For nearly two decades, the treatment center combined psychedelics and psychiatrics to treat addictions, anxiety, depression, and even marital discord.
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From books to streaming services, from content to social media campaigns, psychedelics they’re having a flashback.
Also known as hallucinogens, psychedelics are a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood, and cognitive processes. They were famous for being instrumental in the turn on, tune in, and quit world of the 1960s. hippie counterculture.
But even before the party, people were taking acid (LSD) recreationally and eating magic mushrooms (psilocybin), or drinking peyote tea (mescaline), psychedelics were used to treat illnesses such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.
One place that used psychedelics for therapeutic purposes so many decades ago was Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster. Named for the holly trees out front, the hospital, a large white mansion on Sixth Street, first opened in 1919 and was widely known as an alcohol treatment center.
Things changed in 1957 when Dr. J. Ross MacLean bought the facility and brought in Al Hubbard, something of an LSD fanatic. The facility would continue to administer LSD (more than 6,000 supervised trips are recorded) to treat alcoholism, anxiety disorders, depression, and difficult marriages. Success, they said, was in the 50 to 80 percent range. The facility closed permanently in 1975.
The fascinating history of the hospital and the psychedelic psychiatry practiced there is recounted in the book: The Acid Room: The Psychedelic Trials and Tribulations of Hollywood Hospital, by jesse donaldson Y Erika Dyck, PhD.
“There’s been a lot of innovation in this field for a decade or more, right here,” Donaldson, a Vancouver-based author and journalist, said by phone. “It was interesting to see the newspaper stories (from the 1940s and 1950s) where people talked about psychedelic drugs in non-hysterical language. Today, a lot of those conversations are colored by years and years of public debate, criminalization, prohibition, and back then it was very practical.”
Despite reported therapeutic successes, unsupervised nonmedical users caused psychedelics to be classified as drugs of abuse that had no medical value. Canada classified psychedelics as illegal substances in 1968, so the message became that these drugs are bad and if you use them, terrible things will happen.
“When we talk about drug use, whether it’s therapeutic or recreational, we’re talking emotionally. The science is there. We know these things are safe, and we know that when used correctly, they can be incredibly beneficial. But, as we have discovered in our political and social landscape, feelings are often more important than facts for many people. So a moral panic about this is pretty easy to pull off,” Donaldson said.
At the heart of this story are some interesting and curious characters, the most prominent being an LSD-packaging psychedelic pioneer, and possibly an underground government agent, Hubbard. Hubbard claimed to have turned writer Aldous Huxley on LSD and reportedly could count acid king Timothy Leary as one of his fans.
“They called him the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. I was like: ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I think in history, the stories that always come to mind are the ones where you find compelling characters,” Donaldson said of Hubbard, who had a lab in the Gulf Islands.
“Aside from names and dates, you find people who are doing cool stuff or out-of-the-box stuff, off-the-shelf stuff, and that was kind of a hook for me and I started digging deeper. ”
Donaldson then contacted Dyck, a University of Saskatchewan professor and academic historian who wrote the book Psychedelic Psychiatry. As it turned out, Dyck was in the midst of digitizing the hospital’s records, which had been moved from a personal collection to the BC Museum and Archives.
“I had always pointed to it as a story that needs its own book,” Dyck said of the New West facility. “After a half-hour conversation, we decided that it would actually be nice to join forces and write this together. Between the two of us, we had quite a bit of information and different access to media points and different types of archival records.”
As the war on drugs nears a detente, this book is a fascinating reminder that decades ago these drugs were making clinical advances in health, not just causing cases, as critics shouted.
“They were kind of larger-than-life characters, but kind of boring,” Dyck said of the first generation of psychedelic researchers. “In fact, they were somewhat conservative.
“People like Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond were members of the American Psychiatric Association. They were trying to keep up, so there was this interesting kind of radical conservative in a way. They’re inside the store, but they’re pushing.
“I was really fascinated by that kind of intrigue in that story, and they felt that people like Hubbard were fascinating but potentially risky and dangerous. They felt the same way about Leary.”
The hospital made headlines, quite literally, in 1959, when Ben Metcalfe of The Province newspaper wrote a six-part front-page series on psychedelic therapy. But, for the most part, he flew under the radar.
“Maybe if it had been in Kitsilano, or it had been in a place that intersected with those other kinds of sexy stories about hippies or riots or revolution that might have put him in a different place, but here he was in this kind of awkward place. . It’s a private place in New West,” Dyck said. “He had people in white coats working on him. It seemed a bit boring, conventional, status quo.”
As boring as it seemed, it was anything but for many of the patients whose records Dyck and Donaldson had access to.
“Without individual patient stories, this would be much less convincing,” Dyck said. “It’s ordinary people like you and me, but when you go through the correspondence and patient files, you see that this changes the lives of many people. Certainly not all, but it paints a completely different picture than anything we’ve been told.
“This is life changing and lasting for people. That’s the important part of the conversation that I felt needed to be amplified in any way possible.”
As for the current growing popularity of microdosing and psychedelic reboots, Dyck suggests those involved look to history to help them avoid the pitfalls of pushing too hard too fast.
“Hopefully looking at things historically like this will help remind us of larger questions about the culture and ethical components involved with psychedelics,” Dyck said. “Science is not enough. We really need to be cautious about how this moves forward by paying attention to not just getting past a regulatory line, or not just going through the right trials, but we need to pay attention to safety issues.
“There are all kinds of problems that have the potential to undermine or plague the success of a psychedelic revolution… and many of them are not scientific at all. And this reminds us that we need to pay attention to culture and safety and all those kinds of things at the same time.”
“Let’s not screw this up again,” Donaldson added.