Could study of Czechoslovak tests lead to return to respectability for LSD?

A picture from a film made of an LSD experiment conducted with soldiers at Stresovice military hospital around 1967

The Canadian journalist R.M. Crockford is currently in Prague investigating LSD testing in communist Czechoslovakia. The tests are little known today, but they were extensive: up to 30 doctors carried out thousands of experiments over two decades. Mr Crockford is doing this research for the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, an American non-profit group with an unusual agenda: MAPS aims to help scientists investigate the "healing and spiritual" potentials of psychedelic drugs and marijuana.

When I spoke to R.M. Crockford, I first asked him: why was Czechoslovakia testing LSD?

"LSD was discovered in 1943, in Switzerland. After the war was over there was this widespread belief that chemistry was a...miracle that would save the planet - food production, everything would be revolutionized by chemistry. Psychiatry was one more aspect of that.

"In Czechoslovakia there were scientists who were regularly experimenting with new substances that had come on the market. And Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland, which had patented LSD at the time, sent some here.

"One of the doctors, a man named Jiri Rubicek, was interested in the possible effects it could have. But no-one really knew - not even Sandoz knew at the time - what it was really good for. They knew it was really powerful, but they didn't really know how it would be useful. They asked doctors, if you can find some use for this - great.

"So there were many different projects, there were some where they created so-called model psychosis, to try to understand schizophrenia. There was this belief at the time that schizophrenic patients were undergoing a kind of permanent acid trip. They thought if psychologists, psychiatrists, medical students could experience the same thing then they would understand schizophrenia better."

"There were a variety of projects, treating alcoholics, neurotics, depressives, psychotics with LSD."

You were telling me earlier they also wanted to experiment on artists.

"Yes, there were some projects as well to find out how artists would respond, and how it would unlock their creativity. Several well-known painters in this country...the film-maker Jan Svankmajer participated in one of these experiments and wrote an essay about it for the Guardian newspaper a couple of years ago.

"In some cases it really showed them something different. But in Svankmajer's case he was actually really traumatised - it was not a very pleasant experience for him at all."

Were the communist authorities aware of what was going on, that people were being given LSD in Czechoslovakia?

"The communists certainly were aware of it, because it was manufactured by the state pharmaceutical company Spofa from about 1963 to 1974.

"Also the Czech army used it in some experiments in the late 1960s, because they were afraid that it was actually going to be used as a chemical weapon by the United States. So they performed some experiments on soldiers, and there are films of that.

"They didn't have any problem with this research, because the doctors were very careful to frame it in very mechanistic terms - you had a problem, you applied a chemical to it and then the problem was solved.

"As long as it was phrased that way it was fine. The drug never leaked out onto the street, so there was no social problem they had to deal with like they did in the West."

"The only thing that the doctors had to keep concealed was the mystical or religious implications of this kind of work."

I know you're still doing your research and still looking for people who took LSD in these tests. But from what you know so far, what kind of impact did the drug have on these guinea pigs?

"For everybody who took it, it was an overwhelming experience. The big question is whether it was overwhelming positive or overwhelmingly negative.

"For the people for whom it was overwhelmingly positive, they are generally willing to talk about it. But the people who were really traumatised by it, who had a bad circumstances, because of what their own frame of mind was or the kind of circumstances that they had it in, it's still a sort of sensitive, private matter.

"This is why trying to find such people and being able to talk to them is a complicated and long-term process."

Are you aware of anybody going mad from being given LSD?

"There is one story, that I don't know all the details of, that there was a suicide at the Sadska hospital, 20 miles east of Prague. There from about 1965 to the early 1970s there was the largest...battery of treatment. There were three or four thousand LSD sessions.

"The story is that there was somebody there who actually committed jumped out of a window. The classic story of an LSD overdose is someone who thinks they can fly and jumps out of a window - and that actually happed in Sadska."

The testing came to an end in the mid 1970s - why did they stop?

"The principal reason is that it was demanded by international bodies. By that time the world was sufficiently organised that it had planet-wide treaties in place to stop perceived dangerous drugs, and LSD was one of them.

"LSD was actually banned in the United States much earlier. It started to be severely restricted by '65, '66 and by '68, '69 it was outlawed. So it continued here for another couple of years."

Have you in your research so far made any particularly interesting or surprising discoveries?

"Today as a matter of fact I saw several films that were made in the late 1960s. The thing that was surprising to me was how open the discussion could be, at that time.

"In the late 1960s...psychotherapy, where you actually lie on the couch and talk to your therapist, and the belief that you were full of unconscious symbols that could be unlocked and that would solve your problem...that was completely common here.

"In a way now, in this country and all over the world, we live in a different sort of paradigm, which is that symptoms are simply to be controlled, that you have to take drugs that will repress them and manage them."

What is MAPS, the organisation which has employed you to do this research, hoping to do with the information you gather here?

"Well, MAPS is interested in this information for historical purposes...but ultimately there hope is that if I find patients that were positive about it and doctors that were positive about it, they can use that to assist a new generation of doctors that might be interested in doing research with human subjects again, with LSD.

"Because it was never a social problem here, they think the Czech Republic actually has a good chance of being one of the countries where maybe it could be reintroduced, medically.

"In the United States it would be far more difficult because it has a kind of a social stigma, or kind of hysteria around it, because of the 1960s."

I think in many countries LSD is seen as a dangerous drug, and everybody knows stories about acid casualties. Is MAPS's view that LSD can be useful in any way mainstream? Or is it on the margins of medical thinking, so to speak?

"It is unusual, because the current psychiatric model around the world is really to control symptoms, patient management. It's not about getting to the root of what people's problems are and trying to figure them out.

"MAPS are pointing out the fact that these drugs like LSD or Ecstasy are available on the street, in completely uncontrolled, strange circumstances, where all sorts of strange things can happen.

"And yet they're not available for use in controlled settings, under the supervision of medical doctors. They just point out that that's bizarre."

Do you personally think we will ever see LSD tested again by reputable doctors?

"Well, I don't know...human history is long. It's known that the substance exists. It's certainly out there. And maybe someday some place in the world - and this might be one of those places - somebody may come up with a project and...a government that is sympathetic to the idea that it could actually be useful. So it might come back."

If you took part in these tests or know anybody who participated, R.M. Crockford can be contacted via .