When Stephen Ross found out that LSD was one of the most widely researched experimental drugs of the mid-twentieth century, studied by big names in the field of psychiatry at prestigious institutions with federal funding, he was shocked.1 This history never came up during his psychiatric training. By the time he was a medical student at UCLA’s School of Medicine in the early 1990s, LSD had a reputation as a dangerous drug of abuse, with no redeeming medical value. It wasn’t until 2006, when he was an addiction psychiatrist at New York University (NYU), that he first heard about psychiatry’s psychedelic past. With a coterie of interdisciplinary colleagues, he formed a psychedelic reading group to learn more about this forgotten history. Each week, the group pored over old medical journals. They read about psychiatrists who dosed their schizophrenic patients with LSD in an attempt to uncover the biochemical basis of psychosis; they also read about therapists who used the drug to see if it could help heroin addicts break their smack habit.2 The results coming out of these studies were promising. They suggested that LSD and other psychedelic drugs were a breakthrough treatment for mental health problems.3
Baffled that this area of research had ended, Ross and other members of the psychedelic reading group decided to develop their own clinical study using psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient that puts the magic in magic mushrooms) to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The study replicated earlier research on terminally ill cancer patients with anxiety who were treated with psilocybin’s better-known cousin, LSD. One set of studies, which took place at Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1960s, found that a single LSD therapy session helped lower anxiety and depression in most participants.4 Nearly five decades later, Ross and his research team published results from their cancer anxiety study in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.5 The verdict? Psilocybin appears safe and effective for treating cancer anxiety in a clinical setting—a conclusion that held up under the scientific scrutiny of the study’s double-blind, placebo-controlled design.6 Most subjects reported that the psilocybin experience offered moments of insight and clarity about the meaning of life and death that helped them feel less terrified of dying and less miserable in their daily lives. Additionally, subjects did not experience any serious physical or psychological side effects from ingesting the drug, aside from slight nausea, fleeting anxiety, and minor increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Nearly a dozen editorials from top researchers in the fields of psychiatry, addiction, and palliative care appeared alongside the article.7 The responses were largely positive. Indeed, their recommendations were nearly unanimous: psychiatry needs more research on psychedelic therapy.
Over the past decade, there has been an extraordinary boom in clinical psychedelic research. This new iteration of research taps into the potential of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for treating cancer anxiety and a panoply of psychiatric problems, including depression, substance addiction, and obsessive–compulsive disorder.8 Acid Revival examines how a new generation of researchers and their allies have worked to fine-tune psychedelic drugs to serve as tools for treating mental illness and to usher in a new era of psychedelic therapy. In the process of reviving psychedelic therapy, however, researchers confront multiple dilemmas that threaten to rupture their budding legitimacy. This book takes readers on a journey through those dilemmas and charts how researchers map a course of action to resolve them, revealing a process fraught with tensions over boundaries between good and bad science—and good and bad scientists.
Rip Van Winkle Science
Psychedelic drugs conjure up images of hippies frolicking in the mud and stories about LSD damaging people’s chromosomes. But before they became associated with the tie-dye aesthetics and moral panics of the 1960s, indigenous cultures had for thousands of years used mind-altering fungi and plants in healing and spiritual practices. During the postwar miracle drug boom of the psychopharmacological revolution, the synthesis of psychedelic chemicals like LSD and psilocybin made it possible for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to examine whether the healing and spiritual qualities of these drugs were safe and effective in a clinical setting.9 During the golden age of psychedelic therapy, which stretched from the early 1950s into the early 1970s (what’s sometimes referred to as the first wave), a diverse mix of experts studied the potential uses of psychedelic drugs in alleviating symptoms for a range of psychiatric conditions, including childhood autism and alcohol dependency. Many researchers envisioned psychedelic drugs as tools with the potential to revolutionize how we understand and treat mental health problems. Some even went so far as to describe these drugs as a “microscope for psychiatry.”10 Over the course of twenty years, thousands of articles were published, dozens of conferences were held, and thousands of patients were treated with these drugs.11 But the early and enthusiastic embrace of LSD did not pan out. By the close of the 1960s, the volume of research had dropped substantially. In 1976, the last American-based research team with federal approval to carry out clinical research with psychedelics ended its work.12 Although other psychiatric medicines flourished in the medical marketplace, psychedelic drugs withered on the vine. LSD and its psychedelic relatives never made it into the arsenal of the psychiatric toolbox, leaving unanswered questions about their value in aiding psychotherapy. The field of psychedelic psychotherapy was neither dead nor alive but rather stuck in scientific limbo.13
