The Rise and Fall of LSD

By James PennerJuly 1, 2015

Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience by Stephen Siff

IN THE EARLY 1960s, Henry Robinson Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, decided to announce to his staff at the company’s annual ball that he and his wife, Clare Booth Luce, were taking LSD “under our doctor’s supervision.” The effects of the drug on Luce were revelatory: while walking through the backyard of his Arizona residence, the tone-deaf publisher began to hear music so enchanting that he began conducting an imaginary orchestra in the middle of his cactus garden.

Luce, a devout Republican and supporter of various conservative causes, seems today like an unlikely user of hallucinogenic drugs. But his enthusiasm, as Stephen Siff’s Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience demonstrates, makes more sense in the context of the period — 1943 to 1966 — when LSD was legal in the United States. When Luce announced he was taking LSD, there was no national “drug problem” to speak of, and LSD was a legal substance that was prescribed by some pioneering psychotherapists. The history of LSD in the United States, and its strange path from legitimacy to illegitimacy, is a fascinating tale that needs to be better understood now that psychedelic drugs are making a comeback in medicine and psychotherapy. Siff’s bold and masterful exercise in journalistic demystification documents how the media’s attempt to represent the psychedelic experience generated hyperbolic and hysterical readings from LSD advocates and anti-drug opponents alike.

LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938. Hoffmann, a Swiss research chemist for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, discovered the drug’s mind-altering effects when he accidently ingested it in 1943. Researchers in the United States and Canada were fascinated with LSD because they believed it could potentially unlock the mystery of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. References to LSD as a “psychotomimetic” drug (i.e., a mind-altering drug that mimics psychosis) first appear in the American press in the early 1950s. However, the psychotomimetic interpretation of LSD was abandoned in the mid-1950s when researchers discovered that the drug did much more than simply “mimic psychosis.” “Psychotomimetic” was soon replaced by a more positive term, “psychedelic” (or “mind-manifesting”).

The prestige of literature as well as science helped make psychedelic drugs a suitable subject for journalistic attention. In 1954, The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic text on the benefits of psychedelic drugs, appeared. Mainstream publications like The New York Times, Saturday Review, and The Reporter that rarely covered explicit accounts of drug use were willing to review Huxley’s book and even print stories about his experiments with mescaline at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Huxley’s status as an important novelist from a prestigious family of intellectuals shielded him from overt criticism. However, some American newspapers predictably expressed skepticism about Huxley’s admiration for psychedelic drugs. The Washington Post, for instance, labeled his “strange campaign to induce civilization to switch from alcohol and tobacco” to mescaline “a little wacky.”

Another breakthrough moment came three years later, with the publication of Gordon Wasson’s “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in Life magazine in June of 1957. Wasson, a prominent Wall Street banker and the vice president of J.P. Morgan, described, in vivid language, his rhapsodic magic mushroom trip with curandera María Sabina in a small village in rural Mexico. Again the elite identity of the author helped legitimize the text: Siff argues that Wasson’s status as a respectable Wall Street banker insulated him from media criticism and the suggestion that magic mushrooms were just another way to get high.

Wasson’s historic article in Life ushers in the period — roughly 1957 to 1963 — when psychedelic drugs would often receive approving mentions in the American print media. The apex of favorable press for LSD is probably the media’s coverage of Cary Grant’s psychotherapy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mainstream publications like Look, Time, The Washington Post, and Good Housekeeping covered the story and featured frequent “puff pieces” about Grant and his use of psychedelics. Richard Gehman, a writer for Ladies’ Home Journal, effused about the actor’s LSD-induced metamorphosis:

By courageously permitting himself to be one of the subjects of a psychiatric experiment with a drug that eventually may become an important tool in psychotherapy, Grant has become a radically different man. He has become something few stars have ever become: a healthy, reasonably well-adjusted, mentally fit human being, more dynamic, more dashing than he himself would have believed possible. At fifty-six, he seems to be living a second youth of physical and emotional resurgence.

