In a town in Switzerland, people with cancer are taking LSD to help them deal with the emotional toll of the disease.
Peter Gasser trained in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy while it was legal in Switzerland in the early 1990s. In 2006, at an LSD conference in Basel, he met Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and they talked about setting up a clinical study with LSD. Research with MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) had been slowly picking up, but working with LSD was “in a way the most difficult thing to do, because LSD is so politically charged as a substance,” Gasser says. Nevertheless, the following year the Swiss government gave approval for him to carry out the first clinical study with LSD in 40 years.
I meet Gasser in his practice close to the train station in Solothurn, near Zurich, a year after his study was published. Here he gave LSD-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for anxiety in 12 patients with life-threatening illness. The reason for choosing this group was partly historical: the last clinical studies with LSD had been in cancer patients. Also, he says, the treatment might be particularly valuable for people with a short time to live. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a therapy that goes quicker than others, but I would say that you’re really at the core issues after a short time.”
Gasser says that spiritual experiences induced by LSD can be hugely valuable to patients. “If someone can really incorporate spiritual experiences in the sense of ‘I feel part of a whole, I feel connected to other people, I feel connected to nature or creation’, it may be a very relaxing insight for someone. Especially when you work with people at the end of their lives, when they’re suffering from severe illnesses, the spiritual dimension is quite important because people then have the question ‘What will be with me? What happens to me? What is after death?’”
In the study, eight patients were given a high dose of LSD, 200 micrograms, and four were given a low dose, 20 micrograms. Rather than using an inactive placebo, which would have been obvious to the patients and the researchers, the low dose was used as a comparison to produce “short-lived, mild, and detectable LSD effects that would not substantially facilitate a therapeutic process”.
After two drug sessions and two months of follow-up, patients in the high-dose group had much lower scores for anxiety, and attributed benefits to the therapy. “They said, ‘I’m more relaxed,’” says Gasser. “They said, ‘I’m less afraid of death.’ They also said, ‘I would do it again and I would recommend it to my friends.’” In those who were still alive a year afterwards, he says, the benefits were still being felt.
“Some of them told me, ‘I saw I am more than anxiety, I am more than the cancer, I am more than problems, so in a way my life is more than everything.’ You may call that spiritual or not; it doesn’t matter, but they say they are more relaxed, more thinking about what they really want to do or not, with whom they want to be together or not, so they are in a way more aware of their lives and the richness of life, even if life is short, even if they are suffering from cancer and dying soon.”
Gasser tried to provide a quiet, meditative setting for the drug sessions, which lasted around eight hours. But for one of the patients, it didn’t quite go according to plan. “There was quite a loud noise outside. There was a building constructing and there was an air-pressure hammer all the day. I thought that’s very difficult; it’s terrible! The poor man is on an LSD experience and outside there is this air-pressure hammer. The next day he said, ‘This was so fantastic! This hammer was so strong and I felt the power of the hammer going into the earth.’ He really identified with the power of this and he was not disturbed at all. So I was distressed but not him. It also shows that if someone is able to integrate something, there may be a lot of things that are meaningful, and if you are not able to integrate something it can be very disturbing.”
The Swiss authorities have since agreed to consider applications from Gasser for “compassionate use” of LSD in his practice. So far, they have granted permission for seven patients, each for a year with the possibility of prolongation. “It is too early to talk about outcomes but at the moment all seems well.”