After a decades-long dry spell, biomedical research on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is mushrooming (so to speak) into what some cultural observers have termed a psychedelic renaissance.14 Dozens of studies are now concluding or are underway at prestigious universities across the globe, with the goal of helping treat the anxious, the depressed, the compulsive, the traumatized, and the substance dependent.15 Scientists in London, for example, launched a first investigation into the use of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant major depression, with participants reporting reduced depressive symptoms after just two sessions.16 Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin therapy can help smokers kick their nicotine habit. Psychiatrists at the University of Alabama are looking to see if psilocybin can do the same for people with cocaine dependency.17 So far, things are promising. Respected medical journals like the Lancet and Psychopharmacology have published results from completed studies, and media coverage in news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post has been positive and informative. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence suggests that another substance commonly placed under the “psychedelic” umbrella, MDMA—more popularly known as ecstasy—is safe and effective for treating PTSD.18 The results have been so favorable that in August 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated MDMA as a breakthrough therapy for PTSD, meaning that the agency will accelerate the development and review process for this drug.19 A year later, psilocybin received the same designation for depression. Psychedelic science is certainly having a moment.20
Abram Hoffer welcomed this revival. Hoffer was a Canadian psychiatrist who conducted extensive clinical research with LSD during the 1950s and 1960s. Commenting on the history of psychedelic research, he described how “the whole thing went into a deep sleep, kind of like Rip Van Winkle. It’s just now Rip’s beginning to wake up again.”21 Hoffer compared the trajectory of psychedelic science to the predicament of the titular character in Washington Irving’s well-known short story—an apt characterization for the ebb and flow of this field. Roland Griffiths, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, similarly commented, “It’s the Rip Van Winkle effect—after three decades of no research, we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes.”22 Rip Van Winkle fell asleep for over twenty years, only to wake up from his deep sleep to find himself in a drastically changed world; so did the field of psychedelic science.
In many ways, however, this wave of researchers is treading familiar waters. Their studies largely replicate work from the earlier era of psychedelic research, testing similar hypotheses (e.g., behavior change) and treating similar conditions (e.g., anxiety as a result of a cancer diagnosis). Like their predecessors, today’s researchers have high hopes that psychedelic drugs might be psychiatry’s antibiotic, offering a revolutionary treatment for mental health problems.23 After all, mental illness continues to be a major public health issue. Diagnoses proliferate, yet effective treatments are still lacking; antidepressants and talk therapy do not work for everyone. Psychiatry needs a new tool for treating pressing psychiatric problems, and these new teams of researchers think they have the answer in psychedelic drugs.
Yet despite all the fanfare surrounding the psychedelic renaissance, many researchers enter the revival with an air of gravitas. The situation has changed, and getting this work off the ground is not easy. For one thing, researchers are rejuvenating this area of research against the backdrop of the ongoing war on drugs. Since 1970, psychedelic drugs like LSD and mescaline have remained classified by the federal government as Schedule 1 substances—a category reserved for drugs that have been deemed highly addictive and lacking medical use. Some scientists have charged that the bureaucratic hurdles associated with psychedelic drugs’ Schedule 1 status have stalled research into this treatment model.24 However, regulatory roadblocks are not the only thing causing trouble as researchers try to carve out a space for psychedelics in psychiatry. Other tensions loom in the field from the past, like the ongoing struggle to align psychedelic treatment models with the methodological mandates of randomized controlled trials. As researchers attempt to rescue psychedelic drugs from decades of psychiatric obscurity, they must figure out how to establish their expertise in psychedelic therapy while resolving problems that threaten to seep into and undermine the contemporary revival.
Much has already been written about the history of psychedelic science, by those inside and outside of the field, and by those who take scholarly and nonscholarly gazes through the looking glass.25 Commentators and scholars have proposed different explanations for the decline and revival of psychedelic science, but this work has ignored a key way in which this new generation of scientists and their allies are rehabilitating psychedelic therapy: by conjuring up what I call the impure scientist, a failed scientist whose specter is used to create transformations in an expert domain.26 The impure scientist’s specter calls forth multiple underlying anxieties in the arena of psychedelic therapy. I examine this specter and the legitimacy crises that lie beneath contemporary researchers’ ghost stories to think more broadly about how psychedelic therapy expertise has been assembled, enacted, and modified.27 Who haunts them?
