Flashback Friday: Acid Dreams, Part One

In part one of our excerpt from an amazing history, find out about the birth of the acid culture in Haight Ashbury.
Flashback Friday: Acid Dreams (Part One)
Illustration by James Romberger

Home of the love generation. Spawning ground of the hippies. The original psychedelic community Haight Ashbury was this and more. Few events have had a more profound impact in America than the spread of LSD. After poring over thousands of secret Government files (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain have compiled the definitive history of the psychedelic revolution. Their book is titled Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD And The Sixties Rebellion, and is published by Grove Press. Published in the April, 1986 issue of High Times, the following excerpt traces the arrival of LSD in San Francisco and resulting cosmic confusion. Part Two in the four-part series appears in our Flashback Friday column next week.


Before the Deluge

The initial breeding ground for the large-scale use of psychedelics was the social and artistic fringe areas associated with the beat phenomenon. For some years prior to the emergence of LSD as a street drug, the number of people whose lives were influenced by psychedelics had been slowly building to a critical mass, until they became visible on both coasts as distinct communities. The most significant expression of the new psychedelic lifestyle was centered in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It was in the Haight that the cultural rebellion fueled by LSD happened so vividly and with such intensity that it attracted worldwide attention.

Situated on the periphery of Golden Gate Park, this quiet, multi-racial, and somewhat run-down neighborhood first became a haven for nonconformists in the early 1960s, when tourists, gangster elements, thrill seekers, and narcs squeezed the life out of the hip scene in North Beach. A good number of beatnik refugees migrated across town to the Haight, where ramshackle Victorians were available at low rent. The next few years were a gestation period in which Haight-Ashbury continued to evolve as a gathering point for the creatively alienated. Increasing numbers of Berkeley radicals, fed up with academia, joined the artists, musicians, and beared habitues who were probing eccentricity and other forms of dissent.

By 1965, Haight-Ashbury was a vibrant neobohemian enclave, a community on the cusp of a major transition. A small psychedelic city-state was taking shape, and those who inhabited the open urban space within its invisible borders adhered to a set of laws and rhythms completely different from the nine-to-five routine that governed straight society. More than anything the Haight was a unique state of mind, an arena of exploration and celebration. The crew hipsters had cast aside the syndrome of alienation and despair that saddled many of their beatnik forebears. The accent shifted from solitude to communion, from the individual to the interpersonal. The new sensibility was particularly evident in musical preferences. The sound of the in-crowd was no longer folk or jazz but the bouncing rhythms of rock and roll that could incite an audience to boogie in unison almost as a single organism.

Music happenings were a cornerstone of the culture revival in the Haight, providing a locus around which a new community consciousness coalesced. One of the early energy-movers in the local rock scene was Chet Helms. A couple of years earlier, Helms had forsaken a future as a Baptist minister and hitchhiked from Texas with a young blues singer named Janis Joplin. Together these two rolling stones traveled the asphalt networks of America in search of kindred spirits until they settled in the Haight. Joplin fell in with other musicians, joining what would later become Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Helms formed the Family Dog, an organization dedicated to what was then the rather novel proposition that people should be encouraged to dance at rock concerts.

On October 16, 1965, the Family Dog held its first rock extravaganza at the Longshoreman’s Hall, a dome-shaped union headquarters near Fisherman’s Wharf. Dubbed “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” the evening featured the city’s premier psychedelic rock band, the Jefferson Airplane, and a handful of other local acts. A large crowd turned out for this inaugural event, including quite a few political radicals who participated in the Berkeley Vietnam Day rally earlier the same day. Everyone was decked out in weird costumes. There were even a few Hell’s Angels in attendance, and they joined the snake-dance weaving circles and figure eights through the hall.

