SHAD Interview: “Reframing Bummer Trips: Scientific and Cultural Explanations to Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drug Use” with Erika Dyck

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. 

Dr. Erika Dyck
Erika Dyck

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.

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

For some people, when you say LSD they immediately envision an egg cracked into a hot frying pan, sizzling, with a voice-over saying: “this is your brain on drugs.” Yet, movies and songs about the psychedelic sixties suggest that psychedelics were groovy, fun, and maybe even enlightening or inspiring. Our article is about these wildly different views of psychedelics, and we question whether people who took acid really appreciated the dangers associated with its use, or whether the claims of the dangers were over played by anti-drug advocates or by people who seemed less interested in having fun.

When we looked more closely at assertions by psychiatrists and experienced users in the 1950s and 1960s, we found that, for some proponents of LSD in therapy, a bad trip was actually desirable, or at least valued as a therapeutic tool. This got us thinking about how bad trips were described and what bad trips have meant historically. It turns out that facing or confronting past traumas or scary insights was considered really beneficial, despite the potential for this same experience to also be frightening and to cause people to recoil or lash out.

The biggest difference we found was that taking LSD or acid in a medical setting suggested that one was safe, so any amount of scary response could be controlled or analyzed. For people dropping acid for fun, or worse, for those who consumed it without knowing, bad trips could be really devastating as the consumer (potentially) slowly  lost their grip on reality and may not have understood why their senses were disorganized. That feeling of losing control could be scary and could even lead to “freaking out.” So, we wanted to know what psychedelic therapists and advocates thought about the risks of freaking out.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

I have been studying the history of psychedelics for almost 20 years. Chris and I are starting a new project about the global history of psychedelics. It will be a collection of essays from authors around the world looking at many different psychedelic stories, including Indigenous ceremonial uses, laboratory synthesis of psychedelic plants, and cultural and countercultural embraces of psychedelic drugs and philosophies. We have met amazing authors working on this topic—which has received renewed interest recently as several political jurisdictions have begun to decriminalize psychedelics.

It is time to move the scholarship away from North America and its cast of, admittedly, colourful characters who have largely shaped the history of psychedelics. We think it is important now to look to other regions to see how psychedelic plant medicines were understood by different cultural and linguistic traditions, or to see how scientists operating in different geo-political contexts participated in an earlier generation of psychedelic research.

Authors are exploring an exciting array of topics: knowledge networks in South America, countercultural responses in Israel, environmental and agricultural research in Switzerland, and the role of women in French experiments. This research may further challenge us to consider a more diverse set of ways of knowing psychedelic history and its legacy in different regions.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

Given the psychedelic renaissance on the horizon, we are hopeful that psychedelic histories will continue to enrich our understanding of drugs, drug users, harm reduction strategies, and the stories we tell each other as we make sense of drug use in our modern society. Psychedelic histories offer a rich subject for exploring some of the intersections of politics, medicine, experimentation, and culture.

Social and political attitudes towards drugs are changing. Some drugs that used to be associated with harms—like the psychedelics—are being rebranded in the 21st  century. This rebranding necessarily harkens back to some of the historical research that originally invested in psychedelic psychotherapy, but it also revives fears about drug abuse and “radical” or “dangerous” altered consciousness.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I would love to have been a participant in one of the many dinner parties hosted by Maria and Aldous Huxley. They famously had a wide array of writers, poets, philosophers, actors, scientists, politicians, and even psychics, over to their home to explore the many depths of psychedelic thinking and its influence on society.

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