The Specter of Timothy Leary
To research this book, I scoured the scientific literature, attended conferences, visited libraries, and talked with the people doing the work of scientific psychedelia. Like Ross, I was interested in unearthing the psychiatric history of psychedelic drugs. Archives are one place to excavate psychedelic artifacts and other things that were left behind in the first wave of psychedelic therapy. I did some digging at the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection. Housed at Purdue University, this collection contains thousands of documents related to the medical history of psychedelic drugs. While poking through the archive, I came across a sixteen-page brochure for a short-lived organization, the Institute for Psychedelic Research.28 Willis Harman, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, and Robert Mogar, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State College, founded the Institute in 1965 and received permission from Mogar’s institution to house the organization. Harman and Mogar envisioned the Institute as a hub where researchers could meet and where the next generation of psychedelic therapists could be trained. The Institute’s brochure described their plans to promote interdisciplinary research on the use of psychedelic drugs for enhancing creativity and stimulating behavior change. Before the Institute got off the ground, however, the administration at San Francisco State College reversed its decision, ostensibly in response to sensationalized media stories of acid casualties.29
I noticed that someone had scribbled a brief message on the inside cover of the brochure. It read: “Killed by Leary! What might have been.”30 The note, dated April 28, 1998, was signed by Myron Stolaroff, a staff member at the Institute. The Leary in question was, of course, Timothy Leary.31 Leary was a clinical psychologist who initiated a series of experiments with psilocybin at Harvard University in 1960. Initial exploratory studies took place in faculty living rooms that served as makeshift laboratories where colleagues, friends, and graduate students took the drug to learn more about appropriate doses and subjective effects. In another project, Leary and his research team took psilocybin alongside prison inmates to see if the substance could reduce recidivism. Meanwhile, Leary regaled Harvard students about the spiritual and philosophical virtues of psychedelic drugs. His colleagues at Harvard accused him of being methodologically cavalier; administrators chastised his psychedelic evangelism. The well-publicized controversy surrounding Leary’s psilocybin experiments culminated in his termination from Harvard. Outside of Harvard, Leary continued to pursue his interest in psychedelics, establishing his own research organization and later his own psychedelic religion. He actively promoted the use of consciousness-altering substances as a vehicle for spiritual growth. By the mid-1960s, Leary was a polarizing cultural figure, one who could exhilarate or terrify an audience, depending on what they wanted to hear. Medical professionals dismissed him as a charlatan. Politicians denounced him as a rabble-rouser. He was even reviled by celebrities. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, for example, criticized Leary for “spout[ing] nonsense,” declaring, “I wouldn’t let him on my show.”32 While vilified by many in the medical profession, federal government, and the general public, Leary was considered a hero among members of the burgeoning hippie counterculture, who eagerly followed his call to “turn on, tune in, drop out” with psychedelic drugs. Leary’s storied transformation from Harvard professor to countercultural guru occupies a central place in the history of psychedelic drugs. It also shapes how psychedelic researchers talk about the history of their field.
As the note in the brochure indicates, Stolaroff was convinced that Leary was responsible for the end of the Institute and psychedelic research more broadly. “With the advent of Timothy Leary and the enormous adverse publicity created by his activities,” Stolaroff wrote in his memoir, Thanatos to Eros, “the scientific interest in this field evaporated. . . . At one point, San Francisco State College responded favorably to the request of members of our Foundation staff to set up a new Institute specifically for psychedelic research. But as the rumble of unfavorable publicity raised to a roar, they no longer wished to be associated with it.”33 Decades after the Institute was shut down, Stolaroff continued to hold a grudge; he remained steadfast in his position that “Tim is largely responsible for terminating legitimate psychedelic research in America.”34
Stolaroff is not alone in his belief that the actions of Leary contributed to the decades-long interruption of psychedelic drug research. As I researched this book, I was struck by the frequency and consistency of the stories that psychedelic researchers told me about their field’s history.35 What researchers like Stolaroff had to say was clear and simple: Leary killed it. For instance, during a podcast that accompanied Science magazine’s July 2014 feature story on the revival of psychedelic science, Robin Carhart-Harris, an Imperial College London psychopharmacologist who researches psilocybin, attributed the demise of the field in the 1960s to “people like Tim Leary, who had been scientists but then advocated for people to use these drugs recreationally, to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ and widen their consciousness. These people had delegitimized real research.”36 Psychiatrist Matt Johnson and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins wrote in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that it was “Leary’s subsequent irresponsible advocacy of hallucinogen use by youth [that] further undermined an objective scientific approach to studying these compounds.”37 Roland Griffiths, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins who studies psilocybin-assisted therapy, likewise told a Salon reporter that “Leary so undermined credible scientific use of these compounds that it poisoned research for decades.”38 Griffiths described Leary as “the iconic scientist [who] goes AWOL and promotes unrestricted use [of psychedelics]. As a result, I don’t know of any other set of scientific questions that have been banned for decades because it was judged too dangerous to study.” Griffiths even recalled that when he initially proposed studying psilocybin, his colleagues warned him not to “raise the image of Timothy Leary at Johns Hopkins.”39 Countless researchers narrated Leary’s psychedelic career using similar terms; they told me how Leary “corrupted,” “contaminated,” and “polluted” psychedelic science. If Leary had not poisoned psychedelic research, the story goes, then perhaps today we would see images of LSD flashing across our television screens with a voice-over instructing us to ask our doctor if dropping acid is right for us.
