Psychiatric Research With Hallucinogens: What Have We Learned?

After a twenty-five year period of virtual prohibition, formal psychiatric research with hallucinogenic drugs has resumed. This article reviews the process by which hallucinogens came to be viewed as beyond the pale of respected and sanctioned clinical investigation, and directs attention to the importance of fully understanding the lessons of the past so as to avoid a similar fate for recently approved research endeavors. The shamanistic use of hallucinogenic plants as agents designed to facilitate healing, acquire knowledge and enhance societal cohesion were brutally repressed in both the Old and New Worlds by the progenitors of our own contemporary Euro-American culture, often with complicity of the medical professions. Knowledge of the properties and potentials of these consciousness altering plants was forgotten or driven deeply underground for centuries. It was not until the late 1800s that German pharmaceutical researchers investigating the properties of peyote re-discovered the profound and highly unusual effects of these substances. A dispute anticipating the virulent controversies of the 1960s ensued, however, pitting proponents of this new model of consciousness exploration against those who questioned the propriety of their colleagues’ enthusiasm for self experimentation and penchant for sweeping proclamations. The history of hallucinogen research in the 20th century has revolved around this regrettable polarization, and as such has impeded the evolution of the field.

Developments in the second half of the 20th century were catalyzed by the remarkable discoveries of the Swiss research chemist, ALBERT HOFMANN. In the wake of his synthesis of the extraordinarily potent psychoactive substance, Iysergic acid diethylamide, a period of active investigation ensued. Notable gains were accomplished utilizing the psychotomimetic model for understanding mental illness and the low dose psycholytic approach for the treatment of a variety of psychiatric conditions. However, it soon became apparent that these models possessed inherent limitations when applied to the orthodox psychiatric constructs then in vogue. The implementation of the high dose psychedelic model, in spite of its apparent utility in treating resistant conditions such as refractory alcoholism, presented even greater difficulties in conforming to the boundaries of conventional theory and practice. Acceptance of hallucinogens as reputable tools for investigation and agents for treatment were dealt a further and near fatal blow when they became embroiled in the cultural wars of the 1960s. Together with revelations of unethical activities of psychiatric researchers under contract to military intelligence and the CIA, the highly publicized and controversial behaviors of hallucinogen enthusiasts led to the repression of efforts to formally investigate these substances. For the next twenty-five years research with hallucinogens assumed pariah status within academic psychiatry, virtually putting an end to formal dialogue and debate.

We now have before us the opportunity to resurrect the long dormant field of hallucinogen research. However, if we are to avoid replicating the debacle of the past it is imperative that we learn from the lessons of prior generations of researchers who saw their hopes and accomplishments dissipate under the pressures of cultural apprehension and the threat of professional ostracism. It is essential that we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We are now beginning to take definitive steps to end the protracted period of silence and inactivity, but we must be ever mindful to do so tactfully and with respect for the anxieties that will inevitably be provoked in our colleagues. We must strive to facilitate dialogue and even active collaboration with those who in the past may have been loathe to even acknowledge that this might be a field worthy of study. We must also adhere to current and accepted models of research design, for to disregard the state of contemporary scientific investigation would ultimately undermine our goals of fully exploring the rich potentials of these substances. It will also be critical to learn from the wisdom accrued over the ages by the aboriginal practitioners of shamanic healing, for therein lies the benefits of thousands of years of experience with hallucinogenic plants. For more than two decades now the topic of hallucinogens as tools of clinical investigation and models for healing within has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

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