Jay Stevens

The Uses and Abuses of LSD
Jay Stevens interviewed by Yukiko Bowman

Jay Stevens is a social historian, journalist and author of Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (Grove Press, 1998). His soon-to-be-released book, Burning Down the House includes ten narrative histories depicting what Stevens calls ‘the last act of the 60s’ – the tumultuous years between 1969 (Woodstock) and 1974 (Nixon’s resignation). Another forthcoming publication, 8 Edge Essays is a historical meditation on everything from rock 'n’ roll’s effects on the bodies of baby boomers to the drug war’s attempts to legislate a ‘normal body’ throughout the twentieth century. Stevens spells out the terms of the debate over LSD and 60s drug culture, highlighting how politically and socially charged the uses and abuses of those arguments really are.

Yukiko Bowman: LSD was described as a radical new technology insofar as it was microscopic, extremely powerful and synthesized in a lab. Yet arguably, its hallucinogenic effects were nothing new in relation to religious practices of the past. How would you situate LSD in relation to pre-existing practices of mind expansion?  

Jay Stevens: Ways to alter consciousness and the information that can be derived from such experiences have fascinated us from day one. Shamans in Meso-America traditionally ingested psychoactive drugs and sounded drums in order to enter a trance state. Siberian shamans learned that if they drank the urine of reindeer that had ingested the ordinarily poisonous amanita muscaria, they could get high without being poisoned. In its infancy, modern pharmacology relied almost completely upon tribal herbs and classic folk remedies. What the scientific method enabled us to do was isolate the active ingredient that produced the curative effect. After LSD arrived on the scene, there was a recognition that however inexplicable under our current paradigms, these effects were real and could not be discounted with an arrogant sneer.

YB: When LSD was first synthesized, the scientific community seemed to show interest in researching its effects, even though psychoactive drugs had been around for awhile. What accounted for the ‘scientification’ of the hallucinogenic experience? What kinds of terms and language emerged as a result?

JS: Many researchers and scientists used it as a deep-sea probe into the nature of consciousness. Dr. Stanislav Grof, a top government researcher, spent his life elaborating an architecture of consciousness as revealed by LSD. In his carefully controlled lab, he claimed he could take a dentist from Hoboken and either induce a profound spiritual experience or patiently work him back through bodytime until he was re-experiencing his actual birth in the birth canal – an event that Grof felt provided essential ‘formatting’ for each individual psyche.

Consider that the classic LSD dose in the 60s was 250 micrograms. You can’t even see that. Tagged with a radio isotope, the drug metabolizes in the body after an hour or so and disappears. But the immediate effects continue for ten to twelve hours, and the aftereffects can last for days, months or even longer. And unlike most states of intoxication, the psychedelic state is one of amazing clarity: people tend to remember their trips with extreme detail even thirty or forty years later. Grof would say that LSD revealed the human nervous system to be like a radio. Evolution has ‘tuned’ us to a particular frequency, but 250 micrograms of LSD could turn the dial to access other information flows.

Grof also liked to say that at its simplest and most profound, LSD was a 'de-conditioning' agent. For example, the earliest reports of LSD as a civic problem often went something like this: a police officer would be called to an inner city park in Denver or New York and be confronted with naked people hugging a tree and weeping. The last time most of us looked at a tree and saw a huge, complex, living thing was when we were three or four. After that, conditioning sets in, it’s just a tree. Or we clothe it with information – it’s a pine tree, a maple tree. Grof believed that LSD strips all those layers of conditioning away: My god, we have imprisoned this big beautiful creature in this howling concrete wasteland, and until today I’d forgotten it was alive! But if I wrap my arms around its bark I can sort of hear its heartbeat. And why am I wearing clothes anyway? We’re not born with clothes on. The tree isn’t wearing clothes.

It was impossible to explain this to the cops. Ecstasy, enlightenment, transformation – these are powerful, compelling experiences that are hard to put into words. You pour language over them and they shed it like water off a duck’s back. So you see the problem, and the potentials, presented by a drug like LSD.

YB: Other burgeoning technologies at the time, such as computing and the internet, were of interest to both the military and the counterculture. As you discuss in your book, government agencies such as the CIA certainly explored potential applications for LSD as well. How did the military use of LSD compare to that promoted by counterculture?

JS: 500,000 years ago, whenever we encountered a new plant or animal, the first question we would ask was, ‘Can we eat it?’ For the last 6,000 years, the primary question has been, ‘Can we use this to kill or control our enemies?’ So the military gets first crack at everything now, it seems. As for LSD, the Brass Hats certainly gave it a long lusty look. It’s possible many of its better behaved nephews and cousins were being used as recently as in places like Guantanamo.

While it’s true LSD came out of the labs at Sandoz, it was implicitly understood by people like Huxley and Leary to be more like a food than a product of technology. And it was a very rare and special kind of food, often referred to as a 'sacrament' – the awesome act in which one ingests the analogical body of God. But unlike the wafer and wine of the Christian ceremony, this food really did promote ecstasy on an unprecedented scale, making us confront our bête noire: uncontrollability.

