His groundbreaking work conducted in Christchurch in the 1960s was never pursued. Now a legal loophole could make NZ a global leader in LSD research.
This story was first published on Stuff.
When Mark Livingstone was going through his father’s possessions after his death in 1970, he discovered a small carton of glass vials filled with pure LSD.
He wasn’t surprised to find the psychedelic drug in his father’s office. In the mid-1960s, David Livingstone, a psychiatrist, had conducted pioneering research into the therapeutic uses of LSD. He found administering the drug to patients in carefully controlled sessions effectively supercharged psychotherapy.
But his work was never pursued. Less than a year after he published his findings, a wave of moral panic around psychedelic drugs swept the world. LSD was banned in New Zealand and many other countries, and research into its therapeutic uses ground to a halt.
In the last few years, that research has resumed in New Zealand and a legal loophole could now make us a global leader in a fast-growing field.
But, back in 1970, what was Mark Livingstone supposed to do with a carton full of class A drugs?
He didn’t know how to safely dispose of the drug, police refused to take it from him, and doctors could only receive LSD from approved suppliers.
He eventually found a safe place to store the carton, but then it mysteriously disappeared.
LSD’s ‘great promise’
Since LSD was first synthesised from the fungus ergot in 1938, there had been growing excitement among psychiatrists around the world that it could provide a breakthrough in mental health treatment. David Livingstone was one of those psychiatrists.
From 1964 to 1966, he administered doses of LSD to 55 patients under his care at the psychiatric department of Calvary General Private Hospital in Christchurch.
The drug was injected into their arm while they lay in bed attended by Livingstone and a nurse.
It would have been hard to prepare the patient for what they were about to experience. The dose they received – about 100 micrograms – was enough to induce hallucinations lasting up to eight hours and could spark mystical experiences or even dissolve a person’s sense of self, making them feel at one with their environment and the people around them.
Livingstone would sit with the patient while they experienced the drug, taking notes and sometimes even tape recording the sessions. He conducted 131 of the eight-hour sessions and follow-up therapy meetings, logging about 1,000 hours of patient time during his research.
Livingstone’s often unconventional approach to psychiatry made him at home on the leading edge of his field.
He was interested in finding innovative ways to help people, his son says.
“I would get home from school and some fellow would be in my father’s study putting up shelves and they would be out of Paparua Prison for the weekend.
“Why were you in prison? ‘I killed my family, but don’t worry, your father has me on the right path again’.”
He felt it was important to help people who couldn’t afford his fees.
“He had a three-drawer cabinet ranked on ability to pay. The bottom drawer was filled with unpaid bills.
“He didn’t bother sending them off.”
He also worked on a literal frontier. He was one of the first psychiatrists to visit Antarctica, travelling with Operation Deep Freeze in 1958 to study how people coped with isolation. A photograph from the visit shows him looking like a heroic pioneer in the snow.
His interest in the power of LSD fitted this outlook. He attended a conference about the drug in 1966 at the University of Berkeley in California, which was then the ground zero of 1960s counterculture and radical thinking about the transformative power of LSD.
Speakers at the conference included Richert Alpert, who was soon to change his name to Ram Dass, LSD evangelist Timothy Leary and beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
A few months after the conference, in October 1966, Livingstone’s findings were published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.
He found LSD made psychotherapy faster and more effective. It helped the therapist and the subject quickly establish a rapport that could otherwise take months, led to emotional revelations for the patient, helped them recall repressed memories, and aided the cathartic release of emotions.
He concluded LSD could become a regular tool for psychotherapists, but warned the drug needed to be strictly controlled.
“Availability of LSD to emotionally disturbed lay persons or inexperienced psychotherapists may be likened to making hand grenades available to delinquent youths,” he wrote.
“When properly and widely used, [LSD] offers great promise of effectiveness in the correction of psychiatric illness.
“It may well prove to have a permanent place in the treatment of difficult psychosomatic disorders.”
But this “great promise” could never be explored. LSD had escaped the lab, becoming a transformative force as a recreational drug. Public sentiment, lagging behind the counterculture, slowly turned against it, aided by often false horror stories in the media about the psychological damage LSD was inflicting on young people.