The Family Dog dance was a huge success and soon these concerts became a staple of the hip community. Each weekend people converged at auditoriums such as the Avalon Ballroom for all-night festivals that combined the seemingly incongruous elements of spirituality and debauch. Thoroughly stoned on grass and acid and each other, they rediscovered the crushing joy of the dance, pouring it all out in a frenzy that frequently bordered on the religious. When rock music was performed with all its potential fury a special kind of delirium took hold. Attending such performances amounted to a total assault on the senses: the electric sound washed in visceral waves over the dances, unleashing intense psychic energies and driving the audience further and further toward public trance. Flashing strobes, light shows, body paint, outrageous getups—it was mass environmental theater, an oblivion of limbs and minds in motion. For a brief moment outside of time these young people lived out the implications of Andre Breton’s surrealist invocation: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”

No affair in the Haight better illustrated how far these rock events had strayed from conventional entertainment than the Trips Festival staged by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in January 1966. “The general tone of things,” Kesey advertised, “has moved on from the self-conscious happenings to a more jubilant occasion where the audience participates because it’s more fun to do so than not. Audience dancing is an assumed part of all the shows, and the audience is invited to wear ecstatic dress and to bring their own gadgets (A.C. outlets will be provided).” This was a wide-open three day LSD party with just about every sight and sound imaginable: mime exhibitions, guerrilla theater, a “Congress of Wonders,” and live mikes and sound equipment for anyone to play with. Closed-circuit television cameras were set up on the dance floor so people could watch themselves shake and swing. Music blasted at ear-splitting volumes while Day-Glo bodies bounced gleefully on trampolines. At one point Kesey flashed from a projector, “Anyone who knows he is God please go up on stage.”

Jerry (“Captain Trips”) Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead,” one of the bands that performed at the Trips Festival, tried to put his finger on what made those early events so special: “What the Kesey thing was depended on who you were when you were there, it was open, a tapestry, a mandala—it was whatever you made it…When it was moving right, you could dig that there was something that It was getting toward, something like ordered chaos, or some region of chaos… Everybody would be high and flashing and going through insane changes during which everything would be demolished, man, and
spilled and broken and affected, and after that, another thing would happen, maybe smoothing out the chaos, then another… Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a room of thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far out beautiful magic.”

The Trips Festival was a shot of adrenalin for the entire hip scene in the Haight. The head population began to realize its growing strength in numbers. Scores of bands were forming, their names indicative of their psychedelic orientation: Blue Cheer, Clear Light, Daily Flash, the Loading Zone, Morning Glory, Celestial Hysteria, Ball Point Banana, Flamin’ Groovies, the Electric Flag, the Weeds… There was even a band called the CIA (Citizens for Interplanetary Activities). Some of the groups—notably the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, and, of course, the Grateful Dead—established themselves as first-rate performers. Their music was rooted in folk and blues, but the rhythms mutated under the influence of LSD and the raw power of electricity.

Acid rock, as the San Francisco sound was called, was unique not only as a genre but also as praxis. The musicians viewed themselves first and foremost as community artists, and they often played outdoors for free as a tribute to their constituency. Even when there was a cover charge. Chet Helms and the Family Dog usually waived it for friends and neighbors. People revered Helms for this, but because of his generosity he frequently lost money and could not always pay the bands.

It was only later, when acid rock went national in the summer of 1967, that the scene began to change. Whether it was the profit motive or just that the euphoric spirit of the early days was becoming harder to sustain, some of the originals felt that things were going sour. An up-and-coming rock promoter named Bill Graham was holding shows at the Fillmore auditorium and handling the biggest acts. Unlike Chet Helms, who ran his dance shows more like a church, Graham was in it strictly for the bucks. Although he refused to turn on, he was tuned in enough to see that light shows and acid rock could have mass appeal. Before long, high-powered record execs were knocking at his door.

While a lot of young people didn’t dig Graham’s “short-haired” attitude toward business, he did manage to stage an ongoing musical shindig, and he also supported the talented poster artists who would soon make psychedelic art an international style. It was under Graham’s patronage that the rock club emerged as a significant cultural institution. (He also booked nonrock acts such as Lenny Bruce, who performed at the Fillmore in 1966 shortly before he died of a heroin overdose.) The rock and roll shows Graham promoted became the new social ritual, above all a music for heads and a powerful reinforcement for the spread of psychedelics.

