Does LSD -- or the medical profession's treatment of it -- hold any lessons for the legal profession?

Does LSD — or the medical profession’s treatment of it — hold any lessons for the legal profession?

If all goes according to plan, as you read this I will be standing in a spot where LSD made history.

No, I am not in Woodstock, N.Y. (close to where I grew up). Instead, I’m in Boston, Mass., for part of this week. And amidst the lobster traps and the Freedom Trail, there is a small bit of druggy history—which may hold lessons for how we do things in the legal profession. (Bear with me.)

Marsh Chapel is a beautiful structure on the Boston University campus. Besides being a (I think) non-denominational spot to relax and meditate, it also was the site of an LSD experiment co-led by the now-notorious Dr. Timothy Leary.

Boston University's Marsh Chapel

Boston University’s Marsh Chapel

Back in March, I recounted the experiment to an audience at the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute. I explained how the Leary experiment was one of a number across that nation that sought to determine if the drug had solid medicinal uses (beyond those experienced in a Woodstock meadow).

The experiment had its challenges. For instance, the researchers tried to blind themselves as to which subjects had taken LSD and which had been given a placebo. But even an inattentive researcher could immediately spot the college students who were lying prone on the floor, or standing and marching on the pews, or even wandering from the building in a manic daze (one student was found on Commonwealth Avenue claiming to channel the Messiah).

More about the Marsh Chapel Experiment is here.

Timothy Leary's death on the New York Times front page, as modified by artist Nancy Chunn (her book is at http://www.amazon.com/Front-Pages-exhibition-catalogue-Nancy/dp/0847820815)

Timothy Leary’s death on the New York Times front page, as modified by artist Nancy Chunn (her book is at http://www.amazon.com/Front-Pages-exhibition-catalogue-Nancy/dp/0847820815)

As I told the ABA audience, my goal was not to advocate for LSD use. It was to explore ways that every profession may have learned valuable information, only to hide those very lessons from itself due to political or other reasons.

As an example, a terrific New Yorker article by Michael Pollan explains the waxing and waning of LSD research. Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent $4 million to fund 117 studies of LSD, involving more than 1,700 subjects. The benefits that flowed from the drug could be significant, and they applied to a wide variety of ailments. LSD looked to be on a path of becoming recognized as a useful tool in medical practitioners’ toolbox.

The work was necessarily inconclusive, though, because it was brought to an abrupt halt from the 1970s forward when federal and other dollars grew squeamish as the War on Drugs was ginned up. The developing body of research was shelved and placed in very deep drawers. It’s probably safe to say that many doctors today would be surprised to discover that substantial LSD research ever conducted—so deeply secreted is that work. It is typically thought of today (even among medical doctors) as a criminal drug.

Your should read Pollan’s complete article, titled “The Trip Treatment,” here.

So generations of doctors are unaware of the extensive experiments and a growing body of positive results that were developing and then squelched. Today, Pollan explains, a small group of doctors is excavating that decades-old research, developing new experiments, and seeing how LSD may become a useful tool in limited circumstances. What they are learning is that a wide variety of ailments may be alleviated or improved through that demonized drug.

So what, say lawyers? What is the takeaway for the legal profession?

There are always cool new lessons for cooler lawyers. Far out!

There are always cool new lessons for cooler lawyers. Far out!

First: No, I don’t have a vested interest in seeing LSD return.

But every profession has its blind spots, and few of us have an archival memory. We each may have forgotten or nerver learned hard-won lessons that could guide our profession.

For instance, the ways we deliver content, teach CLEs, train lawyers—each of them—who knows?—may be atop the pinnacle of human achievement. But it is more likely they lack important lessons that once were learned and then put away—either because they were considered unimportant or because someone’s ox was getting gored. Revisited, those lessons could transform lives for practitioners and the public who need them.

Smart bar associations, law schools, and attorneys are willing to look at everything and revisit lessons we thought we had learned. What could those lessons be? Well, let’s hope we start re-discovering them together—sooner rather than later.

As I enjoy some shellfish and Boston history, I wish you an illuminating—and not necessarily pharmaceutical—weekend.