Will Harvard drop acid again?
Psychedelic research returns to Crimsonland
By PETER BEBERGAL
May 28, 2008 2:54:43 PM
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In a moment of delightful whimsy in the annals of drug history, Albert Hofmann, after purposely ingesting LSD for the first time, rode his bicycle home and experienced all manner of beatific and hellish visions. Hofmann, a chemist with Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, had recently synthesized the compound lysergic acid diethylamide (a/k/a LSD, or “acid”) from ergot fungus. A few days earlier, on April 16, 1943, Hofmann had accidentally absorbed LSD through his fingertips and began experiencing “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Curious about the rabbit hole into which he had tripped, Hofmann dissolved some of the compound into water and deliberately swallowed a dose before taking his bicycle journey home — and elsewhere.
This experience set the stage for what was to become one of the most profound cultural forces in America, the use — and abuse — of psychedelic drugs. LSD, as well as other hallucinogens, would go on to help shape our ideas of consciousness, religion, and law for decades to come. From Timothy Leary’s proclamation to “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” to the spiritual underpinnings of the New Age movement, psychedelics would prove to be a restless burden for both the drugs’ users and the government that tried to suppress their use.
Hofmann, who died this past April at the age of 102, watched it all play out, horrified by the behavior of both drug users and opponents. He winced as the hippies took LSD with wild abandon, and wrung his hands as the government, here and abroad, criminalized LSD and other psychedelic compounds. But Hofmann also lived long enough to see it all come full circle. By the time he died, legitimate above-ground psychedelic research was alive and well at places like Johns Hopkins and, even more telling, at Harvard University, the latter under the guidance of Dr. John Halpern. Sitting a little to the left and outside of Halpern is Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit research group that, through the support of members and donors, helps fund scientists to do bona fide work with psychedelics in the hopes of legitimizing their therapeutic use. Together, the two men form a kind of psychedelic odd couple: Halpern is young but traditional and cautious, a scientist first and foremost. Doblin is a veteran in this world, a little rougher around the edges, and speaks openly about his own psychedelic adventures and his vision for less drug prohibition.
Nearly 50 years ago, Leary and his colleague Richard Albert created the Harvard Psilocybin Project, only to be fired by the university a few years later under scandalous circumstances. Harvard had not taken up this kind of drug research since that time. But after years of fundraising and petitioning for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, this past February, under the auspices of Harvard, Halpern began administering MDMA (better known to the Glo-Stick crowd as Ecstasy) to dying cancer patients, to see how they psychologically benefit from the drug. And now Halpern is also hoping to get approval from Harvard for a project that will evaluate the effects of LSD and psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms) on patients suffering from the debilitating condition known as cluster headaches.
I meet Dr. Halpern — considered the most important above-ground scientist in America willing to investigate hallucinogenic drugs — at McLean Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, where he is assistant professor of psychiatry. Halpern, 39, has been at McLean since 1998 and made a name for himself in 2005 with a groundbreaking research project studying peyote use within the Native American Church. Prior to that, Halpern worked on projects related to drug addiction, and the use of hallucinogens to treat it.
Before we head into his office at McLean, Halpern wants to take a walk in the woods that surround the hospital’s Belmont grounds. It is a crisp spring morning, and I half expect Halpern to pick and ingest some lichen, or start scraping some bark off a tree that he would brew into a psychedelic tea. Eventually we find our way to his office, where I imagined would be cushions on the floor, or maybe a giant statue of Shiva or Vishnu. What I see instead is the office of a typical Harvard professor: wall-to-ceiling papers, books, and journals. And while the screen-saver on his computer monitor is decidedly psychedelic, there is nothing here to suggest I am in the den of a mad Harvard scientist, hell-bent on dosing the collective American consciousness with LSD. In fact, when I mention the ghost of Leary and his legacy, Halpern smiles and says, “Well, we have seen how not to do it, haven’t we?”
Leery of Leary
In 1959, Leary had just begun a lecturer position in psychology at Harvard. After an acquaintance told him about the religious history of psychedelic mushrooms, Leary decided to try it for himself. He wrote later that it completely transformed his understanding of consciousness, and sent him on a path from which, except for a few stints in prison, he would never stray. Along with his colleague at Harvard, and fellow psychology professor Albert (today known as Baba Ram Dass), Leary was able to begin a legitimate study of psilocybin and other drugs, sanctioned by the university with the promise by Leary and Albert that they would keep it aboveboard.
Eventually it was discovered by university officials that Leary and Albert were indeed giving LSD and psilocybin to undergraduates, as well as to other professors. By then the rumor mill was at full tilt; 1963 saw an explosion of talk on campus about all-night drug parties at Leary’s house.
