Hollywood's Golden Age of LSD Therapy

Revisiting the era of legal LSD research

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One morning in April 1962, Cary Grant swallowed four tiny blue pills of lysergic acid diethylamide—LSD—and lay back on a couch sipping coffee as the drug began to take effect. It was the 58-year-old actor's 72nd acid trip under the supervision of a psychiatrist, and throughout the five-hour session, he recorded his impressions on tape. “I was noting the growing intensity of light in the room,” he said at one point, “and at short intervals as I shut my eyes, visions appeared to me. I seemed to be in a world of healthy, chubby little babies' legs and diapers, and smeared blood, a sort of general menstrual activity taking place. It did not repel me as such thoughts used to.”

 

Hardly the suave repartee associated with the star of His Girl Friday and North by Northwest. But as the aging movie idol had already stated in bold public endorsements of the drug, LSD has a way of stripping away cultivated veneers and forcing one to confront unguarded, often unpleasant, emotions. Grant was grateful for his LSD “therapy” and admitted dropping acid more than 100 times. Among other benefits, he credited LSD with helping him control his drinking and come to terms with unresolved conflicts about his parents.

Grant was just one of hundreds in the Los Angeles area who participated in legal LSD studies during the 1950s and early 1960s. Shortly after that, of course, LSD would become the notorious “hippie psychedelic” vilified by the media, criminalized in every state, classified in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug of no medical value, and banned globally by international treaty. But before most Americans had heard of LSD, here in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, students, professionals, clergymen, writers, artists, and movie stars enthusiastically turned on, tuned in, and didn't drop out. “It was a time when scientific research with psychedelic drugs was perfectly acceptable,” recalls Oscar Janiger, the psychiatrist who administered LSD to Grant and more than 900 others in the longest ongoing experiment of the drug's effect on human subjects in a nonclinical environment.

Flash forward 35 years: In many ways, science has finally caught up with LSD. Given recent advances in the understanding of neurochemistry—the complex chemical pathways that drive human thought, emotions, and behavior—many researchers believe that LSD could become a valuable tool in further unraveling the mysteries of the human brain. What's more, they say, the drug's apparent value in treating alcoholism, drug addiction, and many psychiatric disorders begs for renewed research. Yet LSD remains a sociopolitical pariah. Though research on animals has continued, LSD research involving humans has been at a virtual standstill for three decades.

Some of LSD's latter-day defenders now believe that for acid science to move forward, acid must first be rehabilitated in the public mind. And they're pinning their hopes on a new follow-up study of Janiger's classic experiment, which was conducted between 1954 and 1962. By interviewing the people who participated in the original study, researchers hope to show that few of them suffered negative long-term effects from LSD—and many may have actually benefited.

The prime force behind the follow-up study is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit research and advocacy group that has lobbied the FDA to approve medical studies of LSD as well as marijuana and MDMA (ecstasy). Funded via academic grants and the support of its 1,600 members, who include a number of prominent research scientists, the North Carolina–based organization has been set up to help researchers around the world get funding and governmental approval for renewed psychedelic research on humans.

Rick Doblin, a Harvard-trained social scientist and founder of MAPS, believes Janiger's study was “crucially important” because it was trying to find out “what LSD does in a neutral context in relatively healthy nonpatients.” Other studies before the ban tended to focus on the use of LSD in treating chronic alcoholism, sexual neuroses, criminal psychopathology, phobias, depressive states, and compulsive syndromes. But Janiger's subjects were average adults with no preexisting mental or physical problems. As Doblin puts it, “The subjects of Janiger's experiment break all the stereotypes about LSD users, since they are now in their 60s or older and took LSD before it was controversial. So the follow-up study is like a time capsule back to an era before the drug war. And it gives us a view of what LSD research could be again, if we can get past the biases and see this drug more unemotionally, as a tool.”

Janiger's study is also a time capsule back to a unique moment in the cultural history of Southern California. Long before the acid underground surfaced in San Francisco as the vanguard of the hippie movement, Los Angeles was an intellectual hub for psychedelic research, and its acid salons drew a number of adventurous luminaries, from Anaïs Nin, Alan Watts, and Aldous Huxley to Jack Nicholson, Rita Moreno, and Andre Previn. In more than one sense, those were heady days.


