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A Psychedelic Renaissance: Present Reflection on the Past to Build our Future

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Medical
Wordcount: 2283 words Published: 26th Oct 2021

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A milestone and commencement of the rejuvenation of psychedelics science: the launching of the world's first Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London in April 2019 earns the admission ticket for psychedelics research into the international sphere.[1] Rewinding the prehistory of psychedelics - before all the rejoicing and recognition today - this type of drugs have already undergone its rise and fall. During the 60s, LSD - by far the most ubiquitous of all psychedelic substances​ -​ emerged​ and exploded into a cultural phenomenon.[2]

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Drawing a widespread interest from fields including psychiatry and psychotherapy, LSD and other psychoactive substances became synonymous with counterculture and anti-authority ideas, fueling negativism that the government upheld through a reassessment of laws and Congressional regulations.[3] The significance of the establishment of the world's first psychedelic research center, the FDA approval on psilocybin therapy[4], and the pioneering projects of psychedelic research[5] cannot unveil its full manifestation without tracing back at the struggles which psychedelics once endured.

Driven by this motivation, this paper will examine the history of the Psychedelic Renaissance and the ensuing interplay between drugs and the government as well as an exploration into the recent resurgence of psychedelics as a new paradigm for future medicines.

I. The Early History of Psychedelic Research

Psychoactives play an important role in the development of human society and archaeological evidence reveal the cultural use of psychedelics as intoxicants and in magical rites for over the past 5,000 years.[6] The historical urge of humans to manipulate with mind-altering drugs is inherently imbued in our progression of modern science as a natural drive.

The medical value of psychedelics was soon re-excavated by Western synthetic chemists. As early researchers were drawn to the creation of new compounds based on natural entheogenic plants, they also shared their research samples with their acquaintances. This practice rendered in a fad of consciousness-experimenting with psychedelics by anthropologists, botanists, writers, and other amaterur scholars.[6]

Societal interest in psychoactive chemicals received significant scientific attention near the end of the second millennium. Following the isolation of mescaline in 1897 and the first synthesis of MDMA in1912[6], Albert Hofmann from Sandoz Laboratories synthesized LSD-25 in 1938. Hoffman's discovery opened up the gateway for many ensuing medical research which psychiatrist fervently advocated.[7] Among the cohort, psychiatrist Max Rinkel became the first person to introduce LSD to the U.S. and pioneered a project to test the hypothetical induction of a model psychosis by LSD in 1949. [7]

The medicinal aspiration of Rinkel to enable a more controlled and objective study of mental disorders through LSD was echoed among many other psychiatrists in the same era. Most notably, Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer's investigation in the potential use of LSD in treating alcoholism took a large leap in 1951 when the 66% of LSD patients in the study abstained from alcohol compared to 18% otherwise. [7] On the heels of the promising results, the treatment of alcoholics involving LSD as an adjunct to psychotherapy began its march into the market in 1952.

II. The "Problem Child" and the Prohibition Period

A. Dubious Research and Methodological Flaws

At the same time when breakthroughs in treating alcoholism, depression, and neurosis were constantly stood in the frontiers, the standards and methodologies adopted in these research were also put on trial. Many LSD experiments failed to measure up with the newly emerged scientific parameters of clinical trials in the 1950s, which embodied randomized controlled trials in order to eliminate of non-medical factors.[8] With the shift to stricter research standards, earlier published research and literature successively lost their value due to the lack of objective measures, inadequate follow-up and other insufficiencies in experimental control.[8] In particular, the absence of follow-up as one of the most critical flaws became the most common criticism.[8] Many attacked the blind optimism of psychedelic researchers and interrogated the confounding consistency in their replication results, all of which originated from a public frustration on the loss of promising panacea effect of psychedelics.[8] In fact, a majority of the reported "miracles" by earlier studies on psychedelic treatments could now be explained as an aftermath of experiencing a "honeymoon phase" in taking psychoactive substances.

B. Reported Risks

What is more concerning than the poorly conducted research is the issue of safety. In 1962, Cohen et al. became the first to systematically investigated potential adverse effects of psychedelic therapy. The researchers specifically warned the increasing potential of abusive and antisocial behavior as a result of euphoria.[9] Following Cohen's direction, more researchers devoted their studies to the negative effects of psychedelics, a phenomenon that played the prelude of prohibition later on.

C. Counterculture Movement

The growing complacency in the control of supplies of psychedelics from therapists and researchers accelerated their fall into the pitfall of illegitimate practices. Many psychiatrists, who obtained high access to psychedelics, were often the leading characters in illicit distribution as well as in hosting LSD "parties."[8] When writers like Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard emerged as founding figures of the 60s Counterculture Movement, promotion on psychedelia as a "magic pill" for a renascent spiritual experience anchored a fundamental change in the nature of using psychedelic substances. Gaining the reputation as a magic pill for a renascent spiritual experience, LSD was abused to dovetail with the radical interrogation of government and social norms that prevailed throughout the 1960s. [9]

Popularity of psychoactive substances was further propelled by psychedelics passionists such as Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who encouraged taking LSD and other psychedelics to their students and the community.[7] In an attempt to increase awareness of hallucinogens, Leary and Alpert started a group called the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF).[10] They encouraged Harvard undergraduates to join and form research cells which would enable them to obtain hallucinogens. After publishing The Psychedelic Review​ ​, the IFIF escalated their effort by organizing a commune in Newton, Massachusetts.[10] The commune soon became a seedbed for hallucinogens dealings, where more students were acquiring hallucinogens through mail order and from a black market near Harvard [10].