LSD’s belle époque also encompassed the rise of Timothy Leary in the early 1960s. Leary, a rising star in applied psychology, pioneered the notion of “set and setting” (“set” referred to “mindset” and “setting” to the social environment where the drug was administered). While at Harvard, Leary and his team of researchers discovered that “bad trips” could virtually be eliminated if a warm and supportive social environment was provided for the drug user. However, Leary’s research was soon disrupted when the tabloid press began printing sensationalist stories about undergraduate drug use.

In May of 1963, Leary and his colleague Richard Alpert were both dismissed from Harvard. The so-called “Harvard Drug Scandal” ushered in the first wave of negative criticism about LSD; Look, The Boston Herald, The Reporter, Esquire, and The Saturday Evening Post all ran harshly negative articles in the aftermath. However, Siff notes that even apparently negative articles about LSD like The Saturday Evening Post’s “The Dangerous Magic of LSD” could have a curious ricochet effect on the reader. In the latter article, Leary and Alpert are referred to as “a band of dedicated cultists” who “wander the hemisphere like misplaced lotus-eaters, seeking the freedom to drug themselves with hallucinogens and to study and enjoy the unearthly raptures they call The Experience.” In this case, the author’s colorful description of the psychedelic drug experience serves to negate the overt theme of moral disapproval. Siff also provocatively suggests that the media’s coverage of psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s produces what the communications scholar Charles Atkin calls “inadvertent social norming”: the suggestion that “drug use is more popular and accepted than it actually is.”

Perhaps Siff’s most compelling chapter, “Moral Panic and Media Hype, 1966–1968,” charts LSD’s swift fall from popularity. In May of 1967, newspapers across the nation published an Associated Press article about a group of college students in Santa Barbara, California, who took LSD and stared at the sun until their retinas become permanently damaged. In the AP account, no student names were mentioned and no medical facility was cited: the only source given was an unnamed "ophthalmological spokesperson.” A similar story from eastern Pennsylvania appeared in the Associated Press in January of 1968. However, three days after Newsweek picked up the report, Raymond Shafer, the governor of Pennsylvania, announced to the press that the story was a hoax planted by Norman Yoder, the Commissioner of the Office of the Blind in the Pennsylvania Welfare Department. Yoder, who was blind from a childhood accident, made up the story to dissuade children and teenagers from experimenting with LSD. Reputable news outlets (Newsweek, The New York Times, and Time) were willing to print these stories because “they had the aura of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’: even while collapsing under close examination, they seemed true because they felt right.” When covering LSD stories, Siff notes, journalists often “echoed and amplified stories that appeared to convey larger truths, even while the particular details of the stories might often have seemed, as the newsroom expression goes, “too good to check.”

Siff’s study ends in the late 1960s with the ascendancy of Richard Nixon and the birth of the War on Drugs. Nixon identified the growing use of illegal drugs as a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans” and targeted psychedelic drugs in particular with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which classified LSD and psilocybin as “Schedule 1,” the same category as heroin. Schedule 1 classification indicates that the drugs have a potential for abuse and no current medical use. The fact that LSD and psilocybin had no addictive properties had little bearing on Congress’s legislation. As the political and legal demonization of LSD took hold, the mainstream media became less interested in stories about the mystical and therapeutic effects of LSD. Despite its efficacy in psychotherapy, LSD was treated as an illegal street drug alongside heroin and cocaine.

In recent years, however, psychedelic drugs are experiencing a significant medical and cultural revival. In the last decade, NYU, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and the University of Arizona have all conducted FDA-approved studies of LSD and psilocybin to treat cluster headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and nicotine addiction, and to alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer. Future studies will use psychedelics (including MDMA) to treat alcoholism, drug addiction, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although all of this quite naturally falls outside the scope of Siff’s historical study, his analysis and conclusions suggest that a new era is slowly emerging: a moment when the medical and journalistic community can view psychedelic drugs as a therapeutic resource rather than a source of moral panic.


James Penner is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014).

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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