By the end of the 1940s, the war had ended and the world began the slow, painful process of putting the pieces back together. Cities lay leveled, families had been broken, the global moral lay low. Depression rates increased and people turned to doctors for a solution. Brain science was in infancy leaving doctors and psychiatrists struggling to find answers for mental health patients. Patients with depression and mental illnesses would be subjected to shock therapy, seizure therapy, and out of desperation, even antihistamines that had a mildly sedative effect. As you might expect, the results had not been promising on any front. Maybe an answer could be found in surplus missile fuel. Yes, missile fuel.
In the early 1950s, isolated molecules from hydrazine missile fuel led to a tuberculosis drug called isocarboxazid which had a manic effect on bi-polar disorder in some patients prescribed the drug. This led to a refinement in the drug which became the first official MAOI – a hormone breakdown inhibitor. It was deployed to market as the first officially trialed antidepressant. But for every success, it posed some risks to those taking the drug, that occasionally could lead to higher risk of heart attack, stroke and early death. But don’t worry, patients were also less likely to be depressed about that. Nevertheless, with these known damagers, the medical community felt these first generation MAOIs presented doctors and psychiatrists with a tool. It proved far less invasive than previous treatments, and presented fewer side effects. Nevertheless, results were scarce and unpredictable.
A new solution was needed. As luck would have it, one had been discovered. Enter LSD. An accident of chemistry Dr. Albert Hofmann mistakenly came into contact with while experimenting with molecules found in ergot fungus. Molecules he had spent some time altering in order to create new medicines. After a harrowing experience, and a radical shift in his understanding of the human condition, he began researching the compound intensely with his collogues. After some time, he and his team concluded that the new molecule was a highly active serotonin receptor binder molecule. The active effect came to be called a psychedelic experience.
News of the discovery and initial testing of this new molecule – LSD, had become available to psychiatrists and doctors who wanted an alternative to the missile fuel molecules and their relatives. In the USA, Dr. Sidney Cohan’s interest in the drug as a treatment for depression sparked following his first personal use of the drug while under supervision. He noted that during his experience he had let go of all the worries of life, having been transported to a place of peace and sunlight. A profound change in him had occurred and with the help of Aldus Huxley, he began testing LSD as a treatment on twenty-two of his patients (with consent of course) between 1957 and 1958.
Then the 60s came. As awareness of LSD and psychedelics began to spread to the general public, they began to take notice. At the time, LSD still remained in legal standing, no Schedule 1 classification yet existed. People everywhere began to experience these same states of altered reality, each of them returning having gained some sort of wisdom in retrospect. Of course cases of abuse and “bad trips” also occured, but it seemed the general norm that most saw value in the drug as a way to experience thought and reality beyond the confines of normal life. The Hippie movement began. Quite a change from a generation gripped by the aftermath of war, literally still swallowing the remnants of the weapons that had been created to try and numb the pain of what the world had done.
Such a radical shift in perspective toward peace and unity over such a vast population had never been seen in history. And with a new war looming over the horizon, this did not bode well for foreign politics.
The war in Vietnam begins. Enlistment propaganda floods every media outlet in the nation. But a number of mental health patients that had begun to reject the missile fuel derived drugs, along with a young generation with a new right of passage, presented a problem for the war – a low supply of troops that responded to the media’s call to war. It seems not many were willing to fight.
The public was reluctant towards the war. Psychedelics had likely given rise to something new – a population rejecting of political institutions and authority. The Nixon administration, not known for subtlety, subsequently began a domestic war – The war on drugs. Enter drug scheduling laws.
Hippies who openly used psychedelics were now a target for law enforcement and jailed for simply using a substance that showed more promise for the relief of mental illness and expanding consciousness than most methods that had previously been developed. Protests began, and worse still, the research into psychedelics was halted with all compounds, including LSD. They had now been set to Schedule 1 – Drugs that are potentially deadly with no identifiable medical use. Cocaine is Schedule 2 because it can be used as a numbing agent for dental surgery.
Drugs such as isocarboxazid and its derivatives once again became the best pharmacological remedies for mental illness, and clinical research into psychedelics was outlawed. The SSRIs we’ve come to know today were still more than twenty years away from development, leaving a portion of the population once again choking down the old war to relieve the anxiety from the new one.
But as with all things worthy of preservation, a group of devoted researchers along with those who believed in the potential healing properties of the psychedelic class of molecules kept the production, distribution and education of these compounds alive through sanctioned phase trials despite the threat of imprisonment.
WW2 missile fuel became a (sub-optimal) depression treatment, new molecules then appeared to become teachers, students became hippies, hippies became the voices of the modern cry for a better future.
Today, after decades of refined testing, protesting, thousands of recorded first hand accounts of successful reduction in symptoms of mental illness and advances in technology; we are beginning to see what the potential for a better future in mental health.
“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” – Tristan Tzara
The attempt to use materials of war to treat the human condition proved an inadequate solution. But as if by fate, molecules began to be accidentally discovered and rediscovered again in ancient plant medicine that could offer a safer and more lasting solution. Molecules, the majority of which, have found their origins in (natural) plants, rather than (industrial) plants.
We are only just beginning to understand this dilemma of plants vs plants. Industry vs Nature.
It is difficult to predict where the next few decades will take us.
Yet the question we must ask is a simple one – What can the lessons of history tell us about our future?