LSD Use: Yesterday and Today

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Chapter 3
LSD Use: Yesterday and Today

Over the course of its relatively short history beginning in the late 1940s, LSD emerged from the research laboratory to become a street drug abused by millions. Interestingly, LSD became a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s, and an identifiable subculture of LSD users arose. What is significant is that aspects of this subculture quickly entered and influenced the mainstream, affecting many who never even used the drug.

By 1970 an estimated 1 to 2 million Americans had taken LSD despite the illegality of the drug. Since the 1970s, the use of LSD has dropped dramatically. Although the drug made a strong comeback in the 1990s, LSD use once again appeared to be on the decline during the early years of the twenty-first century.

How Did LSD Become Popular?

By 1963 pirated LSD was being sold as a recreational drug, and within a few short years LSD use exploded. According to the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, published in 1972, the general public's knowledge of LSD largely came from the publicity the drug received in the media. For the most part, the reports focused on the dangers of LSD. Because some reports indicated that LSD use was rampant among youth, many people came to believe that LSD was a major threat to the very fabric of society. For example, according to the chairman of the 1966 New Jersey Narcotic Drug Study Commission, LSD was "the greatest threat facing the country today . . . more dangerous than the Vietnam war."28

On the other side were the proponents of LSD use. Some proponents were health professionals, primarily in the field of psychiatry and psychology, who had experimented with the drug in government-approved research projects. Others experimented with the drug on an unapproved, personal basis on themselves and with friends. These proponents claimed that LSD offered people new insights into themselves and the world around them. Often they made a convincing argument for the use of LSD. As noted in the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs: "The combination of warnings and praise triggered a publicity barrage that grew far out of rational proportion. The net effect was to make LSD familiar to everyone in the land, and to arouse nationwide curiosity. From curiosity to experimentation is only one short step."29

Leary and LSD

LSD differed from other illegal drugs in the 1960s in that it attracted highly educated and articulate people, many of whom taught or attended classes at some of the most prestigious colleges in the United States. Some of them, such as psychologist and Harvard professor Timothy Leary and noted author Ken Kesey, openly proposed that LSD could benefit the general populace.

Leary, more than anyone else, is recognized as the person who firmly placed LSD in the public's consciousness in the 1960s. While conducting research at the Department of Social Relations and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert began experimenting with the drug on themselves. The duo soon began to widen their circle of experimentation and gave the drug to other colleagues, students, and artists, including noted poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Jack Kerouac.

Eventually, Leary and Alpert became the subject of an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration and Massachusetts law enforcement officials. While Harvard authorities warned students against taking LSD, Leary and Alpert continued to recommend its use, claiming that it led to a higher level of consciousness. A Life magazine exposé on LSD use reported, "Leary and Alpert consider LSD 'a sacred biochemical' that clears the path to mystic understanding."30

Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard in 1963 for promoting LSD use, but Leary continued to speak out about the benefits of LSD, quickly becoming a national figure. He formed the League of Spiritual Discovery, which was an LSD advocacy group. Leary is also credited with coining the catchphrase "Turn on, tune in, and drop out," meaning that people could liberate their minds through the use of LSD and other mind-altering drugs.

Birth of the LSD Subculture

Although LSD was banned by the U.S. federal government in 1967, the drug had already captured the nation's attention. While reports about LSD's intense psychological effects were frightening, they also attracted a growing interest in the drug. The primary interest was among the nation's youth, many of whom appeared to be following Leary's edict to "turn on" to LSD and "drop out" of society. The use of LSD also became more acceptable because of the rise in overall illegal drug use—especially marijuana—among America's middle-class youth.

Leary's Ultimate Trip

Although he is best known as the pied piper of the acid generation, Timothy Leary also had a PhD in psychology and was the author of twenty-seven books and monographs and approximately 250 articles. Born in 1920, Leary became a psychology professor and taught both at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University. He was introduced to hallucinogens while conducting research on Latin American healing techniques in the 1950s. In 1960 he took the hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms while on vacation in Mexico. When he took LSD for the first time in 1962, he later recalled that it was the most shattering experience of his life.

