The Czech Republic. Famed for beer, ancient castles, bone ossuaries, and being from whence Kafka and his nightmarish tales came . Not, on the surface, such a colourful place. However, this impressively sombre resume belies a past, present and future rife with psychedelic research. In fact, the Czech Republic holds a reputation for being one of the most forward-thinking countries in the world when it comes to both psychedelic therapy, and drug laws in general. Theirs is a long and fruitful relationship with psychotropic substances. Here we will delve into the history, the future, and the now, of psychedelics in the Czech Republic.
The 19th Century
Well before the secret of magic mushrooms was shared with the west by Maria Sabina, and even before Albert Hoffman synthesised LSD in Basel, Czech (then Czechoslovakian) scientists were experimenting with trippy substances. Jan Evangelista Purkinje was a world famous Czech scientist. Most noted for introducing the term ‘protoplasm’ to describe the fluid substance in a cell. He was also a fearless self-experimenter with drugs. Frustrated with the way in which materia medica (19th century equivalent to pharmacology) was being taught in institutions, he was known to ingest various substances himself and record the results.
He was keen to learn the sensory and mental effects of drugs on humans, rather than experimenting on animals as was custom. Purkinje self-experimented with substances including belladonna, opium and digitalis leaves. The most psychedelic-esque results occurred after Purkinje took a dose of nutmeg suspended in a glass of wine. This induced nausea, euphoria and hallucinations that lasted days. Thus began the Czech Republic’s reputation as a nation of psychedelic explorers.
The 20th Century
Just before Hoffman released his psychedelic child on the world, many enquiring minds were already experimenting with mescaline. In (then) Czechoslovakia things were no different. Svetozar Nevole (1910-1965) was a Czech psychiatrist who’s deep exploration into mescaline laid the groundwork for future LSD research. On the subject he published the tantalisingly titled On Four-Dimensional Vision and On Sensory Illusions. Although not much is known about Nevole, his research inspired contemporary medical practitioners and future psychedelic researchers, such as Stanislav Grof. (more on him later).
The 1960s, Psilocybin & LSD
LSD arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1952, as a gift from the Swiss Sandoz laboratories to psychiatrist and researcher J.Roubíček. The substance was labeled as Delysid. It was accompanied by a note that explained its potential use as a tool for psychotherapy. It also advised that for psychiatrists to better understand their patients, as well as to utilise the substance properly, they should experience its transformative effects themselves. Thus, on Sandoz’s recommendation, as well as in the now rich Czech tradition of self-experimentation, the researchers did just that.
‘Auto-experimentation is a way to broaden and complement scholarly knowledge as well as to enrich and deepen a medical doctor’s understanding of those with mental illness; it is possible to say that it contributes to a more humane relationship to those with psychosis.’
‘Golden Age’ of Psychedelic Research
The ‘Golden Age’ of psychedelic research continued in Czechoslovakia until 1974. They had to follow the rest of the world, by making psychotropic substances illegal. Until then however, some of the most exciting and thorough psychedelic studies had been emanating from the country. The research had many bases to call home including The Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague (the name Prague, derives from the czech word for ‘threshold’, appropriate for a land of psychedelic explorers). Additionally, just outside of Prague, in a small town called Sadská, existed one of the most important and prolific LSD research centres. Led by prominent Czech LSD researcher Milan Hausner, between 1966 and 1974 this centre would see over 3000 therapeutic LSD sessions.
Looking To The Past
During this period researchers also experimented extensively with other psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and mescaline. They found great potential in their ability to treat depression, anxiety and addiction . Of course, when these vital tools were made illegal in 1974, the research was forced to be abandoned, so dormant it lay for many years.
However, so rich was this time period for psychedelic research, that Dr. Petr Winkler from The National Institute of Mental Health has recently made the move to review all the work that was done during this time. It is no surprise really that in this new wave of research, psychedelic scholars are looking to the past. Former Czechoslovakia had five psychedelic research centres alone! One of them, The Psychiatric Research Institute was led by Dr Grof, who after the psychedelic ban, became famous for his theory of Holotropic Breathwork. This breathing technique purports you can achieve the transcendental high of a psychedelic substance through controlled breathing alone.
Today the Czech Republic is again one of the leading countries in psychedelic research. Prague was the proud host of the Beyond Psychedelics conference in 2018. The recent establishment of the Czech Psychedelic Society is another indication that psychedelic researchers of the country are making up for lost time. Filip Tylš, a psilocybin researcher, is passionate about both the past and future of psychedelic study. This duality is epitomised in his psilocybin research basement housed in the National Institute of Mental Health. While the experiments here are both modern and forward thinking, the tea-room-like decor of the basement is in fact inspired by the research spaces of Dr Milan Hausner from so many years before.
So there you have it, the Czech Republic. A country with a psychedelic past, present—and an even brighter future.