Why Acid Test?

 A word on the title: Yes, Acid Test was what Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters called the famous LSD bacchanals they sponsored in the Bay Area in the 1960s, and, yes, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the famous and I bet still fun to read book about Kesey and the Pranksters by Tom Wolfe, and yes Acid refers to LSD when much of my Acid Test is about MDMA. So why use Acid Test as the main title? Multiple reasons. First, modern scientific and medical interest in psychedelics as a tool for psychiatric healing clearly began with the accidental discovery of the cognitive effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Second, the the term “acid test” originally referred to a process in which strong acid is used to distinguish gold from base metals. Used in the context of early LSD use, it was meant to imply that in these circumstances the drug could reveal some profound truth. In the context of my book, it suggests the long, absurdly uphill process by which researchers have attempted to determine/prove whether psychedelic therapy is psychiatric gold or toxic lead.

Original poster for a Merry Prankster Acid Test.



Excerpt from Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal:

One of the many who got his hands on a hit of the Sandoz-manufactured LSD, floating free from all the loosely audited experimental trials, was a 30-year-old eccentric, the grandson of a U.S.senator, named Owsley Stanley. His acid experience impressed him as the key to a new, more profound and caring cosmos, and launched Stanley on an historic quest. He hooked up with a Berkeley chem major named Melissa Cargill, and in three weeks at the university library in Berkeley, they taught themselves how to manufacture fantastically pure LSD, which he loosed upon the streets of a growing bohemian enclave in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury. Those 3,600 colored capsules passed hand to hand in the spring of 1965 were the first of millions of acid trips he would be directly responsible for.

“I never set out to ‘turn on the world,’ as has been claimed by many,” Owsley told Rolling Stone magazine in a 2007 profile, four years before he died in a car crash. “I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body. Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus.”

One of Owsley’s earliest and most consequential clients was Ken Kesey, who needed a new source of inspiration now that he was no longer picking up spare change and free acid as a guinea pig in the CIA-funded LSD trials in Menlo Park. Unlike the first wave of acid acolytes, Kesey wasn’t an academy-educated intellectual or professional behaviorist. He was a salt of the earth, and he didn’t want to study LSD, he wanted to ride it like a wave. He just happened to bring the rest of the culture with him. Fueled by Owsley product, Kesey and a growing group of rabble-rousing fellow travelers began staging outrageous bacchanal’s called acid tests – a play on the confluence of the drug’s new street name with a process in which strong acid is used to distinguish gold from base metals. The term was meant to imply that the use of LSD in these circumstances could reveal some ultimate truth. Actually, Kesey’s parties mostly revealed what happened when large numbers of random strangers consumed immoderate amounts of psychedelic in wildly uncontrolled circumstances as a tsunami of sound rolled over them from the tolling guitars of the Grateful Dead.
Just as the Kesey-Owsley confederation was electrifying the West Coast, a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary was doing his best to light up the East. Leary, who had begun as just one of the scores of academics studying the fascinating effects of the new drug in clinical trials, became his own best (or worst, depending on perspective) subject. Harvard grew impatient with Leary and his partner in the psychedelic experimentation, another Harvard professor, Richard Alpert, when it got around that the pair had been handing out informal homework to students, in the form of psychoactive chemicals. When both men were eventually dismissed — Alpert for defying an order to surrender his entire psilocybin stash to the university for safe keeping, and Leary for going AWOL from his teaching assignments — a front page editorial in the student-run Harvard Crimson applauded: “Harvard has disassociated itself not only from flagrant dishonesty but also from behavior that is spreading infection throughout the academic community.”
Fine with Leary. He’d concluded from his acid trips that the rules and limitations of conventional society were false fronts, head games designed to control and manipulate. He began to advocate a juiced-up liberation theology based on the psychedelic experience, and he learned to enjoy getting under the skin of the unenlightened. For an academic, he had a surprising knack for attracting attention.

In a 1966 Playboy interview he delivered this gem:
“An enormous amount of energy from every fiber of your body is released under LSD most especially including sexual energy. There is no question that LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man. Compared with sex under LSD, the way you’ve been making love, no matter how ecstatic the pleasure you think you get from it, is like making love to a department-store-window dummy.”
Between Leary’s hype, Kesey’s beat charm and Owsley’s prowess in the laboratory, psychedelics went viral, creating a drug subculture in which millions of unscreened Americans experimented with drugs of uncertain purity produced by less talented chemists than Owsley.

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