What the 21st-Century Drug Culture Can
Learn From the Drug Culture of the 1960s
“If you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there” is a quote variously attributed to Grace Slick, Dennis Hopper, Robin Williams, and a bunch of other people because – you guessed it – nobody from back then can remember anything.
I’m a veteran of the ‘60s drug culture. At least I suppose so. I was there – a 19-year-old college kid during the Summer of Love. And I wasn’t some Student Senate, frat boy, ROTC, squaresville college kid. I was fully onboard the Magical Mystery Tour. It’s just that I don’t recall much about it. Where were we going in the “bong bus”? What did we do when we got there? Who else was along for the ride? And why, when I try to think of their names, do they all seem to have been called “Groovy” and “Sunshine”? Oh my gosh, I hope I wasn’t driving…
Fifty-two years later, everything is a purple haze – so to speak. But today there’s another “drug culture” in progress.
In an attempt to learn from the past, we should be thinking about this new drug culture… Although maybe not the way I was half a century ago, when I was thinking, “Wow! This is great f***ing s**t!” (Notice that my thoughts were so fuzzy that I was thinking in asterisks.)
Recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas Islands (talk about “far-out”). Two countries – Canada and Uruguay (the Canada of Latin America) – have fully legalized consumption and sale of marijuana. Two other countries (with absolutely nothing else in common) – South Africa and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia – have declared all personal possession legal. Marijuana is legally tolerated in licensed cafes in the Netherlands. At least 32 other nations, as diverse as Croatia and Jamaica and Luxembourg and Ukraine, have decriminalized the drug.
Medical marijuana is legal in 48 countries and in 33 U.S. states and all U.S. overseas territories.
We know how it goes with medical marijuana…
I have a great bumper sticker idea, yours free for the taking:
MEDICAL MARIJUANA MAKES ME SICK!
Health care provider: “What are your symptoms?”
Patient: “I’m not getting high.”
Marijuana has become… well, maybe not exactly “respectable,” but no more worthy of rebuke than walking down Bourbon Street with a Hurricane in a Solo cup. (Although, if you’ve got a doobie in your other hand you can still get ticketed in New Orleans – $40 for a first offense. But to put the social odium in perspective, it’s a $50 fine if you smoke a Marlboro in a Bourbon Street bar.)
Wow! This is great f***ing s**t! (Notice that my thoughts were so fuzzy that I was thinking in asterisks.)
Marijuana is an accepted fact. And it’s almost a fact that other mind-altering drugs will be accepted.
(I love that phrase, “mind-altering drugs.” As if there are no changes in brain function after you drink six cups of coffee before doing your taxes or after you drink four martinis before putting the nut dish on your head, mounting the back of the sofa, and reciting “Charge of the Light Brigade” to the cocktail party. But I digress… which I find I’m doing a lot while writing about the drug culture… It may have something to do with the drugs… I’ll have to go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall…)
In 2014, Scientific American ran an editorial, “End the Ban on Psychoactive Drug Research.”
In 2017, the National Institutes of Health publication Neuropsychopharmacology (take a big toke and say that without exhaling) presented a peer-reviewed paper, “Modern Clinical Research on LSD,” supportive of the position taken in the Scientific American editorial. The paper noted, “Clinical research on LSD came to a halt in the early 1970s because of political pressure,” and, “The first modern research findings from studies of LSD… have only very recently been published,” and concluded in its abstract, “These data should contribute to further investigations of the therapeutic potential of LSD in psychiatry.”
In 2018, the Journal of Palliative Medicine published an article, “Taking Psychedelics Seriously,” saying that “recent published studies have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of psilocybin [‘shrooms], MDMA [ecstasy], and ketamine [rave drug favorite Special K] when administered in a medically supervised and monitored approach.”
Of course, “Palliative Medicine” is the treatment of terminally ill patients, so no jokes, please, about people “dying to get a hold of these drugs.” But the path to legalization does seem to go through the doctor’s office before it gets to The Doors of Perception, as Aldous Huxley called his serious, thoughtful, scholarly book about getting stoned out of his gourd.
