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A flower, a girl’s face, and a stovetop burner all blend into one image.LSD: Insight or Insanity?
1968 / 29:00
Producer/Director: Max Miller
Distributor: Bailey Films
Sound, color.

For Rebels, it’s a Kick...

Erika Dyck, PhD (University of Saskatchewan)

It’s the late 1960s. Teenagers, a hip voice clues us in, are always looking for kicks, and today’s teens express themselves with cool fashions, groovy hairstyles, and kooky pranks. Not so long ago, our narrator played the character of “Plato,” a troubled teenager, in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause. In that film, Plato idolizes the reckless machismo of young Jim Stark (played by James Dean). In an epic display of bravado, Jim and another boy play a game of “chickie run” in which they drive their cars in parallel directly toward a cliff. Jim leaps from his vehicle at the last moment, while his opponent crashes over the cliff and dies, the automobile exploding on impact.

Now, little more than a decade later, Sal Mineo (unidentified until the end credit) carries forward the moral of the story in LSD: Insight or Insanity, a 29-minute-long anti-drug propaganda short from director Max Miller. Distributed by Bailey Films, an educational movie and filmstrip company located in Hollywood. the movie warns teens against rebellion, mistrust of authority, thrill-seeking drugs, and misguided attempts to prove themselves.

A woman wearing glasses and a houndstooth jacket screams, her mouth open and eyes squeezed shut

Lest the audience miss the connection to Rebel Without a Cause, one of the film’s early scenes features another game of chicken. Two automobiles hurtle head-on towards each other. Girls shriek, boys gape, and the cars screech and collide in what sounds like a catastrophic tangle of metal and young lives. With that, this brief piece of anti-drug propaganda takes on LSD use, teen culture, and the origins, effects, and dangers of the psychedelic drug. Addressed to a mixed audience of teens, parents, and teachers, it attempts to dispel the seductive attraction of LSD through a variety of rhetorical gambits: hyperbolic metaphor (LSD use is like chickie run); knowing empathy (adolescents thirst for self-expression); cinematic recreations of euphoric pleasures and psychotic distortions; and reports and warnings of medical and governmental authorities (most emphatically, the risk of birth defects to future generations).

In a series of brief vignettes, we see LSD’s allure and impact. Guys seduce young women with the promise of a shared “trip” that will generate a feeling of oneness that cannot be understood under sober conditions. A young man passionately recalls how LSD allowed him to see the world in its vastness, in a three-dimensional space, in a way that appeased his ego and comforted his soul. The film footage toys with viewers, introducing them to the perceived joys of the drug before walloping them with the horrors. A girl burns her hand on a gas flame that appears to her as a lovely flower. A dancing boy leaps off a cliff, believing he can fly.

…Until it Isn't

A dark-haired man wearing a white medical coat leans against a counter in a hospital.

Then, a shift in tone. A set of scientific and medical experts parades across the screen, their words intended to crush such fantasies under the weight of clinical reality. Physiologists, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, a biologist, and drug regulators appear in white coats and suit jackets, sporting trim haircuts and offering articulate, if at times technical, statements about the harsher side of LSD consumption. Together these sober judges underscore the damage LSD causes to one’s health in acute and long-lasting ways, including altering chromosomes and triggering lifelong mental health problems.

People who take the drug are literally endangering their lives, they warn. It distorts perception and alters one’s capacity to assess risk, leading to suicides and violent behavior. Teens are shown walking into the path of an oncoming car, attempting to “merge their beings with large, fast automobiles.” A young woman overdoses, screaming and writhing on a gurney

Black Box Warning

LSD: Insight or Insanity does not appear to have attracted much attention when it was released in 1967. Nor is it clear what motivated the filmmakers to release a longer version in 1968 in which officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health are added to the mix, with a grim focus on birth defects and mutagenesis.

A clipped newspaper article titled Worse Deformities Feared in LSD than Thalidomide

The film was made in the immediate post-thalidomide era, and in the 1968 version, a considerable amount of time is spent on the possible impact of LSD on a developing fetus. Images of animal fetuses are shown, with limbs deformed and organs developing outside the body. Mutagenic damage—that which will affect succeeding generations—is suggested as likely. In the final scene of the film, a young man holds a gun, poised to play Russian roulette. This gun, the narrator says, has “...three bullets in the chamber. One bullet is for the risk to yourself. Another for the risk to your children. And another for the risk to your children’s children.” In the 1967 version, the narration for the Russian roulette scene is different, mentioning one bullet, and the danger to the LSD user alone.

