Psychedelic Research Did Not Stop in the 60s Solely Due to Drug Prohibition

psychedelic research 60s drug prohibition

There is a common narrative in psychedelic culture that early psychedelic research – which flourished in the 50s and 60s – was abandoned in the 60s because of then US President Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’. However, while drug prohibition was certainly a contributing factor, it was not the sole reason why psychedelic research slowed and then eventually ground to a halt. Understanding the factors that affected this change in pace can allow us to juxtapose early psychedelic research with its modern counterpart and indicate what is necessary for this field to flourish successfully.

The Role of Drug Prohibition

In June 1971, Nixon officially declared a ‘War on Drugs’, telling Congress that drug abuse had become a “national emergency” and that it was “public enemy number one”. Prior to this, he signed into law the Controlled Substances Act (1970). The classic psychedelics – mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, and DMT – became Schedule I drugs. This meant they were viewed as having a high potential for abuse and no established medical value.

In the mid-60s, research on psychedelics slowed, and in the late 60s, it ground to a near halt. After the Controlled Substances Act came into force, studying psychedelics became even more difficult, due to the restrictions and hurdles involved in gaining approval to research Schedule I substances. These regulatory barriers persist to this day, given that psychedelics remain Schedule I drugs in the US and are similarly classified in other countries.

But since the War on Drugs began in the early 70s, it may seem like drug prohibition was not a relevant factor in the slowing and halting of psychedelic research. However, before 1970, psychedelics were not just being increasingly demonised (as a result of widespread recreational use, the counterculture movement, drug casualties, and media scare stories); they were also being criminalised. For example, on 30 May 1966, the governors of Nevada and California each signed bills that outlawed the manufacture, sale, and possession of LSD. Other US states soon followed with similar bans. In 1968, psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD were made federally illegal. This was based on the government’s belief, contrary to the evidence available at the time, that these substances were highly dangerous to society.

These policy changes, and the attitudes that influenced them, help to explain why researchers took less interest in – and received less funding for – the study of psychedelics. Some also challenge a common narrative about the primary reason behind psychedelic prohibition itself. For instance, in a 2021 paper, Conrad Sproul argues against:

“the dominant theory – that American prohibition of psychedelics was the result of a “moral panic” sparked by media sensationalism … although a moral panic did occur, the primary cause of psychedelic criminalization was not the panic. Instead, it was neo-Puritan, anti-drug cultural norms, combined with a series of developments in the psychiatric community, that persuaded lawmakers to criminalize psychedelics.”

Tighter Regulation of Pharmaceutical Research

In a 2022 paper published in Psychological Medicine, Wayne Hall describes the research in the 50s and 60s in North America that involved using LSD to treat alcohol dependence, anxiety in terminal illness, and anxiety and depression. He then discusses the factors that led to the abandonment of this research. He argues that this research “was abandoned for a number of reasons that acted in concert.” One of the reasons Hall cites is the tighter regulation of pharmaceutical research following the Thalidomide disaster.

This refers to a scandal taking place in the late 50s and early 60s. It involved pregnant women in 46 countries using thalidomide, a tranquiliser introduced in 1953, marketed as a sedative and medication for morning sickness. It wasn’t, however, tested on pregnant women. While initially deemed safe for pregnant women, birth defects were noted in 1961, and the medication was removed from the European market that same year. More than 10,000 children were born with a range of severe deformities – and thousands of miscarriages occurred as well. 

In 1962, new legislation was introduced – in response to this scandal – that tightened the regulation of research on new pharmaceutical drugs. In a separate paper, Hall notes that before the introduction of this legislation, “clinical research on new drugs was largely unregulated”. He adds, “Any clinician could use an unapproved drug for “research” in their routine clinical practice without the need for a clinical trial protocol or ethics committee approval.” This was what research on LSD was like in the 50s. This period was the ‘Wild West’ of psychedelic therapy. 

New Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations ended such practices. Clinical research required a formal Clinical Trial Notification (CTN), which meant that researchers had to provide preclinical evidence showing the safety and therapeutic value of the drug. The regulations also required that clinical research commit to a double-blind randomised controlled trial (RCT) protocol, which would assess the drug’s safety and efficacy. Psychedelic research fell under these regulations because, in the early 60s, there was still limited evidence regarding their safety and efficacy from controlled trials.

