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The risks of LSD and other psychedelic drugs were fiercely debated during the 1960s, both among scientists and in the press. Voices on both sides of this debate typically cherry-picked evidence and anecdotes to make their case, but Sidney Cohen was an exception, approaching the question with an open mind and actually conducting research to answer it. Beginning in 1960, he published a series of articles that track his growing concerns. For his first study, Cohen surveyed forty-four researchers working with psychedelics, collecting data on some five thousand subjects taking LSD or mescaline on a total of twenty-five thousand occasions. He found only two credible reports of suicide in this population (a low rate for a group of psychiatric patients), several transient panic reactions, but “no evidence of serious prolonged physical side effects.” He concluded that when psychedelics are administered by qualified therapists and researchers, complications were “surprisingly infrequent” and that LSD and mescaline were “safe.”

Leary and others often cited Cohen’s 1960 paper as an exoneration of psychedelics. Yet in a follow-up article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1962, Cohen reported new and “alarming” developments. The casual use of LSD outside the clinical setting, and in the hands of irresponsible therapists, was leading to “serious complications” and occasional “catastrophic reactions.” Alarmed that physicians were losing control of the drug, Cohen warned that “the dangers of suicide, prolonged psychotic reactions and antisocial acting out behavior exist.” In another paper published in the Archives of General Psychiatry the following year, he reported several cases of psychotic breaks and an attempted suicide and presented an account of a boy who, after ingesting a sugar cube laced with LSD that his father, a detective, had confiscated from a “pusher,” endured more than a month of visual distortions and anxiety before recovering. It was this article that inspired Roy Grinker, the journal’s editor, to condemn psychedelic research in an accompanying commentary, even though Cohen himself continued to believe that psychedelics in the hands of responsible therapists had great potential. A fourth article that Cohen published in 1966 reported still more LSD casualties, including two accidental deaths associated with LSD, one from drowning and the other from walking into traffic shouting, “Halt.”

But balanced assessments of the risks and benefits of psychedelics were the exception to what by 1966 had become a full-on moral panic about LSD. A handful of headlines from the period suggests the mood: “LSD-Use Charged with Killing Teacher”; “Sampled LSD, Youth Plunges from Viaduct”; “LSD Use Near Epidemic in California”; “Six Students Blinded on LSD Trip in Sun”; “Girl, 5, Eats LSD and Goes Wild”; “Thrill Drug Warps Mind, Kills”; and “A Monster in Our Midst—a Drug Called LSD.” Even Life magazine, which had helped ignite public interest in psychedelics just nine years before with R. Gordon Wasson’s enthusiastic article on psilocybin, joined the chorus of condemnation, publishing a feverish cover story titled “LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got out of Control.” Never mind that the magazine’s publisher and his wife had recently had several positive LSD experiences themselves (under the guidance of Sidney Cohen); now the kids were doing it, and it had gotten “out of control.” With pictures of crazed people cowering in corners, the story warned that “an LSD trip is not always a round trip” but rather could be “a one-way trip to an asylum, a prison or a grave.”* As Clare Boothe Luce wrote to Sidney Cohen in 1965, “LSD has been your Frankenstein monster.”

• • • OTHER POWERFUL DRUGS subject to abuse, such as the opiates, have managed to maintain a separate identity as a legitimate tool of medicine. Why not psychedelics? The story of Timothy Leary, the most famous psychedelic researcher, made it difficult to argue that a bright line between the scientific and the recreational use of psychedelics could be drawn and patrolled. The man had deliberately—indeed gleefully—erased all such lines. But the “personality” of the drug may have as much to do with the collapse of such distinctions as the personalities of people like Timothy Leary or the flaws in their research.

What doomed the first wave of psychedelic research was an irrational exuberance about its potential that was nourished by the drugs themselves—that, and the fact that these chemicals are what today we would call disruptive technologies. For people working with these powerful molecules, it was impossible not to conclude that—like that divinity student running down Commonwealth Avenue—you were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change not just individuals but the world. To confine these drugs to the laboratory, or to use them only for the benefit of the sick, became hard to justify, when they could do so much for everyone, including the researchers themselves!

Leary might have made his more straitlaced colleagues cringe at his lack of caution, yet most of them shared his exuberance and had come to more or less the same conclusions about the potential of psychedelics; they were just more judicious when speaking about them in public.

Who among the first generation of psychedelic researchers would dispute a word of this classic gust of Leary exuberance, circa 1963: “Make no mistake: the effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull. Present social establishments had better be prepared for the change. Our favorite concepts are standing in the way of a floodtide, two billion years building up. The verbal dam is collapsing. Head for the hills, or prepare your intellectual craft to flow with the current.”*

So perhaps Leary’s real sin was to have the courage of his convictions—his and everyone else’s in the psychedelic research community. It’s often said that a political scandal is what happens when someone in power inadvertently speaks the truth. Leary was all too often willing to say out loud to anyone in earshot what everyone else believed but knew better than to speak or write about candidly. It was one thing to use these drugs to treat the ill and maladjusted—society will indulge any effort to help the wayward individual conform to its norms—but it is quite another to use them to treat society itself as if it were sick and to turn the ostensibly healthy into wayward individuals.

The fact is that whether by their very nature or the way that first generation of researchers happened to construct the experience, psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse. LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilization, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.

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