Psychedelics are gaining momentum again, but they have a long and somewhat checkered past, including ancient use dating back 9000 years and a brief stint as a potential human mind control tool.
Over the past decade, psychedelics have gained serious momentum in the Western world. Yet the human consumption of these substances dates back several millennia – at least when it comes to the naturally occurring ones, such as psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, and ayahuasca.
The oldest indication of this ancient use is said to date back 9000 years: a mural in the Sahara desert depicting a figure with psychedelic mushrooms sprouting out of its body. Ancient indigenous tribes also constructed numerous temples to worship mushroom deities, suggesting that they considered mushrooms to possess special powers. And in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, psychedelic mushrooms are called teonanácatl, meaning “flesh of the gods”.
While ancient cultures mainly used these substances as ceremonial and spiritual tools, they likely have, on occasion, also been utilized as intoxicants. Unfortunately, knowing for sure when humans began reaping psychedelics’ therapeutic and medicinal benefits is impossible, as many records were destroyed over the years.
The early science – all about mescaline
While psychedelic exploration can be traced back thousands of years, their systematic scientific investigation didn’t begin until the late 1800s.
After learning that indigenous Mexicans used the peyote cactus in their rituals, German toxicologist Louis Lewin became interested in their mind-altering effects.
Over the 1880s and 1890s, Lewin and his colleague, Arthur Heffter, frequently self-experimented with peyote. They meticulously kept track of all their findings, so the first known written reports of peyote’s effects came into being. The duo was mostly interested in knowing what caused these psychedelic effects. Eventually, they managed to isolate mescaline as the cactus’ primary active compound.
For a few more decades, descriptive and clinical mescaline-related studies made up the landscape of psychedelic research. This changed in 1938 when a young chemist named Albert Hofmann discovered a new, interesting substance: LSD-25.
A happy little accident called LSD-25
In 1938, Albert Hofmann was tasked with a new assignment by the Swiss company Sandoz Pharmaceuticals to create a new medicine to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems.
Hoping to synthesize a useful chemical compound, he spent his days creating numerous derivatives of the ergot fungus.
Then five years later, he resynthesized the 25th one, LSD-25. After accidentally ingesting a tiny dose through his fingertips and noticing the unusual effects, he dosed himself with 250 micrograms three days later.
On April 19th, 1943, and with no car being available due to wartime restrictions, Dr. Hofmann – now deep in the throes of an LSD trip – had to cycle home. Psychonauts around the world still annually commemorate this day as Bicycle Day.
While the experience was anything but pleasant, Hofmann realized he felt reborn afterward. To further investigate LSD’s psychotherapeutic and monetary potential, Sandoz began sending batches to clinics and universities across the world for free. And so, a fertile research period began.
The first wave of psychedelic research – the golden age
By the 1950s, psychedelics was the most promising area of clinical psychiatric research.
Still free of the political and cultural stigma that would engulf them a decade later, they were thought to have enormous therapeutic potential.
Government funding helped researchers investigate this further, and although many of these early studies would not meet today’s scientific standards, they nonetheless produced exciting results. Over 40,000 research participants were examined during these years, and more than a thousand clinical papers and several dozen books were published on the subject.
Psychedelics quickly developed from interesting scientific curiosities into groundbreaking psychiatric tools. In particular, LSD started to be widely used by psychologists and psychiatrists to treat various conditions, including addiction, depression, autism, and end-of-life anxiety.
Not only that, but many people working in the field, either as researchers or clinicians, also experimented on themselves, often experiencing first-hand their transformative results.
MK-ULTRA and the CIA
The promising first wave of psychedelic research greatly intrigued the CIA. Not because of the substances’ therapeutic potential but because of their possible use as a tool to control human behavior.
The CIA kept close tabs on the psychedelic research community and even funded scientific conferences and university research at places such as Stanford and MIT.
But, eventually, things went even further. Beginning in 1953, it set up its own research: the top-secret program, MK-ULTRA.
Could LSD be used as a truth serum, a mind-control agent, or a nonlethal weapon of war? The CIA went to great lengths to find out, dosing its own employees and paying psychiatrists to test LSD on prisoners and mental patients – usually without consent and often combined with torture and abuse. It wasn’t until 1973, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, that the program was stopped out of fear of being revealed.