[The doctor] had suggested that I listen to some music while the drug was still effective. I am a composer and pianist, and I have never before or since been so strongly affected by music. I listened to recordings of some Brahms, Mozart, and Walton, and was moved to tears almost immediately. . . . I then played the piano for approximately 40 minutes. I felt that I played extremely well and possibly with more musical insight than before. I played among other things a Chopin Fantasia which I had not looked at since my student days, and remembered it perfectly and without flaws. A few days after the experiment I again attempted to play this piece and found that I had retained it completely. I would sometime be interested in repeating the experiment and recording some improvisations while under the influence of the pills. 

—Andre Previn (from Oscar Janiger’s transcripts)


When Timothy Leary met Janiger in 1962, he described his less flamboyant colleague as a “powerhouse” of “solid athletic build, gray hair, strong tanned face, merry eyes.” That description still more or less holds true, though age had inevitably softened the formerly athletic build and given Janiger, 80, a certain gnomish aspect.

The day I visited Janiger at his Santa Monica Canyon home, he and his wife, Kathleen Delaney, were lunching with some screenwriters who wanted to make a feature film on the social history of LSD. (In fact, the annals of acid contain all the dramatic convolutions of an Oliver Stone production, from hallucinatory visions and throbbing acid rock to government conspiracy, including the CIA's infamous and highly illegal attempts to use LSD on unsuspecting U.S. citizens as a mind-control drug.) After dessert—alas, no electric Kool-Aid, just a lemon torte—the writers left, and Janiger sketched the broad outlines of his famous research.

The study took place in a small house in L.A.'s mid-Wilshire district that Janiger also used for his regular psychiatric practice. The tripping room was comfortably furnished with a couch, a bed, and a hi-fi system, and there was a garden in the enclosed back yard for the participants to explore. “So many of the studies prior to mine were done in hospital rooms,” explains Janiger. “I thought that my study might benefit from a naturalistic environment.”

Though Janiger held an associate professorship in psychology at the California College of Medicine (later to become the University of California at Irvine), he funded the study himself by charging subjects $20 per visit. Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that “discovered” LSD, supplied the drug free of charge. In return, Janiger agreed to inform Sandoz about his findings. Unlike many other researchers, he never accepted funding—covert or overt—from the CIA or the military.

Janiger's research marked a departure from the orthodox thinking about LSD. Until then, most academics had classified the drug as a “psychotomimetic” agent—a substance that could create a temporary state that resembled psychosis; if LSD could create such states, the thinking went, the drug was ideally suited to the study of the chemical and biological causes of mental illness. The CIA and the military had their own ideas about LSD: They hoped to exploit the drug's disorienting effects for the purpose of nonlethal warfare.

Janiger's goal was simply to find out what LSD does to people under uniform conditions—in particular, how it changes perception and personality. His approach was influenced by his own first LSD trip, in early 1954. “That first experience shook me up completely,” he recalls. “It was extraordinary—so powerful and so interesting. I was of course struck by how LSD works to change your reality. From a psychiatric point of view, it was a marvelous instrument to learn more about the mind.”

Janiger and his team screened subjects for obvious mental or physical disorders. Those who passed were given LSD in the morning and left to do what they wanted—listen to music, walk in the garden, draw or paint. There was always a designated “baby-sitter” present to monitor what was happening. Typically, the baby-sitter was an acid veteran who knew how to talk a disturbed subject down from a bad trip, though Janiger says that was rarely necessary.

Afterwards the trippers would record their impressions of the experience and answer questions such as “What single event or insight, if any, during the LSD experience would you consider to have been of the greatest meaning to you?” and “What changes, if any, have taken place in your sense of values?” The results pushed LSD research in a new direction. In earlier studies, subjects had described the content of their trips, but Janiger was looking to define the state of the trip, the actual core of the LSD experience. And what he discovered was that the drug altered the user's perception of time, it came in waves, made colors seem more intense, and created the sensation that all elements of the world are organically connected in some way.


