News & Politics » Miscellany

A Long, Strange Trip: A Brief History of Psychedelic Drugs in America

Our Trip Guide: Jay Stevens, Author of Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream


1 comment

Jay Stevens likes to think of himself as a mere chronicler of our recent social history--just the facts, ma'am, you understand. But in this Augustan Age of the new morality, when John Tower is barred from the cabinet for drinking and Judge Douglas Ginsburg's hopes for a seat on the Supreme Court go up in a haze of marijuana smoke, the author of a book that purports to be a history of LSD in America is more likely to be viewed as a foul-smelling partisan than a neutral scholar.

Stevens's book, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, was published in hardback by Harper & Row and in paperback by Perennial Library. In some quarters it has established him as the LSD expert he wants to be; for example, last year he was interviewed on National Public Radio's All Things Considered in connection with the case of a Montreal researcher who received CIA funds in the 1950s and who allegedly tried to deprogram his patients' personalities using, among other techniques, massive doses of LSD. But when he has ventured out into the hinterlands to plug his book, his preferred role of cultural historian has often taken a beating.

"It's very interesting to be involved in looking in depth at a subject that quite frankly is usually done at a level of 'Just Say No,'" says the 34-year-old Vermont resident. "On one level when this sort of thing comes up, I say America loves its mind drugs. We're writing prescriptions for tranquilizers and antidepressants at the rate of about one for every American--200 million a year. Alcohol is a mind drug, and we swill oceans of it a year. But in terms of timing, it was probably bad timing to come out with a book that was a sort of clear-eyed look at the infamous drug. On a lot of radio shows, people would call in and say, 'This writer is a very evil person'--particularly in the midwest. I did some [radio programs] in Indiana that really blew me away, and I thought, my God, I could have written a book about Nazis, who were truly evil, and come out here and I wouldn't get this response."

Storming Heaven is less a lurid tale of drug orgies and pharmaceutical fantasies than it is a very readable, reasoned account of how LSD, and to some extent other psychedelic drugs such as mescaline and psilocybin, entered the culture and consciousness of America.

It is a story that begins with LSD's accidental discovery in 1943 by Albert Hoffman, a chemist for the Swiss drug company Sandoz, while Hoffman was searching for a migraine-headache cure. Hoffman accidentally ingested the drug and reported seeing "an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors." A few days later Hoffman took LSD on purpose and within an hour was riding his bicycle homeward through "a street painted by Salvador Dali, a funhouse roller coaster where the buildings yawned and rippled." Sandoz tested LSD on various animals and then humans, concluding that while the drug certainly produced bizarre behaviors, it did not seem to be physically harmful. Under the trade name Delysid, LSD was offered to "select researchers," beginning in 1947, and arrived in the United States in 1949.

"Hoffman was working for a large, multinational drug company, and he was looking for substances that could be profitable to that company," explains Stevens. "When [Sandoz] came up with LSD, it was a fluke, certainly. But then the corporate agenda went into effect, and they said, 'Hmm, this thing is interesting. It obviously isn't a migraine-headache cure, but what can we use it for?' And in a sense what they did was farm it out to the scientific community, the psychotherapeutic community, and said here's a couple of possible uses.

"If you look at them, they seem to be contradictory. One was, you could use it to sort of mimic madness in the laboratory setting, which was very exciting for a lot of people who wanted to find out what madness really was, because if you gave people LSD in the early years they did a lot of things that seemed quite crazy. These were the 'lab madness' guys. They would hire mainly college kids, because most of them worked at universities, and they would give them this drug and shine lights in their eyes, have them run through questionnaires, and give them all sorts of bizarre tests. Naturally the people would appear crazy. They were not happy to have those lights shined in their eyes, or they'd say, 'Those questionnaires are stupid!'

"The second suggestion Sandoz made was that [LSD] seemed to accelerate the psychotherapeutic process. You had a lot of papers written in the 50s where you had therapists saying, 'I'm doing in three months what used to take me three years in typical Freudian therapy.' It did seem to dissolve the barriers into the unconscious. One way to look at it was that the unconscious had always seemed to be the locked room in the mind, and this seemed to be the key that got you in there. So in that sense Hoffman, or Sandoz certainly, had an agenda. But for Sandoz it was probably one of the worst things, from a corporate perspective, that ever happened to them--to be the inventor and purveyor of LSD by 1966 [when the drug was made illegal in the U.S.] was not the way they wanted to be thought of. It's like Dow and napalm--Dow's done a lot to dissociate in the public's mind that they were the inventors of napalm."

