Stephen Siff is an assistant professor of journalism at Miami University, Ohio. He recently answered some questions about his book Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience.
Q: When did the media first start to write about LSD?
Stephen Siff: Many people hold a stereotype of the 1950s as a gray, button-down decade, but there was also great deal of interest in drugs and the chemical mind during this period. The first drugs that effectively treated severe mental illness were just being developed, as were anti-anxiety medicines that quickly entered casual use for millions of Americans. For journalists, it seemed as though uses for drugs that previously seemed pure science fiction – for mind control, for sex, to improve personality and happiness, for spiritual growth — were now just around the corner.
The first shipment of LSD to researchers in the United States was in 1949. In 1955, their experiments were described in Scientific American. There was a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles in the mid-1950s describing other research studies that used the drug to simulate insanity or reveal forgotten memories. In retrospect, the results of many of these studies seem unduly influenced by the investigators presumptions and biases, as well as the pliable nature of experimental subjects on LSD.
Q: What was the nature of the early media coverage of the drug, and the people who were using it?
Siff: The media coverage was enthusiastic—overly enthusiastic, subsequent history has shown. Scholars have frequently noted the tendency of the news media to dispense with caution and focus on the most sensational implication of a scientific study, to the detriment of accuracy. This was certainly the case with LSD. The news media took scientific studies, which often had flawed conclusions to begin with, and extended them as far as they could go.
The LSD users described in early media reports were typically volunteers for the laboratory experiments or the men who were conducting the experiments. Physicians and psychologists involved in these studies typically took LSD themselves, as part of the value of the drug was thought to be the insight it gave into the experience of mental illness. Later investigators charged that the popularity of LSD with researchers, some of whom also introduced the drug to social settings, also had a contaminating effect on the research.
Q: We’re familiar with many of the figures tied to the use of LSD like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. But what other high profile figures and celebrities were open LSD users before the “psychedelic 60s?”
Siff: I think what people forget is the brief popularity of the drug within the clinical practice of psychology. Practices in New York and California offered LSD a trendy treatment to well-heeled patients struggling with anything from depression and sexual issues to existential angst. It was also offered on a fee-for-service basis to people who didn’t have any particular problem at all. My impression is that it was popular then with a similar patient demographic to those who might pursue Botox with a celebrity doctor today; that is, anyone with the interest, connections and funds.
Probably the most influential LSD advocate not from the counterculture was movie star Cary Grant. In 1959, Grant began talking about the improvements to his mental health wrought by LSD to virtually anyone who would listen. This was featured widely in gossip columns and women’s magazines of the time. Grant continued to talk to reporters about his successful results with LSD therapy until his death in 1986.
Q: When did the first signs of government interaction and regulation in regards of psychedelic drugs start to appear?
Siff: The U.S. government regulated LSD and other psychedelic drugs as an afterthought to more pressing concerns. In 1962, the initial legislation restricting access to LSD and other experimental drugs passed Congress in response to deformed babies being born due to Thalidomide, a drug offered in other countries for morning sickness.
The second major piece of federal legislation regulating LSD was the Drug Control Amendments of 1965, which were really targeted at unmonitored use of the prescription amphetamines and barbiturates. However, the law was written to allow the secretary of the FDA to extend the law’s reach to other stimulants, tranquilizers and drugs with “hallucinogenic effect.”
On the federal level there was a great deal of ambivalence toward criminal sanctions for LSD use through the 1960s, out of concern that the penalties would fall on basically non-criminal college kids.
In 1970, during Richard Nixon’s administration, LSD was classified as a “Schedule 1” drug, the most prohibited class of drugs, judged to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Marijuana was classified in the same category.
Q: When did the media lose interest in covering LSD?
Siff: The news media lost interest in covering LSD around 1970, at the same time that use of the drug was increasing dramatically. It may be surprising to some readers to learn that LSD use was actually much higher during the beginning of the 1970s than in the 1960s. Scholars have speculated that we think of LSD as a drug of the 1960s because of all the media coverage.
I think there were several reasons for the sudden decline in interest. The most enthusiastic coverage of LSD took place while the drug’s legal status was ambiguous, and when its advocates, particularly Timothy Leary, still enjoyed some legitimacy. I think it seemed less appropriate for mainstream journalists to explore psychedelic experience after the law prohibited LSD and Leary was jailed on drug charges. With Nixon in the White House, the notion that society might someday accept drug use for mysticism and self-improvement increasingly seemed like a pipe dream.