Sidney Cohen's Critique of 1950s
Psychedelic Drug Research
STEVEN J. NOVAK
IN CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS on LSD held in 1966, Timothy Leary asserted that the drug was “remarkably safe, ” citing a key 1960 article by Dr. Sidney Cohen. When Cohen himself testified, however, he contradicted Leary. He told Congress that LSD was safe only if administered under strict medical supervision and that in the wrong hands it was “a dangerous drug. ” 1
The conflict between Cohen, a physician, and Leary, a layman, prefigured subsequent divergent historical interpretations. There are no historiographical schools on the drug movement, but both critics and partisans of LSD have embraced Cohen's 1960 article. The medical establishment criticized overzealous 1960s enthusiasts like Leary for meddling in medical affairs: “In 1960, ten years after [LSD] was introduced into psychiatry, its therapeutic prospects were still considered fair and the dangers slight. Then the debate received an infusion of irrational passion from the psychedelic crusaders and their enemies. …Twenty years after its introduction it was a pariah drug, scorned by the medical establishment and banned by the law. ” 2 On the other hand, proponents of LSD have attributed the medical profession'sopposition to the wire-pulling of the CIA or to doctors' fear of social change. Thus one account blasted an anti-LSD editorial by saying, “[Roy S. ] Grinker cited no data to back up these rather serious charges. He cited no data for the simple reason that there were none—Sidney Cohen's 1960 study on adverse reactions was still unchallenged in the literature. What Grinker was doing was projecting his own professional biases. ” 3
To illuminate this debate, this essay, based on new archival material and oral history interviews, analyzes Cohen's pioneering studies of the safety of LSD. Through this lens one can obtain a behind-the-scenes look at the tensions between physicians and intellectuals in defining LSD's meaning, plot the shift of LSD research from a scientific investigation into a cultural
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Publication information: Book title: Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. Contributors: Sarah W. Tracy - Editor, Caroline Jean Acker - Editor. Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press. Place of publication: Amherst, MA. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 353.
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