For this generation of researchers, the decline of psychedelic science can be traced to Leary’s transition from Harvard University to the Human Be-In, where he uttered six infamous words: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Saying that Leary rang the death knell for psychedelic science is compelling in its orderly narrative: the field was booming until Leary came along and burst the psychedelic bubble by promoting these drugs to the public with an evangelical fervor that led to widespread recreational use. The ripple effects of his actions are plausible. A moral panic followed that set into motion a series of prohibitive drug laws that have made it nearly impossible to get this research done. It’s a story that sticks with us, tapping into classic features of good storytelling: a solid narrative flow, identifiable villains, and lessons learned. But the decline of the field was not so tidy.
There has been much scholarly and unscholarly hand-wringing about how large a role Leary played in the decline of psychedelic research. In his best-selling book, How to Change Your Mind, journalist Michael Pollan announced that it is time to “put aside the Leary saga” in telling the history of psychedelics.40 Indeed, several historians have offered revisionist narratives that uncover other factors responsible for killing psychedelic science. Historian Steven Novak, for example, by titling his article “LSD before Leary,” reminded readers that the drug did have a life before its best salesman got hold of it. He found that medical professionals issued warnings about the dangers of LSD in the late 1950s, prompting a government crackdown on the drug years before Leary instructed young people to “turn on.”41 Historian Matthew Oram has also plucked psychedelic science from its embattled association with Leary and 1960s counterculture, revealing how regulatory changes in drug development research triggered the field’s slow and quiet death.42
For some, the question about Leary’s culpability is a matter of historical accuracy, but for others, it’s just insulting. Just ask Timothy Leary’s son, Zach. In 2013, Wired journalist Greg Miller declared, “Timothy Leary really screwed things up for science.”43 Miller’s article triggered a flood of angry letters from readers sympathetic to Leary, including his son. Zach accused Miller of unfairly pinning the blame on his father for what happened with psychedelic research. In Zach’s assessment, “The fucking sixties happened, man.”44 At this point, some people are sick of the finger-pointing at Leary.
Nonetheless, for researchers in the field, Leary remains a problem. According to their postmortem, it was Leary who delivered the death blow to psychedelic therapy. As a result, today’s psychedelic researchers feel haunted by Leary, and they are ready to exorcise his ghost. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist who studies psilocybin and MDMA-assisted therapy, reminds us, “The ‘60s are long over. As the Moody Blues used to sing, ‘Timothy Leary is dead’ . . . and many of those with whom he fought have also exited.”45 William Richards agrees. Richards is a psychologist who conducted extensive clinical research with psychedelics in the 1960s and has been working with researchers at Johns Hopkins since the early 2000s on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. “One of our sayings during the sessions is ‘let go,’” he notes, suggesting that this is what “we [researchers] needed to do” in order to revive psychedelic research.46 According to Richards, jettisoning Leary from their expert domain has been key to igniting the revival: “The old fires needed to die down. Leary’s ashes needed to get launched into outer space.47 Now I’m hopeful. The research proceeds with integrity.”48
The question at the heart of this book is not “did Leary kill psychedelic research?” but rather “how can we explain the persistence of this story?” The fact that this story keeps popping up says something. It doesn’t say that the story is an accurate description of reality, but it also shouldn’t be dismissed as deliberately wrong or mistaken. The story is much more complex and nuanced than previous critiques have afforded. What I do in this book is take up the Leary narrative from a different angle, using the story as a way to analyze these storytellers’ latent aspirations and buried messages. By viewing this story in the larger historical and cultural context in which it is told, I unravel the ways in which Leary’s specter calls forth multiple underlying anxieties that have plagued the field in the past—and that continue to haunt researchers in the present. These crises forestalled psychedelic therapy, propelling it into psychiatric obscurity and becoming what science studies scholars call “forbidden knowledge,” or knowledge that is considered too controversial or taboo to produce.49 In this way, the Leary story becomes key to understanding the trials and tribulations of the psychedelic therapy revival.
