Editor’s Note: Points continues its series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 34, no. 2; Fall 2020), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Erika Dyck, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She co-authored the article, “Reframing Bummer Trips,” with Dr. Chris Elcock. You can see their article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history.
Tell readers a little bit about yourself (and your co-author)
Chris was a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, and I was his supervisor when we began thinking about this topic. We were both interested in the history of psychedelic drugs, me from the perspective of medical history, and Chris more so from the perspective of cultural history. We started by comparing notes on how “bad trips” were described in different ways—as catastrophic in public health literature, but also as complex and even beneficial experiences, according to some consumers of psychedelics. We were curious about how the idea of “bad trips” became a short hand for understanding the values placed on psychedelics.
What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?
My own interest in drugs, and their history, stems much less from personal experience than many people might imagine. For me, it was always the politics of drug use, regulation, and criminalization that intrigued me the most. Or how people claimed to know about drugs.
Why do some drugs have a reputation for causing irreparable harm in some circles, yet have a certain degree of social capital, or even cultural caché, in another context? I was interested in how some drugs became the object of medical fascination but had different reputations or characters once they left the clinic.
This set me on a path of examining LSD and mescaline experiments conducted in Saskatchewan, Canada, during the 1950s. Saskatchewan was also place that had claimed the first socialist government in North America—a government, it turns out, that invested in psychedelic research and saw potential in the research for reforming mental health care. Since then, I have been curious about how psychedelics have been framed as a political tool or weapon—drugs that, on one hand, allegedly inspire tolerance, enlightenment, and self reflection, but, conversely, also drugs that trigger violence, narcissism, and reckless behaviour. These polarizing views about drugs and their users have significant consequences for how we view drugs as medicines or as substances of abuse—but also for how we consider drug users and pushers, or patients and psychiatrists and their interactions with psychedelics.