Remembering Canada’s pivotal role in early psychedelics research

Psychedelic drugs are slowly regaining respectability in academic circles after being unfairly demonized for decades.

Recent studies show that psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, and other psychedelics have the potential to alleviate many forms of human suffering, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This isn’t the first time medical professionals have explored the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. In fact, as a new graphic history published by Between the Lines reminds us, some of the earliest research in this field took place in Canada.

Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of Living Skies is an engaging, accessible, and illuminating presentation of a little-known chapter in Canadian history.

Smartly written by Hugh D.A. Goldring and wonderfully illustrated by nicole marie burton, it recalls the pioneering work done out of the Weyburn Mental Hospital in the 1950s and 60s.

Humphry Osmond, the facility’s clinical director, teamed up with fellow psychiatrist Abram Hoffer to see if LSD could help with the treatment of alcoholism and the study of schizophrenia.

It wasn’t by accident that the British-born Osmond, who is widely credited with coining the term “psychedelic,” left England for Saskatchewan.

“Best known for its general flatness and endless wheat fields, Saskatchewan was also the home of North America’s first socialist government,” Goldring writes. “Its leader, Tommy Douglas, is today famous as the founder of medicare. So we shouldn’t be surprised that his government set out to attract innovative medical researchers from around the world, including Humphry Osmond.”

Osmond and Hoffer made significant strides, but their work, and that of other psychedelic researchers, was increasingly marginalized as the 1960s wore on.

An explosion in the recreational use of LSD, particularly among young people, sent politicians, law enforcement, academic institutions, and media outlets into a “reefer madness” kind of hysteria.

“It became associated with the revolutionary left-wing youth counter-culture — with hippies,” Goldring writes. “A moral panic was born.”

Wonder Drug is based on research done by Erica Dyck, a University of Saskatchewan professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Health and Social Justice.

In a brief afterword to the book, Dyck strikes an optimistic tone about the future of psychedelics in Canada, noting the (extremely limited) approval last year of psilocybin as an end-of-life medicine.

“Possession of cannabis once led to jail time, for example,” she writes, “but it now can be purchased at a corner store and consumed both recreationally and medicinally.”