I was opened up to the beauty in people who had never seemed beautiful before. The next morning at the Pancake House, I walked up and bowed to four nuns. I had never spoken to nuns before--I couldn't penetrate their cloak of reverence. I walked up to them, and loved them, and they were sure I owned the place, and gave me their orders for breakfast. When the waiter came and I sat down at my table, it shook them. But I spoke to them again and told them I saw them as Sisters of Beauty. They tittered and giggled and blushed, well-pleased.

—Beat comedian Lord Buckley


Lysergic acid diethylamide has been around since 1938, when Albert Hofmann, a Sandoz chemist, serendipitously formulated it in the company lab in Basel while experimenting with derivatives of ergot, a rye fungus. It wasn't until five years later, however, that Hofmann—again serendipitously—discovered that the substance had psychoactive powers. One day, while working in the lab, he unknowingly absorbed some of the drug through his fingers. “As I lay in a dazed condition with eyes closed,” he recalled, “there surged up from me a succession of fantastic, rapidly changing imagery of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid, kaleidoscopic display of colors.” Two days later, Hofmann deliberately swallowed a minuscule amount—250 micrograms, or 250 millionths of a gram—and had the world's first bad trip. “I thought I had died,” he said. “My 'ego' was suspended somewhere in space, and I saw my body lying dead on the sofa.” He soon returned to the realm of pleasant hallucinations, however, and the early days of LSD research were under way.

By 1965, researchers had published more than 2,000 papers describing the treatment of 30,000 to 40,000 patients with psychedelic drugs, including mescaline and psilocybin, but mostly with LSD. Among the more stunning results were studies in which LSD was given in high doses to children suffering from schizophrenia and autism. One such study reported that for a group of young autistic children with speech difficulties, “the vocabularies of several of the children increased after LSD.” What's more, “several seemed to be attempting to form words or watched adults carefully as they spoke; many seemed to comprehend speech for the first time.” The autistic children all “appeared flushed, bright-eyed, and unusually interested in the environment.”

Even more dramatic were the successes during the '50s and '60s in treating chronic alcoholics at Hollywood Hospital in British Columbia and at Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore. After ingesting relatively large doses of LSD (up to 800 micrograms in some cases) and undergoing directed therapy, about half of all patients “were able to remain sober or to drink much less,” according to early LSD researchers Bernard Aaronson and Humphry Osmond in their 1970 book Psychedelics. Often after only one dose patients remained totally abstinent.

Why LSD might cure alcoholism or heroin addiction remains a mystery. In fact, scientists still know little about how LSD interacts with the human brain. The drug remains in the brain for a relatively short period, disappearing at about the time the mental light show begins. This may be evidence that the ensuing hours of warped consciousness may be due not to the drug itself, but to poorly understood neurochemical processes that the drug somehow triggers.Research on animals has suggested that LSD stimulates the serotonin receptors of the brain—the same sites targeted by Prozac and other new antidepressants. “Why a drug that stimulates a serotonin receptor should effect changes in consciousness and perception is the thing that we don't actually know,” says David Nichols, a founder of the Heffter Research Institute, a nonprofit group that funds and conducts clinical studies of psychedelic substances.

“One could look at LSD as having an action somewhat like [that of] an antidepressant,” says Richard Yensen, a pioneering LSD researcher and psychologist who successfully treated alcoholics at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, on the grounds of Spring Grove State Hospital. But, he adds, “LSD belongs to a unique family of drugs that are first and foremost sensitive to the way they are given. And the mechanism of cure has to do not with whether the person got the drug or not, but with whether the person had a transcendental experience with the drug.”

One thing is clear: LSD's effect on individuals varies widely. A person's response depends not only on his or her mental state or “set,” but also on many other factors, including the setting in which the drug is taken, the influence of others in the room, and even the prevailing cultural climate. For instance, during the late 1960s, after the frenzy of media reports on the dangers of LSD, the numbers of illegal users experiencing the proverbial “bad trip” multiplied. Many observers suspected a direct relationship between the upswing in “bummers” and the surge of acid scare stories. (Also, the doses available then were often more than twice as high as today's street-grade hits.)


