Acid Test: The Long, Strange Trip of Psychedelic Therapy

When Tom Shroder was a college journalist in 1975, he interviewed a young hippie named Rick Doblin, a dropout building himself a house in the woods. Less interested in the ins and outs of house construction than in "the implications of the psychedelic experience," Shroder was at the time experimenting with psilocybin mushrooms. Though his experiments ceased when he left college, he "never forgot their profundity, or the lasting good they did me."

Ten years later, as an editor at the Miami Herald Sunday magazine, Shroder assigned a piece on Doblin, who was "promoting the party drug Ecstasy as a breakthrough in psychotherapy." (Shroder titled the piece "A Timothy Leary for the ‘80s.")

Twenty years after that, as an editor at the Washington Post Magazine, Shroder discovered that Doblin had formed a non-profit that was, under the auspices of Harvard University, conducting a study about Ecstasy’s potential as a treatment for anxiety and depression. This led Shroder to write an article about Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist in Charleston, South Carolina, who -- funded by Doblin’s nonprofit -- was experimenting with Ecstasy as an aid to psychotherapy.

Now, almost forty years after he first met Doblin, Shroder has written Acid Test, a thoughtful, provocative book about the therapeutic promise of psychedelic drugs. A terrific storyteller, Shroder crafts compelling and convincing portraits of Doblin and Mithoefer as serious, driven men of great purpose, while never losing a light, often funny touch. (Here is an account of Mithoefer, during a youthful LSD experience gone bad, attempting to free himself of an unpleasant hallucination while stepping out into the Connecticut snow: "Inside the snowdrifts, ferocious purple lizards thrashed about, devouring each other in a cannibalistic frenzy. So that didn't help.")

Doblin in particular emerges as a man of Hollywood-ready commitment, resilience, and flair. He convinces his parents not only to allow him to drop out of college so he can experiment with LSD, but somehow to continue to fund him. He drifts back into and out of academia, continuing his experiments and at one point coming surprisingly close to getting hired by the FDA. He is thwarted for decades, often suffering defeat just when victory seems apparent (a variation on the phrase "but again Rick would be disappointed" appears more than once), and at one point Rick mentions his friends joke that his optimism is itself evidence of the brain-damaging effects of psychedelic drugs, but his will is so implacable that the reader cannot help but cheer him on.

The book’s real heart, however, is in Nicolas Blackston, a bullied kid who grows up to become a Marine, and whose experiences in Iraq -- particularly a friend’s death for which he blames himself -- leave him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Shroder reports deeply on Nick’s life, painting a vivid picture of his time at war and of his romance with his wife, Beverlee. When Nick’s erratic behavior after returning home threatens his relationship with Beverlee, we are relieved to see him enroll in Mithoefer’s experimental treatment, and even more relieved to see that the treatment seems to work.

If the book has a flaw, it is that Shroder’s storytelling prowess itself can at times prove a bit frustrating. Nick’s story is rich, and, along with several other sketches, illustrates the treatment’s potential to transform a life, but an anecdote, no matter how rich, remains an anecdote. There are times when we long for a little less narrative and a little more science. Of course, the limited nature of the data is largely due to how difficult the FDA and the DEA have been, making investigation into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs anything but easy.

Forming the backdrop to this book are two ruinous conflicts: the war on drugs and the war in Iraq. Acid Test offers a compelling case that the first may be making it more difficult to treat those wounded in the second.