Which, really, is the point of drugs…
Not that we ‘60s “heads” weren’t “like, really into” serious, thoughtful, scholarly excuses for drug-taking.
Back in 1902, William James, philosopher, physician, and “the father of American psychology,” wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
… our normal waking consciousness… is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these forms of consciousness quite disregarded.
This was James’ excuse for getting stoned out of his gourd on nitrous oxide.
None of us had sat down and read The Varieties of Religious Experience. But we all knew about the laughing gas.
More contemporaneously, psychology PhD and former Harvard professor Timothy Leary was on the college lecture circuit advocating that we blow our minds: “… these wondrous plants and drugs could free man’s consciousness and bring a new conception of man, his psychology and philosophy.”
I went to hear Leary speak when he came to my school and… I refer the reader back to the first sentence of this Letter From the Editor.
I got the Leary quote from an anthology of 1960s Esquire articles that was sitting on my bookshelf. In 1968, Leary wrote a piece for the magazine that starts out as an account of a 1960 psychedelic drug experiment supposedly for clinical research purposes supposedly conducted under controlled circumstances. It ends with two naked beatnik poets – Alan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky – wandering around Leary’s house while his teenage daughter is trying to do her homework.
Leary also spoke at my friend Dave Barry’s school. Dave has a better recollection of the experience, which he recounts in his book Dave Barry Turns 50:
Naturally, being college students, we did not rush out and take a powerful, potentially harmful drug that we knew virtually nothing about just because some guy told us to. No sir. First we asked some hard questions, such as: “Where can we get some?” Then we rushed out and took it.
We participants in the ‘60s drug culture did want to open “the doors of perception.” There is indeed a lot about life, the world, and the universe that we don’t perceive in our ordinary day-to-day consciousness. And we could have perceived a lot more of it if we’d taken courses in biology, botany, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and the other hard sciences instead of getting wasted and spacing out on the slideshow in Art Appreciation 101. (“Darkness at Noon” – easy A. The doddering professor had been giving the same multiple-choice exam for 45 years.)
We were searching for “cosmic truths.” Although we weren’t searching very hard, judging by the cosmic truths we found…
I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together
We were seeking “cosmic unity.” One of the times when I took LSD, I had just become one with the entire universe when the landlord knocked on the door of my off-campus apartment. The rent on the entire universe was two months overdue.
And we were looking for personal insights. For all I know, I had some. But I don’t believe they were any more profound than the lyrics in the previously quoted Beatles song “I Am the Walrus” – which many years of drug-free adult experience indicate I am not. (Although I am tending more toward the 4,400-pound weight of a mature male Odobenus rosmarus than I was when I was 19, plus whiskers and thanks to a partial plate and orthopedic shoes, tusks and flippers.)
When it comes to self-analysis, drugs are a one-man birthday party. You don’t get any presents you didn’t bring.
Anyway, when it comes to self-analysis, drugs are a one-man birthday party. You don’t get any presents you didn’t bring.
Goo goo g’joob
But the ‘60s drug culture did produce some great music. Unless you make the mistake of asking Alexa to actually play some of it.
What did the Grateful Dead fan say when he ran out of pot?
What a shitty band!
And turning on, tuning in, and dropping out unleashed a great wave of personal creativity – macramé plant hangers, posters for rock concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium with psychedelic lettering that was illegible unless you were too stoned to read, the cover art for the White Album, and hippie chick embroidery on jean jackets. These are comparable to the sculpture of Donatello, the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells, the painting of Caravaggio, and the couture of Coco Channel… if you’re on PCP.
So what can the 21st-century drug culture learn from the drug culture of the 1960s? Again… I refer the reader to the first sentence.
However, while doing some background reading, I did come across one helpful hint. In 2015, Cambridge University Press published a volume in its “Cambridge Essential Histories” series called American Hippies, by W.J. Rorabaugh. Rorabaugh quotes Yale law professor and counter-culture advocate Charles Reich, author of the 1970 best-selling panegyric to the ‘60s, The Greening of America.
Says Reich, “No one can take himself seriously in bell bottoms.”