Acid, Mushrooms and the festival culture
A brief history of psychedelic drugs in Britain
A global tradition - Psychedelics and Spirituality
Throughout the globe, traditional and native religions have used psychoactive sustances to alter consciousness and to create spiritual insights. These substances have included medicinal plants and animal products, such as cannabis, fungi such as the fly agaric and liberty cap mushrooms, peyote cacti and toads of the genus Bufo. Many other substances have been used to alter consciousness, which appears to be a universal human desire, to be accomplished by meditation, fasting, prayer or religious devotion for some, and the use of alcohol, cannabis, opium, coca, psilocybe or amanita fungi for others.
Throughout ancient civilisation, Cannabis sativa (Hemp) was used for fibre and rope. The medicinal properties were recorded in China during the Shen Nung dynasty in 2737 BC, the "Burning Bush" in which Moses saw visions of God was almost certainly growing in the Beka"a valley in Lebanon . The Scythians threw the seed-bearing cannabis flowering tops on hot coals and inhaled the fumes, in a ceremony very similar to the Sweat Lodges of the Sioux and other indian tribes. The unleavened bread so beloved of early Christians was frequently contaminated with the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which contains the source chemicals for LSD and other indole-based psychedelic drugs.
In the North, the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) was used by Siberian herdsmen during rituals, where the urine of the rulers, and even of reindeer, containing the drugs involved, was used to change consciousness. In the South American jungle, tribesmen continue to use yage and ayahuasca - harmala alkaloids and tryptamine derivatives - to promote shapeshifting and communion with animal spirits. Native Americans use Mescaline from the peyote cactus (Lophophora williams) and have their religion protected under the US constitution. In the south seas, the islanders drink Kava Kava, and will not conduct business without the mildly psychedelic stimulant. Even the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh have had to drink the fermented brew on arrival in the islands before being accepted by the people.
Yet the western tradition has largely been ignored. The great stone circles, most archaeologists would agree, had many functions, gathering places, astronomical calendars & sundials, scenes of funerary rites and other ritual uses. Most of these sites are in upland areas where the Psilocybe semilanceata (Magic) mushroom is commonly found. This may or may not be coincidental, but may indicate that our ancestors were only too well aware of the properties of psychoactive plants during their religious and spiritual journeys. However we may never know the truth, as the witches, druids and other pagan societies of Western Europe were ruthlessly suppressed during the middle ages as the Christian church strove for spiritual supremacy.
The church suppressed alternative spirituality and herbalism, and the modern drug laws arguably sit within that tradition. The witches, mostly women healers and herbalists, were ruthlessly persecuted and burned at the stake, as paternalist christianity swept through europe, destroying any potential opposition from the matriarchal pagan peoples, and bringing (male) doctors using the wisdom (?) of Galen and other ancient Greek physicians - for a price - in place of the local healer women serving the community. Use of the toad and mushroom was hidden, and only hinted at in the surviving traditions of fairies, elves and otherworldly beings, sitting on their toadstools in childrens books. Fragments of the old lore remain, the red & white livery of Father Christmas heralding the yule festivities, representing the red and white-speckled cap of the Fly Agaric mushroom whereas the symbolic role of the reindeer would appear obvious. The common references to "Skin of Toad" in Witches Brews, containing bufotenine, a related compound to psilocybin, and even the etymological derivation of "Toadstool" may be indicative of a folk memory of ritual use of toadskins and magic mushrooms.
The practice of witchcraft was illegal in the UK until the 1950s, despite being popularised by gurus such as Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley in the late 19th/early 20th century. While Gardnerian wiccans tend to eschew the use of mind-altering substances, these traditionalists would now represent a small minority of the neopagan community, growing out of the hippie counterculture and green political movements, encompassing many spiritual traditions including the shamanic.
Modern paganism, as a common denominator, sees the spiritual godhead as female, or at least as a balance between the male and female, in contrast to the moslem and judaeochristian traditions, who perceive the deity as unalterably masculine. Most pagans would see themselves as an integral part of the universe, with the deity being inherent in all things and beings, rather than separated into a duallist universe. The religion is experiential, involving the communal rituals of purification, raising and channelling spiritual power by chanting, music, dancing and meditation. The shamanic use of psychedelic drugs, whether of natural or synthetic origin, is frequently to aid achievement of a trance-like state of spiritual awareness and inner peace. Other pagans or fellow-travellers just use the drugs to enhance the experience of communal or solitary ritual, or simply to have a good "buzz".
