In the late 1960s, human experiments with psychedelic drugs were brought to a halt. Government reacted to the anarchy of the hippy counter-culture. The drug-crazed Charles Manson slayings came to symbolise public fear of the street use of LSD. Funding ceased, and the few researchers who battled on were ostracised. But lost in the blanket ban were remarkable research projects in the field of psychiatry that held out new hope for the treatment of schizophrenia and alcoholism.
Bill Eagles’ extraordinary film tells the story of a handful of dedicated scientists who have struggled to make psychedelic research respectable again. In the USA, psychiatrists Rick Strassman and Charles Grob, and neuroscientist Deborah Mash each quietly began investigations with unknown psychedelic compounds, to avoid the alarm bells of LSD. Strassman pursued the Federal Drug Administration for permission to do safety trials of DMT. Mash works on treating cocaine addicts, achieving success with Ibogaine, a psychedelic derived from a West African plant.
Their success hinges on the patient having a ‘peak’ experience, entering the realm of the mystical or religious. The early researchers had spotted this. Now it was dramatically reinforced by unique new evidence from Brazil. Unable to work in the USA, Grob visited Brazil to track down the ritual use of Ayahuasca, a leaf rich in the powerful DMT. For centuries it has been used amongst the shamans of the Amazon. But today, in urban Brazil, tens of thousands of men, women and children are taking the drug as part of an ecstatic Christian cult experience.
The Brazilian Government asked Grob to look at long-term damaging effects of the drug. Instead, he found no evidence of toxicity or brain damage, and also that long-term users functioned better in their community. In 1992 Brazil legalised ritual use of Ayahuasca. The FDA took careful note. Then in the early 1990s, leading lights of the US computer industry began admitting that many breakthroughs in Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s had been inspired by regular psychedelic drug use. Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, and founding father of Microsoft, Bob Wallace, reveal on camera the psychedelic influence on their creativity. This anecdotal evidence raised support for the psychedelic researchers. Now Strassman has received approval from the FDA for research into LSD itself.
Director: Bill Eagles. Original Air Date: 5 April 1998, on the BBC.