E talking: MDMA Therapy & the “Psychedelic Renaissance”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.

Popular perceptions of MDMA (3,4 Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine) are of its identity as “molly” or ecstasy—a good-time party-drug for young people around the world. So, flicking through the Guardian newspaper a few weekends ago, I was intrigued to read a feature on a recently opened clinic in Bristol, UK, that intends to use MDMA for psychotherapeutic purposes. The bio-tech company, Awakn Life Sciences, led by consultant psychiatrist Ben Sessa and clinical psychologist Laurie Higbed, is not currently able to offer MDMA therapy, and the newspaper reports that the company is “hamstrung by the current global legislation, which says the drug can be used only in an experimental setting.”

Awakn Life Science's Laurie Higbed and Ben Sessa
Awakn Life Science’s Laurie Higbed and Ben Sessa. Image from Ben Sessa on Twitter.

Consequently, the clinic offers ketamine-assisted therapy, initially focusing on alcoholism with ambitions to eventually provide treatment for “depression, anxiety, eating disorders and most addictions.” As the article makes clear, Awakn’s clinic is part of a much wider interest in what, it calls, “psychedelic-assisted therapy,” leading to a veritable “psychedelics gold rush” as investors sense a growing market.

By coincidence, I also happened to be reading Lucas Richert’s latest book Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture. As its title indicates, Break on Through is situated in the 1970s and features, among other episodes, the early years of MDMA-assisted therapy. MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 as a hemostatic agent (i.e. to aid blood-clotting and prevent bleeding) in the laboratories of Merck, the Darmstadt, Germany, based pharmaceutical corporation. Patented that same year, the company only occasionally mentioned MDMA in internal company documents up until the 1950s. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the patent also contained a clue to one of its further usages, alluding to its potential use “as an intermediate in the production of therapeutic compounds.”

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Points 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.

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The Points Interview: David Black

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with David Black, the author of Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD (independently published, 2020). Black lives in London and is an independent journalist and author. His previous books include The Philosophical Roots of Anti-Capitalism: Essays on History, Culture, and Dialectical Thought and 1839: The Chartist Insurrection.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Psychedelic Tricksters: A True Secret History of LSD tells the story of various people who made that, beginning with the discovery of LSD’s hallucinogenic properties in 1943 by Albert Hoffman. In the late-1940s psychiatrists started using it as “psychosis-inducing drug” for schizophrenics. CIA officers investigated LSD’s potential as a weapon of mind-control and became enthusiastic trippers themselves. But the CIA and the medical establishment wanted to keep LSD out of the hands of “undesirables.” The “undesirables” included those in the new youth counterculture who challenged the official line on LSD and explored its potential for creativity and spirituality. So, in the 1960s, as LSD “escaped” into the counter-culture, the producers and distributors were forced underground.

I’ve titled the book Psychedelic Tricksters because in mythology the trickster is someone who “unwisely” defies the powers-on-high, as when Prometheus steals fire from Zeus for the benefit of humankind. The trickster’s rebellion always fails and yet is seen as necessary for the origin of civilizations, or perhaps, as in the case of psychedelics, a new beginning for a society that had lost way in war, racism and sexual oppression.

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The Points Interview: Danielle Giffort

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Danielle M. Giffort, assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Liberal Arts at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. She’s the author of the new book Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. 

Acid Revival is about how a group of mental health professionals is trying to bring psychedelic-assisted therapy back into mainstream medicine and how they struggle with the past history of psychedelic drugs in medicine as they do this. My book looks at how these researchers grapple with this past by telling stories about what went wrong during the “first wave” of psychedelic therapy—a period stretching from the late 1940s to mid-1970s. And their stories all point the blame at one person: Timothy Leary, the infamous psychedelic researcher-cum-countercultural guru. 

For today’s researchers studying psychedelic therapy, Leary symbolizes what I call an “impure scientist”—a bad expert who does not respect and intentionally defies the boundaries of science. And in defying these boundaries, his presence supposedly had a polluting effect on the legitimacy of psychedelic therapy. So, researchers would tell me how Leary “contaminated” and “poisoned” psychedelic science. To contain that threat and offer an antidote to that poison, they perform as the Anti-Leary—a phrase I heard from several researchers. Another term bounced around was that they are “sober scientists.” So, essentially, the book tells a story about how, in the minds of contemporary psychedelic researchers, the misbehavior of an individual had contaminating effects on their whole scientific field—it boils down to a “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” story. 

