A newly published study examining the use of psychedelics in non-clinical settings to treat alcoholism is suggesting a great number of individuals see a reduction in problematic alcohol consumption following strong doses of LSD or psilocybin. The research supplements a compelling body of evidence revealing the intriguing anti-addiction potential of classic psychedelics, and rekindles interest in a strong vein of research from the 1950s and 1960s.
Before LSD escaped the laboratory to hit the streets and become a generation-defining recreational drug in the 1960s, it was the focus of an impressive volume of medical research in the 1950s. By the time the drug was ultimately criminalized and declared taboo in legitimate research circles over the 1970s, it is estimated more than 40,000 patients had been treated with it in clinical settings, and more than 1,000 research papers had been published.
LSD and alcoholism
Prior to the great psychedelic research freeze that set in by 1980, LSD as a treatment for alcoholism was one of the more heavily investigated psychedelic research topics. One of the most important figures in the field across the 1950s was an English psychiatrist named Humphrey Osmond. After struggling to further his research into LSD and mescaline in London, Osmond moved to Canada in 1951 to begin a rich stretch of research into the clinical uses of these mind-altering drugs.
As well as coining the term “psychedelic” at a medical conference in 1956, Osmond was responsible for administering the dose of mescaline to author Aldous Huxley that resulted in his book entitled The Doors of Perception, considered one of the most culturally influential early writings on psychedelic drugs. Osmond’s work with LSD and alcoholism turned out to be as important and influential as his other successes.
In 1953 Osmond and his research team first tested LSD as a treatment for alcoholism on two patients. The idea was that a large single dose of LSD could generate a profound experience that breaks the personal habits that lead to excessive drinking. The initial experiment only worked in one of the two patients, with the successful subject immediately stopping drinking for at least six months (the length of the study’s follow-up period).
The thirteenth step?
Over the next few years, Osmond treated more than 700 chronically alcoholic patients with LSD and ended up with around a 50 percent overall success rate. One of Osmond’s most compelling studies took place in the late 1950s with a cohort of subjects from the group Alcoholics Anonymous. This cohort was comprised of individuals that had failed the famous 12-step program, and again Osmond hit his 50 percent success rate, this time with a 12-month follow-up period.
Years later it was revealed that Osmond had entered into a comprehensive correspondence across the late 1950s with Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson, himself having been treated with LSD therapy for depression, was excited by the potential of the mind-altering drug.
One of the key stages in the AA process is the necessity of undergoing a spiritual experience that propels the alcohol user into recovery. Wilson wondered whether LSD could effectively help induce that necessary experience.
Wilson’s wife was later quoted as saying at one point there was serious consideration given to include LSD as a step in the AA program. However, others in the organization bristled at the idea of one drug being used to stop the chronic consumption of another. The group was after all dedicated to the idea of sobriety. Osmond noted that Wilson’s embrace of the potential of LSD caused a variety of scandals in the AA community.
And now … in the 21st century
A 2012 meta-review encompassing several well-conducted randomized, controlled clinical trials from the late 1960s and early 1970s found a consistent successful trend in every study conducted, verifying a single dose of LSD can be beneficial in cases of chronic alcohol abuse. That meta-study revealed 59 percent of all patients responded positively to a single LSD dose.
A recent study examining anecdotal uses of psychedelics for alcoholism in non-clinical settings found even higher success rates. This research collected survey data from 343 people who found major reductions in alcohol use following psychedelic experiences. Only 10 percent of the survey group claimed to take psychedelics with a specific aim of reducing alcohol use, yet 83 percent reported major improvements no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism following a psychedelic experience.
Although there is a solid volume of modern study beginning to re-investigate clinical uses of LSD, many researchers are looking more closely at psilocybin, the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms. Both LSD and psilocybin act on the brain in somewhat similar ways, but psilocybin may be a little more useful to scientists in clinical conditions. It is much easier to control dosage with psilocybin and it results in experiences that are shorter in duration compared to LSD.
An exciting Phase 2 clinical trial is currently underway investigating psilocybin as a treatment for alcohol dependance. Led by the NYU School of Medicine, the trial will include an active placebo, so subjects in the control group will be adequately blinded, and involve two treatments around a month apart. The follow-up period is set for almost one year, with a primary outcome measure to track alcohol consumption following the treatment.
Alcohol use disorders are inarguably a major health problem, with one study finding around 12 percent of American adults face alcohol dependence problems at some point in their lives. It may be several years before this modern research leads to clinically useful outcomes but it is exciting to see an entire field kick back into gear after sitting dormant for decades following the legal and social prohibitions of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.