In a city in Switzerland, people with cancer are taking LSD to assist them in dealing with the emotional toll of the disease.
Peter Gasser trained in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy while it was legal in Switzerland in the early 1990s. In 2006, at an LSD conference in Basel, he met Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and they talked about setting up a clinical study with LSD. Research with MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) had been slowly picking up, but working with LSD was “in a way the most difficult thing to do because LSD is so politically charged as a substance,” Gasser says.
Nevertheless, the following year the Swiss government approved for him to carry out the first clinical study with LSD in 40 years.
I meet Gasser in his practice close to the train station in Solothurn, near Zurich, a year after his study was published. Here he gave LSD-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for anxiety in 12 patients with life-threatening illnesses. The reason for choosing this group was partly historical: the previous clinical studies with LSD had been in cancer patients.
Also, he says, the treatment might be precious for people with a short time to live. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a therapy that goes quicker than others, but I would say that you’re really at the core issues after a short time.”
Gasser says that spiritual experiences induced by LSD can be hugely valuable to patients. “If someone can incorporate spiritual experiences in the sense of ‘I feel part of a whole, I feel connected to other people, I feel connected to nature or creation,’ it may be a very relaxing insight for someone.
Primarily when you work with people at the end of their lives, when they’re suffering from severe illnesses, the spiritual dimension is quite important because people then have the question ‘What will be with me? What happens to me? What is after death?’”
In the study, eight patients were given a high dose of LSD, 200 micrograms, and four were given a low dose, 20 micrograms. Rather than using an inactive placebo, which would have been evident to the patients and the researchers, the low dose was used as a comparison to produce “short-lived, mild, and detectable LSD effects that would not substantially facilitate a therapeutic process.”
Checkout: Advantages of Taking A Walk
After two drug sessions and two months of follow-up, patients in the high-dose group had much lower scores for anxiety and attributed benefits to the therapy. “They said, ‘I’m more relaxed,’” says Gasser. “They said, ‘I’m less afraid of death.’ They also said, ‘I would do it again, and I would recommend it to my friends.’” He says the benefits were still being felt in those who were still alive a year afterwards.
“Some of them told me, ‘I saw I am more than anxiety, I am more than cancer, I am more than problems, so in a way, my life is more than everything.’ You may call that spiritual or not; it doesn’t matter, but they say they are more relaxed, more thinking about what they really want to do or not, with whom they want to be together or not, so they are in a way more aware of their lives and the richness of life, even if life is short, even if they have cancer and dying soon.”
Gasser tried to provide a quiet, meditative setting for the drug sessions, which lasted around eight hours. But for one of the patients, it didn’t quite go according to plan. “There was quite a loud noise outside. There was a building construction, and there was an air-pressure hammer all day. I thought that’s very difficult; it’s terrible! The poor man is on an LSD experience, and outside there is this air-pressure hammer.
The next day he said, ‘This was so fantastic! This hammer was so strong, and I felt the power of the hammer going into the earth.’ He identified with the power of this, and he was not disturbed at all. So I was distressed but not him. It also shows that if someone can integrate something, there may be a lot of meaningful things, and if you are not able to incorporate something, it can be alarming.”
The Swiss authorities have since agreed to consider applications from Gasser for “compassionate use” of LSD in his practice. So far, they have granted permission for seven patients, each for a year with the possibility of prolongation. “It is too early to talk about outcomes, but at the moment, all seems well.”
LSD Fast Facts
What is LSD?
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a synthetic (man-made) drug that has continued to be exploited for its hallucinogenic characteristics since the 1960s. If used in a sufficiently large dose, LSD creates delusions and visual hallucinations that twist the user’s sense of time and identity.
What are the Risks?
The outcomes correlated with LSD use are irregular and depend upon the amount taken, the surroundings used, and the user’s temperament, mood, and expectations. Some LSD users experience a feeling of hopelessness, while others report terrifying horrors–of losing control, going insane, or dying. Some users have languished fatal events while under the influence of LSD.
LSD users frequently have flashbacks, during which certain features of their LSD experience recur even though they have stopped taking the drug. In addition, LSD users may exhibit long-lasting psychoses, such as schizophrenia or critical depression.
LSD is not recognized as an addictive drug. However, LSD users may generate tolerance to the drug, meaning that they must consume progressively bigger doses in order to remain the hallucinogenic effects that they seek.