Narrating and Performing Expertise in the Psychedelic Renaissance
In this book, I approach the Leary story as a sociologist, turning to ideas about expertise, culture, and boundaries to think through broader questions about how expertise is established, maintained, and repaired. When talking about expertise, I am not just referring to the credentials and technical skills of individuals and groups.50 Expertise involves a complex mix of actors, meanings, objects, and practices that are assembled and enacted within particular cultural and institutional environments.51 As such, expertise is not simply something one has but something one does. Scholars of expertise have illuminated how the performative and interactional dimensions of expertise are collaboratively produced, emotionally laden, and subject to challenge.52 Studying the local and contingent patterns of expert doings can also offer clues into how new forms of expertise coalesce or wither on the vine.53 The ways in which experts narrate and perform expertise reveal important dynamics in expertise cultures, by which I mean the shared meanings, values, goals, and performances of professionalism that are structured around claims to credibility and authority in an expert domain.54 Expertise cultures are a key site of expert practice through which we can take stock of how expertise comes together and falls apart in knowledge communities.
One way to think about culture is as a tool kit filled with “symbols, stories, rituals, and worldviews,” offering a set of resources that can be assembled and reassembled for particular aims.55 Storytelling is a critical feature of experts’ cultural tool kits.56 Stories can inform and mislead; they can entertain and frustrate. But importantly, as sociologists have shown, they contain buried aims, repressed aspirations, and glaring absences that reveal what moves a field forward or holds it back.57 These stories can also provide the material to generate or disallow particular kinds of expertise, and they may even compel particular performances of “scientific self-concept.”58 Perhaps this is why storytelling often crystallizes around particular figures of expertise who become, to borrow from Donna Haraway, “performative images that can be inhabited.”59 Motifs related to science, credibility, and ethics get attached to these figures. Take, for example, the figure of the gentleman scientist in early modern English science, who embodied the epistemic virtues of humility and modesty—virtues that endowed him with the ability to credibly speak about the natural world.60 This veil of objectivity, however, obscured the ways in which gender and racial biases infused scientific knowledge practices.61 The figures of expertise that populate a specific expert domain consequently reveal much about the patterns of expert practice and dynamics of power therein.
In this book, I am interested in analyzing how the figure of what I call the impure scientist is used in expertise projects.62 The impure scientist is a type of bad expert, a failed or dangerous scientist, the specter of which is mobilized by interested social actors for the purpose of shifting an expertise culture.63 The impure scientist is a haunting presence in an expert domain, calling forth multiple anxieties and uncertainties surrounding boundaries, such as those between science and politics, objectivity and subjectivity. These dividing lines are fluid, shifting, overlapping, and uncertain. The impure scientist’s transgressive, contaminating behavior disturbs these already precarious borders, sparking cultural anxieties over the potential polluting effect of boundary breakdown.64 As the symbol of scientific pollution, the impure scientist poses a constant threat to the legitimacy of an emerging expertise culture, prompting members to engage in antithesis performances. By this I refer to how members of an emerging expertise culture perform scientific and professional credibility by narrating cautionary tales and constructing bad forms of expertise as embodied by impure scientists.65 These members use the impure scientist to coalesce a set of unwanted cultural tropes and characteristics and expel them from their expertise culture.66 Antithesis performances are thus reminiscent of what sociologist Thomas Gieryn calls boundary work, a term he uses to describe the discursive labor involved in parceling out the scientific from the pseudoscientific, the good experts from the bad charlatans.67 Likewise, antithesis performances allow experts and would-be experts to erect new boundaries and hierarchies around the impure scientist as they distinguish between old and new forms of expertise. The arena of expertise is assembled and reassembled in part through the cultural labor of narrating and performing the antithesis of the impure scientist.
