View attachment 51282 In the past few years, LSD, mushrooms, ketamine and MDMA are coming out of the closet, with researchers studying these substances as potential treatments for anxiety, depression, PTSD and addiction. It’s exciting research and it’s taking off for the first time since 1970, when Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law.
The law classified hallucinogenic substances like LSD, DMT, psilocybin (the psychedelic alkaloid in mushrooms) and mescaline as Schedule I substances—the most restrictive category, reserved for drugs with “high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.” Although there are still research bans on the drugs, scientists are getting creative about obtaining funding, while governments are facing increasing pressure to allow medical research on psychedelic substances.
Psychedelics are also popping up in art and culture. Celebrities like James Franco and Susan Sarandon are open about expanding their minds with ayahuasca. “Micro-dosing” is apparently a trend in Silicon Valley. And there’s a wave of new books about the drugs, including Tao Lin’s biography of Terence McKenna and Michael Pollan’s upcoming book on magic mushrooms.
One author at the forefront of this renewed interest is Jesse Jarnow, whose new book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, came out in March. You can read an excerpt of the book here.
Heads explores psychedelic drugs’ unique and profound impact on the worlds of Silicon Valley, art, music, business and culture. Jarnow is also the author of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. He has written for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, the London Times, and recently for The Influence about a secret government drug bulletin from the 1960s.
We spoke with him to find out what exactly is going on with this “Psychedelic Spring.”
So what’s behind the re-emergence of interest in psychedelics—why now?
After the ’80s and ’90s, LSD went away for a little bit—people call it the LSD drought of the 21st century. I think it fell a little bit off the public radar in some ways. So it was sort of available for reinvention—obviously not a complete reinvention, because there’s been an ongoing counterculture—but in the public mind there was the possibility to reinvent LSD in a way closer to how it was conceived of, as a tool for therapy.
Also, some of the stigma from the drug war has worn off—certainly not all of it—but researchers can pick up these threads that were dropped when they weren’t allowed to research psychedelics any more. They’re almost literally picking up from basic research that should have been done in the ’60s but they just couldn’t. I’m laughing at all these studies coming out of Imperial College in London now, about the relationship between LSD and synesthesia, which is, you know, very well reported [among psychedelic users].
But it’s great and exciting to see to what comes next.
You and your book are part of this resurgence of interest in psychedelics that’s going on.
Right, but it wasn’t at all what I was thinking when I proposed the book. There’s this sort of psychedelic resurgence or renaissance or spring going on—I believe I first heard the term “Psychedelic Spring” from Larry Norris [of ERIE, an institute for the “non-hierarchical, community based” sharing of knowledge about the spiritual use of chemical substances]. But it was not on my mind at all, and it’s absolutely incredible what’s happened. To me, it just seemed like a good time to look back since it was the 50th anniversary of LSD hitting the market.
How did you come to the subject matter?
The original impetus for the book was that I wanted to write a cultural history of the Grateful Dead and their impact on the United States. I first started thinking about it five years ago. I wrote a proposal that got rejected—then wrote another book [Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock]. The more I started thinking about the Grateful Dead, they seemed tied to the story of psychedelics, symbolically and literally, the way they became the ad-hoc distribution network…the Dead would play in Indiana and LSD would trickle out to Indiana.
I grew up in the early 1990s, which was really the second peak of LSD in this country after the 60s and 70s. It kind of levels out in the early 80s, then shoots up again in the mid-80s when the Grateful Dead started getting popular again. So I wanted to know what had happened between those two points. It seemed like a good time to look back and tell this story.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on Long Island. My parents were both counter-culture heady people. My dad is an artist and filmmaker. We had the Whole Earth Catalogue [a magazine started in the late sixties that explored 60s counter-culture and the very early days of the Internet]. Growing up, I didn’t get the normal “don’t do drugs” talk.
Are psychedelics a part of your own life?
I think probably I was more of a regular user of psychedelics in college when my life wasn’t as fully formed as it is now. I don’t take psychedelics lightly—I don’t take them that often or unless it’s the right situation. I really value the time in my life when I have the space mentally to engage in something like that, but it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to. But I do make an effort to re-engage with it once a year minimum, if not more. I wish my life had more space for that.
I live in Brooklyn which is not really the greatest place to do that. There’s a little too much information. But psychedelics are and were extremely important to me in that earlier period, as a way of understanding creativity and thinking about creativity and the way the mind works, but also in spiritual ways as well.
