“In the 50s and early 60s, acid is treated as this miracle drug, this unprecedented way to get insight into the human mind,” Jarnow told Seeker. “Gradually, over course of the early 60s, you see this shift in attitude. Acid is starting to leak out into the counterculture and the underground, and finally it’s criminalized in late 1966.”
In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, creating the Drug Enforcement Agency and listing LSD as a Schedule I narcotic — defined as having “no accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse” — along with heroin and marijuana. With the War on Drugs declared, funding for LSD research dried up and acid was driven deeper underground. A few rogue psychiatrists continued to treat patients with LSD, but they did so quietly and couldn’t publish the results of their practice.
In 1986, the non-profit research organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) was founded to revive the rigorous scientific study of psychedelics. Rick Doblin created MAPS in direct response to the criminalization of MDMA (the active ingredient in Ecstasy), which he believed held tremendous potential as a therapeutic agent. The mission of MAPS was to combat the War on Drugs by proving that Schedule I drugs like LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA had legitimate medical uses.
At first, that mission seemed like a longshot. Double-blind, placebo-controlled research studies are expensive and no government funding agency would touch psychedelics. Plus researchers had to win approval from the FDA and the DEA to treat study participants with a Schedule I drug.
Brad Burge, communications director at MAPS, told Seeker that back in the 1980s and early 1990s, psychedelics researchers would submit all the required protocols to the regulatory bodies, “and the applications would just disappear.”
But groups like MAPS and other psychedelic advocates kept at it, submitting and resubmitting research applications while educating academics on the therapeutic potential of compounds like LSD, which showed so much promise before the hippie acid tests and criminalization shuttered the psychological studies.
RELATED: The ‘Hallucination Machine’ Alters Consciousness in the Name of Science
All that work finally seems to be paying off as psychedelics, including LSD, are experiencing a full-blown research renaissance. The tipping point came in 2006 with an article published by Roland Griffiths, a respected psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which showed that a single dose of psilocybin — also first isolated by Albert Hofmann from psychoactive mushrooms in Mexico — can trigger “mystical experiences” that have a lasting positive psychological effect.
James Fadiman, author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, credits the Griffiths article — which was the product of a years-long effort among psychedelics advocates to cultivate relationships with mainstream researchers — with shifting the scientific and cultural conversation around LSD. It also helped that an estimated 26 million Americans, mostly well-educated, had experimented with psychedelics since their criminalization with no ill effects.
“The people who started what’s now called the ‘renaissance’ did it very carefully, found an impeccable institution, and someone with 30 years of publication around other kinds of drugs, and proceeded totally inside the cultural rules,” Fadiman told Seeker. “And since 26 million Americans already knew that it wasn’t dangerous, there was no pushback.”
Griffiths paper paved the way for a raft of groundbreaking psychedelics studies, including a 2016 study out of New York University that tested psilocybin on terminally ill patients experiencing acute anxiety about death. Again, a single psychedelic experience, guided by trained therapists, was enough to significantly improve the patient’s end-of-life outlook, freeing them to reap the most joy from their remaining time. Other recent studies have confirmed 1950s-era research that psychedelics can help smokers and alcoholics kick the addiction.
But some of the most exciting data has come out of Imperial College London, where Robin Carhart-Harris and colleagues administered psilocybin to people who had lived for decades with treatment-resistant major depression. Two weeks after psychedelic therapy, two-thirds of participants met the criteria for remission, meaning no symptoms of the disease. And nearly half remained depression-free three months later without any further treatment.
With funding from the psychedelic-friendly Beckley Foundation, Carhart-Harris has also done some of the first detailed brain scans of individuals on LSD and psilocybin. Functional MRI scans and magnetoencephalography reveal that psychedelics suppress the activity of something called the Default Mode Network, described as the “conductor” of the brain’s symphony of synapses. Carhart-Harris theorizes that the quieting of the Default Mode Network leads to the classic psychedelic experience of ego dissolution and a feeling of oneness with the universe.