After LSD's initially cautious introduction to the public and its use in research and therapy, under a variety of circumstances, several vectors in the curious history of the substance were to converge in the 50s and 60s. The first major player on the scene was Aldous Huxley.

Huxley, the highly intelligent British author of Brave New World, The Perennial Philosophy, and other visionary books, was searching for something--a spiritual discipline, a philosophy, a set of ideas--that would catapult man into the next evolutionary phase of existence by unlocking the untapped potential in his brain, something that Huxley and other intellectuals felt was necessary, particularly in the atomic age, to avoid global cataclysm. After sampling numerous religious experiences and listening to a host of gurus and philosophers, Huxley happened upon an article in an obscure scientific journal that was written by two Canadian researchers who had run some experiments with mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug extracted from the peyote plant, which had been used in religious ceremonies by certain Native American tribes for many years. Huxley thought he might have found what he was looking for, and immediately wrote to the researchers and arranged to take mescaline with one of them--Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who later coined the term psychedelic--at Huxley's Los Angeles home in 1953.

For Stevens, Aldous Huxley is so important to the subsequent history of LSD and psychedelics that it is almost impossible to imagine it without him. "Huxley really brought to it its underlying philosophy," he says. "He was heir to a century-old hope among Western intellectuals that a way could be found to accelerate the evolution of the species. Certainly it crops up in the Nazi movement--they were involved in evolutionary games--and you find it in George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Teilhard de Chardin. A lot of people really bought into this belief. Huxley really got into this in the 30s, and he spent the next 20 years looking for a way, because he thought that what 20th-century man needed was a reawakening of the spirit. He didn't mean religion. He meant the spirit, which for him was a very tangible thing. He probably thought it was hard wired into the brain, or was accessible through the mind. He wanted to find a way to get in there and basically access expanded consciousness, cosmic consciousness, whatever you call it. When he discovered first mescaline and then LSD, he thought, 'I've found the tool.' So Huxley, being English, thought, we'll turn on the world's elite, give them this experience--change really filters down from the top, sort of the trickle-down theory of cultural change. Huxley spent the last ten years of his life turning on the world's philosophers, economists, politicians, and artists, basically by giving them drugs. To put it crudely, Timothy Leary was really recruited by the Huxley crowd because he was at Harvard, and in any given year a lot of the world's elite passed through Harvard."

Huxley's mescaline experience was like "a beatific vision," as he described it in a cable to his editor, and it led to the writing of his influential book The Doors of Perception, which, in Stevens's words, was Huxley's attempt to "pour language" over what was a hard-to-communicate experience. In 1955 Huxley took LSD, and the "religious ecstasy" he felt while under its influence apparently made mescaline seem like a picnic in the park.

Soon LSD was being administered not only in sterile research settings, but in the offices of well-heeled Beverly Hills therapists (to such celebrities as writer Anais Nin and actor Cary Grant); in ritualized but essentially "underground" circumstances by an inventor, businessman, and sometime CIA operative with Catholic motivations named Al Hubbard; and in many other places by people with many different agendas. As Stevens writes, "From midnight discussions it was a short step to . . . drug parties would be the phrase used today. No one came right out and said, 'Why not drop by my house tonight and we'll take LSD.' The invitation was usually couched in terms like, 'Why not come over and we'll conduct a modest ESP experiment.' But the result was the same."