The acid rock celebration was not confined to the concert hall but poured over into the street, which became the focal point of life in the Haight. The street was center stage, the place where you walked, talked, and dressed any way you wanted. With the pleasant climate you could hang out on the street most of the time, bombarded by a perpetual parade of stimuli—wild costumes, spontaneous theater, assorted antics, wandering minstrels. People were not just striking poses. To patrol the street in full regalia was an act of defiance, an open refusal to buy into the System. But it was also something more. For those who exchanged knowing smiles during their daily rounds, the long hair, beads, and bare feet were not only a symbol of estrangement but a positive leap of consciousness, an affirmation of a radically different set of personal and social priorities.

The Haight was becoming a testing area for fresh shapes of human existence. Dwellers in the acid ghetto frequently clustered into tribal or “intentional” family units. They practiced communal living arrangements in which private property was restricted to a bare minimum. Sexual exclusivity was often rejected in favor of group marriage. The loosening of sexual mores was in part an expression of a growing appetite for a common spirituality. Hangups or restrictions of any sort could only impede the healing process, which entailed nothing less than the reinstatement of ecstasy as the fulcrum of daily life.

Excitement was brewing in the Haight. Although the straight world had scarcely begun to notice what was happening, the psychedelic city-state was having its brief golden age. The energy was unmistakably sky-high: poets and dreamers had the upper hand. One way or another, it all revolved around drugs. The psychedelic experience was the common chord of shared consciousness that unified the entire community. People talked about acid all the time, how it blew apart preconceptions and put you through intense changes. “It seemed like we were in a time machine,” said Stephen Gaskin, a self-styled Haight-Ashbury orator. “Nearly anything we did was cool in a sense because it was all learning… It was all paying attention, and you couldn’t build experiments fast enough to catch acid.”

Haight-Ashbury was the world’s original psychedelic supermarket, the place where acid was first sold on a mass scale. The undisputed king of the illicit LSD trade was Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a dapper individual who could rap for hours on topics ranging from acid rock to Einsteinian physics. Owsley’s personal history is something of an enigma—what can you say about someone who ate four steaks a day because he was convinced that vegetables were poison? His father was a government attorney, and his grandfather a US senator from Kentucky. Owsley had been expelled in the ninth grade for bringing intoxicating beverages onto school grounds, after which he was shunted from one prep school to the next. By the age of eighteen he had served all family ties. He then did a short hitch in the air force, drifted around the West Coast for a few years and hooked up with Melissa Cargill, a young Berkeley chemistry major. Together they began to a mass-produce the LSD that would make him a youth culture legend.

Owsley’s product first hit the streets in February 1965, during the halcyon days of the early Acid Tests. Though his career as a bootleg chemist led him to adopt a reclusive lifestyle, he did pop up now and again on the psychedelic scene. He visited Millbrook and was on hand to freak freely at some wild parties hosted by Kesey. Owsley was so impressed by the music of the Grateful Dead that he became a patron to the band. During this period he also met Tim Scully, a Berkeley science prodigy whose IQ tipped the scales. He and Scully traveled for a while with the Merry Pranksters. Scully’s skills as an electronics wiz came in handy on the psychedelic bus, and he helped design sound equipment for the Dead. But Owsley was more interested in his knowledge of chemicals—which was formidable. Scully became his apprentice, and together they set up an underground laboratory in Point Richmond, California, in the spring of 1966.

Known throughout the Haight as “the unofficial mayor of San Francisco,” Owsley cultivated an image as a wizard-alchemist whose intentions with LSD were priestly and magical. Over the years he developed a rather esoteric view of LSD and its potential. He was convinced, for example, that the psychic “vibes” in the laboratory at the precise moment when the raw ingredients of LSD were being mixed had a strong influence on what kind of trips people would have. Owsley was obsessed with making his product as pure as possible—even purer than Sandoz, which described LSD in its scientific reports as a yellowish crystalline substance. As he mastered his illicit craft, Owsley found a way to refine the crystal so that it appeared blue-white under a fluorescent lamp; moreover, if the crystals were shaken, they emitted flashes of light, which meant that LSD in its pure form was pizioluminescent—a property shared by a very small number of compounds.