Drugs on Film

Producer and director Max Miller did not have a particularly illustrious career as a documentarian, but he did make another short film in 1968 that draws on a similar set of lessons applied to marijuana use. According to the Internet Movie Database, his second film, Marijuana, features Sonny Bono explaining to users that marijuana is a ‘bummer’ and that users turn into ‘weedheads’. Bono’s performance, however, is undermined by his on-screen behavior, which is reminiscent of someone who has just imbibed. [NLM holds this film as well.]

In any case, the movie falls into a rather familiar category of anti-drug cultural products that pit one group against another and rely on a caricatured image of the psychedelic experience to divide these groups. Reminiscent of Reefer Madness (1936), but much less comical, Insight or Insanity pits science against recreation, deepening the presumed cultural divide between youth and orthodox authority that has come to characterize the turbulent decade of the sixties.

Historical Context

By 1967 when the film first appeared, LSD already had been the subject of clinical curiosity for nearly two decades. Long before it became a counter-culture symbol, or a hedonistic window into the self or the cosmos, the drug inspired white-coated scientists—orthodox authorities themselves—to imagine the value of a world enhanced by psychedelics.

Head shot of Albert Hofmann
Dr. Albert Hofmann Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Hofmann, working at Sandoz Pharmaceutical laboratories in Switzerland and (as the film tells us) experimenting with possible treatments for migraine, synthesized the drug in 1938. Hofmann had his first LSD experience in 1943, though he didn't realize he had come into contact with the chemical, and the response took him by surprise. Amidst the disorientation, he “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes and an intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”[1] His now infamous voyage into a gripping hallucination captured attention at the time and has been a part of the psychedelic lore since. His depiction expressed wonderment with the fantastical effects of a drug that disoriented his senses and disrupted his sense of reality. He later reflected on that auspicious discovery, which captured a frustrating mixture of excitement and joy; it embodied his hopes and dreams for the potential held within the tiny, beautiful chemical.

The drug’s powerful psychological effects attracted people working in fields of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, due to its capacity to affect cognition and induce a period of reflection among users.[2] By the early 1960s more than a thousand scientific articles had appeared with investigators using LSD in a variety of settings, applying diverse methods and drawing different conclusions. The research community did not reach a consensus on a specific direction for LSD studies, but several promising avenues emerged throughout the 1950s. Chief among these was the use of LSD for treating alcoholism, but it was also tested in clinical settings on a range of behaviors including homosexuality, depression, couples’ therapy, aggression, and as a model psychosis.[3]

Its appeal soon expanded beyond the clinic and attracted attention as a catalyst for spiritual and creative thinking.[4] Some people tried to harness these reactions and put them to productive use in clinical settings, but others recognized the power of LSD to move beyond the confines of medicine, and perhaps to better serve us by enriching human thinking along evolutionary terms. Still others placed it within a longer tradition of hallucinogens related to healing practices among Aboriginal people, or linked with non-Christian religions.[5] For instance, North American investigators looked to the use of peyote among members of the Native American Church, a religious organization that had steadily spread northward from Mexico in the twentieth century. Comparing religious interactions with hallucinogenic substances encouraged scientists to consider a longer tradition of combining spiritual healing with psychological treatments.[6] Others looked to ololiuqui use among the Aztecs, who similarly derived meaning from drug-induced visions or hallucinations.[7]

Out of the Lab

By the beginning of the 1960s LSD had become a well-known substance within bio-medical research circles, but it had yet to reach mainstream society in any significant way. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was then a creative writing student at Stanford University who had volunteered to take LSD as part of a clinical trial.[8] Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, had explored a variety of drugs, both professionally and personally, before landing in trouble with the university for his ‘unscientific’ use of psilocybin mushrooms and drug experiments with prisoners.[9]

These two figures became firmly associated with a different side of LSD’s character, and the drug’s reputation changed dramatically during the colorful decade of the 1960s. Leary had catapulted from Harvard to Millbrook, an elite upstate New York getaway for acid gatherings where he set himself up as an LSD guru and an evangelical purveyor of a burgeoning psychedelic movement. Kesey published Cuckoo’s Nest, his expose of American mental hospitals, and quickly became associated with a rising tide of countercultural antics, which included the flamboyant consumption of drugs.[10] Throughout North America, psychedelics coursed through 1960s culture, inciting new genres of music, literature, hedonism, and anti-authority attitudes. While many of these connections were overblown, the presumed connection between LSD and immorality overwhelmed a more logical or clinical assessment of the situation.[11]

Isolation and Paranoia

A red sign with the letters STOP printed on it in white. Electric light bulbs outline each letter.