I thought I was the quickest . . . mind alive and the quickest with words but words cannot catch up with these changes, these changes are beyond words, beyond words, beyond words. While I repeated these words I felt the waves of pleasure like those of the most acute pleasure of lovemaking. . . . I felt the impossibility to tell the secret of life because the secret of life was metamorphosis, transmutation, and it happened too quickly, too subtly. 

—Anaïs Nin


In the course of studying LSD, Janiger made some intriguing ancillary discoveries. Perhaps the most fascinating side experiment was his study of the drug's influence on creativity—a subject also explored by his cousin, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, albeit in his own, less formal way. Janiger gave 70 professional artists LSD and asked each of them to create two renderings of a Hopi Indian kachina doll. The first rendering was done before taking LSD, the second while under its influence. Today the doll sits on the mantel in Janiger's living room, under a pair of renderings by Fortune magazine illustrator Frank Murdoch.The picture on the left is a perfect “representational” image, and the acid-inspired one on the right is awhirl with color and motion, its planes and curves lurching in many directions. “To the artists,” says Janiger, “the drawings done under the influence of LSD were very important.” Whether they were better or worse was not for the scientist to say, but, he adds, “there wasn't a single artist who didn't think he or she had had some kind of revelation.”

After taking LSD at Janiger's office, Anaïs Nin developed her own theory about the drug's effect on the creative impulse. She later incorporated her rough notes, which Janiger has saved in his extensive files, into an essay included in The Diary of Anaïs Nin. “I could find correlations [to the LSD-induced imagery] all through my writing, find the sources of the images in past dreams, in reading, in memories of travel, in actual experience,” she wrote. The drug, she felt, did not so much reveal an unknown world as shut out the everyday world, making it easier to gain access to the subconscious through dreams and memories.

Nin confessed to her friend, author and screenwriter Gavin Lambert, that her acid trip was traumatic. “For Anaïs,” says Lambert, “it was a disaster. On LSD the world seemed to her terrifying. This, to me, was extremely interesting, because Anaïs Nin's life was a high-wire act of lies. She had two husbands—-was bigamously married—and neither of them knew about the other. And I think that her whole high-wire act became very naked to her under LSD, and she couldn't take it. She was a creature of such artifice, and then suddenly the artifice was stripped away.”


During this period, I decided that, since I was feeling so sensual, I should fabricate sexual fantasies to synchronize with my feelings but was not very successful. I tried to imagine “M” making love to me but that seemed to put a damper on things, so, as a last resort, I tried to imagine Doctor K. kissing my vagina and making love to it. He looked about one foot tall and his body appeared to be in the form of a square with round corners. . . . As he went to kiss me, his tongue started to grow until it seemed to be eight feet long. I tried to stop this unpleasant image but couldn't do so. 

—Rita Moreno


Finding subjects was never a problem. Word of mouth prompted an endless stream of volunteers among artists and writers, and the Hollywood grapevine soon hipped the show-biz community to the fact that Janiger's office was where it was at. Many of the volunteers were interested in using LSD to catalyze the sort of drug-induced mystical experience they'd read about in Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, an account of his experiences with mescaline, first published in 1954. Others had fallen under the spell of Timothy Leary, who as a psychologist and Harvard lecturer in the early 1960s rapidly became LSD's loudest and most reckless cheerleader.

But as Janiger and so many others would discover, the effects of LSD were difficult to control. At one point, Janiger invited a group of Unitarian ministers to drop acid. Several were disappointed when the drug produced peculiar aural and visual effects, but nothing of deeper spiritual significance. After his first session with LSD in Janiger's office, Zen philosopher Alan Watts compared his trip somewhat unfavorably to the rare mystical experiences he'd undergone earlier in his life. Those events, which were not triggered by drugs, “just didn't feel like the LSD experience,” he wrote. “They were very much more convincing. They seemed to be more a matter of insight than perception.” As for LSD, it “gave the sense of indescribable complexity rather than indescribable simplicity,” he concluded. “For this reason it did not seem to be a particularly liberating experience.”