At first Owsley produced LSD in a powder form that could be doled out in gelatin capsules. He also sold it as a liquid (“Mother’s Milk”), tinted light blue so that distributors could keep track of which sugar cubes had been spiked. But it was hard to control the dosage with this method, so Owsley invested in a professional pill press and soon he started dyeing his tablets a different color each time he turned out a new shipment. Although there was no difference between the tablets (each contained a carefully measured 250 micrograms), the street folklore ascribed specific qualities to every color: red was said to be exceptionally mellow, green was edgy, and blue was the perfect compromise.

By putting out high-quality merchandise and color-coding his tablets, Owsley was able to stay a few steps ahead of his competitors. Even in the Haight, where he was by far the principal source of LSD, there were other brands available on the black market. But Owsley acid was universally recognized as the most potent, and it was revered by turned-on youth. “Every time we’d make another batch and release it on the street,” Scully recalled, “something beautiful would flower, and of course we believed it was all because of what we were doing. We believed that we were the architects of social change, that our mission was to change the world substantially, and what was going on in the Haight was a sort of laboratory experiment, a microscopic sample of what would happen worldwide.”

Drug trafficking in the Haight quickly grew to enormous dimensions as people came from all over to cop in large quantities. With his commanding position in the underground market, Owsley kept the retail price of LSD at a steady $2.00 per trip. He and his assistants are said to have manufactured four million hits in the mid-1960s, and he probably gave away as much as he sold. Of course there was money to be made, and Owsley and the others made plenty, but financial considerations were not the sole motivation. The local dealers saw themselves as performing an important community service: “consciousness raising.” They distributed acid because they believed in the drug, and while making their deliveries they also functioned as wandering rap specialists, bearers of news, gossip, rumor, and folk wisdom.

It was perhaps inevitable that those who tripped out would often worship LSD and deify its catalytic properties. And who could blame them in the early days, when so many were heady with optimism? The most ardent enthusiasts looked to LSD as something capable, in and of itself, of ushering in the Kingdom of Haven on earth. The drug was hailed as an elixir of truth, a psychic solvent that could cleanse the heart of greed and envy and break the barriers of separateness. Needless to say, these young romantics had no idea that the CIA’s “enlightened” operatives had been dropping acid since the early 1950s without being moved to trade in their blow darts, shellfish toxin, and extreme prejudices for flowers, love beads and peace signs. If the spies had their minds blown by the drug, it was generally in the direction of super-bizarre James Bond scenarios like putting thalium salts in Castro’s shoes to make his beard fall out.

When Ron and Jay Thelin opened the Psychedelic Shop near the corner of Haight and Ashbury in January 1966, they had a clear-cut purpose: spread the word about LSD. The Psychedelic Shop was unique among the numerous storefronts popping up in the Haight to cater to the hip population. At a time when information about LSD was passed primarily by word of mouth, it served as a place to hang out, gossip, and trade drugs. The shelves were stocked with books, smoking paraphernalia, dance posters, paisley fabrics, imported bells—in short, anything an acidhead might be interested in. The Thelin brothers also installed the first community bulletin board. They had a rather benign vision of the country’s manifest destiny. Haight Street, Ron Thelin rhapsodized, would soon become “a world-famous dope center. There would be fine tea shops with big jars of fine marijuana, and chemist shops with the finest psychedelic chemicals.”

The Thelin brothers were turned on to acid by Allen Cohen, who was then dealing some of Owsley’s finest. Cohen ended up working part-time at the Psychedelic Shop and later became editor of the Oracle, a psychedelic tabloid backed by the Thelins. The Oracle printed articles on eastern mysticism, macrobiotics, yoga, astrology, and whatever else fit into the “new age” scheme of things. The pages were occasionally sprayed with perfume and were often difficult to read because the colored type was slanted to evoke the undulating shapes that characterize LSD hallucinations.