Can you tell me a little bit about the connection between psychedelics and Silicon Valley?
It always seemed very obvious to me. I was always very interested in computers, reading Wired magazine. Stuart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, was one of the “merry pranksters” with Ken Kesey—already instantly it seemed obvious there was that connection between counter-culture uses of [psychedelics] in the early days of the net and psychedelic counterculture.
There’s a piece of lore—that quote from Steve Jobs about how LSD was one of the most important things he’d ever done in his life. There’s a couple of really interesting books about that, like Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which draws out all the connections. Psychedelics and the early institutions of Silicon Valley are part of the same overlapping geography—the same territory of the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey—right around Stanford. There are endless crossovers. One of the big ones is the Homebrew Computer Club, with Steve Wozniak, which Apple came out of. They started a counter-culture in Silicon Valley, to hang out and play with their computers.
Computers—like with IBM, for example—had been seen as part of this military-industrial world essentially, but they [Wozniak and Jobs] had an anti-authoritarian thread. They inspired a lot of kids interested in technology to not blindly jump into graduate school or some research firm.
Can you talk a little bit about what role gender and race played in the scene, both back then and how they might be playing out now?
My book is sub-titled “A Biography of Psychedelic America” but there are really sort of two different “Psychedelic Americas.” One is all these practices that found a home in the Native American Church—like peyote and mushrooms. And then there’s the predominantly white psychedelic culture. It’s not quite an appropriated psychedelic America. [Depending on the circumstances, some may disagree]. A lot of it happened around college campuses and college towns—it did end up being this mainly white thing, and probably that had to do with the distribution method of psychedelics. Which is not to say that it didn’t play a role in non-white cultures. Like John Coltrane—he was taking acid at the end of his life, and it certainly figures in black history.
But LSD was predominantly a white male phenomenon and it still is. In the 60s there was a little bit more even distribution over gender lines. Then it became more of a male thing. Now, in the 21st century, broad psychedelic use [though not LSD] seems to be back to being more evenly split across genders. But in terms of race, it was a social context thing, tied up with rock and roll and the folk scene and white performing.
What’s your favorite or most exciting thing you learned doing this research?
A huge story that I was very unaware of was this connection between LSD and graffiti art, and specifically the connection between LSD and this one extended group of people who come around the Central Park bandshell in New York City. They were one of the East Coast—West Coast connections for acid for a really long time, from 1970 or so up to the mid-90s, and that whole story, every single piece of it just blew my mind.
Artistically, LSD had this impact on psychedelic art. There was a crew who were taking acid and going into the subway and making art together, sometimes making their tags in this collaborative style. I think graffiti art is really beautiful and important to what New York in the 70s. And it had a huge impact on global culture, through things like hip-hop and punk rock. And to find out that psychedelics were feeding into that was a really cool discovery.
Where do you see things going from here, given the new excitement in psychedelics?
I certainly see them going more in a legally positive way in terms of therapy and research. I’m not sure I can really envision a day when psychedelics are legal for personal use that isn’t supervised. But if we’d had this conversation 10 or 15 years ago about marijuana, I wouldn’t have thought it either. It’s really hard to say. It seems like it’s in a really excellent place right now, people using psychedelics in productive ways, they aren’t doing a lot of things that would cause there to be another giant anti-drug scare. On the other hand there are novel psychoactive substance which are terrifying, creating things that actually are dangerous—”synthetic LSD”—that are actually physiologically dangerous in a way that LSD isn’t. And that potentially is bad news.
The Psychoactive Substances Act in the UK is interesting as a test case, how drug users are reacting to that. Over here in the US there are a lot of stories about “synthetic LSD” but it doesn’t seem like it’s in scare proportions yet, which is probably a fortunate thing. I do wish there was more science behind a lot of reporting, around LSD stuff, there’s still stories like “so and so killed his girlfriend on LSD,” and I’m increasingly suspicious about whether it’s really LSD or one of these so-called legal highs that people are using. That’s more of a story to watch.
The 21st century is a strange place and psychedelics have a part in that strangeness. The drug war did not eradicate them. There’s a real complicated reason why they are illegal—they are genuinely powerful things.
By Sarah Beller - The Influence/July 21, 2016
Art: Minjae Lee