Watts was part of a group that gathered around Janiger to talk informally about their hallucinogenic experiences. Dubbed the “consciousness clan” by Janiger, the salon included Nin, Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and novelist Christopher Isherwood, as well as a few academics and the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

To be sure, Janiger wasn't the only researcher dispensing experimental acid in the Los Angeles region. Some professional shrinks were already using LSD in their practices; Cary Grant took his first five dozen or so trips in the offices of psychiatrist Arthur Chandler and radiologist-turned-LSD-therapist Mortimer Hartman, who had a study of their own. At UCLA, psychiatrist Sidney Cohen was also conducting LSD research. It was Cohen who turned on Henry Luce, the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. and his wife, Claire Boothe Luce. The Luces took half a dozen trips during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Henry claimed that on one such magical mystery tour he had chatted up God on a golf course. Claire thought that LSD was all well and good for the elite, but definitely not indicated for the hoi polloi: “We wouldn't want everyone doing too much of a good thing,” she sniffed.

Southern California was, in fact, a locus of the psychedelic movement. Its only rivals were academic enclaves in British Columbia and along the East Coast, including Leary's renowned colony of higher-consciousness seekers that he founded in 1963 at a posh estate in Millbrook, New York. Janiger kept a much lower profile, and worried—correctly, it would turn out—that Leary's brand of in-your-face publicity would spur the government to move against LSD.

Still, Janiger welcomed a number of other celebrities into his hi-fi tripping room. Actor James Coburn first took LSD in late 1959. Now 69, Coburn looks back fondly on his session with Janiger. “It was phenomenal,” he says. “I loved it. LSD really woke me up to seeing the world with a depth of objectivity.” A 25-year-old Jack Nicholson had his first session in Janiger's office in the spring of 1962. Nicholson would later incorporate his experiences into his script for The Trip, a low-budget 1967 film about an intense LSD session starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, another volunteer in Janiger's study.

Celebrities notwithstanding, the vast majority of Janiger's volunteers were average citizens. Tracking them down for the follow-up study has been a challenge—complicated by the fact that many already have died. With the help of a private detective and lots of Internet searching, MAPS located and interviewed 40 of Janiger's original subjects who are still living in the Los Angeles area. The formal results of the study are scheduled to be published in the spring 1999 issue of the MAPS Bulletin.

According to Kate Chapman, the MAPS researcher who conducted the interviews, most of the subjects “had a positive experience, with no long-term harm.” One exception was a man who had “a bad, bad, bad trip, and would even say that it was psychologically damaging.” In the essay he wrote shortly after his LSD session, says Chapman, this man described “an awful account of how some intensely repressed psychosexual problems surfaced to the conscious front under the influence.”

“In a way,” says Rick Doblin of MAPS, “you hope to find nobody like that, but the fact that we did find something negative and are willing to report it will add credibility to the study. We're trying to develop guidelines for future research, so what this tells us is that LSD shouldn't be given in research unless there is someone with therapeutic skill present.”

All of Janiger's subjects that I talked to had positive—or at least neutral—experiences. Zale Parry is a 65-year-old woman who played a major role in L.A.'s early acid days. She describes her two dozen acid sessions in the mid-1950s as “happy trips.” She hasn't taken any drugs since then, and feels no need to try LSD again. Loring Ware, 69, says that his six to eight doses of LSD in Janiger's office opened his eyes to “the world around me, but with some of the veils taken away that I didn't even know were there.” Though he hasn't had much experience with other drugs, he believes that LSD “should be incorporated into some kind of rite of passage for young people, so they enter into adulthood with an understanding of the broadness of life, instead of becoming little cogs in a machine.”

Ernest Pipes, 71, was one of the Unitarian ministers who dropped acid in Janiger's office one day in the late '50s. Now retired, Pipes says he was disappointed with his trip only because it was not a transcendent experience. “As it turned out,” he recalls, “each of us had a very different experience—some went very deeply into a state of transcendent ecstasy, others did not.” Later he adds, “But I have always regretted that I was not transported more effectively into altered states of consciousness, and thus enabled to be in touch with other dimensions of reality.”