While most people in the Haight were probably in tune with Kesey’s cosmic giggle, the Oracle group was particularly keen on Timothy Leary’s trip. They took their cues from the ex-Harvard professor who spoke in cliches about acid as an evolutionary tool that could guarantee religious epiphanies. Oracle philosophy was Leary philosophy; Ron Thelin summed up the newspaper’s editorial slant: “To show that LSD provides a profound experience…To get everyone to turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

When the Oracle first started publishing, there was already considerable tension between the police and the hip community. Pot busts were becoming more frequent, and the California legislature had recently passed an edict banning the use of LSD. The new law was slated to go into effect on October 6, 1966. The date took on mystical meaning for the Oracle group. In the Bible “666” is a symbol of the Beast, the Antichrist, the precursor of Apocalypse; the law against LSD was interpreted as a demonic act, a violation of a people’s God-given right to experience their own divinity. But the Oracle group did not want another angry showdown with the authorities. Instead of protesting the new law, they decided to organize a gala event that would expose the falsity of the legal system. “We were not guilty of using illegal substances,” Cohen insisted. “We were celebrating transcendental consciousness, the beauty of the universe, the beauty of being.”

On the same day that LSD became a controlled substance, Oracle hosted an outdoor gathering called the Love Pageant Rally. It was an expression of the community’s steadfast devotion to their chosen sacrament. A few thousand people, far more than expected, assembled peacefully In the Panhandle next to Golden Gate Park. Rock bands played for free, and the master of ceremonies read a manifesto entitled “A Prophesy of a Declaration of Independence”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all is equal, that the creation endows us with certain inalienable rights, that among these are: The freedom of the body, the pursuit of joy, and the expansion of consciousness…”

At the appropriate moment hundreds of people placed a tab of acid on their outstretched tongues and swallowed in unison. The next year in the Haight would be quite a trip indeed.

Politics of the Bummer

Spring of 1966

The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convenes another round of hearings in Washington, D.C., to deal with the growing “LSD problem.” Chairman Thomas Dodd, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut and a noted Communist hunter, speaks out against the use of psychedelic drugs. He dismisses consciousness expansion as an alibi for sheer kicks and proposes strict new laws aimed at “the pseudo-intellectuals who advocate the use of drugs in search for some imaginary freedoms of the mind and in search for higher psychic experiences.” Quick and drastic measures are necessary, Dodd asserts, because the LSD scourge is spreading at an alarming rate among America’s youth.

A parade of scientists, health officials, and law enforcement experts render their verdict: the unsupervised use of LSD for nonmedica! purposes can only lead to tragic results. L-S-D spells instant psychosis and tendency toward bizarre behavior and capricious fits of violence. What is more, the psychotic interlude can recur at any moment without warning (the “flashback phenomenon”). Other perils are cited: those who take the drug exhibit a disturbing tendency to withdraw from productive activity, and some end up drifting aimlessly through life. To complete the hatchet job, the experts resort to their favorite ploy—the domino theory of drug abuse: the neophyte starts with marijuana and LSD and inevitably winds up hooked on heroin.

The bad rap on acid was sensationalized in the establishment press, which had teen focusing on the detrimental effects of LSD since the Harvard scandal. Typical scare headlines from the mid-1960s read: “Girl 5 eats LSD and goes wild”…”A Monster in our Midst—A Drug Called LSD”…”Thrill Drug Warps Mind, Kills”. In March 1966 Life magazine ran a front-page spread entitled “LSD: The Exploding Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Control,” which described the psychedelic experience as chemical Russian roulette in which the player gambled with his sanity. Pictures of people on acid cowering in corners, beyond communication, were used to underscore the message that LSD “could be a one-way trip to an asylum, prison, or grave.” Life, whose publisher, Henry Luce, had once spoken favorably of psychedelics, didn’t pull any punches: “A person… can become permanently deranged through a single terrifying LSD experience. Hospitals report case after case where people arrive in a state of mental disorganization, unable to distinguish their bodies from their surroundings… it brings out the very worst in some people. LSD is being dropped in girls’ drinks. Terrifying parties are being given with a surprise in the punch. The Humane Society is picking up disoriented dogs…”

The smear campaign paid off. On April 1966 Sandoz Pharmaceuticals recalled all the LSD it had distributed to scientists for research purposes, bringing to a halt nearly all government-sponsored experiments in the US (with the exception of the secret research conducted by the CIA and the military). Politicians issued pronunciamentos against the drug, hoping to ride the coattails of the full scale LSD panic that was sweeping the land. One government official went so far as to characterize LSD as “the greatest threat facing the country today… more dangerous than the Vietnam War.”

