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The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy

, 288 pages

22 b&w illus.

August 2018



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The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy

LSD Psychotherapy in America


After LSD arrived in the United States in 1949, the drug's therapeutic promise quickly captured the interests of psychiatrists. In the decade that followed, modern psychopharmacology was born and research into the drug's perceptual and psychological effects boomed. By the early 1960s, psychiatrists focused on a particularly promising treatment known as psychedelic therapy: a single, carefully guided, high-dose LSD session coupled with brief but intensive psychotherapy. Researchers reported an astounding 50 percent success rate in treating chronic alcoholism, as well as substantial improvement in patients suffering from a range of other disorders. Yet despite this success, LSD officially remained an experimental drug only. Research into its effects, psychological and otherwise, dwindled before coming to a close in the 1970s.

In The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy, Matthew Oram traces the early promise and eventual demise of LSD psychotherapy in the United States. While the common perception is that LSD's prohibition terminated legitimate research, Oram draws on files from the Food and Drug Administration and the personal papers of LSD researchers to reveal that the most significant issue was not the drug's illegality, but the persistent question of its efficacy. The landmark Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments of 1962 installed strict standards for efficacy evaluation, which LSD researchers struggled to meet due to the unorthodox nature of their treatment.

Exploring the complex interactions between clinical science, regulation, and therapeutics in American medicine, The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy explains how an age of empirical research and limited government oversight gave way to sophisticated controlled clinical trials and complex federal regulations. Analyzing the debates around how to understand and evaluate treatment efficacy, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in LSD and psychedelics, as well as mental health professionals, regulators, and scholars of the history of psychiatry, psychotherapy, drug regulation, and pharmaceutical research and development.

Matthew Oram is a historian in Christchurch, New Zealand. He earned his PhD in history from the University of Sydney.

"Taking an in-depth look at the trials and tribulations of psychedelic research in America, Oram offers a sophisticated and careful analysis. The book is very well written, and the research is empirically rich and detailed. There is no other historical account that offers this degree of breadth on the topic, nor one that so meticulously tracks the relationship between the FDA and psychedelic researchers."

"A remarkably valuable case study. This important, well-researched, and well-written book engages with and challenges the existing historiography on the rise and fall of LSD both in the United States and elsewhere. A large popular and academic audience will be interested in this nuanced addition to the drug’s biography."

"The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy is a wonderful read. It's packed with extraordinary detail, gives an old story a new ending, and leaves the reader with questions—something more precious than answers. Without following an agenda, Oram cuts to the heart of darkness of modern psychopharmacology. This book is a trip well worth taking."

"This fascinating book reveals that the demise of LSD research was mostly a result of the efficacy requirements of the Drug Amendments of 1962, which shaped drug research to conform to the ‘magic bullet’ concept of drug function. Detailed here are the riveting struggles of the pioneers trying to find a place for LSD in medicine. A great read!"

"A fascinating addition to the growing literature on the history of psychiatric therapeutics, examining the now-forgotten story of psychiatry's experiments with LSD. Matthew Oram has provided a throughly researched and genuinely original account of this episode."

"Accurate and astute—a comprehensive and challenging resource in the midst of the current renaissance of psychedelic investigations, both for current researchers and government regulators."

"A fascinating narrative history of psychiatric LSD research in the United States—a longer and more interesting story than is generally known. Oram’s insightful analysis of LSD’s last days as a potential medicine furthers our understanding of what may have been lost when the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial became the ultimate measure of psychopharmacological truth."

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