A few days before Leary and Albert were officially expelled in May of 1963, the New York Times reported that the decision to oust the duo had already come down from the college president, Nathan Pusey. The paper described a growing fear among officials at Harvard and other colleges of students holding “private psilocybin parties.”
Leary and Albert acquired a huge and shambling mansion in Milbrook, New York, where they continued their experiments. They were regularly visited by artists, musicians, and freaks of every kind. LSD became illegal in 1966 (psilocybin in 1971) and many of the original researchers, including Hofmann, were unhappy with where Leary had taken the public’s understanding of the drug. Leary, they complained, took them out of the purview of science and put them into the hands of, well, dirty hippies everywhere.
But the criminalization of such hallucinogens as LSD and mushrooms didn’t just affect the Haight-Ashbury crowd. Eventually, authorities targeted other hallucinogens and made them illegal as well. Mescaline, the psychedelic compound found in the peyote cactus, was also listed as a Schedule 1 drug (meaning it was understood to have no accepted medical use, a high potential for dependence or harm, and no parameters for safe administration). Nevertheless, Native Americans had long used this plant as an important part of their religious rituals. Halpern, who spent years working with Native Americans for his research, witnessed firsthand how dear peyote is to them and their culture. “This is their heart,” says Halpern. “The leaders say, ‘You have taken our land, tried to take our way of life, our language, now all we have left is this peyote.’ ” Eventually, in 1996, under very strict regulations, members of the Native American Church (NAC) were given permission to use peyote in their ceremonies, but this did little to change the national anxiety over psychedelic drugs.
Halpern’s research revealed that members of the NAC suffer no ill effects from the ingestion of peyote, and in fact have lower rates of alcoholism and drug addiction than the general population. I was curious whether Halpern participated in any of the ceremonies and, if so, if he had lost any objectivity as a scientist. “I had been invited by the leadership of NAC to ‘pray with them,’ which means to take peyote,” says Halpern. “I would not be able to do the work if I had not.” As a scientist, his job was to report harms if he found them. But he didn’t find any.
‘It’s about legitimate science’
When it comes to drug research, even professionals tend to be skeptical. Halpern says that some of his peers accused him of not doing legitimate work, but he defends it by noting that he wasn’t doing it alone in a bong-filled vacuum: “What about all my collaborators? What about the senior professors who are supervising my work, or the biostatisticians who evaluate the entire data set, or the research assistants independent of me, who are entering in the data? Are all those people biased too? It almost takes on a level of paranoia that something wrong is happening.”
So how did researching peyote lead Halpern to study MDMA and LSD, which have no accepted sacramental use? Halpern explains that the question of their status as psychedelic drugs with a controversial history is secondary to the possibility that they have real medical use, and immediately points to the example of Thalidomide, which caused terrible birth defects in children born in the late ’50s/early ’60s. Nevertheless, he notes, the drug did prove to have tremendous usefulness for alleviating pain in certain forms of cancer and very painful skin inflammation, and, under very controlled situations, is still prescribed.
“When Schedule 1 drugs are shown that they are effective, they become Schedule 2,” says Halpern. “And if they are abused, they can be prosecuted as Schedule 1. Some [similar] arrangement could be made for some of these [hallucinogenic] compounds, as well.”
It’s true Halpern is giving MDMA to dying cancer patients who are suffering from related anxiety, but he explains that these are not take-home medicines. The same would be true of LSD if his study of that drug is approved, which he hopes will happen sometime this year. First he must deliver protocols to McLean’s Institutional Review Board. If these are accepted, he can go to the FDA to get its approval to use LSD in a clinical trial.
The idea for the LSD study came from an unexpected place. Because of his reputation as one of the few above-ground researchers dealing with hallucinogens, Halpern was contacted by a young man who suffered from cluster headaches, who also found a great deal of long-term relief when he used psilocybin and LSD.
According to Halpern, cluster headaches are one of the most painful conditions known in medicine — a gruesome illness. Sufferers have described it as an ice pick slowly and insidiously boring through one’s eye and into one’s skull. The afflicted have been known to bang their heads against a wall and pull their hair out. “People anthropomorphize it,” says Halpern. “They call it the devil.”
Through Internet research, Halpern found a large community of cluster-headache sufferers who had learned, on their own, that hallucinogens could interrupt their attacks. The individuals, mostly members of cluster-headache support groups, had independently discovered that they all used LSD and psilocybin to self-medicate.