The glimmerings of awareness - early psychedelic experiments
The use of psychedelic drugs, rather than opiates or stimulants, was first brought to public attention by the publication of Huxley"s "Doors of Perception", describing a mescalin trip, in 1954. Huxley later demanded a psychedelic experience on his death bed.
By this time Albert Hoffman had synthesised LSD and experienced the effects of 250µg (micrograms) during his legendary bicycle ride, the psychiatric profession were dosing patients with repeated high doses of LSD, and the CIA, MI6 and no doubt the rest of the worlds spies were testing the effects on willing and unwitting volunteers.
At Powick hospital in Worcestershire, psychiatrists gave patients up to 1500µg for the treatment of alcoholism and neuroses such as agoraphobia and depression, and even psoriasis, without warning of the profound effects which were to follow. Some patients were treated weekly for several years. The psychiatrists, predominantly from the Freudian psycholanalytic tradition, hoped that LSD would unlock repressed memories responsible for the psychological problems with which the patients presented. There were notable successes, and LSD treatment was accepted by a substantial body of opinion as valuable therapeutic tool. However, some patients reacted badly, claiming to suffer long term psychoses and flashbacks, and many were terrified of the experience, which took place in a hospital ward full of strangers and hospital staff, not exactly the ideal set and setting for a pleasant "trip". The prevailing hospital culture of the time was not one where the wishes and concerns of psychiatric patients were treated seriously, and few patients ever questioned the treatment they received at the time.
The infamous CIA project codenamed MK Ultra involved testing the effect of LSD on soldiers as a chemical warfare agent intended to incapacitate enemy troops. Soldiers on exercises became distracted from their missions, and would break into fits of laughter or contemplation of their surroundings. Similar experiments were conducted in the UK at Porton Down under the codename "operation moneybags" (a pun on l.s.d., the slang term for the predecimal "pounds, shillings and pence"), with over 100 unwitting volunteers tested during the 1950s and early 1960s. Ken Kesey later described the paradox of the CIA and US Military turning on the youth of America with the drug which caused nonviolence and the end of the Vietnam war.
Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, through their "Acid Tests", and resigned Harvard psychologist Dr Timothy Leary at Millbrook in New York State, with the slogan "turn on, tune in, drop out", brought LSD to the masses. Leary and Bob Dylan turned on the Beatles, who in turn turned on the rest of the world with their music, including the thinly disguised "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". LSD was now big news, it had escaped from the laboratory and permeated popular culture. The authorities acted with their customary enlightened attitude in addressing the new phenomenon.
Prohibition - the politicians panacaea
In the UK, LSD was made illegal in 1966 following passage of the Dangerous Drugs Act. Until that time most of the LSD available was made by Sandoz, as a pharmaceutical preparation. Patients received it by injection, and a common method of consuming the colourless liquid was a drop placed on a cube of sugar. The Le Dain commission in Canada stated that it could be sniffed in powdered form, injected in solution, in capsules or tablets, or is often impregnated into sugar cubes, candies, biscuits, and cloth or blotter sections for oral use.
When LSD was made illegal, the pharmaceutical supplies dried up, and the backstreet chemists took over. It was still usually available in liquid form, and blotters, capsules and tablets followed shorly after. These could cost 5/- to 10/- each (two to four doses per £1), but were often given away free by devotees of the drug The illicit chemists varied from backstreet operations producing poor quality LSD with many impurities, through students using university facilities, to probably the most famous of all Augustus "Owsley" Stanley III, maker of "Orange Sunshine" and other notes "brands", who was arrested in 1967 with enough LSD for 2 million 200µg doses, plus a large quantity of DOM (STP), a forerunner of Ecstasy. In the early 1970s surveys estimated that 5 Million Americans, and 650,000 in the UK, had used LSD.
The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act placed LSD, Psilocybin and most other psychedelic drugs in Class A, along with morphine, heroin and cocaine. Unlike in the USA, where drugs are legal until proscribed by law, the UK approach was to ban whole classes of chemical, including many which had never been synthesised. Principal among these were indole-derivatives, the structural basis of LSD, serotonin, psilocybin, bufotenin and the tryptamine derivatives DMT, DET etc, as well as the methoxylated amphetamines MDA, DOM (STP), MMDA, MDMA (ecstasy) MDEA (eve), mescaline, and other related compounds. Penalties of up to 5 years for simple possession, and up to 14 years to life imprisonment for supply offences, remain on the statute book.