If we’ve learned anything from the sociological study of boundaries, however, it’s that they operate in paradoxical ways: Sometimes social actors use boundaries to establish divisions, but other times, boundaries are picked up to forge connections.68 Put differently, boundaries are sites of both difference and hybridization. Similarly, scholars of expertise have elucidated the porousness of expert boundaries, demonstrating how this permeability cultivates hybridized forms of expertise.69 Consequently, while antithesis performances involve telling stories to erect boundaries around the impure scientist, the reemerging expertise culture still draws on the existing forms of expertise embodied by that figure. In this way, expertise involves bricolage-like practices in which social actors selectively merge existing and emerging expertise in new ways that are better for a given context. Arenas of expertise are, after all, bound to place and history, and as such, cultural and institutional conditions can advance some kinds of expertise or prevent them from coming together.70 Studying the impure scientist and the antithesis performances the figure engenders illuminates the ways in which expertise involves constructing boundaries of credibility, separating what we do from what the impure scientist does while also linking together divergent forms of knowledge to generate new, hybrid forms of expertise that gain legitimacy within a particular set of institutional arrangements.
In this book, I conceptualize psychedelic therapy as a form of expertise, one that is currently undergoing a dramatic makeover. I show how today’s researchers circulate stories about Leary as the impure scientist to create distinctions between old and new forms of psychedelic therapy expertise. As Charles Grob announced, this generation wants “to be anti-Leary.”71 Likewise, Ben Sessa, a British psychiatrist studying MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry, “As a profession, we need to distance ourselves from the Timothy Leary–esque, messianic approach to psychedelics, if we are to allow a dispassionate and scientific study of their potential.”72 Consequently, a new breed of psychedelic practitioner emerges from their antithesis performances, coalescing into a new expert, or as one researcher put it, “We’re serious, sober scientists.”73 I show how researchers tell the Leary story and perform his counterpoint, the sober scientist, to manage a series of legitimacy crises that converged to stall psychedelic therapy expertise. At the same time, I also reveal the ways in which today’s researchers continue to enroll the impure scientist’s expertise as they pursue research in psychedelic therapy. This generation of researchers is weaving together the threads of sober expertise with that of the impure scientist to create a more coherent and stable system of expertise that fits with the larger cultural and institutional environment. Their hope is that the threads will not unravel.
The Chapters Ahead
In Acid Revival, you’ll meet the colorful ensemble of people who have shaped the field of psychedelic science: the mental health professionals who sit next to tripping patients, the neuroscientists who study images of brains on acid, and the research support staff who help develop research protocols and recruit subjects for clinical trials. This book follows this ensemble in their quest for legitimacy, examining how they mobilize narratives and performances to suture the ruptures in their expertise culture. The heart of Acid Revival comprises five overlapping but distinct legitimacy crises that lurk beneath these researchers’ narratives and performances: the scientific vulnerabilities, the cultural anxieties, the political turmoil, the countercultural ties, and the experiential conundrums. The chapters veer back and forth between past and present. I explore the context that set the stage for each crisis and the performances that follow, highlighting how history and culture intersect to shape the dilemmas of legitimating psychedelic therapy and a new generation of researchers’ efforts to overcome them.
The opening chapter focuses on researchers’ attempts to align psychedelic psychotherapy with the sine qua non of clinical research: the randomized controlled trial. I show how researchers construct Leary as an impure scientist who refused to follow the professionalized standards of this model—a recalcitrant attitude that they believed facilitated an image of psychedelic therapy as pseudoscience. Today’s researchers, on the other hand, actively adopt these methodological standards. However, they also draw from Leary’s techniques for administering the psychedelic experience. Consequently, slippages in their sober performances create a hybrid expertise that merges biomedical expertise, with all its attention to placebos and blinding, with the expertise of the impure scientist.
Chapter 2 takes on the thorny issue of personal experience with psychedelic drugs, bringing to the fore tensions between subjectivity and objectivity in science. Similar to other areas of biomedical research in the mid-twentieth century, self-experimentation was a respected and encouraged practice in psychedelic therapy. By the early 1960s, however, researchers’ personal familiarity with psychedelic drugs became the subject of criticism, particularly Leary’s well-publicized self-experiments. The debate over the ethics and potential contaminating effects of experiential knowledge rages on today. I show how some researchers are attempting to reconcile personal experience—conceived as subjective and polluting—with scientific objectivity by developing federally approved clinical trials in which members of the research team take psychedelic drugs as part of a training program in psychedelic psychotherapy.
