A Return Trip: LSD Gets a Second Look

“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The author of this mid-1960s catchphrase, Timothy Leary—a Harvard professor-turned-enthusiast of psychedelic drugs—had high hopes for a world with hallucinogens. Leary even imagined that psychedelics like LSD and MDMA might help bring peace to a Vietnam War–weary world. The era was the heyday for hallucinogenic drug research conducted in the medical lab—and at home. “Behind the Shrooms—Part 1,” the first in a two-part series from Research Radio, explores the story of hallucinogens since then.

It’s been a tumultuous ride for the science of psychedelic drugs. When LSD was first synthesized in the 1940s, many scientists hoped such a substance could be used to model psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Interest in the drugs peaked in the 1960s, when hippies and yippies were turned on to their recreational and spiritual potential. Then, in 1962, a scandal broke over widespread administration of the experimental sleep-aid thalidomide to pregnant women. The drug was implicated in birth defects in nearly 10,000 babies worldwide, resulting in a massive overhaul of regulations on research on experimental drugs such as thalidomide—or LSD. The scandal, combined with rampant use of psychedelic drugs mostly by white middle-class youth in the years following, prompted a backlash within the political and medical communities that virtually halted drug research for the next 30 years.

But now, research on psychedelic drugs is making a comeback, and Nick Langlitz, assistant professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research, has been paying attention. Langlitz, who joined The New School in 2010, has spent much of his academic career studying those who study drugs.

“In the 1960s, hallucinogens became an icon of the counterculture,” says Langlitz. “The idea was to trip on LSD and lose your ego boundaries. For the hippies, it became a gesture of opposition to ‘the Establishment,’ but it also signaled unity—a coming together of people and cultures.” Despite the initial decline in research on hallucinogens, Langlitz, whose anthropological inquiry has focused on the connection between their neuropsychopharmacological investigation and new forms of mysticism, can conceive of a healthy future for the field.

Though Leary’s catchphrase implored people to indulge in hallucinogens to “drop out” or, as Langlitz puts it, “turn their back on capitalism and the competitive logic of modern society,” contemporary drug researchers have a different goal in sight. Over the last decade, psychiatrists at New York University or Johns Hopkins University have been experimenting with psilocybin—the active ingredient found in “magic mushrooms.” Studies have led them to conclude that further investigation could lead to alternative therapies for people struggling with depression and alcoholism and other drug dependencies. More recently, both universities have initiated clinical trials to aid terminal cancer patients suffering from end-of-life anxiety. So far, results have been positive, and the news media—in contrast to its earlier unfavorable views on psychedelic drug research, which contributed to its breakdown in the 1960s—now reviews such clinical trials with sympathy and optimism.

Langlitz can imagine that one day hallucinogens might be used regularly in such therapeutic settings to induce controlled trips in clients, thereby enriching sessions. Such a scenario faces many political, cultural, and economic obstacles, though. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, may be reluctant to underwrite research on products that consumers would use only a few times a year.

To read more about Langlitz’s look behind the scenes of hallucinogen research, visit his website or read his new book Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain.

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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that tells stories of academic inquiry at the university. From sustainability to psychology to politics, our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues for nearly a century–and now you can listen to their latest findings. Subscribe on iTunes.