But these boundaries between impure and sober scientists are porous. That’s the thing about boundaries—they aren’t given; they are constructed. The ways in which we draw lines in the sand between this or that is the result of struggle and those lines are subject to change across time and place. And the way that we see this happening in psychedelic science is this: these researchers push away from the pollution of the impure scientist by enacting the sober scientist persona, but at the same time, they still draw on the practices of the impure scientist. For example, among other things, they criticize Leary for failing to follow conventional scientific methods in his psychedelic research, so they actively work to follow the kind of hypothesis-testing methods that grant scientific credibility. But at the same time, they actively incorporate Leary’s insights about the psychedelic experience into their therapeutic models. Leary is so central to their stories and to the revival because he is the site of the continuities and divergences between the first and current waves of research. And from this discussion, I hope readers learn more about not just the history of psychedelic science but about how the ways in which people construct reality has real effects on their actions.  

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The Ayahuasca Phenomenon in Historical Perspective

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest contributor Chris Elcock. Elcock is an STS postdoctoral fellow working at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, where he is investigating the use of ayahuasca in psychedelics science. His previous work has examined the cultural history of psychedelics and his doctoral dissertation focused on the social history of LSD in New York City.

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Chris Elcock

I recently attended the third World Ayahuasca Conference, which was held in Girona, Catalonia/Spain. Ayahuasca is a brew that combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and a DMT-containing plant, usually of the psychotria viridis genus. While it has been used for millennia in ritual settings in the Amazon basin, it has gradually drawn the attention of scores of experimenters across the world and the biomedical sciences are also investigating its psychoactive effects. The conference attracted people from broad horizons: indigenous peoples travelling from the Amazon basin; research teams looking into the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca; anthropologists studying the uses of this fascinating substance; theologians who drink it in syncretic brands of religion; and the many who’ve had their lives changed forever. 

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Hidden Figures of Drug History: Melissa Cargill

This is the first time researching a post in my “Hidden Figures of Drug History” series has legitimately pissed me off. Usually, when I’m trying to learn more about someone like Joan Ganz Cooney, Lenore Kandel or Kitty McNeil, the fantastically-nicknamed “Babbling Bodhisattva,” my research takes me to enlightening places, where I can locate the influential impact these unacknowledged women have made on America’s long history with intoxicant use.

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Melissa Cargill

But over the past few days, as I tried to learn more about the mysterious Melissa Cargill, I became enormously upset about how overshadowed this talented chemist was by her larger-than-life partner, Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the man “responsible” for the purest LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s, as well as the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound.”

But was Owsley really the one manning the beakers? Or was it Cargill all along?

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Mabel Dodge Luhan’s First Peyote Trip

Today’s post comes from guest poster Dr. Chris Elcock, an adjunct professor at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 in Lyon, France, whom you might remember from his previous articles on the early years of cannabis activism and LSD in New York. Today he explores the first recorded peyote trip in Manhattan, which occurred in 1914. Enjoy!

Raymond Harrington had been enamored with Native American culture since he was a child. While he was still in high school, he successfully located an old camp site in Mt. Vernon, New York, and became employed by the American Museum of Natural History thanks to the then curator Frederick Putnam. He went on to study anthropology at Columbia University under the great Franz Boas and conducted ethnographic fieldwork with Indians in Oklahoma. One day, during the spring of 1914, he attended a party in Greenwich Village and regaled the attendees with his stories. But when the subject turned to an obscure cactus that had the power “to pass beyond ordinary consciousness and see things as they are in Reality,” everyone begged him to carry on, including the hostess, the eccentric socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan.

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Points Interview: Stephanie Schmitz, Purdue University Archives & Special Collections

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted and written by Lucas Richert, Chancellor’s Fellow in Health History at Strathclyde and co-editor in chief of Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Enjoy! 

Stephanie Schmitz is the Betsy Gordon Archivist for Psychoactive Substances Research at the Purdue University Archives & Special Collections, where she is responsible for building collections pertaining to psychedelic research, and ensuring that these materials are discoverable and accessible in perpetuity.  

The conversation took place on June 8, 2018. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

** 

Stephanie and I sat down to talk in the Purdue Memorial Union’s coffee shop early on a Friday morning and immediately realized we couldn’t stay. There was far too much activity. It was incredibly loud. “I know another spot,” she told me.  

Five minutes later, we found ourselves in an adjacent building. Stephanie was sipping coffee, as was I. We were set. Except not. A speaker on the floor beside us unexpectedly started up and the Kongos’ song “Come with me now” boomed. So we swiftly collected our belongings and moved across the room to a quieter table. 

“Alright,” Stephanie laughed. “Now I can think.” 

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