Many young people saw the use of LSD as a type of rebellion and rejection of middle-class values that emphasize acquiring material things and financial success. Increasingly displeased with society, they became active in civil rights, protests against the Vietnam War, and other efforts at social change. Admittedly, some youths took the drug only because of the intense high it provided. But most believed that LSD offered a portal through which they could gain a new perspective on society and life itself. Noted educator and author Linda Bayer summed up the 1960s counterculture movement, that is, a movement espousing lifestyles and values opposed to those of the norm, this way: "Protest music, antiwar sentiments, long hair, permissive sexual behavior, a rejection of U.S. materialism, and the use of mind altering drugs all combined to set young people apart from the society of their elders."31

As the talk about LSD spread throughout college campuses, a distinct counterculture began to emerge. By 1965 the counter-culture movement was prominent and even reported on by the media.

As noted by psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and Harvard Mental Health Letter associate editor James B. Bakalar, the counterculture movement was largely made up of children of affluence and leisure who did not feel as though they were a part of mainstream society. For some college-educated whites, wrote the authors, the largely conservative cultural institutions of religion and government were meaningless in a society undergoing severe turmoil, including the unpopular war in Vietnam and the assassinations of government and civic leaders like President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The authors state, "[These youth] needed new symbols and rituals to shape beliefs and guide action."32

LSD Influences Mainstream Culture

While the vast majority of people in the United States did not use LSD, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the LSD-influenced counterculture movement affected many aspects of mainstream society and culture, from music and art to questions about life itself. Perhaps most surprisingly, mainstream society began to question some traditional American values as well.

A prime example of the LSD counterculture's influence on American values concerned the public's views of God and religion. The vast majority of Americans have traditionally followed Western faiths, such as Christianity or Judaism, which generally stress looking outward to a God that is separate from and beyond the world. In contrast, Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, focus on looking for God within. These religions stress the need for practicing meditation and other techniques as a way to achieve mystical experiences and a better understanding of life. Many LSD users were claiming that taking LSD provided similar experiences, and their reports helped bring these uncommon attitudes to the general public's attention. As a result, Eastern religions became more popular with many Americans who were searching for alternative answers to questions about life. Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar point out, "LSD made a mass phenomenon of attitudes and ideas that had been the property of solitary mystics, esoteric religions, eccentric cults, or literary cliques."33

Most important was the LSD subculture's influence on people who never used drugs. As Grinspoon and Bakalar state: "Many people experienced a kind of cultural contact high without taking drugs at all."34 Part of this was reflected in new art, music, and recreation that mirrored changing attitudes about life. Bright, swirling colors characterized art and fashion and came to be known as "psychedelic." Youths not necessarily involved in LSD began to attend dances and other events featuring elaborate light shows and pulsating sounds that were meant to imitate the sensory effects of LSD, as well as to heighten these effects for those who were taking the drug. These types of light shows continued well into the late 1970s at discos and have experienced a resurgence at modern parties.

LSD and the Arts

In addition to the nation's youth, many artists and musicians were also experimenting with LSD. Rock music was so heavily influenced by the LSD experience that several bands created a musical style called "acid rock." Acid rock typically featured loud music, long instrumental improvisations, or jamming, and technical innovations such as fuzz tone, feedback, and synthesizers. To further mimic some of the effects associated with LSD, many live musical performances also included light shows.

The most notable acid rock band was the San Francisco–based group called the Warlocks, who later changed their name to The Grateful Dead. Soon much of the rock-and-roll of the late 1960s referred to LSD, including songs such as "Eight Miles High," by the Byrds, and "White Rabbit," by Jefferson Airplane. It was also generally thought that the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" stood for LSD, and as proof many pointed to the song's surrealistic lyrics.

Books and literature about or influenced by LSD appeared on bookshelves around the country. As early as 1962, Alan Watts attempted to describe his experiences while taking LSD and other hallucinogens in his book The Joyous Cosmology. The book included an introduction by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who noted, "Alan Watts spells out in eloquent detail his drug-induced visionary moments. He is, of course, attempting the impossible—to describe in words (which always lie) that which is beyond words."35 This book and others like it were notable because people who had never used LSD enjoyed reading them.

The New York Times best-seller One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was also published in 1962. The book was partially based on author Ken Kesey's LSD experiments. The book was an early counterculture statement, as it told a story that presented mainstream society as something that sought to make everyone conform while stamping out individual freedom.

Six years later, in 1968, author Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test also became a New York Times best-seller. In the book, Wolfe recounts the efforts of Kesey and his group of "Merry Pranksters" as they travel the country in a psychedelic-painted bus taking LSD and conducting "acid tests." LSD was liberally distributed to those who attended these tests, which were essentially big parties sometimes attended by hundreds of people, a few of whom did not know they were taking the drug.