Free"n"Easy - The rise of festival culture
Stonehenge 1984 lasted a whole month, and at the peak around solstice there were 20,000 to 100,000 people present, depending on whose estimates you believe. The heroin dealers had been run out of the site before the main influx, although LSD, cannabis and speed were sold openly (and vociferously) all over the site. Around 500 festivalgoers who were drug users completed questionnaires about their drug usage, and over 70% of these had used LSD and/or Magic Mushrooms, most of these doing so occasionally, and those describing themselves as pagan doing so most of all. Half of the users at Stonehenge intended to use LSD at the festival, at Glastonbury the same year roughly on third intended to do so. The main reasons people went to festivals were the atmosphere and people present, followed by music and drugs.
By 1984, the Free Festival scene had blossomed into a summer-long phenomenon, with festivals every weekend from April to October. A core group of travellers had formed, spending the summer moving between festivals and the winter parked up in small sites all over the U.K. They travelled together between festivals and became known as the Peace Convoy, attracting wild stories from the tabloid press. When there was no festival, the tribe moved to protest camps at Porton Down, the chemical warfare establishment, Greenham Common from which the permanent Wimmins Peace camp developed, and Molesworth, at which the first violent eviction occurred, complete with Michael Heseltine in famous flak-jacket. A further "trashing" of the convoy following a festival at Nostell Priory near Wakefield scattered the tribe into smaller groups.
The late 1980s saw the Free Festival movement attacked by the Thatcher government with a series of new laws aimed at "new age travellers". Chief of these was the Public Order Act 1986, which gave police new powers to restrict assemblies and processions. Each June saw a major police operation to prevent the Stonehenge festival from happening, with violent confrontations, particularly in 1985 (Battle of the Beanfield) and 1988.
Since the demise of Stonehenge and the Free Festivals, Glastonbury has become the focal point of the festival culture. Massive organisation, planning and commercial activity characterise the festival, a far cry from the self-sufficiency and cooperative spontaneity of Stonehenge. Faced with an influx of refugees from the Stonehenge evictions, Michael Eavis, organiser of the festival, allowed the travellers a free field during the late 1980s and early 1990s, until his insurers and the local authority baulked at the prospect of the travellers being on site, since when they have not been officially welcome. Confrontations between the travellers and festival security hardly helped the atmosphere.
Operation Julie - The best acid ever?
The late 1970s saw Operation Julie, which netted some 1.5kg of LSD, enough for 7.5 million 1970s doses of the drug, or up to 20-30 million doses at today"s levels. These were small tablets or "microdots" of high purity and potency, produced in a remote farmhouse in Wales. The "conspirators" were arrested and jailed in 1978 following an intensive police surveillance operation led by Dick Lee, who along with undecover officers, subsequently resigned from the police. Although presented as a great success, the operation started almost by accident:
The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, one of the groups formed by Leary and funded by Bill Hitchcock, a millionaire property dealer, in the wake of the prohibition of LSD in the USA in 1965, was disbanded following a police bust. One of the members, Ron Stark, flew to London and met Richard Kemp, a Cambridge chemistry student. Stark provided 7.4 kioos of ergotamine tartrate, a precursor for LSD synthesis, from which Kemp made 1.7 kilos of LSD, using a process known as the "wrinkle" which allowed production of 99.7% pure acid. This was sufficient to make 8.5 million doses of 200µg each.
In 1974, Gerald Thomas, a cannabis smuggler earlier thrown out of the group for unreliability, was arrested in Canada and gave the names of Kemp, Christine Bott, and Henry Todd as being involved with "the biggest acid lab in the world". Kemp and Bott moved to Wales where they set up a lab in a remote farmhouse, whereas Todd and Andrew Munro, an inorganic chemist, set up shop in a basement in Seymour Road, London producing inferior quality LSD in 100µg black microdots. Kemp"s bad luck started when his Range Rover was involved in a fatal accident, and was impounded by police. By chance, Dick Lee was visiting the area, noticed the owner of the vehicle, and searched in finding a note with reference to hydrazine hydrate, a chemical used in LSD synthesis. From that point on Kemp and the cottage were put under surveillance.