Newspaper headlines tracked this shift. In 1960, LSD was described in The Press newspaper as “an uncanny ‘Alice in Wonderland’ drug” and a “new weapon against mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism”.
By 1967, Police Minister Percy Allen told the same newspaper of an encounter with some Californian hippies on a trip to the US.
“I saw them by the hundreds in a park,’’ he said.
“Some of them wore shirts with the slogan: ‘Give L.S.D. a try – it’s the only way to fly’. “They were dirty and unkempt.
“I was disgusted.”
Allen vowed to do everything he could to stamp out the recreational use of LSD in New Zealand.
Livingstone resisted. In June 1966, he wrote a letter to the British Medical Association offering help responding to the public backlash over a story about LSD being administered at Sunnyside psychiatric hospital in Christchurch.
“From my point of view, I believe it would be most improper for members of the public to get the false impression that a dangerous, mind loosening drug is administered indiscriminately to psychiatric day patients, who are allowed to wander off about the town.”
But he could not turn the tide. The manufacturer of LSD withdrew its supply of the drug the same year Livingstone published his research. In July 1967, the government banned the drug, bringing LSD research to a halt. The same month, the first person to be convicted for possession of LSD was sentenced to six weeks in prison.
At the sentencing, Judge John Luxford said LSD was a global threat.
“This scourge, paradoxically enough, is one of the side effects of the progress of science in its attempt to alleviate physical and mental suffering, but it is prostituted by one of the most vicious rings in the history of crime,” the judge said.
“Everyone who takes the narcotic merely for fun and games or in modern parlance, for ‘kicks,’ is knowingly endangering himself physically and mentally, and is helping to foster a nefarious public evil.”
LSD research offers ‘endless possibilities’
It was 50 years before serious LSD research was conducted in New Zealand again. In 2020, University of Auckland associate professor Suresh Muthukumaraswamy was granted about half a million dollars to look into the impact of LSD on mood disorders.
Muthukumaraswamy, a psychologist, had returned to New Zealand from the UK in 2015 and soon noticed a loophole in New Zealand law that could reopen the door to LSD research. It turned out New Zealand was one of the few countries where LSD could be legally administered to patients.
“We are allowed to prescribe class A substances,” he told a podcast in September.
“It’s not really ever been done, but it’s just sitting in the legislation saying that this is allowed to be done.”
The researchers spent months getting permission from the Ministry of Health to run a trial giving 80 healthy people regular microdoses of LSD for six weeks. The dose of 10 micrograms was about a tenth of the dose that Livingstone gave his patients. The effect is not overwhelming, but anecdotal evidence suggests it can improve mood and brain cognition.
Muthukumaraswamy wants to see if that is true. He says the early findings of the pilot trial were promising.
“There’s endless possibilities… We’re just beginning to learn, and that’s come from 50 years of prohibition where we haven’t been able to do this work.”
Lisa Reynolds, a senior lecturer in psychological medicine at the University of Auckland, is about to conduct a different pilot LSD trial involving 40 people with advanced cancer.
In a study similar to the one conducted by Livingstone, participants will be given a microdose of LSD to see if it makes psychotherapy more effective against anxiety and depression in people with advanced cancer.
Reynolds says it had taken a long time for researchers to regain the ground that was lost in the 1960s.
“It was a real shame that the research got completely shut down for several decades for reasons that were often outside of researchers’ control, like moral panic and the war on drugs.”
Bu LSD research now has newfound legitimacy, she says. Since 2020, the prestigious Health Research Council has granted about $2.2 million to three LSD research projects in New Zealand, including the one led by Reynolds.
“There has been so much change in the last decade. Things have grown exponentially. There has been a bit of a tipping point.”
The LSD renaissance came too late for David Livingstone. He died of a heart attack in 1970, aged 51.
“We always felt that was a result of the huge stress that his work placed on him,’’ son Mark Livingstone says.
His son eventually found somewhere safe to store the carton of LSD his father left behind. He put it in a vault at the Bank of New Zealand. Years later they decided it was silly to hold on to it and contacted the bank about disposing of the carton. But no-one at the bank could find it.
The LSD had disappeared.
“You have to wonder about bankers.”