Leading medical practitioners were also calling for tighter regulations relating to the clinical uses of LSD after some patients reportedly developed psychosis and attempted suicide. Sidney Cohen, a psychiatrist at UCLA who administered LSD as part of psychodynamic psychotherapy, reported these adverse events among patients who were given LSD during private therapy in Los Angeles. According to Cohen, these were disreputable therapists. He called for tighter controls over the therapeutic use of LSD because he feared its inappropriate use would end up damaging the public perception of a potentially useful psychiatric treatment.

Sandoz Halts Its Supply of LSD to Researchers

After Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) got kicked out of Harvard in 1963 for giving psychedelics to undergraduate students (which the university forbade them to do), Leary continued to advocate for the non-medical use of LSD. He viewed the substance as a religious sacrament and encouraged young people to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” (in an article on psychedelics, career choices, and attitudes towards work, I delve into the meaning of this iconic but widely misunderstood phrase). The LSD experience then became something of a rite of passage in the counterculture of the 60s.

Leary’s advocacy for widespread, non-medical use of LSD, however, led Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, to stop supplying LSD to clinicians in August 1965. The company felt that media reports of psychoses, accidental deaths, and suicides attributed to LSD use were harmful to its reputation. Instead, they only provided the drug researchers working in universities and hospitals. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US distributed LSD on a limited basis for this kind of research. The NIMH, along with the Veterans Administration, also funded this research. 

Controlled Clinical Trials Deflated the Claims of Early Researchers

Contrary to popular belief, psychedelic research did not completely stop in 1970. Clinical research on LSD continued until 1979, but the results were not as positive as those of early researchers. Hall writes,

“In the late 1950s, Osmond and Hoffer used LSD to treat alcohol dependence. They thought that LSD would produce psychotic symptoms that would ‘scared’ [sic] alcoholics into sobriety but found that it more often produced a mystical epiphany that led their patients to cease drinking. They reported that 50% of the patients were abstinent 6 to 12 months after treatment. Sceptical colleagues argued that their studies were poorly controlled, involved only small numbers of patients and that assessments of treatment outcomes were biased. Randomised controlled trials of patients given LSD found no differences in outcome after 12- 18 months.”

Fears Surrounding the Implications of Psychedelic Research

Following the War on Drugs, researchers became increasingly worried about how conducting these kinds of studies would affect their professional reputations. For many, the idea of studying these drugs seemed out of the question. Hall states that researchers feared “receiving some of the adverse media publicity generated by Timothy Leary and the counterculture use of these drugs.” Senior researchers were reportedly warning younger researchers about the reputational risks of studying psychedelics.

By 1980, few scientific studies on LSD were being done. Research funding declined, and governments were wary about permitting such research, based on the fear it would encourage illicit LSD use. Thus, both scientists and governments were worried about the consequences of researching a stigmatised compound.

Lessons for Modern Psychedelic Research

We can learn a lot from the history of early psychedelic research to avoid the same mistakes that thwarted this research from the 60s up until the 1990s (when the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ – the re-emergence of scientific interest in psychedelics – began). Hall observes:

“The changing attitudes towards these drugs was [sic] reflected in the changing tone of scientific publications on LSD. Human studies published in biomedical journals indexed by the US National Library of Medicine from 1955-1995 were generally very favourable until around 1968 after which the number of unfavourable reports greatly outnumbered the favourable ones.”

Abraham et al. (1996) argued that this pattern exemplifies a typical pattern seen in research on research on new pharmaceutical drugs. There is initial enthusiasm accompanied by uncritical reporting of benefits, which is then followed by growing disillusionment, owing to doubts about the validity of researchers’ claims, alongside an increase in the number of adverse events reported. 

We are seeing a similar pattern with the psychedelic renaissance. There is currently a backlash against psychedelic hype, part of which includes a discussion surrounding the quality of evidence, risks, harms, and ethical issues. Psychedelics are also being legalised and/or decriminalised in certain parts of the world. All of these changes could affect the future of psychedelic research. To avoid the problems of the past, we need to ensure that higher-quality evidence is produced and that risks – in clinical, therapeutic, retreat, and recreational settings – are minimised as far as possible.

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