Meanwhile back at Harvard more experiments were taking place, conducted by some of the best and the brightest and encouraged by Huxley, whose own lectures on the new possibilities for spiritual experience drew massive crowds in Cambridge. Dr. Timothy Leary, joined in 1961 by Dr. Richard Alpert (today known as Ram Dass), was at the forefront of what was called the Harvard Psilocybin Project, experimenting, studying, and ultimately partying with first psilocybin, obtained from Mexican mushrooms and synthesized by--who else?--Sandoz, and later LSD. They would continue to operate their aboveboard "research project" (that's how it started at least) until 1963, when both Leary and Alpert were relieved of their duties at Harvard on the apparent grounds that psychedelics can be dangerous and things had got clearly out of hand. They would take their hallucinogenic road show off to Mexico, various Caribbean countries that they were eventually kicked out of, and finally to a rambling old mansion in Millbrook, New York, which was frequented by such diverse spiritual seekers as the religious writer Alan Watts, psychologist R.D. Laing, and jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Maynard Ferguson.

"If Huxley was English, Leary was Irish," Stevens says. "Leary differed on how you might accelerate the evolution of the species. He started out as a scientist. Aldous was much more interested in the mystical possibilities of LSD, and he used to say things like 'LSD favors the prepared mind.' He thought that you shouldn't take it until you were in your mid-30s, and maybe you would take it once a year or something like that. Leary became more and more infatuated with it, and it seemed to him that you shouldn't just reserve it for the elite of the world, but everybody should have the right to take it, to experience 'the uncensored cortex,' as he would put it, to experience the full range of one's consciousness.

"But he wasn't proposing that you give these people a blank check. He wanted to train a cadre of guides, to start a new profession, the 'psychedelic guide,' so if you were living in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in Leary's ideal world, and you wanted to do a psychedelic trip, you'd look in the Yellow Pages under psychedelic guides, call up one, get together, and it would be like a carpenter or a chiropractor or a dentist. It would be a professional position, and these would be people who would guide you through this very complicated mazeway until you had achieved what you wanted to achieve. Of course this was early on--he did less responsible things later."

Stevens sees a progression from Huxley's "turn on the elite" approach to changing people's consciousness--or putting them in touch with more of it--to Leary's more egalitarian, one might even say democratic, stance toward the use of psychedelics. Leary's desire to see everyone reap what he saw as the benefits to be derived from dropping acid proved very attractive to people such as Allen Ginsberg, the beat-generation poet who hoped that a coming enlightenment might not only brighten people's minds but bring such phenomena as wars, the acquisitive corporate mentality, and the managed, conformist life-style to an end; and Ken Kesey, the west-coast writer who abandoned the literary life in favor of "turning people on" via the infamous acid tests given by his "merry pranksters," the object of which was supposedly to allow people to "freak freely," without assistance.

Here the psychedelic highway leads to San Francisco, specifically the Haight-Ashbury section, which by the mid-60s had seemingly become a gigantic crash Pad for throngs of the new hippies, and which would witness not only the acid tests (and the related birth of the Grateful Dead), but also the "gathering of the tribes for the first human be-in," on January 14, 1967, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. This and other "be-in"s were meant as occasions for acid dropping and pot smoking, of course, but also as a means of uniting the nascent forces represented by the inner-directed hippies on the one hand, and the outer-directed leftist political activists, scions of the Free Speech Movement and Students for a Democratic Society, on the other. Like LSD itself, these tribal gatherings--which pointedly took place after LSD had been banned, accompanied by great public alarm--were briefly successful. In fact, Stevens's history of LSD, for all intents and purposes, practically ends at this point.

But another player on the drug scene was the CIA, which for some time had funded research into a variety of drugs, supported a new LSD synthesis by the American drug company Eli Lilly, and even conducted a few notorious LSD experiments itself. One of these experiments resulted in the death by suicide of an Army scientist, who jumped out of a New York hotel window after taking LSD. Another experiment was a theater of the absurd dubbed Operation Midnight Climax, in which businessmen customers of a San Francisco brothel would secretly be given LSD, psilocybin, or other drugs and then watched through a one-way glass. In spite of these high jinks, the agency, as always, had a far more "serious" purpose in mind.

"Even during the war [the Office of Strategic Services] was testing things on people, mostly marijuana on mobsters and soldiers and so on," Stevens says. "After the war, like most intelligence agencies, they were involved in looking for a mind-control drug. Richard Condon wrote the book The Manchurian Candidate about a brainwashed guy who comes to kill the president, so that in a sense has given the title to the whole search. In the CIA [created in 1947 to supersede the OSS] it was known as MK-ULTRA, but essentially they were looking for something that would create either permanent personality change, a way they could totally unlock a person's personality and empty the contents out on the table, or for things that would bend you to their will. They were looking at weapons. The mind was an obvious place to look for weapons--mind weapons--and the CIA as a matter of course investigated all avenues.