Amidst this atmosphere of near hysteria a few spokesmen for the burgeoning acid subculture were called to testify before the Senate subcommittee. Timothy Leary offered an olive branch to the politicians, suggesting that a moratorium on LSD might be appropriate. (A few months earlier Leary had been convicted of attempting to smuggle marijuana into the US, tor which he received the heaviest sentence ever meted out for possession of pot—thirty years in prison and a $30,000 fine. His case was being appealed at the time of the Senate hearings.) Dressed in a suit and tie with neatly trimmed hair, Leary announced he would urge everyone to stop taking LSD for a year if the lawmakers refrained from banning the drug. Repressive legislation, Leary warned, would usher in an era of prohibition that would be “much more onerous and anguished” than the moonshining days of the 1920s and 1930s. “We do not want amateur or black-market sale or distribution of LSD,” said Leary. “You don’t know what you are getting.”

Leary claimed that he had always been opposed to the indiscriminate use of psychedelics. “For six years I have been in the unfortunate position of warning society that this was going to happen. We knew there was going to be an LSD panic. We saw it coming the way a meteorologist can see a hurricane coming… But every attempt has been made to keep it underground. All that energy just cannot be kept underground.” To insure good-quality LSD and proper use of the drug, Leary proposed seminars for high school and college students at special psychedelic training centers. These institutions would license responsible adults who wished to utilize LSD “for serious purposes, such as spiritual growth, pursuit of knowledge, or in their own personal development.” “And what about the lad who chooses military service rather than college? ” asked Senator Ted Kennedy, a member of the Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee. “I should think that in the Army of the future,” Leary responded, “LSD will be used to expand consciousness so that these men can do their duties more effectively.”

Arthur Kleps grew peeved as he watched the politicians react with scorn and derision to Leary’s testimony. When it was his turn to speak, he decided to get tough with his interlocutors. “Would you mind telling me if you are really called Chief Boohoo?” asked one southern senator. “I’m afraid so,” Kleps replied. Whereupon he launched into one of the most outrageous diatribes ever delivered on Capitol Hill.

“It is difficult for us to imagine what it is like to have been born in 1948,” Kleps ranted, “but it is very much like being born into an insane asylum.” The Chief Boohoo was particularly irked by FDA commissioner Goddard’s contention that LSD-induced mind expansion was “pure bunk” since it could not be measured by objective tests. “If I were to give you an IQ test and during the administration one of the walls of the room opened up giving you a vision of the blazing glories of the central galactic suns, and at the same time your childhood began to unreel before your inner eye like a three-dimensional color movie, you would not do well on the intelligence test.”

Kleps spoke with righteous vengeance. “We are not drug addicts, we are not criminals, we are free men, and we will react to persecution the way free men have always reacted.” If Leary was imprisoned, Kleps threatened, then all hell would break loose. There’d be a religious civil war. “I’d rather see the prison system become inoperable, and it would be if large amounts of LSD were delivered into the prison and distributed among the inmates… We would have to regard these places as concentration camps where people are being imprisoned because of their religion… I would resort to violence… This is the way this country started….”

When Allen Ginsberg took the stand, he tried to placate the committee by explaining in a calm and dignified tone that many people who took LSD were motivated by a desire for long-lasting beneficial effects rather than the immediate flash. In an effort to communicate the nature of the LSD experience, he invoked his own psychedelic history. He told of writing the second part of Howl on peyote and having fearful visions when he ingested yagé in Peru. He said he had stopped taking psychedelics for a few years, until 1965, when he dropped acid in Big Sur on the same day President Johnson was scheduled for a gallbladder operation. It was scarcely a week before the Berkeley Vietnam Day demonstration at which Ginsberg was slated to speak. A great deal of hostility to Johnson policy was percolating in radical circles. Ginsberg thought of the ailing president and the impending protest. Impressed by the majesty of the wooded landscape and the ocean cliffs, the poet realized that more harsh words and negative vibrations would not help the situation. While high on acid, he knelt and prayed for Johnson’s health in psychedelic reconciliation with his anger about the administration’s Vietnam debacle.

