All criminalisation does is make the problem worse by enriching criminals and taking the science and control out of our hands.
Harvard Law graduate, author and former US Public Defender Ayelet Waldman speaks to Kate Allman about changes to laws around the world to permit clinical trials on the drug LSD.
Ayelet Waldman graduated from Harvard Law School in the same class as former US President Barack Obama in 1991. She worked as a US Federal Public Defender for many years, has written six books, had a column in The New York Times and published countless articles in other news publications.
Waldman’s resume is overflowing with accolades you might expect from many a talented Harvard graduate. But here’s a plot twist: she also took LSD every three days for a month and proudly credits the drug for saving her marriage and her mental health.
Lysergic acid diethylamid – known more commonly as LSD or “acid” – earned a reputation as the drug of choice for hippies and psychedelic music revellers in the 1960s. It’s fair to say Waldman, who is an author, 53-year-old mother-of-four and lecturer at Berkeley Law School at the University of California, doesn’t fit that stereotype.
Yet, in her 2017 memoir A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, Waldman admits to having taken LSD, administering “microdoses” of about 10 micrograms (about one tenth of a standard recreational dose) every three days in an attempt to alleviate crippling depression and mood swings that had plagued her for years.
“In retrospect I think I had a mood disorder my entire life,” Waldman told LSJ in advance of her appearance at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in November. “As I had more children and I moved on to writing serious fiction and non-fiction novels, my life became busier and bigger and the hormones really made it come to the fore. Eventually I was experiencing suicidal symptoms.”
Doctors had offered Waldman a myriad of medications and diagnosed her with everything from Bipolar II to severe anxiety. They eventually identified a mood disorder that affects women in the week before their period, known as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder. It was treatable when her cycles were regular but as Waldman approached menopause and her cycles became unpredictable, the anti-depressant medications stopped working.
“That’s why I thought, ‘OK why don’t I give microdosing a shot?’,” says Waldman. “And I tried it and it was really effective.”
Taking LSD is not the first option to come to mind as treatment for most depressed professionals. But Waldman had worked in drug policy reform at Berkeley School of Law and was fascinated by studies in the 1950s and ‘60s that had shown LSD had potential to treat alcoholism, schizophrenia, depression and mood disorders. Most of that research ground to a halt when the substance was criminalised in the US in 1966, and when the World Health Organization recommended LSD become a controlled substance in 1967. But recent research in the US and Europe has exposed the therapeutic effects of hallucinogenic drugs, including MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (found in “magic” mushrooms). A 2013 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare national survey found that 1.3 per cent of the Australian population, or 299,000 people over 14, had used an hallucinogen in the previous 12 months.
Waldman, who occasionally takes MDMA with her husband in a form of DIY-couple’s therapy, believes the time is right for governments to adjust drug laws to enable controlled studies on the therapeutic potential of LSD.
“Preliminary research into LSD has shown a lot of promise,” says Waldman. “LSD allows your brain to open up and connect to other parts in different ways, it gives you insights and problem-solving and creativity that can be quite remarkably effective.”
Anecdotal reports in The Conversation, New York Times and The Independent say microdosing is in vogue in Silicon Valley, where young professionals take small amounts of the psychedelic to “hack the brain”, claiming this opens up cognitive pathways that help them become more creative and focused at work. Global tech giants Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have famously admitted to experimenting with LSD. Jobs once told interviewers at the US Department of Defence, when he was applying for a top-secret security clearance, that taking LSD was “a positive, life changing experience for me”.
Stephen Bright is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Addiction at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. He explains that LSD alters perception by mimicking the effects of the brain’s natural chemical serotonin, and opening up neural pathways that can make people more creative or help patients who have treatment-resistant depression.
“The main risk is associated with the drug being illegal and thus unregulated,” warns Bright. “People risk ingesting more than intended and could have a psychedelic experience in the workplace. Or they might unintentionally ingest one of hundreds of dangerous psychoactive compounds that have emerged as ‘fake LSD’ in the past few years.”
Waldman says other studies have shown LSD to be inversely correlated with suicidality, meaning individuals who have been exposed to LSD are potentially less likely to attempt or commit suicide. These reports rang true for Waldman. She says the microdosing experiment made her immediately “stop wanting to kill myself” and she was noticeably happier around her children and husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. A convenient side effect was the way in which LSD made Waldman “incredibly productive” at work and enabled her to easily drop into a writer’s coveted “flow state”.
“It was like this delightful combination with all the promise of Adderall and all the promise of Zoloft [an anti-depressant] without the side effects,” says Waldman.
Recreational LSD users often report feeling euphorically happy or deeply contemplative. But Waldman says the miniscule amount of the drug in the microdoses she took simply helped to lift her mood and boost creativity, without sending her on any psychedelic trips. The first time she tried a microdose, she didn’t even know whether it was affecting her until she started noticing happy details in her daily environment, such as the flowering dogwood tree in her backyard.
Waldman is understandably cagey about how and when she conducted her experiment, as a lawyer and a mother in a country that has taken a notoriously tough stance against illicit substances. She also won’t reveal whether she has passed the three-year statutory limitation period for police to charge her with LSD possession under Californian law. In her opinion, “the law should be changed anyway”.
“At the moment we cannot conduct controlled microdosing studies because ofLSD’s illegality,” says Waldman. “But I think this is a train moving down the track and governments are not going to be able to stop it. All criminalisation does is make the problem worse by enriching criminals and taking the science and control out of our hands.”