he most moving and saddening piece I ever read about the 1960s counterculture and the after-effects of drugs was written by Robert Christgau and published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1966. Christgau was born in 1942 in New York City and is now 80 years old. At the height of his journalistic powers, he was one of the top music writers in all of the United States, respected by people everywhere. But in 1966, when he first wrote this story, he was brand new. He had only been writing professionally for three or so years.
Christgau’s piece begins with a young, counterculture couple named Charlie and Beth Ann stumbling through Washington Square Park in New York City. They are druggies, the kind of young kids who experimented with anything and everything to get the necessary high. But now they are feeling the effects of it. Her legs ache. He suffers from migraines. Both have tried drugs to get rid of their bodily issues, but nothing seems to work. As the article’s narrative continues to unfold, they both realize that they need to take back their lives before it is too late, get off the drugs and abandon the highs. And although trips to a professional doctor probably would have sufficed, this is the 1960s after all, so the two choose an alternative method, something known as Zen Macrobiotics.
Popularized by self-described philosopher-scientist Georges Ohsawa, his 1961 book proclaimed that Zen Macrobiotics – a diet proposing the healthy eating of a modern day vegetarian as the pathway to experiencing the Zen Buddhist philosophy of balancing the yin and yang – could cure virtually every human ailment from dandruff to leprosy. Even that, a claim so ridiculous that it is practically laughable, should have been enough to convince Charlie and Beth Ann otherwise. But they were desperate. For Charlie, the new diet was actually the beginning of a new and healthy lifestyle. For Beth Ann, it was the beginning of her demise. While he steadily improved, she declined. She had become a full fledged supporter of the practice, and even described how she liked the high that she was getting from not eating a now growing amount of food groups.
Desperately, as he watched his wife turn into a skeleton, Charlie tried to convince her to abandon the diet. But it was too late. She was withering away before his eyes. Beth Ann died in Charlie’s arms, a small piece of carrot that she was unable to eat still resting on her lips, a victim not of the far out Eastern method, but of something much larger.
Simply An Accident
Maybe you didn’t catch it the first time I mentioned it, so allow me to repeat what I think is the highlight statement and the real reason for the problem: “she liked the high that she was getting from not eating a now growing amount of food groups.” Through all of Beth Ann’s attempts to recover from her previous drug usage, she was still searching for that glorious high. This is the real issue here. Zen Macrobiotics, however freaky and far out it may have been, was simply another way to experience a high.
In the 1960s, the primary drug of choice, aside from marijuana, was something known as LSD. It was a hallucinogenic drug, one that caused the taker to go off to another world on a “trip.” So many young kids never came back, their brains fried for good. Others simply died. It was all very sad, especially considering the fact that the man who discovered it some 30 years earlier never believed it should be used recreationally.
Swiss-born Albert Hoffman arrived in Basel in 1929 shortly after graduating from the University of Zurich with a degree in chemistry. He was the newest employee of the research company Sandoz Laboratories. Hoffman was hired by Sandoz to conduct a series of experiments related to synthesizing compounds found in medicinal plants, meaning that some of the properties found could potentially be brand new and unquantified. It was gruelling but equally rewarding work.
One day, after working through a list of twenty-four other compounds, Hoffman began research on something Sandoz labeled LSD-25, the 25 being the representation for the derivative tested. And in that process, entirely by mistake, Hoffman ingested some of the LSD. What he experienced is now fully known, but was then brand new, unexplored territory. All at once he began to feel woozy. A kaleidoscope of colours seemed to appear before his eyes. Talking became difficult and sounds were enhanced. All in all, he seemed to be removed from the world. Hoffman was fascinated and begged to continue to work with LSD. Although his experience with LSD was unlike anything that had been seen up to that point, the administration at Sandoz made a decision and the research was put off for five years. There were other more pressing things to focus on. But in 1943, still determined as ever, Hoffman began his research once more, this time with the full intention of taking a larger dose of the drug.
In the circles of LSD lovers, that day has become the stuff of legends. It’s the kind of story that old men and women will tell their grandkids, even though they weren’t there. Even now, it has a name— “Bicycle Day.” It happened in Basel on a starry night. Hoffman, full of LSD, rode around the city on his bicycle and experienced the same kaleidoscope of colours that he had seen before. It was, by all means, the first intentional acid trip ever recorded. Again Hoffman was fascinated, but this time it was tinged with a bit of fear. While he no doubt wanted to continue his research for scientific purposes, Hoffman believed that nobody should take LSD simply for fun. It was not meant to be a recreational drug. It would do far too much damage to the brain. Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD, told us not to use it recreationally. A group of counterculture kids in the 1960s did not heed his warning. And so began a much larger mess.
A Much, Much Larger Mess
The most popular album from the year 1967 was the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To say the very least, it was amazing. The melodies on that album are so catchy, the lyrics thought provoking and the flow unlike any other project. For decades following, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was regularly considered the greatest album of all time. But it was also drug infused, particularly by that hallucinogenic named LSD.
Even when the album came out, most listeners speculated that the song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was actually a long-form title for LSD. It had to be based on some LSD trip that one of the Beatles had taken and not, as John Lennon had suggested, on a drawing that his son Julian had done at school. A commonly held belief concerning the Beatles final years was that they were able to produce music based on what they were seeing and hearing during their drug trips. Think of that same kaleidoscope of colours that Albert Hoffman saw years earlier. And that may very well have been true. But the counter argument, the one that Hoffman was worried about, was what would happen to those who took it steadily, albeit in more minimal doses. These were not the hardcore users, but the casual ones. What would regular use of LSD and other drugs do to the brain? Hoffman would be alive to find out the answer.
