Rush to judgment

Like many illicit drugs, hallucinogens became illegal in Nevada mostly as a result of ignorance (see cover story, page 11).

During a special session of the Nevada Legislature in 1966, Gov. Grant Sawyer on May 24 expanded the call of the session to include legislation dealing with hallucinogens. The same day the Reno Evening Gazette—one of the two forerunners of the Reno Gazette-Journal—ran an editorial calling for ending the special session, and legislators themselves were also talking about going home.

“But the … new item—a proposed law banning LSD and ‘other hallucinatory drugs’ could keep the legislation in session until next week … Law enforcement officials in Reno and Las Vegas supported inclusion of anti-LSD legislation because increased usage in the state is creating a police problem,” reported the Nevada State Journal.

The main police problem seemed to be that police could not make arrests.

As journalism has normally done since Virginia City and San Francisco gave the nation its first drug prohibition laws, the Journal reported on police reaction but did not talk to scientists or health care professionals about the issue. But reporters weren’t alone. With little research and less committee testimony, a measure was rushed through the legislative process, and, on May 30, both Sawyer and California Gov. Pat Brown signed the nation’s first state hallucinogen prohibition measures.

The speed was something of a surprise. In 1965, state legislators had tried to outlaw peyote and ran into a political buzzsaw—religious groups that used it in their ceremonies. Lawmakers backed off fast. They might have been expected to be more cautious this time, but they were not.

As it happened, on the same day Sawyer issued his expanded special session call, U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy spoke on the matter at the opening of a congressional hearing. He was concerned about the sudden arrival of hallucinogens on the scene, but did not discount the role they could have in medicine.

“Suddenly, almost overnight, irresponsible and unsupervised use of LSD for non-scientific, non-medical purposes has risen markedly.” he said. “Such use carries with it grave dangers, and as LSD has become a problem, the possibility has arisen that public reaction will discourage and dry up legitimate research into any therapeutic use of LSD.”

Though even in May of 1966 it was plain that hallucinogens were a coming thing and that lawmakers needed to bring themselves up to speed. There is little evidence they did so. Instead, they reacted to episodic developments—particularly the 1967 release of a scientific paper by noted geneticist Maimon Cohen that found broken chromosomes in a 57-year-old man who had ingested LSD, suggesting that birth defects might follow use of the drug.

Journalism ran with the story with its normal concern for nuance and restraint, and soon legislators across the nation were passing more bans. It later turned out that the 57-year-old man had also ingested Thorazine and Librium, which do cause chromosome damage, but that bit of information never made it onto the front pages. And no generation of birth defect-afflicted children followed the hallucinogen use of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Meanwhile, research at the federal level unfolded pretty much as Kennedy predicted. The Food and Drug Administration curbed research on hallucinogens except by U.S. intelligence agencies. Pennsylvania medical ethicist Jonathan Moreno recently wrote in Psychology Today, “It’s high time to destigmatize psychedelics as objects of legitimate research for the good they can do.”