By the early 1960s, it was apparent that the era of drug-induced inward journeys—or at least legal ones—was fast approaching an end. LSD had seeped into the underground youth culture, and the forces of prohibition were already in play. Long before LSD was outlawed, Sandoz, under international pressure, cut off researchers' access to the drug.

And what of LSD's reputed perils? “A lot of the so-called dangers were exaggerated by the press and misunderstood by science,” says Ronald Siegel, who has studied psychopharmacological agents at UCLA for nearly 30 years. The claim that LSD causes genetic damage, for one, turned out to be inaccurate. “In fact,” Siegel continues, “the drug does not present a lot of toxic dangers to individuals, simply because the dose that turns them on and the dose that kills them are so far apart. No one has ever died from a direct toxic overdose of LSD. There are psychological problems for many people, but by and large LSD has been tolerated very well. And one of the examples of that is the fact that more people are using LSD today in the United States than ever before in our history, and there are fewer problems than ever before.”

According to Janiger, researchers themselves are partly responsible for the drug's fall from grace. “LSD didn't pan out as an acceptable therapeutic drug for one reason: Researchers didn't realize the explosive nature of the drug,” he says. “You can't manipulate it as skillfully as you would like. It's like atomic energy—it's relatively easy to make a bomb, but much harder to safely drive an engine and make light. And with LSD, we didn't have the chance to experiment and fully establish how to make it do positive, useful things.”

For researchers hoping to resume LSD studies with human subjects, progress on the regulatory front has been excruciatingly slow. Since the early 1970s, only a dozen or so people have participated in FDA-sanctioned studies, and those were continuations of projects approved before the ban. Last year, Baltimore psychologist Richard Yensen was ready to administer 499 doses of LSD to down-and-out alcoholics and drug addicts in a resumption of his work begun in the early '60s at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. But early this year, the FDA put the study on “clinical hold,” demanding that Yensen revise his research and safety protocols.

Some critics of psychedelic science argue that LSD's would-be rehabilitators are really mounting a crypto-legalization campaign. Though Doblin denies that he's lobbying for LSD to be sold over the counter like cigarettes and alcohol, he does assert that “the ultimate goal is to have legal access to LSD, more likely than not in specially licensed centers to specially licensed therapists.”

Janiger also envisions a place for LSD in our culture. He would like to see studies of LSD and other psychedelics “become fair-minded and at parity with other kinds of research,” and the fruits of such research applied to “acceptable social and medical uses.” He cites the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece as a model for LSD's potential place in our own society. For nearly 2,000 years, the Greeks participated in an annual ritual at Eleusis, a site just west of Athens. In the secret ceremony, participants from all walks of life (Plato and Aristophanes, as well as slaves) imbibed a sacred drink called kykeon and then experienced what one ancient author described as “ineffable visions” that were “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition.” Says Janiger, “Those who underwent the mysteries came out at the other side, the sages tell us, as changed people who saw the world differently.” In short, the golden age of Greece may have also been a psychedelic age.

If Janiger's own experiments in Los Angeles resembled a kind of modern-day Eleusinian mystery, that was no accident. “The discussions I had with Huxley and Watts and the others in those early years centered on the way our culture might institutionalize LSD,” he recalls, “and it would be very much like the Greek model.”

Clearly, Janiger isn't advocating “legalization” in a simplistic sense. He is talking about the kind of self-transformation that leads to larger cultural transformations. And for that reason, his vision may ultimately be even more radical. But what a long, strange trip it was for about 2,000 years in ancient Greece. And what a short, strange trip it was for about a decade in Los Angeles.

John Whalen is a freelance writer and co-author with Jonathan Vankin of The 70 Greatest Conspiracies of all Time (Citadel). From L.A. Weekly (July 3, 1998). Subscriptions: $70/yr.(52 issues) from Box 4315, Los Angeles, CA 90078.