Forget 420. In honor of the latest lysergic episode of MAD MEN, a look back at the time before LSD was outlawed.
In the latest episode of Mad Men Roger Sterling, the silver-haired drunkard rascal of SCDP, attends a high society LSD party. For some 21st century viewers this seemed strange – wasn’t LSD a hippie drug? Wasn’t it all about long hairs and weird tribal imagery? Eventually that would be the case, but the early of history of acid – before it became illegal – was filled with trippers who were at the very top of the social order – the richest and most famous people in America.
LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hoffman in Switzerland, but it wasn’t until five years later that anybody knew what it did to you. That’s because it wasn’t until 1943 that Hoffman accidentally took some of the drug and embarked on history’s first acid trip. While man had been tripping on hallucinogens since the dawn of time – we have receptors in our brains designed to accept psychotropic chemicals – acid is quite different. And besides, it’s unlikely that Dr. Hoffman was doing a lot of peyote, so he wasn’t very prepared. His first experience was actually fairly nice, but three days later – April 19! A day before dumb 420! – he dosed himself on purpose. That didn’t go so well; bicycling home he really fell apart, thinking his neighbor was a witch and that LSD had poisoned him. Eventually he got his shit together and had a nice finale to the trip.
Everybody knows that the CIA seized on acid as a possible mind control drug, using it in their MKULTRA experiments. They would pay prostitutes to dose unsuspecting businessmen and then watch what happened; there were deaths, including that of Frank Olson, who either freaked out and jumped from a 13th floor window or was pushed by the CIA (the reason he was pushed, perhaps: he knew that in 1951 the CIA had dosed an entire French town, Pont-Saint-Esprit, leading to 50 psychotic episodes, a number of people being institutionalized and four deaths).
But acid wasn’t just being used for sinister purposes. At the same time that the CIA was conducting MKULTRA experiments, a Los Angeles psychiatrist named Oscar Janiger began experimenting with the drug for therapy, with a special focus on how it impacted creativity. While Timothy Leary will forever be remembered as the foremost medical advocate for LSD, Janiger was the true pioneer. His patients included Aldous Huxley (who had already written The Doors of Perception about his experiments with mescaline), Anais Nin, Andre Previn, James Coburn, Billy Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett and Cary Grant. Grant dropped acid probably well over a hundred times, a pretty remarkable number of trips for a guy who seems like the emodiment of the squarely suave 40s.
Grant swore by the drug. At one point he told Janiger that it should be added to LA’s water supply to help more people. In the early 60s he went on a small publicity campaign telling the press it was the secret to his newfound happiness, and Good Housekeeping Magazine said it was the key to his ‘second youth.’ And he wasn’t alone in extolling the virtues of acid; Clare Booth Luce was a major proponent of the drug. To put this in perspective imagine if Mitt Romney’s wife was way into acid – Luce was a right wing Republican, a strong anti-communist, a one-time ambassador and the wife of Henry Luce, the man who founded Time Magazine, Life Magazine, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.
Clare Booth Luce was such a major fan of acid that she got Henry to drop it (she later said it saved their marriage), and he liked it so much he had Life publish a number of laudatory articles about the drug through the 50s and 60s. Other big fans were Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, who took their first acid trips with Janiger; Nicholson later co-wrote The Trip, one of the first movies about acid, and then those two got together with Peter Fonda to make Easy Rider, a film whose lysergic sensibilities influenced filmmaking and the counterculture.
But of course the strange thing about acid is that it was anything BUT counterculture… until Timothy Leary came along. While Janiger and other LA doctors were experimenting with the drug in more clinical settings*, Leary was establishing a commune in Millbrook, New York, partying and having crazy adventures and essentially dropping out**. So while the upper crust were using acid as therapy to work better in society, Leary and friends were using it as a way to break society apart.
Even with the Luces as advocates, there was a backlash to LSD. In October of 1966 – just a few months after Roger Sterling took his trip in Far Away Places – California made it illegal. Other states followed suit and LSD was named a Schedule 1 drug in 1968. That’s actually a stupid ruling, as Schedule 1 drugs are considered addictive, and anyone who has done much acid knows that addiction isn’t an issue. Can it be used too much? For sure, and in Cary Grant’s 1968 divorce from Dyan Cannon his extensive use of the drug was used against him. But nobody in history has ever been jonesing for the next hit of acid.
Acid never got a fair shake therapeutically. Tests with alcoholics showed remarkable results, with 50% of otherwise unstoppable drinkers putting away the bottle. The vast majority of people who have taken acid, myself included, have had many positive experiences. LSD can be a scary drug, but it’s definitely a drug that responds to what you bring to the session. it’s a drug best approached after a lot of research, and in a safe, comfortable environment (at least the first few times – half the fun can be tripping in odd situations. Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter in 1970 while tripping acid). I love how Mad Men portrayed Roger’s experience – positive, enlightening and kind of fun. That’s the ideal.
So hey, if it was good enough for James Coburn and Cary Grant and Clare Booth Luce and Roger Sterling, isn’t it good enough for you? The criminalization of LSD is stupid and pointless, serving only to make acid more dangerous. Everybody should be free to use any tool possible to expand their mind and their understanding of themselves.
* some of the experiments were pretty wild. Janiger had a guy experience a tooth extraction without anaesthetic while tripping. Apparently he couldn’t feel a thing. He also used twins – one would be dosed, the other would be the control.
** how crazy small was the 60s? The local DA who approved numerous raids on Leary’s property was G. Gordon Liddy, later to be one of the Watergate burglars.