Taking a drug like LSD is always a highly personal experience. You can do it in a crowd of a half million people, but you are always alone with your own nervous system. It is what you do with the content of this experience that flows into a politics, a philosophy or a spiritual path.

YB: How did a drug that some claimed would have positive psychiatric effects eventually become denigrated and criminalized? In other words, why do you think the psychedelic project failed? What was the language used to instigate and describe its failure?

JS: Timing is almost everything. It was LSD's misfortune to come along just as the US entered one of its rare periods of social unrest and critique of authority. Obviously, LSD did not create the root conditions for this unrest, but it accelerated and enhanced this discontent in directions no one could have predicted. The psychedelic state was a transgressive incubator; everyone who went through its door felt themselves profoundly changed. This psychedelic imagination fueled the audacious belief that babyboomers could create a counterculture that they controlled, and that served their ideals and needs.

Nor was the undeniable spiritual dimension of the psychedelic experience – the re-enchantment of the world – greeted warmly. The formula, ‘discontented adolescent + LSD = a hippie’ was the new math that pushed far too many buttons on far too many fronts. It is vital, when discussing why the psychedelic movement failed, to remember that the counterculture in general was the object of one of the twentieth century’s most shadowy counterinsurgency operations. Cointelpro, Operation Chaos, Garden Plot – the movement was riddled with thousands of informers and subverters. The entire security apparatus, at both state and federal levels, was involved with one objective: Stop This. Many key countercultural leaders were imprisoned. Some were killed. In 1974, President Nixon deemed Dr. Leary ‘the most dangerous man in the world’.

YB: In part, was it that the extent of LSD use was much broader than the ritualistic use of other hallucinogens in the past?

JS: Perhaps. Aldous Huxley felt psychedelics should be used mainly by elites over the age of 30. He favored a top-down approach in which the educated and economically privileged (artists, intellectuals) would instigate change. In his view, these elites were not inherently wiser, but if and when they became wiser through psychedelic experience, they would have the social and cultural power to bring about the necessary changes. Tim Leary disagreed. He felt that everyone should have the right to explore the limits of their own nervous system, provided they didn't harmed anyone. He envisioned creating a series of clinics or spas where anyone could have a psychedelic experience in a controlled and safe environment. Ken Kesey, along with his tribe of artist provacateurs, the Pranksters, began using the drug to create massive gatherings called Acid Tests, in which the boundaries of a psychedelically induced landscape of the mind were explored.

Within the larger countercultural movement, LSD (and drugs in general) was often a divider. As Kesey’s Pranksters put it, you were either on the bus or off the bus. By 1966, it was evident that despite attempts to pull the various strands of rebellion into a united front, psychedelia's very nature was not susceptible to leadership. It went its merry way until it burned itself out.

YB: What else, in your opinion, led to the substance’s cultural demise? Are there key events or arguments made about certain events that you can pinpoint?

JS: The 1969 Manson slayings in LA were routinely portrayed as the result of a crazed LSD cult. Plus there was a steady diet of disinformation, such as the claim that these drugs damaged your chromosomes – you might be enlightened, but your children were going to have three noses.

YB: Could it also be argued that the psychedelic movement didn’t fail? For example, there seems to be a growing interest in alternative states of consciousness, be they attained through yoga, meditation, cleansing, drugs or other practices. Do you think these contemporary trends are attributable to the 1960s psychedelic project in language if not in intention?

JS: Sure. The whole New Age movement would probably not exist without the arrival of LSD and related psychedelics 50 years ago. People go wild when you say this, but it’s true. Peruse the histories of the Esalen Institute – time after time you’ll find that an encounter with these mind-expanding drugs was a pivotal moment. Forty years ago, yoga and tai chi were thought by the average sentient American to be the most absurd poppycock. Now they are the staple of health clubs and daytime TV. 40 years ago, official academic psychology rapped your knuckles hard if you were rash enough to use the word ‘consciousness’ in a paper: What’s this metaphysical crap? Can you test for that? Now, of course, ‘consciousness’ is the hot topic.

So, despite the demonization and the almost total ban on any kind of scientific LSD research for 40 years, the appetites unleashed by the arrival of these entheogens remain unabated. In Europe, LSD is again being used to treat alcoholism and the terminally ill. Other protocols are using psychotropic substances for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ways these treatments are being administered (the dark room, the quiet music, the eye mask) are 60 years-old. It is a fact of history that hysteria fades away as the hysterics who subscribed to it die off, and a new generation takes their place.

YB: What accounts for waves of interest in ‘psychedelic transformation’ through the ages?

JS: It is a dreary fact that roughly 90% of each day is pretty much the same as the day before. Because our lives are so profoundly ones of routine and habit, we are forever in search of the next great thing: Ten Days To A New You! Our appetite for novelty may even be the quality that distinguishes us from the rest of organic nature.

Gram for gram and dollar for dollar, the psychedelic experience is the cheapest, most far-reaching ontological adventure available to us. It allows us to experience the limit – a rare opportunity. Add to this our incessant desire to know virtually everything, and to achieve a total gnosis of the Universe.