The province was once a major centre for psychiatry research with drugs like LSD and mescaline
By Rory Maclean
Experiments that took place in Saskatoon and at the Weyburn mental hospital radically expanded the field of psychiatry and were a notable part of the shift from a focus on psychoanalysis to cognitive science, driven by drug therapy.
Shortly after the Second World War, British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond began studying LSD, perceiving a similarity between the effects of LSD and the early stages of schizophrenia. His work was not well accepted in England, but in 1951 Osmond accepted a position at the Weyburn mental hospital where he met some like-minded researchers.
They began first by experimenting on themselves with psychedelic drugs, including mescaline and LSD-25. Osmond, along with Abram Hoffer, the superintendent of the Weyburn mental hospital, and others such as Duncan Blewett felt that in order to treat schizophrenia they had to know what the experience of it was like.
Given that LSD seemed to mimic the effects of the early stages of schizophrenia, Osmond and his contemporaries reasoned that perhaps schizophrenia was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Hoffman encouraged the budding new field of experimentation in his hospital and the researchers received a number of grants from Tommy Douglas’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation governent (the precursor to the New Democratic Party).
They were opening the field of drug therapy but, according to University of Saskatchewan history of psychiatry researcher Erika Dyck, they still tended to engage in psychoanalysis.
They did, however, distinguish themselves from the psychoanalysts, who they considered to be “dogmatic therapists largely concerned with treating middle-class patients,” says Dyck.
In her paper “Land of the Living Sky with Diamonds,” Dyck argues that these radical experiments were happening at a time when the social and political landscape of Saskatchewan was also changing dramatically.
“Individuals involved in LSD research acknowledged the importance of place in terms of the supportive research environment, the optimistic intellectual atmosphere, and the receptive medical community,” she writes.
At that time, the controls on drug experimentation were minimal compared to today. Chemicals were supplied with little hesitation.
Osmond was even responsible for administering author Aldous Huxley with the dose of mescaline that led him to write The Doors of Perception, an enthusiastic description of his experience.
Osmond experimented with many chemicals but LSD became the drug of choice because it is potent in extremely small doses — mere micrograms — and it was available for free from Swiss chemical supplier Sandoz. The economical nature of LSD also made the CCF government more open to financially supporting its research.
Perhaps the best known LSD research at the Weyburn hospital was the experimention on alcoholics. Hoffer and Osmond began using LSD on patients to simulate delirium tremens — a potentially lethal state of agitated delirium suffered by chronic consumers of alcohol.
Since this treatment was not envisioned as a therapy — thereby replacing alcohol with LSD — it relied on administering patients with a single mega-dose of between 200 and 1,500 micrograms, says Dyck.
For comparison, a typical tab of LSD blotter today contains around 30 to 90 micrograms. A threshold dose is about 20 micrograms.
The researchers lauded their form of shock-therapy as successful, claiming a 50 per cent recovery rate for the length of the post-treatment study period.
“Patients in the initial study were chronic alcoholics in the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn. Following the LSD treatment, the male patient stopped drinking and remained sober for at least six months, at which point the follow-up study ended. The female patient continued drinking after the experiment but stopped during the follow-up period,” Dyck writes.
Hoffer later rejected the theory that they were simulating delirium tremens and speculated that it was more likely the self-reflective experience of LSD that convinced alcoholics to stop drinking.
Blewett, the founding chairman of the U of S psychology department, also argued that LSD was effective in treating alcoholism because it allowed patients to look within themselves.
“Other methods frequently produced dependence, whether on a chemical or a psychotherapeutic relationship, and did little to assist the patient in resurrecting self-control,” said Dyck.
Critics have since rejected these experiments for their lack of controlled trials, but the work begun by Osmond, Hoffer and Blewett has contributed to the conception of alcoholism as a bio-chemical disease, and one that can be treated.
Psychiatry was a different world during this time, as evidenced by the researchers’s psychedelic experiments, which would be difficult to attempt today.
“It strikes me that the layers of regulation and bureaucracy are much thicker today,” said Dyck.
Experimentation with new psychiatric drugs has become much more tightly controlled by legislation, ethics boards and ethicists, she said.
By 1968, LSD had become a controlled substance in Canada and the U.S., severely restricting its use.
“I think that the media had a lot to do with it,” said Dyck.
Many publications were blaming the growing student protest movement on the use of psychedelic drugs and the rise of psychedelic celebrities like Timothy Leary.
Leary, a former Harvard-based psychologist, was expelled from his position for freely giving away LSD to community residents. He later travelled across California offering LSD as a new form of consciousness expansion with the slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
According to Dyck, this contributed to the idea that LSD was over-hyped.
“There was too much hype. It was almost caught up in a placebo type (of effect),” she said.
Osmond had left the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital by the early 1960s and Hoffer resigned in 1967, but by that time he had moved from psychedelics to experiments with high doses of vitamins. The Weyburn mental hospital was demolished in 2008, after the facility had essentially been closed for a decade.