They had tried to get the attention and backing of neurologists, in an effort to lend credibility to their claims. But, because of what Halpern called the rigmarole of doing research with these drugs — given all the federal hoops through which one has to jump — their efforts and pleas were ignored. They eventually found Halpern, and he and a number of other researchers managed to interview 53 cluster-headache sufferers who had taken hallucinogens. In a paper published in 2006 in the journal Neurology, Halpern noted that no other medication was known to stop cluster headaches. And yet a little acid or some magic mushrooms seemed to do the trick.
Now their hope is to get approval from the FDA, and for McLean Hospital to actually administer LSD to cluster-headache sufferers. One of the principal researchers in the preliminary cluster-headache project, Dr. Andrew Sewell, thinks that this study is unlike any other. “You can find 50 people on the Internet who will claim anything,” says Sewell, “but to get a control group like this showed that a clinical trial is viable.”
I suggest to Halpern that, for a researcher looking to conduct LSD experiments, it is mighty serendipitous that the cluster-headache group would come along. There is a paisley-speckled chicken-and-egg question: is Halpern trying to do research with hallucinogens or is he trying to help people with cluster headaches? “It’s about legitimate science,” he says. “Patients that are enrolled in a research study deserve no less, and it’s the only way we can get to the bottom of some of the questions that still remain about these drugs.” But does he hope a study like this will change thinking about how LSD could have benefits beyond its controlled medicinal value? “I am interested in this research,” he says, “if it further legitimates them as medicines. If they are not, then [they are] out of my field.” From an outsider’s perspective, he admits, research with these drugs may sound controversial. But, he insists, these questions and his research are scientifically sound.
“Harvard and McLean have very high standards and I have fierce loyalty to them,” explains Halpern, obviously couching his words carefully. “If I am going to ask the institution to do something that is potentially stressful in the public eye, it better darn well be for the right reasons.”
Dr. James Fadiman, for one, thinks the cluster-headache work is a novel piece of research. “But this kind of work doesn’t say much about psychedelics,” says Fadiman, who is a psychologist with long ties to the psychedelic community (including experiments with Leary) and who is co-founder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, which trains clinicians to focus on states of higher consciousness and the spiritual dimensions of human experience. What Fadiman wants to know is not how well LSD works on headaches, but the mechanism that makes it work. “For example,” he asks, “do the headache sufferers experience an out-of-body awareness?” The medical community accepted acupuncture only when it was proven that it heightened endorphins. Without some existing model to measure it by, the medical community won’t accept LSD as medicine, no matter the patients’ claims that their headaches have stopped.
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PIONEER TRIPPER: In 1943 Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD and
experienced “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures,
extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
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The three-headed beast
Imagine you are standing before the gate of Hades, which is guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. But instead of ripping you to shreds, he offers you some choice acid and a detailed map of the underworld. The world of psychedelic drug use is not unlike this friendly, electric-Kool-Aid-doling version of the ultimate hellhound. The first head is that of the drug-adoring hippies who grow their own mushrooms and continue to nurture conspiracy theories about the drugs while they search for a mystical experience from them. The second belongs to the scientists: people like Halpern; Roland Griffiths, who led a study in psilocybin and mysticism at Johns Hopkins; and Rick Strassman, whose 1990 then-radical research into DMT — the powerful drug found in the psychedelic drink ayahuasca favored by South American shamans — opened the door for legitimate psychedelic research, research done under very controlled and rigorous conditions. And the third head is a weird conglomeration of the other two, typical of such folks as Daniel Pinchbeck, who lauds the spiritual benefits of DMT and uses a kind of pseudo-science to, er, chart the date of the apocalypse, all the while having serious and sober proclamations to issue about the environment and technology. But many times — particularly when tripping on some fine blotter acid — these heads merge into a single face.
At the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, Switzerland, this past March, those in attendance included Pinchbeck, the psychedelic artist Alex Grey, and a number of ethnobotanists, shamans, psychics, psychiatrists, and chemists — including Hofmann — to name a few. That all these individuals could unite under the umbrella of their interest in psychedelic drugs points to an underlying shared concern: is there a future for psychedelics outside of Phish concerts? And can this be achieved when, alongside those doing serious research, there are those who believe themselves to be reincarnations of Quetzalcoatl?
Doblin thinks he has the solution. I meet with the founder and president of MAPS at his house in a quiet neighborhood in Belmont. Again, as was the case with Halpern, there is little to suggest that this is the home of a leading anti-prohibitionist and one of the most important figures in the story of psychedelic-drug research. The house shows more signs of kids and dogs and a happy family life than Doblin’s work. I wonder if the neighbors know the guy next door mowing his lawn has probably taken more trips than a host of Logan-centric frequent flyers.
