STORIES

Alcoholics Anonymous: How LSD Almost Became the 13th Step

By Ben Grenrock on October 18, 2018

On a December day in 1960, Baptist minister Reverend William Potoroka had one of the most transcendent spiritual experiences of his life. It was an event that would reframe his understanding of science, spirituality and of his own personal vocation. “I felt that I was ascending a spiral staircase and that this was leading me up, up, into the light,” he recalled. “It was as if my ascent would soon put me within gazing distance of God and his throne.”

Potoroka’s encounter with the numinous didn’t take place inside of a church, nor was it prompted by a particularly potent session of prayer—it occurred at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. But Potoroka wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t a patient at the hospital. He’d come there to investigate an experimental treatment for alcoholism. The reverend had come to the mental hospital to take LSD.

Today, the idea of Canadian ministers popping tabs of acid in a sanitarium sounds more like a scene from a Jodorowsky film than history. But in the early 1960s before the psychedelic revolution made LSD synonymous with paisley garments, spiked Kool Aid and free love, an event such as this one made at least slightly more sense. A recently published thesis, written by Michael James Christopher Lyons at the University of Saskatchewan, endeavors to explain how Reverend Potoroka’s experience came to pass. Likewise, the thesis connects his subsequent realizations with the current boom in psychedelic science by exploring the confluence of social, religious and scientific factors that led to Potoroka’s trip.

As Lyons points out in his thesis, prior to being considered illegal drugs, psychedelics—and particularly LSD—were being studied by medical establishments around the world with the intention of using them to treat various psychiatric disorders. From 1950 to 1965, close to 40,000 patients were given LSD for conditions ranging from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many early results appeared promising, with a series of positive reports on the drug’s benefits appearing in Time magazine and high profile figures such as actor Cary Grant publicly lauding how LSD helped him succeed in conquering mental issues where standard talk therapy, hypnosis and yoga had all failed.

In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially declared alcoholism a disease. This distinction led the psychiatric community to seek out biochemical solutions for a problem that had previously been thought of as a moral failing. As LSD was then being explored as a potent yet little-understood cure for a slew of psychological issues, clinical trials to treat alcoholism with LSD were soon underway.

The goal of the earliest of these trials was to use LSD to mimic the temporary psychosis caused by alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens, thereby scaring the patient away from alcohol consumption via a sort of aversion therapy. But this method didn’t work very well, considering, as Lyons explains, that instead of reacting to their experience with horror, “patients often responded favourably [sic], claiming to enjoy the experience, and even suggested that it had provided a window into a spiritual environment/landscape.”

Realizing that perhaps the self-reflective insights that their patients reported might be a more effective avenue toward recovery than chemically induced terror, doctors at the University of Saskatchewan and the Weyburn Mental Hospital—Abram Hoffer, Humphry Osmond and Sven Jensen—decided to change their approach. Instead of attempting to stimulate delirium tremens, they began a series of trials that would pair LSD's novel capacity for prompting self-examination and spirituality with a far less invasive treatment for alcoholism—Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Dr. Jensen’s treatment model in particular sought to incorporate AA into this hybrid course of treatment. His method was structured as an eight-week program in which 10 male patients who suffered from alcoholism would receive standard psychiatric treatments, like patient interviews and group therapy, in conjunction with attending weekly meetings at the local AA chapter in Weyburn. In the eighth week of treatment, patients who had yet to see their condition improve were given LSD.

Even at the time, aspiring to cure alcoholism via the combination of LSD and AA wasn’t unprecedented. Just a few years prior, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had taken LSD and written a series of letters to his colleagues espousing its positive mental after effects and considering its potential for helping alcoholics recover. Wilson later distanced himself from AA, as many other influential members of the program took issue with the idea of incorporating a psychoactive drug into a system of steps designed to end drug use. But Wilson wasn’t alone in seeing LSD’s potential to aid addicts on their path to recovery. And the specific aspect of the acid experience he thought most promising for this use was precisely what Dr. Jensen identified in his trials as its most valuable component and what led Reverend Potoroka to experiment with LSD in 1960.

Summarizing Bill Wilson’s thoughts in the wake of his experience with acid, Betty Eisner, an American psychologist who presided over Wilson’s clinical exposure to the drug, wrote, “Alcoholics get to a point in the [program] where they need to have a spiritual experience, but not all of them are able to have one.” Wilson saw LSD as a way of catalyzing such an experience, one that would allow members to more easily surrender to their “higher power”—a key component in the 12 steps that constitute AA’s path to recovery.