All of this was Ginsberg’s way of telling the senators that LSD could have a positive effect on consciousness. For a healthy individual, he asserted, the drug posed a negligible risk—whereupon the bearded bard was quickly rebuffed by Senator Jacob Javits of New York, who reminded him that as a layman he was not qualified to comment on the medical aspects of LSD. But Ginsberg would not recant. He insisted that there had been a journalistic exaggeration of the dangers of LSD, and he warned that any laws enacted in a climate of ignorance and hysteria would almost certainly create more problems than they solved.

Certain government officials also expressed reservations about new legislation to ban LSD. “I have a strong feeling,” said Dr. Stanley Yolles, former director of NIMH, “that if we make the possession of LSD illegal, it will drive it further underground and make what perhaps is the beginning of a flaunting of authority… a more pathological process and a more strongly accented act of rebellion.” Yolles believed that the imposition of punitive measures would actually spur the growth of the illicit drug market—which was exactly what happened.

Historically in the United States repressive controls have been targeted at drugs identified with the poor, the underprivileged, and racial minorities: often such controls were enacted in times of social crisis (the reefer of the black and brown ghettos was outlawed during the Depression, for example). During the 1960s psychedelic drugs became associated with cultural and political rebellion, but in this case the user population was composed primarily of well-educated white middle-class youth. As a symbol of generational conflict acid provided a convenient scapegoat for the guardians of the status quo, who embraced the anti-LSD crusade as a high-consensus issue in an era otherwise riddled with political schisms. By invoking the specter of hallucinogenic drugs, conservative politicians implicitly attacked the groups that opposed the war in Vietnam. Certainly it was a lot easier to discredit the radical cause if the rest of society could be convinced that those uppity radicals were out of their minds—and the LSD craze was touted as sure proof of that.

We are now in a position to understand the real reason for the condemnation of hallucinogens and why their use is punished,” wrote Octavio Paz in Alternating Current. “The authorities do not behave as though they were trying to stamp out a harmful vice, but as though they were attempting to stamp out dissidence. Since this is a form of dissidence that is becoming more widespread, the prohibition takes on the proportion of a campaign against a spiritual contagion, against an opinion. What the authorities are displaying is ideological zeal: they are punishing a heresy, not a crime.”

Indeed, if it were simply a matter of public health, it would be hard to explain all the hubbub about LSD when other commonly used substances are far more injurious: six million Americans are addicted to alcohol: ten million consume enough caffeine to cause heath problems: over fifty million smoke cigarettes, which have been linked to lung cancer; and barbiturates (usually in conjunction with alcohol) are responsible for 90% of drug-related deaths each year. Nevertheless, President Johnson mentioned only LSD in his State of the Union address of 1968 (the year LSD possession was reclassified as a felony) when hyping his war against dangerous drugs.

LSD was also singled out as Public Enemy Number One by the mass media, which whipped America into a virtual frenzy over psychedelic drugs. It wasn’t enough to convey the false impression that LSD probably caused permanent insanity; all of a sudden the press conjured up the frightening prospect of couples women giving birth to some kind of octopus because acid had scrambled their chromosomes. One of the first people to push the chromosome story, Dr. Sanford I. Cohen, was an army consultant at Duke University Medical Center when he “discovered” that LSD caused genetic damage. Subsequent reports linked LSD to other deadly diseases, such as leukemia and gangrene.

When the Army Chemical Corps ran in-house studies to assess potential hazards of of LSD “from a tissue or genetic standpoint,” it could not duplicate Cohen’s findings. “Although human chromosome breaks have been reported by others, we found them much more frequently from caffeine and many other substances,” stated Dr. Van Sim, chief of clinical research at Edgewood Arsenal during the 1960s and early 1970s. “We were unable to demonstrate any damage by LSD to any system used.” But Dr. Sim never uttered a public peep while the so-called facts about LSD and chromosome damage were trumpeted over and over again by the mass media. Nor did the CIA attempt to set the record straight, even though the Agency had access to the same classified reports as Dr. Sim by virtue of a long-standing liaison between the CIA and the research and development staff at Edgewood.

