwide ban in the late 1960s–including its use in medical experiments. However, the ban on its use in medical experiments appears to be lifting, Dyck noted. A few groups of researchers in the U.S., including a team at Harvard, have recently been granted permission to conduct experiments with LSD.

“We accept all sorts of drugs, but I think LSD’s ‘street’ popularity ultimately led to its demise,” Dyck said. “And that’s too bad, because I think the researchers in Saskatchewan, among others, showed the drug is unique and has some intriguing properties that need to be explored further.”

From University of Alberta

24 COMMENTS

  1. As someone in recovery. I don’t see how use of LSD helped me. I am glad I had the experiences. But as are as if LSD is addiction you bet it is. While I used LSD I never saw my Alcohol use drop any.

  2. i can agree with you on that. low use (once to twice a year) can have great affects on the mind. Last year my grades started slipping big time, and had been for the past several years. I dropped acid twice over the summer and my GPA has been above a 3.5 all year so far

  3. There is an adjectival oxymoron in the second paragraph: “clinical, nurturing environment”. Clinical and nurturing are mutually exclusive, which is why many studies into hallucinogens and entheogens (as well as telepathy, telekinesis and other such parapsychological phenomena) failed to produce positive results. Many amazing therapies have been missed for the want of a less reductionist theoretical and experimental paradigm. As an occasional user of LSD, I cringe at what the Toronto test subjects must have experienced. Though he was a pop icon, many people forget that Timothy Leary was also a Doctor of Psychology at Harvard. He insisted that the crucial determinats of the nature and quality of an LSD experience are mindset and envronment, or what he called “set” and “setting”. Clinical environments are not conducive to positive experiences on LSD. Safe, nurturing environments are.

  4. We shouldn’t impose a moratorium on research just because a substance is illegal. I’ve known about these alchohol studies for years, personally. I came across mention of them when I was trying to figure out if I should try LSD. Once I learned how much of the information out there was false, misleading, or misrepresented, and saw how this drug was originally intended to be used as an aid to the psychotherapist, I lost my fear and tried the drug.

    Of all the drugs I have tried, LSD is one of the most significant. It is literally a life changer — IF you take it appropriately. Like any substance, it has the potential for abuse. However, when taken in the right place at the right time, it is quite possibly the most powerful form of therapy that exists.

  5. …The psychedelics and entheogens are persecuted far more then any of the other illicet substances…While they on the whole do far less damage then OTC drugs or even socially accepted drugs such as coffee.

    Not only did this substance LSD show promise in treating alcoholism…

    There are other psychedelics like IBOGA that show great promise in treating Opiate and Cocaine addiction…

    Which to wrap up are TWO drugs that you may think get alot of attention from law enforcement…But only when it really becomes a visable problem.

    Have we forgotten the history of Governments involvement in the Opium and Cocaine trade?

  6. I haven’t taken LSD in a number of years, but I still feel the effects. I must say, I did take quite above the normal dosage of say… a wooly mamoth, however, I was severly depressed as a child and starting having difficulty dealing with society going into teenage years. I was introduced to it, mind you recreationally by a friend, when I was 16. I had a great time, but by the time I was 18, I was withdrawing once again. I began to dabble in solo dosing, growing a larger and larger tolerance for the drug, but understanding the power of how it was changing me. Mind you, I realize that I probably have severe brain damage, but those cells where “wired” incorrectly to begin with. I gave myself an opportunity to experiene life in ways, completely new and refreshing. It made me relearn many things about what I thought I knew was correct, but always had trouble accepting. Every time I dosed, I saw everyday things differently, things were clearer, easier to cope with, and people close to me started to notice a change as well. My academics went through the roof as well as my self-esteem. I no longer feared anything and craved learning about everything I could get my hands on. I was like a newborn child soaking up the worlds offerings around me.
    I ended up finishing school with a masters in computer science and a minor in theoretical physics. I often run into people I have not seen since before my experiences, and most of them don’t understand what happened, how I became less “impressionable”.

    The dramatic changes in my personality are not uncommon, its actually fairly well documented that the experiments that the us government did on soldiers with LSD and BZ in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s showed an overall better wellness of being and an average increase of IQ to be 15%.

    like the poster before me, its sounds weird but, I for one, am a better person for it.

  7. I can’t see this being terribly surprising for anyone who has ever used psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD in a controlled, enjoyable environment.

    Occasional use generates not only an ability to step “outside” and view yourself and your bad habits in a different light, but also provides a sense of “connection” to everything else in the universe.

    My own experience has shown me to be a more patient, focused, and overall very happy person with very low use (one to two times a year).

    Not only that, but it is not addictive… in fact, the body builds an immediate tolerance to the substance, lasting several days.

    It is ridiculous to me that all illegal substances are treated equally.

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