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© 2018 MERRY JANE. All Rights Reserved.

Meet the Canadian “Psychedelic Revolutionaries” Who Pioneered LSD Research

Tune in, turn on, read up: In his latest book, author P.W. Barber details the brain-blazing scientists who studied acid, mescaline, and other mind-expanding substances in the 1950s and ‘60s.

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Lead image via. All other photos courtesy of the publisher

Psychedelic Revolutionaries: LSD and the Birth of Hallucinogenic Research (out now via University of Regina Press) is a gripping head-trip of a read regarding a team of brain-blazing scientists in Saskatchewan, Canada who were early pioneers in the study of acid, mescaline, and other mind-expanding substances during the 1950s and ’60s.

Author P.W. Barber chronicles the psychedelic saga like a page-turning thriller while also dropping massive doses of enlightening information. Aside from introducing us to the genius team of Nucks that embraced the cosmic abyss in a scientific setting, the book connects their efforts to iconic figures such as visionary author Aldous Huxley (who, while tripping, popularized the term "doors of perception") and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. (who himself examined if LSD could help treat addiction). Fascinatingly, the book also paints largely-revered '60s acid guru Dr. Timothy Leary as a nemesis, claiming that his public ballyhooing ignited societal fears and political grandstanding that may have impeded scientific progress in the controversial field.

In keeping with the subjects of Psychedelic Revolutionaries, author P.W. Barber has taken a quantum leap of his own with this book aimed at mainstream (i.e. — non-classroom) audiences. The Saskatchewan-based writer and researcher holds a master’s degree in history, and he spent almost an entire decade dedicated exploring, evaluating, and creating a narrative flow for an account of brilliant scientists at the forefront of radical new understandings and humanity-changing innovations. As a result, Psychedelic Revolutionaries is eminently readable and entertaining, as Barber rolls out massively complex figures and their even more massively complex ideas in a manner that hits the reader like a high in and of itself. The author took some time to talk to MERRY JANE about the psychedelic revolutionaries and the state of that revolution today — and the conversation was an illuinating trip from beginning to end. 

MERRY JANE: What led to your writing Psychedelic Revolutionaries?
P.W. Barber: What initially triggered my interest was Aldous Huxley's essay The Doors of Perception and his reference to the Saskatchewan model psychosis work with the hallucinogen mescaline and [scientists] Hoffer and Osmond's adrenaline-based hypothesis for schizophrenia.

The book focuses on the work of three pioneers — Humphry Osmond, Abram Hoffer, and Duncan Blewett. Can you tell us a little bit about each of them?
I think all three individuals can be viewed as innovative forefathers of psychedelic science. Osmond, who most will remember as the originator of the term "psychedelic," came to Saskatchewan in 1951 to assume the position of clinical director, and subsequently superintendent, of a large mental hospital in Weyburn. He partnered with Hoffer, a biochemist and psychiatrist by trade, who was Director of Research for the province's Psychiatric Service Branch (PSB). The two men set out to study hallucinogens in the hope they might solve the riddle of schizophrenia.

How did LSD and other hallucinogens fit in with schizophrenia?
At a time when Freudian/psychoanalytical thought dominated psychiatry and theories surrounding schizophrenia, Osmond and Hoffer led the way in the turn towards biological psychiatry.

As with other hallucinogenic researchers in the 1950s, the Saskatchewan research was initially preoccupied with the psychotomimetic ("madness mimicking") properties of the drugs and their ability to offer a glimpse into the worldview of patients with schizophrenia and other psychoses. But the province quickly separated itself from the rest of the pack in advancing the first specific biochemical theory for the disease (i.e., the adrenaline metabolite hypothesis) which in turn led to a unique paradigm for understanding, diagnosing, and treating the [mental illness].

The Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada

What are some elements that the three researchers shared in common? In what ways were they different?
All three men shared a commitment to making improvements in mental health and advancing psychedelic research and the scientific and medical uses of the drugs. They were also proponents of a different style of science wherein the subjective experience was an integral component, somewhat akin to the paradigm that anthropologist Nicolas Langlitz labeled as "mystical materialism."

If one was to put the three researchers on a spectrum of psychedelic researchers, I think Hoffer would fall somewhere on the more conservative side, with Blewett at the other end, and Osmond somewhere in the middle. Osmond, with his varied interests in psychedelic studies, was really the glue that held the research team together.

You mentioned Aldous Huxley. How else was he involved in the research?
Huxley was originally attracted to the schizophrenia research of Hoffer and Osmond, their use of the "psychotomimetic" drugs to model madness, and the unique adrenaline-based hypothesis, which became the guiding focus for the Saskatchewan studies with hallucinogenic drugs.

This interest eventually led to a request from Huxley to Osmond for a guided mescaline experience, the end result being Huxley's recounting the trip in his Doors of Perception. From this point, until Huxley's death in 1963, the two remained closely associated with one another, meeting and corresponding regularly about the potential of the drugs and ideas for future research in the area. Many will remember that it was through this interaction that the term "psychedelic" was popularized in a rhyme by Osmond: "To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic."

Aldous Huxley pictured above

Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. also famously explored LSD as a potential treatment for alcoholism. How does he fit in with this narrative?
Bill W. was drawn to the other important offshoot of Saskatchewan's psychedelic research — the use of LSD-assisted therapy to treat alcoholism — and he became convinced of its potential in bringing about the kind of transformative spiritual conversions that were reported by many alcoholics in helping them to achieve sustained sobriety.

He was also an advocate of Hoffer and Osmond's megavitamin therapy, in particular the use of niacin in reducing the extreme anxiety and depression that many alcoholics experience. Many of the top officials within AA, of course, were scared by such public pronouncements and tried to temper their co-founder's enthusiasm for both LSD and niacin because of the immense controversy surrounding each of them as psychiatric treatment options.