Chapter 3 touches on tensions between intangible, ethereal drug experiences and the scientific push for studying material and physical realities. According to researchers, in the right context, psychedelic drugs take users on transcendental sojourns that spark personal insight about distressing behavioral patterns, leading to measurable changes in behaviors. Leary was one of several early proponents of this idea. But the problem for contemporary researchers is that Leary took this spiritual interpretation outside of the laboratory, even establishing his own psychedelic religion. Although today’s researchers aren’t setting up their own acid churches, the same mystical impulse shapes research in the revival, reigniting anxieties about the incommensurability of science and spirituality. I show how researchers respond to this tension by standardizing mystical experiences to fit the mandates of biomedical expertise, which includes quantifying subjective experiences and linking their clinical findings with neuroimaging research.
Chapter 4 tackles the politicization of psychedelic drug abuse and debates over who should have access to these drugs. Leary famously invited everyone to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” a call that this wave of researchers believe triggered a political backlash that led to prohibitive drug laws and blacklisted psychedelic science. I argue that Leary has come to represent a rebellious scientific masculinity, an expertise that today’s researchers characterize as antiauthoritarian and self-serving. In contrast, contemporary researchers set themselves up as responsible and cooperative sober scientists who are willing to work with the so-called establishment. The current institutional context, after all, necessitates this performance, as U.S.-based researchers are heavily dependent on two agencies, the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to get approval for their research. I look at how researchers today, who live under the shadow of the war on drugs, try to justify the medical use of a substance that is federally deemed to have no medical value. Researchers try to remain as conventional as possible even as they pursue goals that are directly at odds with the establishment.
No conversation on psychedelic drugs would be complete without talking about the hippies. The final empirical chapter covers researchers’ struggles to separate psychedelic science from a drug counterculture for which Leary was once the figurehead at the same time that researchers are dependent on it for their survival. I show how contemporary researchers work to distance themselves from the counterculture through a carefully crafted performance of respectability to align psychedelic therapy with the mainstream. Ultimately, however, researchers must engage in a tricky balancing act in which they feel compelled to distance themselves from the counterculture at the same time that the field’s countercultural ties have helped sustain the field, particularly in terms of funding and networking.
In the Conclusion, I draw attention to the paradox of the impure scientist: In trying to exorcise the ghost of Leary, this generation of researchers constantly revives him. The reason why researchers regularly bump into Leary’s ghost is because it resurrects all sorts of continuing dilemmas that they must confront as they breathe new life into the field. On the one hand, today’s researchers push away from this polluting figure by performing as sober scientists in the hopes of refashioning expertise on psychedelic therapy. On the other hand, they are constantly pulled toward the impure scientist, as many aspects of today’s expertise culture borrow from his practices. The end result of this pushing and pulling is a hybridized expertise, one that features elements of both the sober and impure scientist.
Before we begin our journey into the ghosts of psychedelic science past, I want to introduce the concept of “set and setting.” Leary coined this phrase to describe all the extrapharmacological factors that shape the drug-taking experience. Of course, the drug itself matters—how much of it you take, how you take it (snort, inject, smoke, and so on), or if it is cut with another substance. But other ingredients combine to moderate psychoactive drugs’ effects—for example, how you feel when you take the drug, your reason for taking it, or if you have taken it before. This is referred to as set: all the psychological and physiological circumstances that shape the drug experience. Meanwhile, setting focuses on social and environmental conditions—for instance, whether you take the drug in your basement with friends or at an outdoor festival surrounded by strangers, or if you are allowed to freely move around while you are tripping or if you are strapped to a hospital bed. The combination of these factors helps explain why some people soar to heaven or descend into hell after taking psychedelic drugs.
The interactive triad of drug, set, and setting also serves as a useful analytic tool for Acid Revival. What readers will find in the following pages is a detailed account of these interweaving factors, including where these drugs have traveled, how they have been constructed, by whom, and with what consequences, as well as the institutional and cultural conditions that provide the backdrop for these expert practices to unfold. The concept of set and setting not only provides a vantage point for understanding the trajectory of psychedelic drugs in medical science but also helps us see how multiple factors have combined to generate new meanings of expertise in the psychedelic renaissance.74