D. Legal Actions against Psychedelics

As LSD became synonymous with the upheaval of student riots and anti-war demonstrations, the legal status of psychedelic drugs arose as a fervently debated topic. Government interventions were soon enacted. With new power and authority granted to Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the direct distribution of psychedelics to physicians was terminated.[11] The sharp shift in attitudes of the government could be further revealed through the passage of the Drug Abuse Control Amendment(1965), which "established special controls for depressant and stimulant drugs."[11] Before psychedelics encounter the harshest strike—the ​ ​Controlled Substances Act of 1970—the United Nations Economic and​ Social Council in 1968 passed a resolution claiming that psychedelics presented "an increasingly serious problem that could have very dangerous consequences."[8] The direct result, in combination to other regulatory framework, research permits for psychedelics were evoked and nullified, underpinning the​ overturn of the "Golden Age" of psychedelics.[8]

III. Psychedelic Revival

A. Rediscovery and Renewed Research

Despite the climate of the Drug War and its suppression and distortion of psychedelics, a renewal of research on these substances were surfaced. Since the ban in the 1960s, the first legal psychedelic study using human subjects, which focused on DMT to "minimize sensationalism" received its approval at the University of New Mexico in 1990.[12] Ensued by this little-noted research was a landmark clinical trial at the University of South Carolina in 2002.[12] Its ability to garner support from the National Institute of Health and other federal agencies to investigate in MDMA as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder [12] shed light on the launching of more succeeding research. Among them, there are studies conducted on psilocybin for treating death anxiety at UCLA, on MDMA for treating obsessive compulsive disorder at University of Arizona, and on LSD for treating cluster headaches at Harvard.[12] This reemergence of psychedelics studies is indeed an insinuation of the arrival of a new era.

B. Continuum of Cultural Influence

As scientific interest in psychedelics resurged, exploration of their therapeutic potential in the treatment of depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder is also underway. Back in the 1960s, researchers had already recognized the introduction of music in psychedelic psychotherapy sessions enabled easing patients' emotions and became more therapeutically meaningful.[13] Mendel Kaelen and his team deciphered the mechanisms of music and LSD. From their study, the team constructed a playlist for generating different "timbre" that can evoke a particular region of the brain, such as the Broca area, to match patients' therapeutic needs and moods.


In examining the complex path psychedelics have taken from being a spiritual mysticism to a countercultural symbol, and from a political stigma to a medical avant-garde, it is manifesting that akin to the art of psychedelia, the nature of psychedelics is malleable upon the perception of the society. History is evolving, and it is not the purpose of the paper to deny nor accept any presuppositions of the usage of psychedelics. In fact, the first step to explore the role of psychedelic drugs and to exploit it to the best potential for our future is to unleash ourselves from an historically proven overenthusiasm and underestimation of their true value.


1. Campus, S. (2019). Centre for Psychedelic Research​ ​. [online] Imperial College London. Available at: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/psychedelic-research-centre/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

2. Williams, H. (2019). How LSD influenced Western culture​ ​. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20181016-how-lsd-influenced-western-culture [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

3. MAPS. (2019). Human Psychedelic Research: A Historical And Sociological Analysis - MAPS​ . [online] Available at: https://maps.org/articles/5468-human-psychedelic-research-a-historical-and-sociological-analysis [Accessed 6 Nov. 2019].

4. FDA Gives Stamp of Approval for Clinical Psilocybin Trials. (2018, November 13). Retrieved from https://psychedelictimes.com/fda-approves-clinical-psilocybin-trials/

5. Johnson, M. W., Nichols, & DE Nichols. (2016, December 26). Psychedelics as Medicines: An Emerging New Paradigm. Retrieved from https://ascpt.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/cpt.557.

6. Merlin, M D. (2003). "Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World", Economic Botany 57 (3): 295–323

7. Psychedelic Timeline. (2019). Available at: https://psychedelictimes.com/psychedelic-timeline/. [Accessed 18 Nov. 2019]

8. E, D. (2019). Flashback: psychiatric experimentation with LSD in historical perspective. - PubMed -NCBI​. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16086535 [Accessed 18 Nov. 2019].

9. Das, S., Barnwal, P., Ramasamy, A., Sen, S., & Mondal, S. (2016). Lysergic acid diethylamide: a drug of 'use'? Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 6(3), 214–228. https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125316640440

10. Wark, C., & Galliher, J. F. (2010). Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and the changing definition of psilocybin. International Journal of Drug Policy, 21(3), 234–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.08.004

11. Nichols, D. E. (2016). Psychedelics. Pharmacological Reviews, 68(2), 264–355. https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.115.011478

12. Harris Friedman (2006) The Renewal of Psychedelic Research: Implications for Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology, The Humanistic Psychologist, 34:1, 39-58, DOI: 10.1207/s15473333thp3401_5

13. Turk, V. (2019, May 25). Can you trip on music alone? This psychedelic startup thinks so. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from Wired.co.uk website: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/wavepaths-psychedelic-music


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