Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal
By Tom Shroder
Having read this 2014 book cover-to-cover earlier this year, I’m left with an uneasy reaction having read it a second time: anger.
This well-researched read is terrific. So why was I angry?
After the second reading, I looked up the book on Goodreads to find it rated at 4.8 stars. Amazon readers had given it 5 stars while three Barnes & Noble readers each gave it 5 stars. In terms of star power, my inclination tracks with readers’ consensus so it might help for me to elaborate about my anger.
I stumbled upon this title about a year ago in one of those rabbit-hole searches for lists of books I’d like to read. “The Power to Heal” part of the title caught my attention as, I admit, did the colorful, psychedelic cover design. (Maybe the old judging a book by its cover adage is incorrect.)
Bear in mind that most of my life I had come to believe that psychedelic drugs would cause users to do crazy things, leave them irreparably brain damaged, induce flashbacks, or end their lives by suicide.
While it’s true that illicit use of drugs, psychedelic and otherwise, have caused users to behave in notable, non-conformist ways harming themselves and society, my viewpoint has lacked the story of the medicinal side. Splashy news stories of the extremes over decades served to solidify my views. In fact, as a young teen I distinctly recall being told about an acquaintance who had died in a car accident. The story of his death had it that he’d been driving when a he’d had a flashback which “they” believed stemmed from his youthful use of LSD which then caused him to crash and die.
My teen brain digested this information as correct without considering how, if he had been alone, anyone could prove for certain whether he’d had a flashback.
And if so, could it be confirmed that said flashback was a direct result of LSD use, or even the cause of the crash? Had he recently taken LSD or some other psychedelic drug? Did he have a PTSD-induced flashback making LSD an easier object of blame? Did he deliberately crash intent on suicide? Did he, in the throes of this state, swerve to avoid an entity of hallucination that stood between him and his intended destination?
In covering psychedelics, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, MDMA (ecstasy), and a handful of other drugs Acid Test is chock full of history. Shroder detailed key players in the research of these drugs for pharmaceutical use, the recreational and therapeutic/spiritual use of psychedelic substances and the backlash created by the scientific and ethical legitimacy of Timothy Leary and others.
Despite efforts over the course of decades by people who were determined to find out whether the use of MDMA would be an effective treatment for PTSD, false narratives were held up as reasons to discontinue research, self-sabotaging loose lips made conservatives nervous, personal vendettas and what reads as over-zealousness of the DEA, together played a role in disallowing trials to be conducted. Their Schedule I classification as “drugs that have no medical value and high potential for abuse” thwarted steps toward the aim of using them for healing purposes.
It’s notable that under the heading “What is the history of MDMA?” on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NID) website, you’ll find “MDMA gained a small following among psychiatrists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, despite the fact that the drug had not undergone formal clinical trials nor received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in humans.” Yet this was a period of time when the so-called small following of psychiatrists was trying to get FDA approval and illicit use of ecstasy had taken root. This was so much so that by 1985 the DEA stepped in to assuage what it viewed as the danger of MDMA to the community as a whole, and issued an emergency ban on its use. Illicit use continued to escalate when, according to Shroder, “members of Congress, led by the senator Joe Biden, sprang into action, introducing the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act,” which increased penalties for trafficking MDMA.
While this act and drug regulations before it may have been of good intention, they negated the possibility of yet-to-be-proven therapeutic use. It all appears to have been predicated on the idea that psychedelics, and MDMA in particular, have no medical value. Okay fine. If you believe that from the bottom of your soul, then don’t bother reading the last seven chapters of Acid Test. They’ll be lost on you.
This brings me back to what made me feel angry.
I have a heart and great respect for war veterans who experience PTSD. I’m aware of the lifelong traumatic effects that result from child abuse, rape, human trafficking, and those who witness gun violence, and the PTSD that results. Based on the narrative Schroeder pulled together in this book its clear to me that research needs to happen to prove whether psychedelics work to eliminate PTSD. Based purely on what I’ve read in Acid Test it seems a strong probability that they’d prove highly effective in treatment.
Hearkening back to the guy in the accident…while I’m not a medical professional, I think if he did have a flashback, it seems more likely that it would have been the result of some traumatic event that he had experienced rather than a sudden, momentary emergence of some latent grain of LSD released at precisely the wrong moment. Had he had clinical access in a structured setting to psychedelics, he might be alive today. He’d be old, but alive.
Yet, in the seven years since this book was published, only tiny steps toward solid discovery have been realized. MDMA remains on Schedule I in the United States. Even skeptical people who are desperate for healing from PTSD and opioid addiction now travel to foreign countries to obtain access to drugs with psychedelic properties when they’ve exhausted other options. An article entitled Inside Ibogaine, One of the Most Promising and Perilous Psychedelics for Addiction by Mandy Oaklander in the April 12/ April 19, 2021 issue of Time magazine leaves me with the same conclusion as Acid Test did.
I’m angry on behalf of the many who suffer, frustrated knowing that at least five decades of valuable research time have been wasted mostly because the powers that be have created a Catch-22. Drugs on Schedule I that “have no medical value” cannot by definition be so if they have not been afforded the opportunity to be proven effective.
Acid Test, for making me better understand my mistaken beliefs about psychedelic drugs, 5 stars.