Neurocriminology in prohibition-era New York

New York City in the 1920s and ’30s was a hotbed of criminal activity. Prohibition laws banning the production, sale and distribution of alcohol had been introduced, but instead of reducing crime, they had the opposite effect. Gangsters organized themselves and seized control of the alcohol distribution racket, smuggling first cheap rum from the Caribbean, then French champagne and English gin, into the country. Speakeasies sprang up in every neighbourhood, and numbered more than 100,000 by 1925. When prohibition was abolished in 1933, the gangsters took to other activities, such as drug distribution, and crime rates continued to increase.

At the forefront of the city’s efforts to keep crime under control was a man named Carleton Simon. Simon trained as a psychiatrist, but his reach extended far beyond the therapist’s couch. He became a ‘drug czar’ six decades before the term was first used, spearheading New York’s war against drug sellers and addicts. He was a socialite and a celebrity, who made a minor contribution to early forensic science by devising new methods to identify criminals. He also tried to apply his knowledge to gain insights into the workings of the criminal brain, becoming, effectively, the first neurocriminologist.

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The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry

On August 15th, 1951, an outbreak of hallucinations, panic attacks and psychotic episodes swept through the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France, hospitalizing dozens of its inhabitants and leaving five people dead. Doctors concluded that the incident occurred because bread in one of the town’s bakeries had been contaminated with ergot, a toxic fungus that grows on rye. But according to investigative journalist Hank Albarelli, the CIA had actually dosed the bread with d-lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD), an extremely potent hallucinogenic drug derived from ergot, as part of a mind control research project.

Although we may never learn the truth behind the events at Pont-Saint-Esprit, it is now well known that the United States Army experimented with LSD on willing and unwilling military personnel and civilians. Less well known is the work of a group of psychiatrists working in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism, and claimed that it produced unprecedented rates of recovery. Their findings were soon brushed under the carpet, however, and research into the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelics was abruptly halted in the late 1960s, leaving a promising avenue of research unexplored for some 40 years.

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