Administering LSD to addicts in Saskatchewan, Jensen appears to have reached the same conclusion. Through observing the experimental program at Weyburn, Jensen came to believe that administering LSD in certain situations could increase AA’s effectiveness in helping addicts to recover. Lyons explains that, “Jenson perceived that effective addictions treatment ought to occur in an environment that was both clinical and spiritual,” in order to facilitate the best chance for recovery. Confronted with data that seemed to indicate that a level of spirituality was needed to produce the results he sought, the doctor did what any good doctor does when operating in a field outside of his expertise: He called in a specialist.

Alcoholism was a problem that weighed heavily on the mind of Reverend William Potoroka, who was both a follower of the sect of Christianity known as the Social Gospel and the executive director of the Alcohol Education Service in Manitoba. Essentially, followers of the Social Gospel seek to apply Christian ethics to practical problems in society, believing that the Second Coming of Christ will only occur once these issues—poverty, child labor, economic equality, racism, etc.—are eliminated through human effort. As such, Potoroka was as dedicated to solving the problem of alcoholism as anyone.

When he was invited by Jensen to offer a spiritual perspective on the Weyburn study and when he took LSD himself, Potoroka found himself at the intersection of the age-old debate between science and religion. From a purely medical perspective, a patient is treated by undergoing some sort of clinically vetted process to heal their body—for example, a combination of talk therapy, AA meetings and LSD to solve one’s drinking problem. One the other hand, as Lyons explains, from a “Christian perspective the way to remedy one’s problem drinking was through prayer and sacrament. This activity would bring the individual closer to God and would then theoretically heal or strengthen the moral problem.”

Consider how Potoroka described his healing experience with LSD: "Through a several-staged experience of being pulled upward, or of aspiration, I believe that I received an enhancement of my idea of God and grace. This came to me from what I believed before the experience and how much more God and grace mean to me because of the experience. LSD helped me so to make contact with the spiritual treasures I knew of… [and] I found new riches there."

So if a drug heals a person in the way Potoroka described, is it a medical or a spiritual treatment modality? What happens when one takes a drug as if it were a sacrament, if one takes it in order to heal because the drug brings that individual closer to God?

What happened, as Jensen found with Potoroka’s help, was that about 50 percent of the patients achieved a full recovery, in which “recovery” was defined as the complete and prolonged cessation of their drinking. While significant and perhaps lifesaving for the patients who benefited, 50 percent isn’t a shockingly impressive figure, particularly when compared with the considerably higher success rates that are currently being produced by modern clinical trials in the field of psychedelic medicine. The medical community of the early 1960s wasn’t impressed either, and citing various procedural issues with the study, it was largely ignored at the time.

But even if Jenson’s specific method wasn’t a breakthrough in the treatment of alcoholism, what he, Potoroka and Wilson discovered about the path to successfully curing addictive behaviors should not be forgotten. When reporting on his experience with LSD to the church, Potoroka wrote, “Alcoholism was regarded as an illness of the body, the mind and the spirit. The LSD treatment is a way of getting at two of the three sides of the illness—the mind, and especially the spirit.” A focus on what’s going on with the “spirit” is pretty much what you’d expect from a Christian minister’s trip-report. But in recent studies and trials exploring the use of psychedelics for medicinal purposes, doctors and patients alike point to a spiritual component as being an essential, if inexplicable, piece in the puzzle of why these drugs appear so effective.

In his thesis, Lyons spends a lot of time explaining how Potoroka’s willingness to not only take LSD himself, but to then advocate its use as a treatment modality to the church, “suggests that there was a blending of Christianity and biomedicine through the psychedelic experiences of LSD that seemed to occupy a philosophical space between medicine and spirituality.” He sees Potoroka as a figure who reconciled the divide between the medical and spiritual communities and attests that “the field of psychedelic research occupied the intellectual space of both mysticism and biomedical practices.”

Considering that in indigenous communities this same dual role of healer and spiritual guide has traditionally been occupied by shamans who’ve successfully used psychedelics to heal their “patients” for millennia, perhaps an understanding of how spirituality relates to illness is the missing link in the field of psychedelic science. Perhaps Jensen, Potoroka, Wilson and the other doctors who participated in the trials at Weyburn learned something that modern medicine is about to rediscover. Conceivably, blending the spiritual and the scientific is the way future practitioners will treat alcoholism, depression and many other psychological and medical conditions in the very near future.

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