AA's Co-founder Thought LSD Might Help Cure Alcoholics. So What?

John Sutherland

24 August 2012

Of course Bill Wilson was wrong, but the real question is whether it is ever legitimate to use a drug to fight a drug

So, we are told, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous seems to have believed, for a while, that LSD might be the royal road to sobriety. Fight a drug with a drug. A hypocrite? No, not really.

I remember when I finally plucked up nerve to "share" at an AA "participation meeting". It was a long rambling confession about what a bad person I was. A grizzled old-timer looked across the table at me and said: "This isn't a training for the priesthood, son. It's about not drinking for the next 24 hours." Keep it simple.

Anonymity, the foundation of AA, means stripping away everything down to the bone the one basic thing. You're a drunk (or an addict). Nothing else is in the frame.

So Bill Wilson experimented with a now illegal drug and smoked himself to death with a legal drug. So what? No candidate for the priesthood, "Bill W" would have screwed a hat-stand if it had a woman's hat on it. But all that matters is that he, and "Doctor Bob", in Akron in 1935, found a way not to drink. For a day at a time. And then the next day, till the day they died.

AA didn't solve all their problems. Just that one.

The messiness of Wilson's personal life is chronicled in Matthew Raphael's 2000 Jekyll-and-Hyde biography, Bill W and Mr Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA's Co-Founder. Wilson's "character defects" (to use the language of the fellowship's "Big Book", written by Wilson) were many: womanising, egomania, depression, dabbling with Catholicism, and we are told yet again his bizarre experiments with LSD in the 1960s. It was all depicted in the 1989 CBS biopic, My Name is Bill, with Emmy-winning sensitivity by James Woods in the title role.

For the record, in the 1960s LSD was regarded by most users as non-addictive and by many users as life-changing. I had any number of friends who claimed to have been (1) enlightened and (2) spiritually enlarged by their trip(s). It never worked for me. So what? Freud, for God's sake, thought the same thing about cocaine. Wilson and Freud were both wrong, but experiments often are.

These latest non-revelations do, however, touch on a quasi-theological issue in the AA and related addict 12-step programmes. Namely, is it ever legitimate to use a drug to fight a drug, or to take it for medicinal reasons?

Try the following questionnaire (answers below):

(1) You're a newly recovering alcoholic. Is it OK, in the first very shaky 90 days, to back up your abstinence on the belt + braces principle with a daily tab of antabuse (a drug that causes violent nausea if you so much as sniff booze)?

(2) You have a back problem which is causing you extreme pain, and you're trying to kick an addiction to prescription drugs, what do you do if the doctor prescribes you Vicodin ("hillbilly heroin") to ease that pain?

(3) You're a heroin addict, you have arthritis so bad that the doctor prescribes oromorph (liquid morphine). Do you suffer, or use?

(4) A host pours you, an alcoholic, a glass of white wine which you take a mouthful of before realizing it isn't water. Do you:

a) spit it out over the dinner table,

b) hold it in your mouth and go to toilet,

c) swallow the one mouthful so as not to embarrass the company?


1 No.

2 Give the prescription to a friend and tell him/her to give you just two pills a day.

3 Use.

4 Swallow the one mouthful and don't tell any of your AA mates

The Guardian UK

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