Timothy Leary is, by definition, a controversial character. But in Psychedelic Revolutionaries, the controversy is not of the usual variety. Can you talk about that?
There's no discounting Leary as a major figurehead in 1960s countercultural history and the whole LSD movement. This is evidenced by the many epithets attached to him, be it the psychedelic "High Priest" or "Pied Piper," as well as his widely-quoted mantra "turn on, tune in, drop out."

But in the eyes of many of the psychedelic researchers of the time, and even today, Leary's recklessness and the religious, almost messianic, zeal with which he promoted the drugs to society did much to derail legitimate scientific and medical pursuits with the drugs.

As Leary's early psychedelic career was getting off the ground, he became thoroughly intrigued by the research taking place [in Saskatchewan], for example the LSD-assisted psychotherapy to treat alcoholism. He was especially fascinated by Blewett's Handbook for the Therapeutic Use of LSD, which he reportedly borrowed from without ever giving Blewett his due credit.

As Leary became more radicalized in his views, Hoffer and Osmond were quick to separate themselves from any association with him and Osmond went out of his way on several occasions to dissuade Leary from pursuing the destructive course he was on.

Blewett, on the other hand, was a bit more sympathetic to Leary's ideas and the two men shared some similarities, be it their background in behavioral psychology, their focus on the spiritual nature of the psychedelic experience and psychedelics as tools for self-understanding and awareness, or their trickster nature… which is probably why some have portrayed Blewett as the Canadian version of Leary.

Young Abram Hoffer in the lab

As restrictions on marijuana are loosening in the U.S. at the same time that opioid addiction has become a national crisis, in what ways is it important that the book is being published now in 2018?
Interesting you make reference to these trending issues because just this week a report was released showing just how serious the opioid crisis has become in Canada. Full legalization of marijuana will also become a reality in Canada in a few weeks with the passing of Bill C-45.

Without a doubt the book is "timely" given the renewal of interest in psychedelics in scientific communities and other circles, but the release was not purposely timed to occur with this gradual resurgence. It was more serendipity than anything else.

If anything, I hope the book contributes to more informed debate on the larger subject of psychedelic science and the role played by the Saskatchewan researchers in its history and what relevance it might have for contemporary research efforts in the field. I think that the Saskatchewan research has many important lessons and insights to offer to today's researchers in their various pursuits.

These days, we often hear talk of "micro-dosing" and LSD being used to address depression and anxiety. So what is the state of hallucinogenic research right now?
With regards to the recent popularity of micro-dosing, wherein sub-perceptual doses of LSD (approximately a tenth of a regular dose) are administered with the expectation it will increase creativity and optimal mental functioning, the reports have mostly been of an anecdotal nature and owing to the work of psychedelic researchers like James Fadiman.

While the microdosing trend is all the rage in places like Silicon Valley, many contemporary researchers in the field will point to the fact that micro-dosing is still at the theory stage and that its purported merits have yet to be proven in randomized-controlled trials.

In terms of other psychedelic research taking place, there are areas of study that are much further along than micro-dosing. From the mid-1990s on, we have seen a wide variety of experimental research and clinical avenues being pursued, from neuroimaging studies examining the effects of LSD and psilocybin on brain functioning and neurotransmitter systems (e.g., serotonin), to the use of psilocybin and MDMA (ecstasy) assisted therapy in the treatment of end-of-life anxiety/depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), treatment-resistant depression, alcohol-use disorder, and nicotine addiction.

Young Humphrey Osmond pictured above

What is the future of hallucinogenic research?
Good question. At this time, I would say we are still in the early days of the so-called renaissance in psychedelic science, with several experimental research studies and clinical trials at various stages. Thus far, many of the studies — like the use of psilocybin as a psychotherapeutic aid for alcohol use disorder or nicotine addiction — have revealed startlingly positive outcomes, which, if true and able to stand up to the scrutiny of replication studies, could have major ramifications for psychiatry and medicine.

Perhaps the most advanced work to date has been the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD which is currently undergoing phase three clinical trials in the U.S., Israel, and Canada and which some, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have referred to as a potential "breakthrough" therapy. While these signs are definitely promising, there are still a number of significant hurdles that [researchers] will have to be overcome before any real advancement of psychedelics occurs in the psychiatric and medical mainstream.

What are some of the obstacles researchers face today?
Perhaps the biggest barriers are the regulatory ones, namely the fact that many psychedelics continue to be classed as Schedule I controlled drugs. At this time, heroin, which many medical professionals would argue is much more dangerous than psychedelics, is easier to research because of how it is scheduled.

Another hurdle is the funding required for the necessary research and clinical trials. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies have not been rushing to provide the necessary support for such studies, likely because things like psychedelic therapy today poses a similar threat to the industry that it did in the '50s and '60s.

I mean if your business depended upon having clients take your medications on a daily basis for months and years, why would you fund something that could get similar or better results in one or two sessions? It would throw a real wrench into the current market. Fortunately, a good deal of the contemporary research efforts have gotten off of the ground through the dedication and generous support of non-profit organizations such as Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Heffter Institute, and other philanthropic avenues.

Stigma around these drugs also remains an enormous barrier, not surprising given that words like "LSD" commonly evoke images of '60s counterculture, with all of its excesses, as well as the abuses that occurred under covert government programs like the CIA's MK Ultra program, which sought to use hallucinogens as weapons and brainwashing agents (a story profiled in the recent Netflix series Wormwood).

A more balanced portrayal of psychedelics and shift in attitude, both within and outside of the scientific community, may have to occur before psychedelics' scientific and medical value are recognized. Some popular myths and misconceptions tied to the drugs and their history must also be laid to rest.

"Psychedelic Revolutionaries" is out now through the University of Regina Press

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