Switzerland Briefly Legalized LSD Therapy and Then Couldn't Let It Go

From 1988 to 1993, Switzerland made therapy with psychedelic drugs legal. Therapists have been trying to continue their work since.

|
Nov 26 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

In 1988, Switzerland made therapy with psychedelic drugs legal. Five psychiatrists and psychotherapists were given permission to prescribe MDMA or LSD to their patients.

It was a hell of an allowance, and at the time, shocked even the therapists who were involved.

"It was quite surprising for everyone," said Dr. Peter Gasser over the phone from his office in Switzerland. Dr. Gasser was a therapist in training in 1988 and he observed some of the sessions take place. "I think after that, no-one really knew why they got such permission. It was quite free, they could do what they wanted."

All five were members of the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy. The psycholytic method, pioneered by the German psychiatrist Hanscarl Leuner, calls for low doses of psychedelic drugs combined with talk therapy. The group also admired Stanislav Grof, a US based psychiatrist who favored large drug doses administered in silence or with music. Given nearly total freedom, they integrated both methods.

The whole thing seemed too good to be true—which it was, of course. The government shut the program down in 1993.

Read more: A Brief History of Microdosing

Five years of near-unrestricted psychedelic therapy is interesting in itself. But Switzerland, historically notable in the world of drug research for being the birthplace of LSD, is now one of the centers where scientifically grounded psychedelic research is making a comeback. At the same time, the country is also well known for being absolutely lousy with underground psychedelic drug therapy rings, according to the German language press.

Both of these things, for better or worse, could be traced back to that five year period of legal research that began in 1988.

The high road begins with Dr. Gasser, whose interest in psychedelic research led him to train with Dr. Samuel Widmer, one of the psychotherapists who had permission to prescribe both MDMA and LSD. Dr. Gasser took over leadership of the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy in 1997, four years after their grand experiment had ended.

The government was willing to look at re-opening some sort of psychedelic drug therapy project, although they had "very high demands concerning the scientific design"

Dr. Gasser was tasked with evaluating the results from this brief period of legalization for the government. He compiled over a hundred case histories, but there were no control groups; Everyone who had been licensed to prescribe psychedelics was a private therapist, not a scientist. There was no way for Dr. Gasser to statistically evaluate the data. He called the lack of scientific rigour "a missed opportunity," but still reported that the majority of patients were happy with the treatment, and crucially, there were no severe incidents or hospitalizations.

Dr. Gasser also hinted in his report that the government was willing to look at re-opening some sort of psychedelic drug therapy project, although they had "very high demands concerning the scientific design." It would take him more than a decade of work to convince them.

And yet, to paraphrase Harold Abramson, an early LSD research advocate, it's easier for the average person to get a hold of LSD than a doctor who wants to do legitimate research. Dr. Widmer, Gasser's former teacher, appears to have taken Abramson's musing to heart.

Dr. Widmer still works in psycholytic therapy, but rather than practice in a hospital, he now runs a commune called Kirschblütengemeinschaft—in English, Cherry Blossom Community—where he lives with his two wives and about 200 followers. He preaches a sort of free-love philosophy, and offers both therapy sessions and training in psycholytic therapy.

The Swiss newspaper Ages Anzeiger reported that Dr. Widmer has trained hundreds of psycholytic therapists working in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are, presumably, also using the layman's easy access to drugs in their own work.

That claim is supported by Hans-Peter Waldrich, a German journalist who wrote a book chronicling his own experiences with an underground therapy group. "Psycholytic therapy is very common in Switzerland and Germany [and] nearly all the therapists are followers of Samuel Widmer," he told me in an e-mail exchange.

When the therapist that ran one group was eventually arrested in early 2009 for drug distribution, former patients reported unorthodox therapy methods

Waldrich had previously written about the history of drug therapy, and his contacts put him in touch with a group run by a student of Dr. Widmer's. The group met in a secluded mountain villa, and did therapy sessions using MDMA and LSD that the doctor had ordered through the mail. Although he was hopeful about the potential of psycholytic therapy, Waldrich was disappointed by what he saw as unprofessional conduct.

"[The doctor] did not accept the standards of good psychotherapy. A therapist must keep a distance between themselves and their clients," he said.

When the therapist that ran the group was eventually arrested in early 2009, for drug distribution, former patients reported unorthodox therapy methods, including frequent physical contact. It's worth noting though, that the therapist received a relatively minor suspended sentence. The judge accepted her argument that the setting and methods were safe for therapy.

And then of course, there's the issue of who's taking the drugs. "The therapist should not take drugs as well, but she did," Waldrich told me. That seems obvious, but in September 2009 a German physician near Berlin was arrested after two patients in his psycholytic therapy group died. It was later found that he had mis-weighed their dosages, and that he was also on LSD at the time.

That same year, Dr. Gasser finally succeeded in getting the Swiss government to re-open research into LSD. It couldn't have been further from the backyard-wrestling antics of the underground groups: the study was run to the scientific gold standard, a randomized, double-blind dose-response trial. Clearing the regulatory hurdles set by the Swiss equivalents to the DEA, FDA, and IRB took over a year. His results, using LSD therapy with terminally ill patients, were published in 2014 and suggested the drug can be administered safely to treat end-of-life anxiety.

Dr. Gasser enjoys the privilege of being the only doctor in the world allowed to prescribe LSD to his private clients

The study was the first step in getting LSD approved for more research and more therapy, and for now Dr. Gasser enjoys the privilege of being the only doctor in the world allowed to prescribe LSD to his private clients.

Dr. Gasser isn't alone in being rewarded for setting his interest in psychedelics to the reassuring beat of scientific legitimacy, around the world, approved researchers are producing the first hard data on these drugs in decades. Psychedelics and modern science have proved a winning combination, and the same press that vilified Dr. Widmer has been quick to cover the latest sanctioned study. The future of psychedelics, it seems, is being dictated by the scientists, and not the counterculture.

That's fine with Waldrich, who still has hope for the drugs that sparked his initial interest. "These psychiatrists do good work," he said of the Swiss Medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy. Besides, in his experience the underground wasn't exactly a utopia. In his book he describes a "paranoid climate" where there was no check on the therapist's power.

Dr. Gasser, meanwhile, sees his newest research as continuing the work of the past in a new way. "The present LSD study was designed to evaluate previous findings applying current research methodology," he declared in his paper. He also contributed case studies from the 1988 to 1993 period to a recent German book on psycholytic therapy.

Asked about Dr. Widmer, who took such a different path after the legal research period ended, Dr. Gasser is diplomatic. "He's a talented person. He was, at least, a good therapist. But then he became this guru, and I think he made it very difficult," Dr. Gasser said.

"He left our medical society in 1995. I think this was necessary. He went his own way and we went our own way."

Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.

Stories