By David Harder, ATMA co-founder and co-CEO
I met with a gentleman – a pastor of sorts – from my former religious life. We sat down to enjoy a pint and a burger at a local watering hole.
It had been many years since we had last spoken, simply due to the chaos of life, so it was refreshing to have the opportunity to catch up.
He updated me on his work, his family, his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, etc., and then he enquired as to what my world was like.
In several sentences I described the life I was building at ATMA, and how psychedelic medicines like psilocybin (using the term “magic mushrooms” for simplicity) were being used in Health Canada-approved clinical trials for mental health indications.
He immediately reacted, physically pulled back, and exclaimed, “Oh, I would never take those!”
His response was somewhat surprising, given that these are open discussions that I regularly engage in. This was a stark reminder of the view that the majority of our population still holds; psychedelic medicines are to be feared and “magic mushrooms” are not to be meddled with. The viewpoint “this is your brain on drugs” positioned next to a graphic image of a fried egg is still widely accepted, especially by those in religious and Christian circles.
The new Netflix docuseries How to Change Your Mind begins by showing Michael Pollan ingesting a high dose of tobacco used in a ceremony for spiritual growth; the reaction he experiences is immediate and causes a physical response. My friend, strongly averse to psychedelics, would point to this as proof that these medicines are somehow to be feared.
The series then proceeds to document the process of individuals receiving LSD treatment for various reasons in clinical trials and studies around the world. The history of LSD, elaborated upon more thoroughly by our Canadian historian Dr. Erika Dyck at the University of Saskatchewan, demonstrates the highly efficacious uses of this molecule in the 1950s and 1960s in treating addictions and other mental health concerns.
However, stigma developed when LSD became associated with the counterculture movement that began as a result of political forces sending youths to war for dubious purposes. Known on the street as “acid,” LSD became the most prominent scapegoat for the fabricated “War on Drugs” by President Nixon, which was subsequently reinforced by the Reagan administration.
This docuseries is a must-see for those curious about LSD, its history, and its uses.
As we see these medicines studied again in clinical trials, and delivered in ethically sound and medically safe conditions, LSD will likely emerge as one of the leading tools for mental health and addiction treatments. The negative connotation of the term “acid,” in conjunction with the political stigma associated with the drug, largely contributed to the global ban on the work that those like Albert Hoffman were conducting. Thousands of studies done by researchers and psychiatrists like Dr. Stanislav Grof were buried in political mire.
How to Change Your Mind starts, to my surprise, with an in-depth look at LSD. Perhaps the writers see the same trajectory for this molecule as I know to be true: that as we progress with psilocybin and MDMA, the true leader in psychedelic treatment will emerge as the molecule that was given the most attention 60-70 years ago when it was first discovered on the infamous bicycle ride of its beloved inventor. Once the veils of stigma are lifted, LSD will be recognized as a powerful tool for treating many mental health concerns.
… and if you don’t know that story about the bicycle, watch the first episode.
So, to my friend, I hope one day you will return to have an open-minded conversation with me pertaining to how “acid” can make a major difference in our world, including helping to treat the mental health concerns that church-goers are also struggling with.