Could a strong, properly timed psychedelic experience help alcoholics move away from their destructive habit?
Following his own beneficial experiences with LSD, Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson came to believe that the psychedelic drug could be a useful catalyst on the road to recovery for some alcoholics. Rather than acting as a one-time cure, he saw in LSD the potential to bring about a spiritual experience whose visions and insights would provide the incentive for progressing away from alcohol abuse.
The question of whether LSD could be useful in treating alcoholism was the focus of several research programs in the 1960s. Some promising results emerged from this work, but much of the research published during that time fails to live up to today’s scientific standards.
A recent review of the more rigorously designed of these studies, however, suggests that LSD does have potential in treating alcoholism.
A pair of Norwegian researchers analysed six randomized, controlled studies which collectively administered LSD to more than 500 people being treated for alcohol abuse. In their article, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2012, they reported that a single dose of LSD was associated with decreases in alcohol misuse that lasted up to six months. In some cases, LSD was associated with a period of abstinence from alcohol lasting up to three months. The duration of these effects is notable, as it is rather uncommon for a single dose of psychiatric medication to have an effect lasting several months.
The positive changes observed went beyond reductions in alcohol abuse. Reflecting the transformative potential of psychedelic experiences, one of the original researchers noted that it was usual for the LSD experience to result in patients also becoming more open and self-accepting, as well as confident in their ability to face future problems.
Of course, the challenge is to then stabilize and integrate these positive changes and insights so that they are not lost to the passage of time — in the words of religious studies scholar Huston Smith, “to transform flashes of illumination into abiding light.” In a time when approximately one in fifteen American adults have a diagnosable alcohol abuse disorder, establishing a reliable way to reduce alcohol abuse and generate the self-acceptance and confidence needed to ward off relapse would be of tremendous impact to our collective well-being.