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The Points Interview: Danielle Giffort

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Danielle M. Giffort, assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Liberal Arts at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. She’s the author of the new book Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Acid Revival is about how a group of mental health professionals is trying to bring psychedelic-assisted therapy back into mainstream medicine and how they struggle with the past history of psychedelic drugs in medicine as they do this. My book looks at how these researchers grapple with this past by telling stories about what went wrong during the “first wave” of psychedelic therapy—a period stretching from the late 1940s to mid-1970s. And their stories all point the blame at one person: Timothy Leary, the infamous psychedelic researcher-cum-countercultural guru.

For today’s researchers studying psychedelic therapy, Leary symbolizes what I call an “impure scientist”—a bad expert who does not respect and intentionally defies the boundaries of science. And in defying these boundaries, his presence supposedly had a polluting effect on the legitimacy of psychedelic therapy. So, researchers would tell me how Leary “contaminated” and “poisoned” psychedelic science. To contain that threat and offer an antidote to that poison, they perform as the Anti-Leary—a phrase I heard from several researchers. Another term bounced around was that they are “sober scientists.” So, essentially, the book tells a story about how, in the minds of contemporary psychedelic researchers, the misbehavior of an individual had contaminating effects on their whole scientific field—it boils down to a “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” story.

But these boundaries between impure and sober scientists are porous. That’s the thing about boundaries—they aren’t given; they are constructed. The ways in which we draw lines in the sand between this or that is the result of struggle and those lines are subject to change across time and place. And the way that we see this happening in psychedelic science is this: these researchers push away from the pollution of the impure scientist by enacting the sober scientist persona, but at the same time, they still draw on the practices of the impure scientist. For example, among other things, they criticize Leary for failing to follow conventional scientific methods in his psychedelic research, so they actively work to follow the kind of hypothesis-testing methods that grant scientific credibility. But at the same time, they actively incorporate Leary’s insights about the psychedelic experience into their therapeutic models. Leary is so central to their stories and to the revival because he is the site of the continuities and divergences between the first and current waves of research. And from this discussion, I hope readers learn more about not just the history of psychedelic science but about how the ways in which people construct reality has real effects on their actions.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

There have been a lot of stories told about the history of psychedelic drugs in science and medicine, but what I think I do differently and what I think historians will find interesting about my book is that I tell a story about the haunting presence of the past—about how people grapple with and interpret history and how the stories they tell themselves and others about the past, in turn, influence their actions in the present. In fact, I am pretty explicit in my book that I am not interested in making a definitive argument about what “really” caused the decline of psychedelic science so much as I wanted to unpack how the people involved in this field make sense of what happened. This is where I think my book adds a new layer to the history of psychedelic drugs, particularly in medical science: it covers the history but partly through the eyes of the people doing the work of scientific psychedelia. And through their stories, we learn more about their own motivations and goals, as well as why they are reviving the field in the ways that they are—if the story they tell is that Leary destroyed the legitimacy of psychedelic science, for example, then it makes sense that they put on this “anti-Leary” persona as they rebuild the field.

Dr. Danielle M. Giffort

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

My main scholarly home—so to speak—is science studies, and I think that’s why the thing I find most interesting about the book is how the case of psychedelic drug research isn’t just about the legitimization of psychoactive drugs in medicine but the legitimization of science more broadly. One thing that science studies scholars have repeatedly shown is that legitimacy is not automatic and given. It is fragile and can be so easily lost and hard to reestablish. But the ways in which that happens—the ways that we gain and lose legitimacy—aren’t based in objective factors; they are very much shaped by the social and historical context. In the popular imagination, we like to think of science as this value-neutral realm that is shielded from the outside world, from the so-called social world specifically. And this image is what grants science a good amount of credibility in the eyes of scientists and the public. But, of course, science is a social endeavor and is impacted by social factors. So, in this sense, it totally makes sense that psychedelic drug research has suffered from a series of legitimacy crises. These crises reflect the context in which their work is situated—one that involves broader changes to what constitutes sound scientific methodology, one in which psychedelic drugs are criminalized, one in which spirituality is considered incommensurable with science, and so on. We can map the ebb and flow of psychedelic science onto these contextual factors, and I think that is a really important point of the book.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

One book definitely can’t do everything, and there were a lot of things that I wanted to include but that didn’t just quite “fit” with the overarching theme. Those excluded pieces are finding a home in a few separate papers I’m writing right now. While researching the book, for example, I came across a bunch of old published articles where psychedelic drugs were used to treat so-called sexual “disorders.” There were therapists who tried LSD as a kind of conversion therapy for gay men, and psychiatrists who used a pharmaceutical cocktail of LSD and Ritalin to treat “frigid” women. From today’s vantage point, it seems ridiculous and even offensive that the drug was used in this way, but it also reflects the context in which these health professionals were practicing—one in which “homosexuality” and “frigidness” were considered valid medical diagnoses. It’s not surprising, then, that we don’t see clinical trials today using psychedelic drugs to treat these “disorders” because we no longer see them as medical conditions. In contrast, I have heard presentations in recent years where psychologists have proposed harnessing the self-actualizing potential of psychedelic experiences to facilitate acceptance of one’s sexual and gender identity. So, it’s a really good example of the social construction of sexuality and medicine, and I plan to write about it more. Another stone that I would like to turn over—and that I certainly hope others will as well—is what we might call the corporatization of psychedelic therapy. I only lightly touch on this topic in my book, but as certain psychedelic drugs, like psilocybin, enter the Phase 3 clinical trial stage, some entrepreneurs are entering the mix but in ways that have been making some members of the psychedelic research community (and the psychedelic community more broadly) a bit uneasy. Sociologically speaking, I think it is interesting to unpack how these investors are building a market around what is still an illicit substance not federally approved for medical use and some of the consequences that might result from bringing psychedelic drugs into the medical marketplace.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I actually recently found out that my Press secured a contract for an audio version of my book, which I wasn’t expecting since I don’t usually see academic books released in that format. But if I was able to pick anyone to provide the narration, I think Woody Harrelson would be a good fit. He was cast to play Timothy Leary in a new mini-series based on the book, The Most Dangerous Man in America, about Leary’s escape from prison (where he was serving a 10-year sentence for marijuana possession) and the global manhunt that followed in the early 1970s. So, I like to think that Woody would be interested in my book. I can even imagine hearing him laugh while he narrates some of the “dad jokes” that I have peppered throughout the book.

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