The chromosome hoax had all the earmarks of a media-hyped disinformation campaign against psychedelic drugs. Hardly a day passed in the mid-1960s without yet another story about people freaking out and hurling themselves from windows while high on acid. At the same time, Leary and his cohorts kept churning out magical proclamations about mind expansion, groovy highs, and utopian prospects. (“Can the world live without LSD?” asked the East Village Other, an underground newspaper. Their answer, of course, was no.) The combination of dire warnings and ecstatic praise created a highly polarized atmosphere. LSD acquired the emotional and magnetic pull of the taboo, and as a result, more and more people decided to try the drug.

The political controversy surrounding LSD was not an abstract debate that had little bearing on daily use and experimentation. On the contrary, the barrage of contradictory messages conveyed by the straight and alternative press made the situation all the more precarious for the acid initiate. During an acid trip one is in a state of extreme susceptibility to an infinite variety of stimuli, including pressures from the immediate environment as well as more subtle influences stemming from the overall cultural matrix. Given the highly politicized environment of the 1960s, it is not surprising that taking LSD was accompanied by a considerable degree of anxiety and apprehension. Those who were willing to risk their own sanity to attain ecstasy or expanded consciousness often had unsettling experiences on acid.

How many people actually had bummers on LSD? More than many an acid buff would probably care to admit. In his paper “Social and Political Sources of Drug Effects: The Case of Bad Trips on Psychedelics,” Richard Bunce, a research sociologist at the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California, cited statistics based on a survey he conducted in which approximately 50% of those questioned reported having had a bad acid trip during the 1960s. The high percentage was in part a consequence of the widespread anxiety after LSD was declared illegal in late 1966. These witch-hunting laws created a hostile environment that predisposed people toward more traumatic reactions. As the level of hostility rose, so did the frequency of “marginal psychoses” attributable to LSD. By the mid-1970s, however, the emotionally charged atmosphere had subsided, and the percentage of bad trips dropped accordingly. “We can explain the substantial historical decline in the incidence of bad trips,” Bunce concluded, “by reference to variations in the political culture which informs its use.”

But what did Bunce mean when he spoke of bad trips? To be sure, there were tragic incidents involving LSD, but only a small percentage of those who experimented with the drug required hospitalization. For most people the hellish vision was only temporary, and because it was temporary it was also in some sense salutary. Difficult experiences were relatively common during LSD trips, but they were often thought to be useful, especially when one worked through their meaning with a therapist or friend. But the potential efficacy of the so-called bummer was never acknowledged by the mass media, which portrayed a bad acid trip as a no-exit situation, rather than an existential challenge. This climate of fear predisposed some people to panic as soon as anxiety set in, thinking that a bout with utter insanity was imminent.

The interpretation of the bummer as pure psychosis—the standard psychotomimetic analysis—was initially promoted by scientists connected with the US Army and the CIA. In addition to influencing the debate over LSD and its effects, the CIA and the military, through their complicity in the dissemination of false information about LSD and chromosome damage, helped create a negative set and setting on a collective scale for those who turned on during the late 1960s and early 1970s. “That was a mean and dirty trick,” said Ken Kesey in reference to the chromosome hoax. Kesey recalled the early days of acid glory before the media created the bad trip: “We didn’t have bummers back then.”

Laura Huxley also lamented the passing of that era of relative innocence, when LSD had not yet become a household word: “How lucky those of us are who approached LSD before it had either the demoniacal or paradisiacal vibrations it has now — when it had no echoes of gurus and heroes, doctors or delinquents. We went into the experience not knowing what would happen, not expecting that it would be like the experience of someone at last Saturday night’s party, or like that of Mary Jones, whose hallucinated, frightened eyes stare at me from the pages of a magazine. LSD—those three now famous letters were free of association with scientific righteousness and beatnik conformity, with earthly paradise and parental loving care—also free from closed-mindedness, obscurantism and bigotry. The unconscious identification with those ideas, feelings and fears inevitably occurs now, with disastrous consequences.”

Next week: The First Human Be-In. Excerpted from ACID DREAMS (Grove Press) ©1986 Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Featured illustration by James Romberger.

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  1. So much real facts. So real. This was some kind of world 50 years ago, and then the acid came back in the late 80’s, together with the techno music revolution, it is in a state shared by already two generation, but we still do not want to face its effects and neither want to make serious studies about Hoffman’s problem child…
    Waiting for part two of this very nice documented story…

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