The two labs, operating independently but stated to be part of the same conspiracy, were raided on 26th March 1977. The welsh operation had already shut down, and undercover officers had missed seeing Bott burying the equipment in the garden. Even so, there was little hard evidence when the defendants were arrested, most coming from confessions. The 17 defendants pleaded guilty at Bristol Crown Court and were sentenced to a total of 130years imprisonment, with Kemp and Todd each receiving 13 years. The author, David Solomon (Marijuana Papers) received 10 years for providing raw materials, Munro received 10 years, and Bott 9 years.
Although there were persistent rumours that the group had stashed away several million doses, none reappeared years later following the release of the main protagonists. Following Julie, the price of LSD rose sharply, from around 50p to over £1 per tablet. By this time, LSD had fallen out of fashion, the preferred drug among youth culture in the late 1970s being alcohol. Punks regarded LSD and cannabis as drugs of the unfashionable and wimpish hippies, their preferred drugs being "sulphate" (amphetamine) and Special Brew.
The growing tide - Trends and surveys of LSD use.
Use of cannabis, measured by the number of police seizures, has increased more or less steadily since the war. There was a reduction in the mid 1970s, but the graph has been rising steadily ever since. There were 590 LSD seizures in 1974, falling to under 300 per year from 1977-1980, rising steadily to 629 in 1984, declining again to 3-400 from 1986-88, and rising sharply year on year until a sharp increase in the early 1990s which now appears to have stabilised. If these figures are indicative of the prevalence of LSD use, there are somewhere in the region of four to ten times as many LSD users today as there were in the sixties, seventies and eighties. A Home Office study estimated that by 1991 some 900,000 people aged 16-59 had taken LSD.
Number of LSD Seizures 1974-94
Recent publicity about ecstasy has not been positive, with the deaths of Leah Betts and other young people splashed all over the tabloids as a warning to others. Certainly, some individuals suffer a dangerous reaction to the drug which, when combined with intense physical activity (such as non-stop dancing) and a hot sweaty atmosphere (such as a night club) can cause death by heatstroke. Other research has indicated the possibility of permanent neurochemical changes, characterised by the press as "brain damage", from heavy or repeated use of the drug. Although the history of drug prohibition is littered with claims of "brain damage" which subsequently turn out to be misinterpretations or outright fabrications, the possibility of permanent changes to brain physiology cannot be discounted. Many ravers are now eschewing the use of E in favour of acid, often mixed with amphetamine in order to mimic the physical stimulation of MDMA.
In 1994, my survey of festival drug users was repeated and extended. The proportions using LSD or magic mushrooms was virtually unchanged from 10 years previously, although the number who admitted using Ecstasy had risen from 6 MDA users in 1984 (1%), to around 50% 10 years later. The proportion who had used heroin fell by a third over the same period.
LSD was the drug credited with producing more of the best drug experiences, and more of the worst experiences, by the survey groups. The best experiences commonly reported included tripping in a good environment (setting) such as the open air or festivals, spiritual insights and self-awareness, weird/out of this world experiences, a good buzz, visual hallucinations, intense colours, euphoria/bliss - a sense of well-being, religious or spiritual insights, increased energy and dancing, hilarity and mirth. Quotes included
"At one with the universe"
"Totally changed my life"
"Try some and find out"
"A personal voyage of discovery that I will never forget"
"The greatest experience of my life"
"Enjoy the psychedelic side of life"
The worst LSD experiences were bad trips in the wrong setting, panic, paranoia, frightening nightmares, taking too much, losing control, confusion, "head fucked", being too young or unprepared, quotes included:
"Friend turned into beast"
"Friends were werewolves"
"Walked into barbed wire"
"Too young for such confusion"
"Too young to deal with ego being destroyed"
"Lots of bugs and insects for 30 seconds"
"Drives you mad long term"
Most LSD users try the drug occasionally, on special occasions, or a few times as an experiment. However a substantial proportion use the drug on a regular basis at weekends, some doing so throughout the weekend. For those who take the risk of buying sheets of 20-200 doses at a time, the price can be as low as 50p to £1 per square, although the user buying in bulk risks a hefty prison sentence for possession of a class A drug with intent to supply.