In 1960 Sidney Cohen, a psychiatrist at the Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, conducted a thorough investigation of the medical literature on LSD and surveyed research units in North America experimenting with the substance.[12] Through his own experiences, Cohen had grown increasingly concerned by the feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and sometimes despair reported to him by his LSD subjects after the trials. He published the results of his survey in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. His report covered more than 25,000 experiences (volunteers and patients) with either mescaline (from the peyote cactus) or LSD. Based on the responses he received and the literature available, Cohen concluded that no published medical article or questionnaire respondent encountered harmful physical side effects from LSD. Larger doses, it seemed, produced more variable results, including intense paranoid thinking and acting out. Adverse reactions also occurred among neglected subjects (where investigators refused to interact with the subject or when the subject engaged in self-experimentation alone). Cohen’s study identified the occurrence of negative reactions under certain circumstances, but overall seemed to indicate that the drug was relatively safe,[13] a position that resulted in some notoriety for the doctor. And by 1968, Dr. Cohen is featured in this film, cautioning viewers against any use of the drug.

It Gets Real

In the media, LSD had become implicated in murder, suicide, and a slough of health problems, alongside a more generalized set of antipathies towards the American state.[14] Young people high on acid and caught in terrifying hallucinations were allegedly driven to madness and violence. Charles Manson’s serial murders were in part attributed to LSD. A former medical student reportedly murdered his mother, acid-soaked youths contracted venereal diseases at concerts, and still others went blind after taking LSD and believing they could stare at the sun.[15]

A white-haired man in a suit stands with one foot on a chair and his arms resting on his thigh.

While many of these claims were hyperbolic, medical researchers found themselves caught in a rising moral panic about LSD. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, perhaps worried about its reputation, temporarily suspended production of the drug in 1963. It became clear, too, that other substances had leaked into a black market and masqueraded as LSD, when in fact they bore no chemical similarities.[16] The rise of drug use in general, and psychedelics in particular, created challenges for medical researchers who were faced with the growing consensus that these substances were merely agents of abuse. Complicating things further, medical staff had difficulty treating patients who claimed to have taken LSD, when in fact they’d ingested a black market fake. Drugs in circulation were often not bona fide LSD, and were consumed in combination with other substances that further stymied the ability to fully distinguish and comprehend the LSD reaction.

As public concerns heightened over the dangers associated with LSD use, drug regulators at first worked closely with scientists to chart a course of development for how best to regulate the drug. Early clinical optimism tipped the scales in favor of a regulatory scheme that allowed for continued investigations along rather liberal lines. Some researchers maintained that LSD was on the cusp of making significant breakthroughs in addiction treatments and that further sustained study was necessary to pierce the haze of misinformation surrounding the recreational abuse of the drug.

Banned by the State

Nevertheless, some states moved to outlaw the substance. New York and California convened Senate hearings in 1966. Iconic leaders of the psychedelic movement, including Leary, Kesey, poet Allen Ginsberg, and others who had become the new face of the drug, spoke publicly and negatively about the conservatism of the state attempting to stamp out a form of cultural consciousness. These self-appointed champions of psychedelia forged a strong popular connection between LSD and counter-culture hedonism that may have galvanized supporters, but also certainly cleaved them from mainstream society. The resulting cultural division cut deeply across conventional authority figures, including psychedelic researchers, who risked being labeled as bad scientists, or bad citizens by association.

Politically, it became increasingly difficult to justify continued studies of LSD while it appeared to produce violent and sustained health problems, primarily within psychiatric categories. Results, whether in clinical trials or on the streets, seemed to produce incredibly unpredictable and highly dangerous outcomes, leaving politicians and regulators no choice but to step in and restore public confidence in their ability to manage public health risks.

Two animal embryos, one healthy and one with visible deformities

LSD: Insight or Insanity appeared at this moment, in 1967, as World Health Organization (WHO) members gathered to consider the fate of the drug, and one year later recommended it be pulled from legal circulation altogether. That same year Tom Wolfe published his iconic interpretation of psychedelic counterculture, the book Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Timothy Leary famously addressed the ‘Human Be-In’ in San Francisco, encouraging the 30,000 attendees to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’. It appeared that recreational use of LSD would overwhelm the medical community’s capacity to control the drug, or even to retain some credibility as scientific researchers with the expertise to determine the benefits and risks of an unpredictable substance.

Amidst the near-panic over who should control psychedelia, the 1967 version of Insight or Insanity made a fevered pitch for prohibition and appealed to medical science to guide the moral regulation of American youth. By 1968, that pitch had expanded to warn of a deadly threat to future generations, to the progeny of anyone who used LSD. And by 1970, the U.S. Congress banned all psychedelic use. [Listen to excerpts from Senate hearings about the drug, chaired by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY).]