"It didn't prove out. Many interesting things happened, but it didn't allow you to really control another person's person, or to rewrite their personality, or any of that. Eventually they moved on to other things, but I have no doubt that they're still looking at other possibilities. Maybe they've gotten a better grasp on it. As I did mention, many of the new psychedelics that you have today, the designer psychedelics, were designed by laboratories that were participating in the CIA research. I don't think they had too many qualms about the safety of the whole thing--they essentially didn't want it to get out. In a very clever way, they realized that they could simply set up some funds, and fund the research, and let the universities do it. And then convene a conference every couple of years to find out what they were doing.

"Now the guy in Canada, Ewen Cameron, was a man who was receiving MK-ULTRA money, and he was trying to see if he could deprogram people. The CIA worked with convicts, and they worked with college kids; unfortunately this guy was working with LSD in megadoses, electroshock, he was doing all sorts of stuff. He was receiving money from the CIA, and he knew that their interest was not so much in healing but in finding out what was the edge--how far could you push a person's personality before you could reprogram it or just empty it out? A person would say he probably was influenced by the fact that the CIA wanted to have answers to these questions. What other reasons would he be giving these people electroshock therapy, followed by massive LSD doses, followed by other things? He was trying to see just how fragile the psyche really was, and apparently he did drive a number of people crazy. It really makes you realize that the Nazis were not unique in that. You've got to remember that the CIA in the 50s, this was James Bond time. You were involved in a cold war, and it's difficult now to go back and realize it was an us-or-them sort of thing. Unusual times require unusual methods, and the CIA spies, and all of that--it was extremely sexy. A lot of scientists jumped at the chance to work with the agency, and some of them, perhaps in their excitement and in the cold-war atmosphere, pushed the edges beyond what they should have been. The guy in Canada certainly did, and there's a lot in the United States."

Stevens says he first got the idea of writing a book about LSD when he witnessed a placid party of upwardly mobile New Yorkers erupt into a shouting match over the question of whether LSD was, or had been, good or bad. In that moment he says he discovered what a powerful hold LSD retains over the American imagination, both in and of itself and as a symbol and catalyst of the uproarious 60s, a period that has lately been subjected to the critical jeremiads of the Right and, to a lesser extent, the celebratory psalm-singing of the Left--with a host of often trivializing mass-media treatments in the middle.

Another discovery Stevens made while working on the book was that much of what he thought he knew about LSD wasn't quite true, and that neither he nor many actual participants in the drama he describes understood the total picture. Take the relationship between psychedelics and the New Age, for example. Many scientists doing early research with LSD were uneasy with the knowledge that people who took the drug often had what could only be called, as Stevens puts it, "something that looked very much like their archenemy, the mystic religious experience!" Call it satori, seeing God, probing the unconscious, or journeying to the other world--a lot of people started doing it, and Stevens says that many of them would later go on to create the New Age spiritualism out of the ashes of the psychedelic 60s.

"You look [into the scientific literature] and you realize the delight they had that they'd finally found a key into the unconscious, and the growing nervousness that what they were finding there more and more was their archenemy, the classic mystical experience," says the author. "What did it mean when you could give 250 micrograms to a dentist off the street in Hoboken and have him write down his experience word for word, and have that description [accord] with Jakob Bohme, or any of the great mystics? Yeah, they were very nervous, they were very scared. In '66, Time asked the question, 'Is God Dead?' And you could have gone to the Haight-Ashbury and had a lot of kids that a couple of years earlier were playing baseball and reading Batman comics saying, 'No, God isn't dead, I talked to him yesterday, with LSD.' Certainly the psychedelic movement is the acorn, and/or the dirty little secret, that the New Age has grown from. Scratch any of the New Age gurus, follow their background far enough, and eight times out of ten it'll end with a psychedelic experience back in the 50s or 60s."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lynn Smith; illustration/Tom Herzberg.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment