BY: DANIEL WATERBORNE
Over a decade before Woodstock and seven years before the Merry Pranksters, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous took his first liquid hit of acid. It was Aug. 29, 1956 and among the beige walls and flower print curtains of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, the cataracts of addiction momentarily pulled back from Bill Wilson’s eyes.
While LSD has garnered a reputation in law enforcement as a psychic vacation for hippies looking for kaleidoscopic delusions, LSD-25 was first synthesized in 1938 by chemist Albert Hoffman after 25 attempted combinations of creating a medicine to stimulate circulatory and respiratory systems. What Hoffman synthesized instead was entirely an accident. While in the five years following he would dismiss the medical application of LSD into the dustbin of failed experiments, later tests would show that LSD did show potential medical benefits with its ability to break down psychological barriers and inspire profound changes in perception.
When Bill Wilson was first contacted by Canadian biochemist, Abram Hoffer and British Psychiatrist, Humphry Osmond, about the potential LSD had on recovering alcoholics, Wilson was initially resistant. The concept of giving drugs to those crippled by addiction seemed both counterintuitive and dangerous. But when psychedelic therapy studies began to report staggeringly high recovery rates, Wilson’s interest began to pique.
After swallowing 100 micrograms of LSD Wilson realized that it could aid addicts by showing them a glimpse of something “greater than themselves”. He considered “spiritual awakening” critical to spitting out the fishing hook of addiction. As Don Lattin, who authored a book named Distilled Spirits on Wilson’s involvement in psychedelic therapy notes, Wilson did not see LSD as a substitution for traditional pathways to transcendence like meditation, or prayer, but rather he saw LSD as a steroid that could vault alcoholics, paralyzed by cynicism to a state that they might not be able to achieve otherwise. The implication was not that LSD was a miracle cure, but that it could be used at regular increments in a clinical setting as a psychic supplement to change a life.
Wilson considered “spiritual awakening” critical to spitting out the fishing hook of addiction.
In a 1958 letter to Rev. Sam Shoemaker, a preacher with a significant influence on the beginnings of AA, Wilson wrote “[LSD] seems to have the result of sharply reducing the forces of the ego.”
Since then, researchers have taken Wilson’s assertions under the scientific method to sift truth from hallucination. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed previous data from six trials and more than 500 patients. What they found is a 59 per cent abstinence rate among participants who took LSD compared to just 38 per cent in the control group. The authors of the study said, “ a single dose of LSD has a significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse.”
Don Lattin discovered a letter from American Psychologist and psychedelic therapy pioneer, Betty Eisner, who wrote, “Alcoholics Anonymous was actually considering using LSD…Alcoholics get to a point in the [programme] where they need a spiritual experience but not all of them are able to have one.”
Despite having started the organization, Wilson’s experimentation with LSD was considered controversial among many leaders of AA. He later left the organization to continue his research with other prominent figures of the psychedelic therapy movement, notably Aldous Huxley. Wilson later stated, “I don’t believe [LSD] has any miraculous property of transforming spiritually and emotionally sick people into healthy ones overnight. It can set up a shining goal on the positive side, after all it is only a temporary ego-reducer.”
Despite modern scientific backing, Alcoholics Anonymous has not embraced LSD, and cannot legally, based on the Schedule 1 classification under the Controlled Substances Act.
Teri Krebs and Pål-Ørjan Johansen of the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said, “ Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism, it is puzzling why this treatment approach has been largely overlooked.”