The Psychedelic Renaissance by Dr Ben Sessa (Muswell Hill Press) – book review

According to Dr Ben Sessa we’re living in a psychedelic renaissance in which LSD, along with other entheogenic drugs and plants, is finding its way into mainstream science by proving effective in combatting depression, alcoholism, addiction and PTSD; over 50 years since it was demonised as a killer drug responsible for corrupting British youth. Obviously the implications are colossal for the pharmaceutical industry and deeply-embedded establishment phobias, not to mention going against the archaic Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that’s unbelievably still the law.

Subtitled Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society, The Psychedelic Renaissance comes at just the right time as a concise summation of the major waves currently underway and increasingly pulling in new supporters (this year’s bi-annual Breaking Convention conference was sold out months beforehand and packed to the rafters as a new society showed its strength quite organically and without fanfare).

One of the chief organisers of Breaking Convention, Dr Sessa is Consultant Psychiatrist in Addictions and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Senior Research Fellow at Bristol, Cardiff and London’s Imperial College Universities. He’s also a long-time music fan who did the world’s hippie trails and credits Captain Beefheart, Country Joe and the Fish and other west coast psych bands “for my current career path”. He became familiar with MDMA in its ecstasy guise while a warehouse raver during the late ‘80s Second Summer of Love; credentials which serve him well as he undergoes clinical trials with psychedelics. All this is joined by a boundless energy that sees him spreading his message around the country in a language that can be understood outside specialist enclaves, making him a worthy spokesman for the new movement. Or as psychedelic historian Andy Roberts puts it, “No one in the UK knows more about the burgeoning psychedelic renaissance than Ben Sessa. He has, by virtue of his profession, legally ingested an alphabet soup of psychedelic drugs and is fully aware of their powers to change consciousness. Moreover, Ben is cognisant of the potential these drugs have to enhance ‘traditional’ psychotherapy in order to heal the damage caused by PTSD and many other kinds of emotional turmoil as well as addictions and other afflictions of the mind.”

It is now known that psychological trauma experienced during childhood is at the heart of most chronic health disorders including addiction. Sessa suggests that, rather than papering the cracks with pharmaceutical band-aids from profit-driven corporations, psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA, ayahuasca and psilocybin can be used to access and bring to the surface an individual’s deeply buried layers of unpleasant memories and help to more gently reassess and process past traumatic experiences.

This book is an updated version of 2012’s first edition and it reflects the many new developments in the research. Sessa starts by giving potted accounts of the early pioneers of the first and second psychedelic eras; the first being between 1880 to 1930 and mainly centred around mescaline, the second between 1938 and 1976. In the 1930s, Albert Hofmann, a chemist at Switzerland’s Sandoz laboratories, was experimenting on lysergic acid he’d extracted from the fungus ergot that grows on grass and crops, particularly rye that was known to constrict blood vessels. By 1938 Hofmann had reached his 25th batch of lysergic acid, which he called LSD-25 (the S stands for “Saure”; the German word for acid. As Sessa points out, had the drug been discovered in an English-speaking country it would have been called LAD). Hofmann shelved his discovery for five years then, feeling an urge to return to it, famously discovered its psychotropic properties after he  ingested a large dose and enjoyed a mind-expanding bicycle ride through kaleidoscopic colours and hallucinations. After continued experimentation, within a few years he saw his discovery being further explored and used by the medical profession as he shipped it around the world to interested psychiatrists.

In 1952, Dr Ronald Sandison, who discovered LSD while visiting Sandoz, brought the drug to the UK and started using it as part of his psychotherapy programme at Powick Hospital in Gloucestershire (although psychiatrists at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital had been giving it to patients since 1949). In 1953, British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who had been trying out LSD and mescaline as treatments for alcoholics in Canada, was contacted by Aldous Huxley and ended up giving the writer the legendary mescaline dose that led to him writing his seminal tome, The Doors Of Perception. A relationship grew between the pair who, after trying out various names for hallucinogenics, arrived at psychedelic (from the Greek – “mind manifesting”). Osmond first used the word publicly at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957 (the year after Robert and Valentina Wasson travelled to Mexico to become the first known “Westerners” to participate in a Mazatec mushroom ceremony, with curandera Maria Sabina, recounting the experience the following year in Life magazine).

Writing in a clear, simple style with humour at the ready, Sessa goes on to recount figures and events that may already be long known to students of the counterculture or drugs but act as a perfect introduction and portal for the many whose interest has been piqued by the tangible upswing in interest in altered states of consciousness over the last few years. Further figures include Leary as the acid poster boy, Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters and UK acid missionary Michael Hollingshead, the man credited with turning on Leary, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others with his acid-laced mayonnaise jar.

There are horrifying tales of the CIA’s using LSD for sinister purposes and whole chapters on ‘The Prehistory and Ancient History of Hallucinogens’ and ‘Hippie Heydays, Ravers and the Birth of Ecstasy’, the latter going from the Beat Generation and San Francisco to Operation Julie and Alexander Shulgin discovering a new method of synthesis for MDMA in 1976. Dr Sessa knows his psychedelic 60s and Californian acid rock, describing the scene at the Red Dog Saloon that got the ball rolling and illustrating the potency of the LSD by pointing out the blotters that arrived in the ‘90s were never more than a quarter the strength of the 200 microgram doses dished out in mid-60s San Francisco (Owsley’s White Lightning even stretched to 270).

As he puts it, “looking at the role LSD played in so many facets of human life in the 60s, one might conclude that never have so many fields of human endeavour, from art and architecture, to fashion, music and design, owed so much to such a small molecule.”

All this colourful background serves as a vivid introduction to Sessa’s main mission to “reintroduce these tools into our clinical armoury again.” He lambasts America’s disastrously ineffective, trouble-stirring War On [certain people who use certain] Drugs and looks at the prohibition on ecstasy, which he says is now used by 750,000 young people in the UK every weekend. The final two chapters are devoted to key psychedelic research projects of the last 25 years before acknowledging the contributions to the field made by a wildly diverse gallery of key figures and prime movers in the psychedelic renaissance, including Amanda Feilding, David Luke, Rick Doblin, David Nutt, Dennis McKenna, Gabor Mate, Rupert Sheldrake, Rob Dickins, Robin Carhart-Harris, Tim Read and many more.

Sessa ends by calling for more approved scientific research and an “outing” where “normal people” stand up and say “Yes, I take LSD or MDMA or ayahuasca. So what? These compounds are safe and non-addictive, and a lot better for me than alcohol.” Here, facts speak for themselves; booze kills 15,000 a year yet drugs classified as Class A have saved lives. Early on, he says, “I could see clearly that LSD and MDMA were much more than simply hedonistic playthings for ravers or hippies, rather, they were tools for psycho-spiritual development and, crucially, for medicine.”

Basically, this book is the flagship chronicle and declaration of intent this community needs to help it start taking advantage of the multitude of healing medicines currently being stifled, starting with an urgently needed change in the law and bring us, to quote another Huxley book, a brave new world.