The Harvard Psilocybin Project
In the 1960s, the future of psychedelics looked bright.
LSD therapy had become routine practice for the LA-based rich and famous, and after actor Cary Grant gave an interview explaining how his more than 60 LSD sessions had made him feel “born again”, the demand intensified further. Not only for LSD therapy but also for its recreational use.4
The drug was now escaping labs and therapy rooms and making its way to the streets. Soon, an eccentric Harvard psychology professor named Timothy Leary would speed up this process even more.
Enamored by the effects of psychedelics, Leary set up the Harvard Psilocybin Project with assistant professor Richard Alpert. They aimed to investigate and record the effects of psychedelic substances, but the project was quickly engulfed in controversy – partly because Alpert had been giving drugs to undergraduate students. After just two years, the project was shut down, and Alpert and Leary were fired.
The counterculture movement
By the mid 1960s, the U.S.’s military involvement in Vietnam had escalated, and the chance of young American men being deployed grew. This greatly clashed with the growing counterculture movement’s ideals and beliefs. The movement had already been on the rise, but LSD played a crucial role in its development – not only influencing its symbols, fashions, and music, but also its thinking.
Following his dismissal from Harvard in 1963 due to his controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, Leary became a prominent countercultural icon. Believing that psychedelics had the power to transform society, he advocated for their widespread use by encouraging everyone to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
Not surprisingly, most politicians were not so thrilled by this drug-induced questioning of social norms and traditions. President Nixon went as far as calling Leary “The most dangerous man on earth.” After being sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of marijuana, the ex-professor escaped and started living on the run. Eventually, he would be arrested 36 times in numerous countries.
The ban on psychedelics
Although psychedelics looked promising in the early 1960s, it only took a few years for the political and cultural sentiment to shift completely.
As the availability of black-market LSD increased, so did the psychotic episodes and hospital visits. In addition, Nixon deemed the counterculture’s rebellious and deviant beliefs extremely dangerous. As psychedelics were a big part of the movement, LSD became a convenient instrument for scapegoating hippies.
The U.S. establishment started to portray psychedelics as a threat to society devoid of any medical potential. Propaganda campaigns and urban legends quickly followed to generate hostility and moral panic further.
As the whole psychedelic science project collapsed, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act was the final nail to its coffin. With it, the United Nations categorized all substances with a known recreational property under a Schedule I ban, reserved for the most addictive and harmful substances. The world’s views on psychedelics seemed to be changed forever.
A quiet continuation
The strict and punitive laws put in place through the 1970 Controlled Substances Act made conducting psychedelic research incredibly hard, if not impossible. But psychedelics were not wiped off the face of the earth.
Despite their sudden illegal status and stigma, many devoted psychedelic researchers continued their work, essentially risking their careers and freedom.
In the years that followed, a small number of studies were published, mostly replicating the earlier demonstrated potential. It also became increasingly clear that most of the safety concerns that stopped psychedelic research in the 1960s were either baseless, exaggerated, or false. Yet it wasn’t until the 1990s that the gradual revival of psychedelic research began as the FDA cautiously granted approval to investigate the effects of DMT – an extremely powerful and fast-acting psychedelic compound – in human subjects. One of the interesting results from these studies was that, unlike other psychedelics, DMT does not result in subjective tolerance after repeated doses.
A psychedelic renaissance
Although psychedelic research still faced social stigma and administrative roadblocks, the 2000s saw a rise in mainstream interest in psychedelics and their therapeutic potential.
Several major studies solidified psychedelics’ status as an effective treatment of mental illness – with carefully conducted studies finding that LSD led to lasting reductions in anxiety and psilocybin showed promise in treating end-of-life distress and depression.
Something that set this research apart from before was the increased scientific rigor and greater attention to the role of preparation and integration. Psychedelics were more effective when combined with an ongoing therapeutic process, which could help patients prepare and integrate the insights they gained. Greater importance was also given to the role spiritual insights and mystical experiences could play in a patient’s recovery, such as feeling one with the universe or experiencing feelings of awe.
With the growing worldwide recognition for psychedelic medicine, a number of research programs were established at prestigious universities, such as Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London.