2017

Today, the pendulum is creeping back. In the early 2000s, according to an April 3, 2016 Washington Post piece by Daniel Miller (of the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn), “a handful of scientists began looking into psychedelics as a way to relieve anxiety and addiction.” Cancer patients were given psilocybin, derived from mushrooms, and were closely supervised and allowed to trip in a hospital room remade to resemble a typical living room. Nearly all participants reported a reduction in anxiety and depression, an effect that lingered for months. Psilocybin was also used in a smoking-cessation experiment, with an 80 percent success rate (defined as a participant remaining cigarette-free six months later), compared to the typical 35 percent for other cessation protocols.[17]

Much less scientifically, Miller reports that some Silicon Valley workers claim to take microdoses of LSD regularly to improve concentration. The late neuroscientist and author Oliver Sacks argued that he empathized more effectively with his patients when he used a touch of the drug.[18] And author Ayelet Waldman’s recently published memoir is titled “A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life.” Having run through every type of therapy and pharmaceutical available to treat her mood disorder, Waldman turned to LSD—and likes what she felt.[19]

Way back in 1963, Aldous Huxley received LSD on his deathbed, and suggested that its effects bathed him in a vision of warmth and spiritual belonging, such that he could face death without fear. The potential use of psychedelics for palliative care is considered today for precisely this reason: not as a treatment, but as a psychological therapy that helps people face the anxiety of dying. One might ask, will the 21st-century demand for palliation warrant a second look at LSD in the clinic? A rich historical irony it would be if baby boomers, at least superficially blamed for abusing drugs and giving rise to a moral panic that resulted in aggressive regulation, become the actors whose collective agitation for peace and comfort at the end of life re-invents acid as a humanitarian, medically-sanctioned intervention.

Erika Dyck (PhD, MA, BA) is Professor and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Dyck’s chief interests are in the history of psychiatry, mental health, deinstitutionalization and eugenics. She is the author of Psychedelic Psychiatry, an examination of the history of LSD experimentation within the context of broader trends in the changing orientation of psychiatry in the post-World War II period. Her second book, Facing Eugenics, examines the experiences of patients and families as they confronted eugenics in 20th century Alberta.

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Notes

[1] Albert Hofmann, My Problem Child: Reflections on Sacred Drugs, Mysticism, and Science. (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983), 18.p>

[2] See, for example, Hofmann, p. 42, but also Erika Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to  Campus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[3] For one example of the diversity, see: Harold Abramson, The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy: Transactions of a conference on d-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25) (Princeton, NJ: Josiah Macy Foundation, 1960).

[4] For more discussions on this see: Robert S. Ellwood, The Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994). For discussions on the religious manifestations of the psychedelic movement and the spiritual use of LSD and psychedelics, see also Timothy Miller, The Hippies and American Values (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee, 1991). See in particular chapter 2, “The Ethics of Dope,” 23-51; Robert C. Fuller, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History (Boulder, CL: Westview, 2000). See in particular chapter 3 “Psychedelics and the Metaphysical Illumination,” 51-89. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 125-30. We are grateful to Chris Elcock for his advice on these references.

[5] See Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, The Hallucinogens (New York: Academic Press, 1967).

[6] See Erika Dyck and Tolly Bradford, “Peyote on the Prairies: Religion, Scientists and Native-Newcomer Relations in Western Canada,” Journal of Canadian Studies 46, no. 1 (2012): 28-52.

[7] Hoffer and Osmond, The Hallucinogens, pp. 237-266.

[8] For more on Kesey see: Rick Dodgson, It’a Kind of Magic: the Young Ken Kesey (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).

[9] Robert Greenfield, Timothy Leary: A Biography (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2006).

[10] Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Viking Press, 1962).

[11] Erika Dyck, “The Psychedelic Sixties in North America: Drugs and Identity,” in Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties (eds) Lara Campbell, Dominique Clément and Gregory S. Kealey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012): 47-66.

[12] Steven Novak, “LSD Before Leary: Sidney Cohen’s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Research,” Isis, 88,1 (1997), 88.

[13] Sidney Cohen, “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Side Effects and Complications,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 130 (1960): 30-40.

[14] William Braden, “LSD and the Press,” in Psychedelics: The Uses and Implications of Hallucinogenic Drugs (eds) Bernard Aaronson and Humphry Osmond, (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970): 400-417.

[15] For these and other examples see: Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry, chapter five.

[16] Saskatchewan Archives Board, A207, XVIII, 20. B. Humphry Osmond to Jonathan Cole, Chief, Psychopharmacology Service Centre, National Institute of Health, 9, February 1967.

[17] Daniel Miller, “Let’s Take a Trip Together,” Washington Post, April 3, 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ayelet Waldman, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. (Penguin Random House, 2017).