From the Archives Back to the Clinic: How Historians of Psychedelics are Protecting the Public Domain

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Chris Elcock, an award-wining independent scholar working on the history of LSD and psychedelics

There was a time when LSD and other vision-inducing psychedelic drugs were associated with the American counter-culture and for conservative observers with license and dissent. Amid the psychedelic hues of light-shows, magic buses, and tie-dye shirts, the medical history of these substances was relegated to a footnote of the 1960s, a decade that symbolized cultural change rather than experimental psychiatry. For better or worse, LSD had spilled out of the clinics and what seemed to have mattered most was that it had landed in the hands of Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead. 

While these stories have been told endlessly in popular books and documentaries, historians of psychedelic psychiatry have meticulously examined the way medical doctors initially looked to gain new knowledge into mental illness by inducing a temporary and controlled form of psychosis with mescaline and LSD, and how they subsequently used these substances to treat alcoholism and to help terminal cancer patients to serenely come to terms with death. In 1962, however, fundamental changes in the implementation of clinical trials, which laid critical emphasis on objective measurements and scientific reproducibility, greatly frustrated the research teams working in the field, to a point where psychedelic science had come to a near standstill by the early 1970s.

Despite these early setbacks, research in psychedelics has particularly boomed in the last decade as national and international laws regarding the therapeutic use of psilocybin and other psychedelics have begun to change. In this new regulatory environment, drug companies and investors have rushed to file patents for new psychedelic drug uses and technologies in hopes of monopolizing—and monetizing—the next blockbuster treatment.

In response to this knowledge grab, a recent collaboration between historians and legal experts sponsored by the Usona Institute, a non-profit psilocybin research organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, relies on historical and archival research to protect the public domain. Usona has established a new open-access online repository called Porta Sophia—the doorway to wisdom—that documents extant therapeutic techniques that have used psychedelics as adjuncts. This easily accessible project seeks to ensure that new patent filings are truly innovative.

Porta Sophia Glowing Orb
Graphic from the web page of Usona Institute’s Porta Sophia, Psychedelic
Prior Art Library. Image Courtesy of Porta Sophia.

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