According to Wolfe, Kesey's acid tests of the mid-1960s were the biggest influence on introducing the LSD subculture to the mainstream. Kesey and his friends traveled throughout California and other parts of the country conducting their tests and attracting a growing number of young people, who began to spread the word. As a result, Kesey and his friends' outrageous clothing style, incorporating swirling colors and Day-Glo paints, was becoming popular on college campuses around the country. As predicted by Wolfe in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the counterculture and the art it influenced became commonplace in the form of psychedelic T-shirts, posters, and other art.

The End of an Era

Even though psychedelic art and music remained popular, the LSD subculture began to dissipate by the beginning of the 1970s as the use of LSD began a dramatic decline. By then even Kesey had denounced the effects of LSD as delusional and its curative properties as only temporary.

Furthermore, the counterculture movement's dedication to peace and love had undergone a serious examination. For example, in 1969 Charles Manson and his family of followers went on a murder spree, killing actress Sharon Tate and several others. It was soon publicized that Manson and his followers took LSD regularly and that Manson had used LSD and other drugs to help control the minds of his followers.

Further reducing the use of LSD was the widespread media attention on the drug's various dangers. As it became widely known that the drug's effects could be unpleasant and that LSD could potentially damage the body and mind, LSD use declined.

A New Era of LSD Use

Although by the 1980s LSD use had greatly declined, it made a resurgence in the 1990s, primarily among teenagers. A survey conducted by Monitoring the Future Study found that 13.6 percent of 1997's high school seniors had experimented with LSD at least once compared to only 7.2 percent in 1986.

Many sociologists and drug experts blamed LSD's resurgence on a lack of knowledge about the drug among the nation's young people. Part of this stemmed from the fact that drug education efforts were focusing on other drugs, because LSD did not appear to be the problem it once had been. As a result, between 1991 and 1996, the percentage of high school seniors who said they disapproved of LSD use even once or twice fell from 90 to 80 percent. In a 1997 report published by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, author Dana Hunt noted that renewed interest in hallucinogens may be due to more teenagers perceiving LSD as a safe drug. The high school survey data indicate a significant decline in the percentage of seniors who feel that trying LSD or using it regularly is a great risk.

Factors in LSD Resurgence of the 1990s

In addition to a lack of knowledge about LSD's potentially harmful effects, experts believed that several factors led to the drug's resurgence. Unlike most drugs, LSD is relatively inexpensive. It is also produced in laboratories within the United States, so people who distribute and sell the drug do not have to smuggle it into the country. Because LSD is cheap and easily attained, more people began to use it.

The rise in hallucinogen use in the 1990s also was associated with the growth of "raves," underground dance parties held in large halls, warehouses, or deserted areas that begin late at night and generally continue until dawn. Advertised as all-ages parties and rarely serving alcohol, raves cater to people under the age of twenty-one. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, criminals recognized a profit could be made by targeting teens and began to promote drug usage at raves. As a result, a variety of hallucinogens became popular, including LSD. Many ravers mistakenly came to believe that LSD could not be harmful if it was used "responsibly." Although no concrete statistics are available, hundreds of teenagers and young adults have overdosed on drugs at raves and some of them have died, although none of the deaths have been linked directly to LSD.

One person who had a negative reaction to LSD at a rave described the experience this way:

Raves and LSD

As a result of LSD and other rampant illegal drug use at dance parties known as raves, many cities such as Chicago, Denver, and New York have begun anti-rave initiatives. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has also begun a national educational campaign warning about raves and drugs such as LSD.

In 2002 Senator Joseph Biden introduced a law that eventually passed in 2003 as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. The act notes: "Each year tens of thousands of young people are initiated into the drug culture at 'rave' parties or events (all-night, alcohol-free dance parties typically featuring loud, pounding dance music)." Designed to enable law enforcement to arrest rave and other event organizers, the bill states its goal this way: "To prohibit an individual from knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance, and for other purposes."

Congress has also introduced new bills that would make it even easier to hold event sponsors liable for drug use by those in attendance. These bills explicitly target raves.

