A collection of Leary’s life papers, recently opened at the New York Public Library, comprises 575 boxes and provides a window to the rocky history of psychedelics research—the pivotal role Leary played in it—and what it means for new research on psychedelics.
FROM THE LAB TO THE STREETS
The many documents dedicated to Leary’s early psychedelics research present him as a serious academic on the cutting edge of psychological research.
After trying hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico in 1957, Leary became fascinated with the compounds’ mind-altering effects. A renowned personality psychologist, he saw psychedelics as a way to change personality and improve behavior by altering consciousness.
He later led what came to be called the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a series of experiments looking at the effects of psilocybin, a psychedelic compound found in some hallucinogenic mushrooms. From 1960 to 1963, he and his colleagues oversaw 3,970 ingestions of the drug by 587 subjects, testing its effects on volunteers ranging from artists to housewives to religious professionals.
Studies on classical psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline had been ongoing since the '50s. But Leary’s personality and the press he drew made the public—and the government—pay attention.
The most significant of Leary’s studies was called the Concord Prison Experiment, which studied the effects of psilocybin therapy on the relapse in criminal behavior among convicts. Though the study lacked proper controls and was later found to have erroneous results, some findings were notable: Leary and his team determined that psilocybin was safe, that it “produces temporary states of spiritual conversion, interpersonal closeness and psychological insight,” and that it should be used in therapy and self-help programs.
Harvard’s foray into psychedelics research, however, was to be short-lived. In 1962, Leary and fellow-researcher Richard Alpert were accused of administering drugs to undergraduates without permission, and rumors spread that their drugs were used to spike the punch at a university event.
It didn’t help that Leary became increasingly provocative in his views, advocating for free thinking and the destruction of what he saw to be an oppressive relationship between doctor and patient. In a hastily-written draft from 1962, covered in handwritten scribbles and words that had been crossed out, his outrage is clear:
“The controversy over conscious-expanding [sic] chemicals represents a power struggle over the control of human consciousness. Who owns your mind? The psychiatrist? The mental-health functionary? Or the individual himseof [sic]?”
In November 1962, Leary and 10 other academics formed the International Federation for Internal Freedom. The group’s stated purpose was to encourage people to form research groups to explore consciousness and promote psychedelics research. But the implicit purpose was the democratization of psychedelics—the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to expand their consciousness using the drugs.
This was the breaking point for the university. A few weeks later, Harvard withdrew all funding for psilocybin research. On April 30, 1963, Leary was officially dismissed from his position for “[absenting] himself from Cambridge during term without permission.” His datebooks from the time were filled with scribbled appointments; Leary seemed to be everywhere but the classroom.
That same year, LSD hit the streets as a recreational drug and attracted media attention that would fuel a national drug panic.
TURNING AWAY FROM SCIENCE
After Leary’s dismissal, things got weird fast. Reports surfaced that LSD could cause madness and hasten the onset of schizophrenia and psychosis when used without proper supervision. Half-truths flooded the media: A man claimed to have forgotten killing his mother-in-law because of an LSD-fueled bout of amnesia. (It was later revealed that his amnesia was caused by the three quarts of alcohol and sleeping pills he consumed shortly before the murder.)
What started as a way to sell newspapers became a full-blown hysteria surrounding psychedelics—and researchers became the target of outrage. A 1966 article in Look magazine revealed a harsh reality: “A mood of public—and to an extent, professional—hysteria has been generated and is blocking legitimate scientific research on these substances.”
The government reacted accordingly. The passage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act placed classical psychedelics under a Schedule I ban, reserved for drugs that have a “high potential for abuse,” “no currently accepted medical use in treatment,” and for which there is “a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”
This categorization was a slap in the face for researchers who had been studying therapeutic applications for psychedelics for years, finding that psychedelics could reduce anxiety in terminally ill patients and curb alcoholism. The ban froze clinical research on psychedelics, stopping any progress dead in its tracks.
The next successful study of psychedelics arrived 20 years later, in 1990. Rick Strassman, a medical researcher at University of New Mexico, said that before he began his research on the psychedelic compound DMT, he studied Leary’s biography Flashbacks to avoid repeating Leary’s mistakes in his own research.
“I hid from the press, kept religion and spirituality out of my writings while I was doing research, avoided studying undergraduates, studied no more than one student per department if I did use students as volunteers… and made certain my data were more important than anything else,” Strassman wrote in an email.
It took him two years to collect all the necessary permits from local, state, and federal agencies, even though he already had funding to conduct the research from the Scottish Rite Foundation for Schizophrenia Research and the National Institute for Drug Abuse. Strassman refers to his first DMT paper as his “What if I’m hit by a bus?” paper, because it outlined the approval process so others could follow.
“If I never published any data, I at least wanted to let people know how to get through the maze of a Schedule I drug research project,” he wrote.
The current wave of research picks up where the old wave left off, Strassman says, but with contemporary methodologies and a more understated approach. This low-key nature is due in part to the negative publicity Leary drew to the field decades earlier, he says.
Brad Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies says the understated approach speaks to a new maturity of the field as a whole.
“The field itself has kind of moved from an excited adolescence to a calmer young adulthood,” Burge says. “We have new methodologies that are really helping out, we control our clinical studies carefully with double blinds and really make sure to be as scientific as possible without that kind of explosive enthusiasm that earlier researchers had.”
ACID TESTS 2.0 – THE NEW WAVE OF PSYCHEDELIC RESEARCH
Since Strassman broke the silence, psychedelics research has vigilantly recommenced. In 2006, Johns Hopkins published a study on mystical experiences in healthy subjects. It was the first study to administer a substantial dose of psilocybin to subjects without any history of prior exposure to the compound.
The Johns Hopkins researchers maintained a very low profile until the paper was released, says lead researcher Roland Griffiths. Two years later, they followed up with a paper outlining safety guidelines for human hallucinogen research.
The success of Griffiths’ and Strassman’s studies heralded the new age of psychedelics research, a field that is quickly growing and benefiting from a lot of positive feedback, according to Burge. Two of the biggest subjects are the effects of psilocybin and LSD on anxiety in terminally ill patients and those suffering from addiction.
Griffiths’ ongoing study looks at administering psilocybin to advanced-stage cancer patients as treatment for end-of-life anxiety and depression; he is also helping run a pilot study that looks at the possibility of helping people quit smoking by combining psilocybin with a cognitive behavioral therapy program. Both of these studies have found strong, positive effects, and parallel studies are being conducted at institutions around the country.
But one important aspect of psychedelic drugs has not been addressed in the current wave of research: the connection between psychedelic drugs and creativity.
“The choice to focus on things like PTSD and terminal illnesses is of course deliberate,” says Burge. “It’s because those are serious issues and nobody can argue—there’s a great deal of sympathy in that area. But our ultimate goal is not just to limit it to medical studies.”
That goal may still be years away, as psychedelics researchers’ biggest hurdle now is finding government funding for continuing research. Advocating for nonmedical research could also reignite the cultural fires that shut down research in the first place. Both Burge and Griffiths agree that therapeutic studies are the safer bet in terms of garnering increasing support and funding for the field.
Still, the therapeutic studies currently underway could be transformative, Griffiths says.
“There’s a cultural orientation to our actual fear of death that causes many people to grasp for the last straw within days of passing,” he says. “If psilocybin does what we think it does—produce a significant change in attitudes about death and dying in a way that’s uplifting for both patient and family—that’s very positive.”
Anca Ulea is a former PT editorial intern.
Image credits: Shutterstock; Fotopedia.