Doblin’s psychedelic story began in 1971, when he was 18 and wanted to become a psychedelic psychotherapist in the tradition of Stanislav Grof, who was the first to work with LSD as a therapeutic agent. But, to Doblin, there was a problem: “I was waking up as everything was being shut down.” So he dropped out of college and worked as a carpenter — and at becoming a seasoned LSD traveler. Ten years later he went back to school, recognizing that, if he was going to do anything involving psychedelic drugs that would be taken seriously, it would have to be above ground.
In 1982, Doblin’s work in psychedelic research was suddenly given a purpose. While use of MDMA was legal (it had not yet made its impact in the underground), the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) suggested it was going to start the process of criminalization. Doblin gathered together a group of above-ground researchers under the name the Earth Metabolic Design Lab (EMDL) and they decided to sue the DEA. The board of advisers included practically everybody in the field of psychedelic research at the time, including Dr. Andrew Weil and Laura Huxley (widow of the late Aldous).
By 1985, Doblin and his colleagues were making in-roads. Until, that is, Doblin was a guest on The Phil Donahue Show. As the spokesperson for the EMDL, he explained that MDMA should be a Schedule 3 drug: only illegal without a prescription. Donahue asked him what he thought about other uses. “I said I thought prohibition was a disaster and ‘recreational use’ is a pejorative term,” recalls Doblin. “It caused a big problem, and I was labeled the Tim Leary of the ‘80s.” Some of the people in Doblin’s group were government funded and many threatened to resign from the EMDL if he kept speaking out publicly against drug prohibition. “So I decided I would resign,” says Doblin.
Without Doblin’s leadership, the group dissipated. By 1986, Doblin was even more convinced that his work needed to move from the counterculture to the mainstream, and so he founded MAPS. MAPS has helped support a number of projects, including FDA-approved marijuana studies and an LSD study in Switzerland. But Doblin still wanted to pursue his teenage dream of becoming a psychedelic therapist — helping people to move through trauma and other neuroses with the guided use of hallucinogens. If he is anything like Leary, he’s Leary sans egotism and self-importance.
Doblin applied to a number of PhD programs, but no one wanted to support a grad student who was looking to use psychedelics in psychotherapy. In what Doblin describes as a stoned insight, he realized that, since politics kept getting in the way of the work he wanted to do, maybe he should study the politics. His application to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was accepted, and in 2001 he received his PhD. But despite his Harvard affiliation, Doblin’s reputation and MAPS’s ties to the underground often remain a heavy burden.
In 1992, Doblin wanted to do an MDMA study with Halpern, but he needed to demonstrate to McLean that MAPS is not a cheerleader for the drug and is genuinely interested in risks as well as benefits. “The methodological rigor of MAPS’s research should all overwhelm the fact that I happen to believe that prohibition is a bad idea,” says Doblin.
Early MDMA tests focused on neurocognitive effects that deal with behavior and memory related to brain function. But Doblin believes these studies were flawed because most users of MDMA do other drugs, making it impossible to know if any cognitive deficits were a result of MDMA use alone. And as serendipitous as the cluster-headache e‑mail was for Halpern, Doblin received information from a MAPS member about a group of people who have done MDMA exclusively, with almost no history of prior drug or alcohol use: young fallen Mormons in Utah.
Doblin went to Halpern and Halpern’s boss, Harrison “Skip” Pope, and proclaimed his objectivity. He says, “I told them ‘I’m fine with risk. I don’t have to be defensive about this drug. Let’s do the best study we can do.’ ” MAPS gave McLean $15,000 for a pilot study with the Mormons. Eventually, the National Institute on Drug Abuse gave McLean $1.8 Million for further MDMA research. The next project that Doblin and Halpern wanted to launch was the MDMA cancer study.
MAPS was getting money for Halpern’s salary and other preliminary steps to get the psychedelic research off the ground, and then finally got permission from the FDA in 2004. In January 2006, however, McLean installed a new president, Dr. Jack Gorman, who had worked in the federal drug czar’s office. Gorman looked at what McLean was about to sign off on — the first psychedelic study at Harvard since 1966 — and stopped the project in its tracks. “I knew this was important research,” Doblin tells me. “People are dying in pain and fear.” But there was no way Gorman was going to green light a study involving Doblin, a known drug user and an anti-prohibitionist with a penchant for suing the government. “So MAPS withdrew,” explains Doblin, and instructed one of its major funders to donate directly to McLean.