I tried to control the drug in my body but I couldn't, it was just too strong for me. I couldn't relax either my body or my mind, it was busy taking over. So many thoughts and emotions flooded my being and I became terrified and scared not knowing what was going on! The more I tried to relax the more anxious I became. I went to the dance floor and started dancing, hoping it would stop and go away. But the music and the people scared me.36

Much like the psychedelic concerts and parties of the 1960s, raves incorporate music and light shows designed to enhance or mimic the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Rave music, often featuring repetitive computer-generated sounds, has branched out into several categories, including techno, trance, progressive trance, cybertrance, tech step, and big beat. Just like acid rock decades earlier, this music has also reached the mainstream. Rave toys and jewelry, such as colorful bracelets and necklaces with pacifiers, usually feature bright, flashing lights that enhance the hallucinogenic effects of LSD and other drugs.

LSD Users of the 1990s

The LSD users of the 1990s are much younger than those of the 1960s. In addition, many more of those who use LSD have experimented with it even before they have reached high school. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, by 1993 13.2 million Americans twelve years of age or older reported that they had used LSD at least once compared to 8.1 million in 1985.

Dana Hunt has noted that today's LSD users are similar to users in the 1960s in that they are primarily middle-class white youths. In fact, throughout its history of illegal use, LSD has been used mainly by whites. According to a 1994 Monitoring the Future Study, 8 percent of white high school seniors reported using LSD in the prior twelve months, compared with less than 1 percent of African American and 5 percent of Hispanic seniors.

Just as in the past, many modern users report taking LSD to set them apart from their parents and elders and to escape their responsibilities. Researchers James MacDonald and Michael Agar, who interviewed several young LSD users, noted: "Adults represented a set of rules centered on stability, order, and predictability that made no sense at all during a trip. The adult world represented the problem that a trip was designed to solve."37

LSD Use Declines Once Again

Since 1996 the percentage of teenagers who use LSD has dropped. In 2001, University of Michigan and Monitoring the Future researcher Lloyd D. Johnston stated: "We have seen a considerable decline of LSD use over the past five years."38

The decline in LSD use in the early part of the twenty-first century coincided with a decline in overall drug use among 12-year-olds and teenagers. A 2003 Monitoring the Future survey revealed an 11 percent decline in drug use by eighth-, tenth-, and twelfth-grade students over the previous two years. According to a 2003 press release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of youths who had used LSD fell 43 percent between 2001 and 2003.

Debate over Why LSD Use Declined

The reasons behind the steady reduction in LSD use have been debated. In 2001 social scientists and researcher Lloyd D. Johnston noted that the decline was "not because youngsters are coming to see the drug as more dangerous." Instead, according to Johnston, just the opposite was occurring, as fewer students were likely to perceive the risks and disapproval associated with LSD use. Johnston went on to note, "We think the reduction in LSD use may be occurring because ecstasy is displacing it as a drug of choice [and] fewer students have friends who are [LSD] users."39

By 2003, with LSD use at its lowest level in the nearly three-decade history of the Monitoring the Future Study, government officials were touting government and educational efforts as the reason for reduced LSD use. John Walters, director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, noted, "Fewer teens are using drugs because of the deliberate and serious messages they have received about the dangers of drugs from their parents, leaders, and prevention efforts like our National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign."40

Indeed, data shows that media campaigns targeting young people and outlining the dangers of LSD and other drugs appear to be having a positive impact. Others continue to disagree about the effectiveness of the educational campaigns. According to Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Safety First project with the Drug Policy Alliance, a decline in drug use by teens over a short period of time is inconsequential because drug use is cyclical "and has gone up and down and then up and down again in the 25-year history of the Monitoring the Future survey."41

Slang Terms for LSD

Just like many other illegal street drugs, LSD has many nicknames or slang terms, one of the most common being "acid." Some of the nicknames indicate the forms in which LSD is sold. For example, LSD available in sugar cubes is often referred to simply as "cubes" and "windowpane" refers to LSD in a gelatin form. The paper form of LSD is usually referred to as "blotter acid" or "tabs." Some of the paper forms are also referred to by the illustrations or designs on them, such as "Bart Simpsons," "Russian sickles," and "strawberries." Among the other most common nicknames for LSD are "orange sunshine," "stamps," "microdots," "orange barrels," "domes," "California sunshine," "Owsley," "sugar," and "Sandoz."

According to the view of Rosenbaum and others, the recreational use of LSD likely will increase again in the future. In the meantime the federal government and law enforcement agencies have continued to wage an ongoing battle against LSD use.