Feature

Peaking on the Prairies

Long before touching down in San Francisco, LSD was primed
to become a psychiatric wonder drug in Saskatoon

Photograph by Peter Fraser

All summers have their own record album, or at least they used to, and in 1967 the record that changed everything was simply called The Doors. I first heard it on a weekend in July when, with some friends, I drove to the Lake of the Woods district east of Winnipeg, climbed into a cramped tin boat with about ten people, blundered past nameless islands in the dark, and somehow found the cottage that someone’s parents had entrusted to their son for the weekend. (“Just use your judgment, dear.”)

At least a hundred teenagers were crowded into the second storey of the big boathouse, everyone drinking, and in one corner, a guy I recognized from school in Winnipeg was pretending to be a boulder while another guy was crawling over him pretending to be a river. This was not a typical high school beer party; it was a Dionysian revel with everyone lit up and barefoot girls dancing in slow motion to a record I had never heard before. When the record ended someone would turn it over and play it again, the same record over and over, and more than anything else the hypnotic chanting of Jim Morrison’s baritone voice set the tone for the night: Your fingers weave quick minarets/Speak in secret alphabets/I light another cigarette/Learn to forget…

At daybreak, with a white-hot sunrise in the screens and unconscious people lying about, I sat on the floor with a few others and listened to a guy I knew from school telling stories about a drug called lsd. He was a little older than the rest of us, owned a 1967 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and was regarded as the sort of guy who knew what was cool and might even explain it to you. “You have to try lsd,” he said. “It’s incredible. You look at that carpet, and it’ll turn into an alligator.” I had never taken acid, but I liked the sound of it.

As it turned out, purchasing lsd in Winnipeg wasn’t easy. But one Saturday afternoon in late October, a friend and I went to a pool hall where we met a fifteen-year-old nicknamed Ringo, who sold us two hits of Blue Microdot for $6 each. He explained that a trip lasted about eight hours. With a midnight curfew this presented a problem, but I gobbled mine down just before dinner anyway.

At first, nothing happened and everything seemed normal. My sisters dressed for their dates while my dad, with his trusty rye and coke in hand, adjusted the rabbit ears and settled into the La-Z-Boy to watch Hockey Night in Canada. But when I went outside, I saw something remarkable. It was a young tree, leafless now, emerging from the frozen ground and extending its graceful, slender fingers up toward the moon. It was just one of those fast-growing weed trees they plant in new suburbs, but it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. And it wasn’t beautiful just because I was affected by lsd. It had an inherent beauty that I hadn’t noticed before. That was many years ago, but I still remember that exquisite tree. Once you’ve taken lsd, a tree never looks quite the same again.

The psychedelic properties of lsd (lysergic acid diethylamide) were discovered by accident. In 1943, while millions of people were busily slaughtering each other across Europe, a young chemist named Albert Hofmann was doing research in neutral Switzerland. His subject was ergot, a cereal-grain fungus with a formidable reputation. In medieval villages, ergot was known to cause a fearsome plague called St. Anthony’s Fire. One of the derivatives of ergot that Hofmann experimented with was lysergic acid.

On April 16, 1943, Hofmann was brewing up a compound of lysergic acid when he accidentally came into contact with the substance, either by inhaling it or spilling a drop on his skin. Shortly thereafter he began having sensations so bizarre and disturbing that he went home, where he sank into what he later described as “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed… I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with [an] intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

Intrigued by the experience, Hofmann waited three days and then self-administered 0.25 milligrams of the same compound, lysergic acid diethylamide. He considered it a safe dosage, small enough to have no lethal effect. But lsd is potent, and he had given himself about five times what would later become a standard dose. This lsd trip was far more intense, with frightening hallucinations of witches and masks, followed by profound realizations of the power of the natural world. In his memoir, written many years later, Hofmann recalled that the experience taught him that people’s sense of reality was fragile. “What one commonly takes as the reality, including the reality of one’s own individual person, by no means signifies something fixed, but rather something that is ambiguous… there are many realities.” He believed that lsd might have potential as a tool for psychiatric research, and in 1947 his employer, Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, began to bottle it under the trade name Delysid.

Photograph by Peter Fraser

In 1952, Sandoz’s Montreal branch sent a package of lsd to Saskatchewan, where several psychiatrists hoped to experiment with the drug as a treatment for mental illness. Saskatchewan might seem like an odd place for research into mind-bending drugs, but during this period the province was one of North America’s most dynamic environments for research into mental illness. This was due in part to the generous funding of public medicine by Tommy Douglas and his ccf government, but also to the crusading work of Dr. Humphry Osmond and Dr. Abram Hoffer.

Hoffer was the son of a Justice of the Peace and he had grown up watching rcmp officers bringing people home, where his dad would conduct impromptu hearings in the kitchen. If a guest were deemed a lunatic—one well-dressed and cordial gentlemen insisted he was the Prince of Wales—Hoffer’s father would commit him to a mental hospital, from which such patients rarely returned. Back then, the treatment for schizophrenia (a fairly standard diagnosis) consisted mainly of inducing patients into comas using insulin, which caused some to die. Electroconvulsive therapy was also a common treatment technique—induced without anaesthetic, the convulsions were known to break patients’ bones. Having seen first-hand the plight of these harmless individuals, Hoffer became interested in mental illness. Later, when he became a doctor, he decided to study psychiatry because so little was known about mental disorders.

Hoffer’s English colleague, a British doctor named Humphry Osmond, had tried to get approval for using mescaline to treat schizophrenia, but was rebuffed so emphatically by English medical authorities that he vowed to move as far away from the country as possible. Saskatchewan, with its robust funding and wide-open ideology, seemed about right. Osmond met Hoffer soon after he arrived in the province, and the two psychiatrists formed an instant friendship. Both believed that the prevailing ideas about mental illness were fundamentally wrong. They hypothesized that schizophrenia was partly biochemical in origin. Osmond knew lsd, like mescaline, was a psychomimetic (madness-mimicking) drug that produced psychological effects similar to schizophrenia. He reasoned that if they could learn how to construct psychosis with lsd, they might also learn how to deconstruct it with a chemical antidote.

Osmond and Hoffer launched their studies in 1952, with start-up funding from the Saskatchewan government. One of the first tests took place in the Munroe Wing of the Regina General Hospital. Believing that the experience would help them to understand their debilitated patients, a number of doctors and nurses at the hospital volunteered to take lsd. The volunteers prepared themselves for an unpleasant day-long bout of hallucinations and paranoia, but the results were surprising. In written reports, most of the volunteers said their lsd experience provided them with moments of insight that they found both deeply affecting and difficult to describe.

Other psychiatrists from across the province soon joined the team, and chronic alcoholics volunteered to take lsd under their supervision. At the time, many psychiatrists considered alcoholism to be a character flaw—not a biochemical disease—and it was widely believed that alcoholics seldom quit drinking until they hit rock bottom and experienced all the grisly side effects of alcohol poisoning, such as the nightmarish hallucinations associated with delirium tremens. Hoffer and Osmond speculated that lsd might reproduce the psychosis associated with “rock bottom” but without the dangerous and sometimes fatal results that accompanied a serious bout of DTs.

Later, in 1955, psychiatrist Colin Smith conducted a further lsd experiment at University Hospital in Saskatoon, which had a remarkable effect on the twenty-four alcoholics involved. Follow-up surveys revealed that six reduced their drinking significantly, found jobs, and reconnected with friends and family. Another six swore off alcohol altogether. Again, the psychiatrists were surprised to learn that none of the volunteers had reported being traumatized or otherwise scared straight by their lsd experience. Most said that they had gained new understandings of themselves and had had redemptive visions. One described a beautiful spiral staircase leading upward and a mysterious voice offering powerful insights into life.

Meanwhile, in the United States, government intelligence agents were becoming interested in psychotropic drugs. The cia was particularly keen to find a chemical can opener for the brains of enemy agents. Nazi scientists had experimented with mescaline on prisoners at Dachau, and, after the war, some of these scientists were brought to the US to work on government-funded research. The cia had been tinkering with heroin and mescaline as interrogation aids, and with lsd the spy agency believed it had finally found its longed-for truth serum.

Bundled together, these top secret experiments were funded under a program called mkultra that ran from 1953 to 1964. Though most of the program’s files were destroyed in 1973 by order of then cia director Richard Helms, the US Senate and the Rockefeller Commission later determined that mkultra involved thousands of unwitting subjects at more than thirty universities and other major institutions in the US and Canada. The experiments generally tested the efficacy of various mind-control tactics using radio waves and psychoactive drugs. In one experiment, mkultra agents secretly dosed as many as 1,500 American soldiers with lsd and made them perform simple drills and parade marches while peaking on acid.

In another experiment, labelled Operation Midnight Climax, agents rented an apartment in San Francisco and hired prostitutes, who picked up citizens and brought them back to the space. The subjects consumed drinks spiked with lsd and tried to have sex while agents filmed the proceedings through a one-way mirror. In 1953, the cia held a three-day professional development workshop in a wooded retreat at Deep Creek Lodge in Maryland and dosed people with lsd without their knowledge. One of the group members, a biochemist named Frank Olson, had a history of emotional difficulties, and shortly after the conference he plunged through a window and fell thirteen storeys to his death. (Olson was allegedly uncomfortable with his work in chemical weapons, and some believe he was murdered by the cia. The controversy was serious enough that his body was exhumed forty years later, after which the head of the medical forensic team declared that the body showed injuries “rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide.”) Another infamous mkultra covert operative was the president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, who used electroconvulsion, paralytic drugs, and lsd to conduct brutal “psychic driving” experiments on unwitting subjects at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute.

Amid all this cloak-and-dagger experimentation, a mysterious cia operative named Al Hubbard decamped from the United States and moved to Daymen Island, near Vancouver, where he built a manor home on a sprawling twenty-four-acre estate, complete with an aircraft hangar and a large yacht. Hubbard was a mysterious figure. With his shaven head and .45-calibre pistol, the self-appointed “Captain” Hubbard—who had taken acid as part of his cia training—was a barrel-chested and jovial eccentric who reputedly presided over his secluded hideaway like a swell Colonel Kurtz. According to those who knew him, Hubbard was always vague about his specific duties with the cia. In any event, he arrived in British Columbia with several million dollars, broad connections in the US security establishment, and a very non-military enthusiasm for lsd.

Osmond met Hubbard through their mutual friend, Aldous Huxley. Osmond had become acquainted with Huxley when they both lived in England and had provided him with his first dose of mescaline, which the author used as inspiration for his book The Doors of Perception. (Huxley got the title from William Blake, and Jim Morrison later borrowed it for the name of his band.) Huxley kept in touch with Osmond and in one of his letters suggested that Osmond contact his pal Hubbard. In 1953, Osmond and Hubbard met for lunch at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. Osmond later recalled, “Hubbard was a powerfully built man, with a broad face and a firm handgrip. He was also very genial, an excellent host.”

At Osmond’s invitation, Hubbard travelled to Saskatchewan, where he met Hoffer and observed the work of the two psychiatrists. It was Hubbard’s theory that lsd didn’t produce a “model psychosis” so much as a different way of seeing the world, one that offers us a clearer view of ourselves and our relationship to nature. He said he wanted to introduce the top executives from Fortune 500 companies to lsd, and argued that humanity could be saved by psychedelic drugs. (The word psychedelic was coined by Osmond in a letter to Huxley.) Hubbard also wanted to start his own quasi-medical facility and in 1957 he linked up with Vancouver doctor J. Ross MacLean to open an lsd clinic in New Westminster. The Hollywood Hospital was a stately mansion that had served for years as a detox centre for Vancouver’s more affluent drunks. It remained so, but Hubbard and MacLean also turned it into a walk-in lsd boutique. Anyone with $500 was welcome. Patients would check in, get a physical examination, fill out an mmpi psychological profile, and disclose in writing their personal histories, complete with “hang-ups.” After taking lsd, they retired to the “therapy suite,” where plush sofas, a high-end sound system, and fanciful artwork encouraged a positive experience. Providing a degree of medical respectability to the initiative, Hubbard and MacLean occasionally played therapist—but the real day-to-day therapy was handled by an itinerant adventurer named Frank Ogden.

Photograph by Peter Fraser

Ogden, a barnstorming Ontario aviator with no training in psychiatric medicine, had learned about the clinic from an article in Maclean’s magazine. He thought of himself as an explorer and believed that the human mind was the ultimate frontier. Ogden, who now lives in Vancouver, recalls that he dropped everything and flew out to the clinic to see if he could get a job. “I told them I was well qualified to work as a guide into ‘inner space’ because I’d flown flying boats and survived helicopter crashes, and set a dangerous high-altitude record in a little single-engine Mooney. I told them adventure was my game.”

Ogden worked for free for a spell to prove himself and became the Hollywood Hospital’s main therapist after Hubbard quit. “Over the next eight years, I worked with more than 1,100 patients,” he says. “The majority arrived with problems and left as better people. It wasn’t always a pleasant experience for them, but nothing worthwhile is. The most difficult patients were psychiatrists and engineers. They were rigid in their thinking and they often had a hard time.” While the hospital was named after the abundant holly trees in the area, the name was also appropriate, as it turned out, because many of the patients were celebrities—Cary Grant, Ethel Kennedy, and jazz crooner Andy Williams, among others. (Williams signed up partly because of his marital problems. He continues to perform, and says that the acid he took in Vancouver helped him understand that “the only things important to me were family, friends, and love. Maybe that’s why I’m so cool.”) Ogden says they had a lot of local Vancouver people too. “I can’t mention their names because they’re still alive. But we had a lot of wealthy housewives from the British Properties who drank too much and were in sexless marriages. I remember one lady was frigid. I touched the back of her hand and she had an orgasm. I saw her at a social event a few months later and she joked, ‘You’re not going to do that to me again, are you? ’”

By 1959, Hubbard was getting impatient with MacLean. Hubbard believed that lsd should be available to everyone, rich and poor, while MacLean, who had acquired a big house on Southwest Marine Drive, preferred to treat the hospital as a lucrative private clinic. Hubbard decided to give up his share in the clinic and move to California, where he became a sort of Johnny Appleseed of psychedelia, giving free lsd to everyone from housewives to celebrities such as James Coburn, Stanley Kubrick, Ken Kesey, and the Grateful Dead. Hubbard also became acquainted with a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary, who would do more than anyone else to promote the non-medical use of lsd among young people. With his love beads, boyish enthusiasm, and rugged good looks, Leary kicked the lsd campaign into high gear. Ecstatically stoned and surrounded by avid young female fans, Leary toured college campuses urging students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Abram Hoffer later wrote that he always feared lsd would become a street drug and, thanks to what he described as “the irresponsibility of Timothy Leary,” his fears were realized.

In 1966, Hoffer went to the University of California campus at Berkeley to present a research paper on the clinical uses of lsd. He says he received a polite response. Afterward, he watched Leary make a presentation—the Harvard prof was received “with wild abandon” by the students, even though Hoffer couldn’t understand what Leary was trying to say. Public health authorities were alarmed by the craze, and later that same year lsd was banned in California. By the end of 1967—the same year the Doors’ first album was released—use of the drug was banned in every state, even when supervised by legitimate researchers. Lawmakers in Canada followed suit, and lsd was soon prohibited by most countries in the Western world. If you wanted to conduct your own experiments with lsd, you had to go looking for someone like Ringo.

Psychiatrists and biochemists never figured out exactly what lsd does to the human brain, and since the drug was banned there hasn’t been any research into the mystery. It is believed that the compound is absorbed by the body and disappears in a short period of time, but its effect on the human psyche can endure for many hours and sometimes days. Obviously, the psyche is a complicated matter. In layman’s terms, one might think of it as a structure, a rickety play fort that arises from the mud of childhood and eventually becomes a proud high-rise, containing all our accomplishments, defeats, jealousies, ambitions, biases, longings, and stored memories. This is our hard-earned “identity,” and it becomes a sort of psychic headquarters from which we interpret and evaluate the world. lsd functions like a chunk of plastic explosive attached to the main load-bearing post in our underground garage. The chemical doesn’t need to stick around. It only needs to cut one post and gravity does the rest.

What emerges from the smoke and dust of the collapsed psyche is a naked baby—the same wide-eyed infant that looms enormous in the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s lsd-influenced film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without the mediating structure of identity, the world becomes a terrifyingly vivid place. Music, colours, texture, taste—all suddenly regain the distracting power we’ve spent so many years training ourselves to ignore. We ignore the world so that we can take care of business. After all, how efficient would we be if we couldn’t step outside without pausing to stare in slack-jawed amazement at every tree?

Eating, too, would be an enormous problem. After meeting up with my similarly dosed pal that October evening in Winnipeg, we walked to a large park, where we sat like fakirs in the darkness, listening to the potent silence of the woods, listening to acorns occasionally falling to the leafy floor with a startling crash. Eventually we decided it would be a good idea to get something to chow down on. This turned out to be not so much a bad idea as a very complicated one. Under lurid fluorescent lights, surrounded by strange people, it took enormous concentration to deal with the simple fact that the world contained something as bizarre as pizza, and that one was expected to eat it. Each bite seemed to contain so much flavour that I sat walleyed for long minutes, trying to process the information contained in a morsel of pepperoni the size of an asterisk.

lsd seems to destroy the processing system by which we interpret everyday reality. It opens the doors, as Huxley would have it, but this can be both an exhilarating and terrifying experience. It’s no fun listening to the quacking ignorance of our own opinions, suddenly realizing that so much of what we thought to be true is in fact nonsense. This is the stuff of the “bad trip,” and it’s such an integral part of the lsd experience that most experimenters try the drug only a few times. During bad trips, our disgust with ourselves is projected outward, and the world can become a foul place. (When Dr. Osmond took mescaline, he saw a child turning into a pig.) Nonetheless, something important is going on. After the psyche disintegrates, it necessarily rebuilds. And the reintegrated psyche takes account of what it now knows and is presumably strengthened. “I don’t believe in the notion of the bad trip,” says Frank Ogden. “lsd makes you face reality and deal with it.”

Photograph by Peter Fraser

Odgen says he took lsd only three times when he was training to become a therapist but, he says, “They were some of the most interesting and valuable experiences of my life. I learned things from lsd, and it still keeps me young in my thinking.” Now a sharp-eyed and energetic eighty-six-year-old, Ogden has in his office and writing retreat a fanciful whale-shaped houseboat at the Coal Harbour marina in downtown Vancouver. He has fitted the interior with digital cameras, communications equipment, and warp-speed computer processors. Billing himself “Dr. Tomorrow,” he travels the world giving talks about technology and future trends.

Ogden believes that scientific research into lsd was terminated prematurely, and he would like to see bona fide researchers get legal access to the drug. Many scientists agree. In March 2006, Dr. Ben Sessa, an Oxford psychiatrist, gave a speech to England’s Royal College of Psychiatrists arguing that lsd’s potential benefits to medicine must be re-examined. It was the first time in thirty years the institution considered the issue.

A pilot study is also being planned in Switzerland. lsd will be administered to several subjects suffering from anxiety associated with advanced-stage cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. “lsd was used safely and effectively thousands of times in clinical settings,” Sessa says. “No one would ask anaesthetists to forgo morphine use because heroin is a social evil. And there’s no valid reason to ban lsd research.”

Erika Dyck, a medical historian with the University of Alberta, has conducted the most extensive academic research into the early days of lsd experimentation and has spoken to some of Hoffer and Osmond’s former patients. Her findings suggest that many are still extremely positive about the experience. “They can’t say enough about how helpful it was,” she says. “lsd triggered a psychological process that allowed them to see themselves.”

In January 2006, a large gathering of psychotherapists, medical doctors, academics, and, of course, aging hippies met in Basel, Switzerland, for a conference called lsd: Problem Child and Wonder Drug. The conference was ostensibly held to discuss the scientific importance of the drug, but, as much as anything else, people convened to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Albert Hofmann, the man who first experimented with lsd over half a century ago.

Bent and frail, supported by crutches and a burly Swiss guardsman, Hofmann was still bright-eyed as he walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. In a quiet voice, he told the audience he was concerned about the future of humanity. “All of life’s energy comes to us from the sun, via photosynthesis and the plant kingdom. Our lives are becoming increasingly urbanized, and I believe lsd is a means of rebuilding our relationship to ourselves and to nature.”

It has been forty years since the so-called summer of love, and Aquarian dreams of basking in the sun and returning to the Garden of Eden, naked and hypnotized by the wonder of it all, seem quaint and dated. Today, even Jim Morrison sounds as corny as Rudy Vallée. But old apocalyptic visions are still in play. We’re still destroying the environment and, to paraphrase Albert Hofmann, we need to hang onto any tool that will help us to see that tree.