The widespread usage of powerful drugs like LSD across the western world really picked up the pace in the 1960s with the help of the open advocacy of Timothy Leary. He was remarkably intelligent, but had been fired from his position as Harvard University professor because of a visit he had made to Mexico City to explore the power of magic mushrooms. Because Leary was a teacher at the most important and intellectual university in the United States, he had considerable influence over the young minds in front of him and he wasn’t afraid to use it. That was his job at Harvard, to educate. And after he was fired, it remained his purpose in life. But his class was on something far different. The topic of this class was LSD. His lectures, so to speak, were held in a 64 room mansion that he had bought in Millbrook in upstate New York. In some way, Leary developed a cult of LSD and very quickly began to urge young kids to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Thousands listened to him and made their way to San Francisco, the fast growing hippie gathering place, to begin their new lifestyle. Leary would disappear from the limelight at the end of the 1960s, but the toxicity that he helped spread with his open advocacy of drugs could still be felt decades later.
Beginning in the 1990s, America faced another catastrophe on the level of the LSD usage in the 1960s—opioid overdoses. Around the nation, thousands of people were experiencing truly horrendous effects, the kind of stuff that people see in movies and not in real life. Laboured breathing, respiratory arrest, lips turning purple. In many cases, choking was common. Those who overdosed often lost consciousness. The results were severe and frightening. A total of close to 800,000 people lost their lives. Much like the wave of LSD, it was an awful situation.
The main drug doing all the damage in those days was something called OxyContin. Unlike most of the pain killers available on the market, it was highly addictive. And although some would say that doctors probably should have known better, they were simply doing what those at the Purdue Pharmaceutical Company were advising they do—sell and prescribe the drug. Believe it or not, after a decade of it being on the market, $3 billion worth of OxyContin was being prescribed by doctors each year.
Purdue Pharmaceutical Company would end up in bankruptcy court years later as a result of lawsuits against them for misleading medicinal practices related to OxyContin. In the end, the way that the American Medical Association helped put an end to the crisis was to introduce triplicate plans to all doctors, an administrative tool for more thoroughly tracking prescriptions. But even now, it’s hard to blame them alone for what happened to the now thousands of Americans who are dead. Instead, the opioid epidemic that currently ravages the United States seems like something a little bit deeper and more complicated. Before the 1960s and the open advocation of drug usage, particularly LSD, there was very little drug issues in America. The people of that decade, whether they knew who he was or not, heeded Albert Hoffman’s warning. The 1950s, which were all children of World War II and the Great Depression, did not generally behave in such radical ways. Drugs weren’t on the open market for everyone to have. And for the most part, people didn’t even think that way. It was a simpler and safer time.
Almost all by itself, the 1960s changed that. Timothy Leary gave rise to the Summer of Love, which gave rise to Charlie, Beth Ann and overdoses on drugs like LSD, which ultimately continues to give rise to crises like those found in North America’s big cities. In Vancouver, Canada’s second largest city, the drug that is currently causing all of the problems is fentanyl. A ton of people have had serious side affects while others have died due to overdoses. Thousands of people are just purely addicted. It’s the kind of situation in which, twenty or thirty years ago, we would have tried to stabilize and eventually remove. But the way we view drugs and addiction has begun to change since the opioid crisis began in the 1990s and has certainly changed since LSD and hippie culture.
New kinds of programs have emerged in Vancouver. Instead of trying to ban fentanyl outright, they hand it out to users over the counter for free in regulated amounts. Some people go four times a week to get the drug. More or less, that is essentially embracing addiction. But those who are giving it out believe that, by doing so in prescribed doses, they are limiting the chance of overdosing on it by way of a mistake on the street. In fact, the government of Canada is also a fan of the idea and are backing the new and radical project financially. On a recent podcast from the New York Times, the journalist interviewing one of the chief members of the new project appeared baffled by some of the ideas she was presenting. But that is how far we have come. I’m sure that is not what the people who first discovered fentanyl, like Albert Hoffman before them, would want to hear.
In the end, for those young kids in the 1960s, the dangers of drugs were all there to see. The discoverer of the drug they so loved, who had a trip on a bicycle in Basel during World War II, firmly believed that LSD shouldn’t have been used recreationally. In some ways, it feels like he was talking about more than just LSD. Perhaps he suspected the rise of other extreme substances that would be used in the future. It was literally right under their noses, there for the taking. And nobody caught it. Instead, they took copious amounts of the drug in order to get in touch with themselves, sometimes frying their brains in the process and beginning a long and difficult relationship with drugs in the United States and other western nations.
Albert Hoffman died in 2008 at the age of 102. Into his old age, he was still pleading with governments around the world to allow for LSD research. Unsurprisingly, nobody granted him that request. Perhaps it was because those lives, whether they walk the earth today or not, never truly came back.
Sam Creary is an emerging young non-fiction writer in Winnipeg, Canada. A graduate of the University of Winnipeg with a B.A. in History, Sam is the author of one book, Finding Freedom – A Biography of Paul Grady: A Journey Through the Culture-Changing 1960s and the Decades That Followed.