Still, Doblin didn’t go that quietly. He was able to get permission to cross-reference whatever data comes out of the study, which he hopes to use for MAPS’s own mission to get MDMA (and hopefully other psychedelics) made legal for therapeutic purposes. (Gorman abruptly resigned his post in May 2006, and later admitted to having “inappropriate sexual contact” with a patient while at McLean.)
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SPREADING THE JOY: Baba Ram Dass (Richard Albert) worked
(and played) with Timothy Leary at Harvard and became the
spiritual leader of the psychedelic movement. (Click to enlarge)
Brave new world
Long before Leary, a number of prominent thinkers and scientists were dropping acid, eating mushrooms, and changing some long-held notions about mind and consciousness. Ironically, the first instance of psychedelic research in America also began at Harvard, this one in the late 19th century. Philosopher and psychologist William James, in an attempt to understand mystical states of consciousness, experimented with Nitrous oxide, which he believed “simulates the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree.” In 1882 and 1889, James published a number of articles, both anonymously (in The Atlantic Monthly) and under his own name.
But psychedelics weren’t going to embed themselves into the psychic landscape on their own. The first real American psychedelic milestone occurred in 1953, when Aldous Huxley was given mescaline by Humphrey Osmond, a scientist with an interest in LSD and consciousness. Huxley wrote about his experience in the now classic work The Doors of Perception, which he titled after a quote from the visionary poet William Blake. Few could have foreseen that this slight little tome about an intellectual’s illumination and personal psychedelic journey would have shot such a powerful solar flare out into the cultural atmosphere.
Not long after Huxley’s publication, other scholars and writers started taking psilocybin, writing papers, and performing many other experiments. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s saw an explosion of above-ground psychedelic research. For the most part, even those affiliated with such places as Harvard were not afraid to discuss their own experiences with these drugs.
Leary’s Harvard stint and the criminalization of psychedelics profoundly affected serious researchers’ and others’ ability to talk candidly. Nevertheless, this candor helped get funding for research at places like Harvard. Halpern is intensely private, which in his case helps both the science and the institutions.
On the other hand, Doblin’s work has been shaped by his experiences, and while MAPS as an organization wants the same thing Halpern does, which is to assess the medicinal value of these drugs, Doblin’s own vision is further reaching. He envisions a day when there are psychedelic clinics and, after someone participates in a workshop, or better yet, passes a “test” that demonstrates they can safely drive these drugs around the highways and side streets of their consciousness, as Doblin says, “They can get a license that will allow them to use psychedelics privately.”
More than 40 years ago, some psychedelic investigators imagined LSD playgrounds, Disneyworlds of drugs where people could drop acid and frolic in a land of cellophane flowers and newspaper taxis. Doblin’s vision is more realistic, but the idea that psychedelics could one day become a regular part of our culture is not so different. Neither Halpern nor Doblin wants to try to levitate the Pentagon, but I imagine that, of the two of them, Doblin wouldn’t mind trying.
Halpern seems content to work in his lab, although beyond his field work with Native Americans in his peyote study, he has spent time on the firing line. Between 2002 and 2005, Halpern was a ranger at Burning Man for something called Sanctuary, a kind of official safe house that provided psychotherapy and support for people who were having a rough time with a drug trip.
For Doblin and MAPS’s mission, Halpern’s work is central to their hope that MDMA, LSD, and other hallucinogens will be legally administrable. He would also like to see the public’s fear of these drugs dissipate as we come to understand them as real medicines. And for Doblin, there is nothing better than having this happen at Harvard. “Harvard is where Timothy Leary blew it,” he says. “Bringing this research back to Harvard is a symbol of cultural healing.”
Halpern, meanwhile, wants to continue researching the legitimacy of these drugs, despite what people think about the company he might have to keep. “We’ll continue to have friends from all kinds of places,” he admits, “and sometimes people will even identify themselves as opponents.” It’s possible those opponents might even come from the underground. Making psychedelic drugs legitimate could put the regulation of them into the hands of people who don’t understand what many believe is the drugs’ spiritual value. Sometimes all you need is a trip to the woods and a handful of mushrooms, not a million-dollar research study. “Freedom of religion should include the right to explore one’s own consciousness,” says Fadiman, “and these drugs should be made available with full information and training.”
Hofmann’s famous book on the subject is LSD, My Problem Child, and he hoped it would be accepted as his wonder child. But there is a perception that anyone trying to work with these substances is, by default, in the radical — some would say irresponsible — tradition of Leary, not the sober, scientific one of Hofmann. “There are no hidden agendas,” says Halpern about his own work. “But medicine is about taking risks — and sometimes looking in unusual places.”
Peter Bebergal is a freelance writer based in Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com