LSD today is almost exclusively found in the form of blotting paper or card impregnated with the drug, and divided into squares which represent individual doses, usually carrying a distinctive printed design on each square indicating the manufacturer or distributor"s "brand". The Home Office have a library of several hunded different designs. Although the average price of £3 per dose remains the same in absolute terms as 1984, the amount of drug contained has fallen, from 200-250µg in the seventies to 50-70µg today. For most ravers, who seek subtle alterations of consciousness without a full blown psychedelic experience, these doses are usually adequate. A person seeking a profound experience will frequently take 3-5 squares over an evening, representing a similar dose to the sixties pioneers. Unfortunately, as with most drugs, the user has no way of knowing whether his 5 tabs contain 50µg each, or a generous 100µg plus, and the potential for overdoing it is high.
Toadstool Soup - Class A drug?
Modern awareness of the Magic Mushroom was at first restricted to a few mycologists and experimental psychedelic pioneers. Although the mexican Psilocybe Cubensis was well known in the new world, and popularised in the novels of Carlos Castaneda, the awareness that psilocybe species grew in the UK grew during the late 1970s. The popularity increased sharply following two events, the publication of a guide to British psilocybin mushrooms in 1978 by Richard Cooper, and the prosecution of Stevens, where the House of Lords held that a mushroom had to be prepared, or "altered by the hand of man" in order to be illegal, and that possession of the mushrooms in their natural state was not an offence. The definition of a preparation has been tightened steadily such that if mushrooms are dried deliberately, frozen, cooked, or otherwise altered they are illegal, but if they were picked in a dry state, or dried naturally if kept, for instance, in an open paper bag, possession would not be an offence. Unless there is charring from oven-drying, a forensic scientist is virtually unable to tell whether or not dry mushrooms have been dried deliberately, and police frequently rely on confessions as to how the mushrooms were dried in order to obtain a conviction.
Quarterly Psilocybin/Psilocin Seizures - UK 1993/94
Rave On! - Acid house parties and the techno generation
The new phenomenon in the late 1980 was the growth of Acid House culture and rave parties held in warehouses and open air venues. A new generation of young people had discovered samplers and methylendioxymethylamphetamine, a psychedelic stimulant known as MDMA or just plain E, leading to en explosion of home-produced dance music. The thought of thousands of young people getting together in unlicensed venues, taking ecstasy and dancing in a dervish-like frenzy through to the dawn, filled the authorities and tablod newspapers with horror.
The rise of ecstasy in youth culture has been credited with the end of mass football hooliganism, as the love drug culture replacing the macho alcoholic bravado which underlay the tribal conflicts that football matches had become.
The rave generation and free festival movement were bound together with common cause against an establishment bent on destroying both cultures, and rave tents became a feature of outdoor free festivals, raves largely replaced "squat gigs" in disused factories and other inner-city locations, many rave organisers having served their apprenticeship on festival sites. Castlemorton, a huge rave and festival in 1992 attracting 40,000 plus inner city hippies and ravers to the Tory heartlands of rural England, proved the final straw for the authorities, who introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gave the police sweeping powers to confiscate equipment and vehicles, criminalised the civil law of trespass, and outlawed gatherings open or partially open to the air which involved the playing of music "characterised wholly or partly by a succession of repetitive beats".
Welcome to the Future
The future prospects for users of LSD and mushrooms are bleak. Former mental patients are suing their health authorities for punitive damages after claiming to suffer nightmares and flashbacks which their attribute to their LSD therapy. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, himself accused in Parliament of using cannabis as a student (without an official denial), has proposed minimum sentence of 7 years imprisonment for any person convicted of a third supply offence, which includes "social supply" - i.e. giving a trip to a friend, or one person buying on behalf of a group of friends - and the prospect of a future Labour government relaxing any of the drug laws is remote.
Although Parliament has had 16 years to act since the Stevens judgement on mushrooms, a law banning the possession of any dry or picked psilocybin mushroom could be enacted at any time without the necessity of parliamentary approval. The restrictions on movement and assembly in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 are likely to be extended to other walks of life, eroding the civil liberties of all UK citizens, and further specific laws cannot be ruled out, especially in response to the tabloid hysteria about illegal drugs which shows no sign of abating. This hysteria leads the public to demand ever more stringent restrictions on personal freedom in the name of the war on drugs. While we have not yet followed the American path of mass urine screening to detect drug "abusers", several US companies are trying to persuade the UK government, schools, employers and police forces to use their drug-testing kits.
The prospects for the authorities, too, are bleak. The rate of seizures and convictions for "controlled drugs" rises year on year, more young people are processed through the criminal justice system, and the cost of enforcement by police, the legal profession, probation and the prison service will rise inexorably.
© Matthew J. Atha
April 9th 1996