I’ve never considered myself a psychonaut. The prospect of taking any drug usually frightens me more than it excites me. I’ve dabbled, though.
In my first few years of high school, I smoked pot semi-regularly—partly because I wanted to and partly because I thought I should. I grew out my hair, or rather, my curly Jewish locks. (I’d hoped for some waviness, but what can you do?) I often wore a tie-dye shirt, along with a pair of Birkenstocks, and listened to jam bands. I was conjuring a cultural past—the hippie movement of the 60s—that didn’t really jibe with who I wanted to be. Smoking pot, I realized, made me self-hating and quiet. If that was liberation then I wanted nothing of it, but I still didn’t know what exactly I did want.
Near the end of high school, after I’d decided to stop smoking pot altogether, the joint inevitably came my way at parties. “It makes things too real,” I’d say, turning down a puff. “It exacerbates my analytical proclivities,” not even sure myself what that meant.
I’ve lately been thinking about drugs because, a little over a week ago, Owsley Stanley died. A wacky LSD cook—and revolutionary soundman for the Grateful Dead—Stanley concocted, popularized, and set the standard for the purest acid in the 60s. Before him, acid was not a cultural phenomenon. He made it one.
The first and only time I did acid, last summer, I didn’t really feel like it expanded my mind. I hallucinated and thought some deep things while staying up all night in a park. But in the morning, I felt more proud than enlightened for having lived through the experience.
I think acid has definitely lost its spiritual and ethical lustre since the 60s. That goes for most hippie values. Despite this, I still feel there is a sort of anxiety of influence that permeates my generation—an ambiguous indebtedness to the hippies (and unknowingly, to Stanley). It’s not immediately evident, but I think it’s there.
Perhaps that’s why I feel a sense of weakness whenever I turn a joint away at a party—I know what a joint is supposed to offer me, but I also know how I will really feel if I accept it—or why I felt accomplished for having done acid: I can check it off the list.
In the 60s, drugs (and I mean psychedelics) represented more than they could actually offer. Not that they don’t offer anything: you can learn from taking drugs. But the idea of drugs, in my mind, seemed to override their actual effects.
In 1963, when Stanley was researching how to make acid in the library of UC Berkeley, he came across The Kybalion, a book that outlines the ancient principles of alchemy. In a rare interview with Rolling Stone in 2007, Stanley described those principles as “mental transformation.” “Everything is connected, because it’s all being created by this one consciousness. And we are tiny reflections of the mind that is creating the universe. That’s what alchemy says,” he elaborated. To me, that means self-discovery: a noble pursuit. But I think the hippies watered down that notion. It became a platitude.
It took me about three years to realize that I probably shouldn’t smoke any more pot. I didn’t understand what paranoia meant until I smoked enough pot to know it personally. But that was surprisingly sobering in itself. I was making my own self-discoveries through drugs, just not in the way I—or, probably, the hippies—could have imagined.