British Society in the Acid Liminal
Psychedelia's cultural questions lurking beneath the medical
The ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has tended to make us think about the legal frameworks of drugs in Britain within a medical context. This isn’t surprising. The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) scheduled most psychedelics as ‘Class A’, severely restricting medical access and, at the time, effectively ending two decades of LSD research. Breaching this barrier has been paramount to the renaissance.
However, exclusively medical readings mask forgotten, cultural questions.
Lest we forget, underground psychedelicists have been quietly (for the most part) going about their business since the 1960s, only occasionally having run-ins with the law. In a recent Vice article, David Hillier describes ‘magic mushrooms’ evolving into a party drug—'now just another part of sesh architecture’—arguing that they are no longer simply the preserve of hippie spirituality and therapeutic self-reflection. In other words, they’re recreational.
That said, shrooms have been part of the ‘sesh architecture’ in Britain since at least the psilocybin festivals of the 1970s. It is crucial to remember that the vast majority of psychedelicists remain not in the laboratory, but in the fields and parties. And with medical research on a seemingly unstoppable rise, long, lingering questions about psychedelics in the private sphere will receive more and more public attention. Of course, we’ve been here before.
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The years between 1966 and 1971 were a kind of curious, legal liminal era in which LSD possession was outlawed in Britain, yet medical research persisted (a little like today). And with a vibrant, recreational counterculture emerging in London around the same time, alongside protest movements and political radicals, LSD discourse was embroiled not only in medical questions, but also in competing, factional visions of British society.
Indeed, while superficially defined by health arguments, this micro-era of LSD regulation was in fact established by media hype and political expediency in the first place, and in a very short space of time.
Over the course of 1965-66, salacious newspaper articles warning about the growing use of LSD in London grew apace. In August ‘66, parliamentary debates ensued which then led to LSD being added to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964. Practically speaking, this meant that medical prescriptions and licenses were required for the possession and distribution of the drug—essentially closing a legal grey area in its recreational use.
As Andy Roberts writes in ‘Season of the Witch’: ‘the manner and haste with which LSD was brought within the law in 1966 indicates how much the drug, with its potential to radically change consciousness, was feared by the Establishment.’ Quite rightly adding that opinions and law, ‘were formed without recourse to fact or due consideration of the rights of the individual to alter consciousness in accordance with choice.’
While fear about the mental health of Britain’s youth was certainly touted as a reason to bring LSD under tighter restrictions, it was revealingly absent from much of the debate afterwards. Instead, the new legal status of LSD users highlighted Britain’s ongoing cultural and social transformation; one in which the drug took on an emblematic but contested role.
Interestingly, these debates show it was not simply a case of ‘us and them’, or ‘Establishment verses counterculture’. There were more complex readings of the situation being shared. For instance, LSD users were seen by some as indicative of the liberal turn of the Establishment itself in Britain during the 1960s, not merely as an isolated underground counterculture, but an effect of wider forces.
One week after the new legislation was enacted, an article by journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘LSD: Instant Ecstasy’, appeared in the left-leaning New Statesman. Muggeridge was a very prominent, longstanding writer who had never been averse to courting controversy. During the 1960s, however, he was increasingly turning to a morally conservative Christian worldview, precisely at the moment the religion’s remaining influence over public life rapidly waned.
Muggeridge’s article had remarkably little to say about mental health and medicine and was more concerned with Britain’s newly-minting ‘permissive society’—a cultural and political phenomenon. Moreover, the article shows how little columnists knew about the nascent acid subculture in Britain itself. For instance, Muggeridge interviewed the American Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) rather than any British exponents (medical or otherwise).
On learning about Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment and how LSD might be useful in marriage guidance, Muggeridge’s emerging Christian moral conservativism came to fore. He wrote:
‘Why sit on top a pillar like Simeon Stylites, or toil over Prophetic Books like Blake, or put on a hair-shirt like St Augustine, when sucking an LSD-soaked sugar lump or piece of blotting paper will take you effortlessly all the way there and back again?’
This was actually a familiar British critique of the largely North American reading of the psychedelic experience as a form of experimental mysticism, which English writers like RC Zaehner and RH Ward had similarly argued against a decade before. However, whereas previous writers had tended to argue on theological and experiential grounds, Muggeridge is making a cultural point.
He was scornful about the morality of ‘instant ecstasy’ and ‘instant sex’, moreover sarcastically suggesting that LSD would instead be a boon for big business (some modern trippers may well agree with this critique!). Crucially though, he added that the drug actually benefited Establishment authority: ‘acidheads are somnolent and muddled… just the condition our sort of society requires of its citizens.’ Finishing with an ironic flourish, ‘A certain number of suicides, breakdowns and dropouts are a small price to pay for such acquiescence.’
Muggeridge’s ironic tones are quite revealing. He was a fierce critic of the emerging liberal Establishment in Britain, and equally saw the larger claims made for LSD as being intrinsically linked to this worldview. His disquiet about Britain’s ‘permissive society’ soon became open conflict in his life shortly after being appointed Rector of Edinburgh University—a role mediating between university authorities and student representatives.
In 1967 The Student magazine published an article touting LSD’s ability to aid self-growth in people. The university authorities overreacted, sending copies to the Home Office, and the editor was suspended. Protests ensued, including demands for free contraceptives and Muggeridge’s unwavering support as Rector.
As a result, he resigned. In a speech, he said he would have felt sympathy for any challenge to the ‘run-down’ values and ‘spiritually impoverished’ life of Britain, but he felt that it was, ‘in a macabre sort of way, funny that the form their insubordination takes should be a demand for pot and pills; for the most tenth-rate sort of escapism and self-indulgence ever known’.
Interestingly, the writer saw himself alienated from a culture changing all around him. His newly adopted, conservative morality was part of a by then near-vanished Establishment—views that belonged to previous generations. The progressive wing of the Labour Party was ascendent in the Sixties and the growth of student protests movements towards its end, populated by the children of wealthy elites, punctuated those attitudes for generations.
Yet fascinatingly, Muggeridge’s argument was reflected in critiques of LSD culture that emanated from leftist radicals. I noted this in my last article looking at anarchism and it is also true, as we shall see, of the social justice progressives. It demonstrates the extent to which the ‘pot and LSD’ culture of Britain (and America) was itself part of a more complex subcultural scene—with differing demands and commitments to their particular vision of what ‘should be’.
On the 17 March 1967, the long-running pacifist magazine Peace News published ‘The Case Against the Drug Culture’ by the American Henry Anderson. In it he was as scornful of the ‘race for outer space’ as much as he was the ‘race for inner space’, believing they both neglected the problems of ‘middle space’—'problems located neither in heaven nor in hell, but right here in the everyday, common sense, real life experiential world.’
Having admittedly never taken LSD, Anderson can perhaps be forgiven for thinking the effects of the drug take place in a non-experiential space.
For him, the psychedelic question had nothing to do with people behaving erratically, or claims it might lead to suicide, or acts of violence, in short neither criminality nor health. He asked, ‘are they a diversion, a distraction, a siphoning off of energies which are desperately needed elsewhere, a way of opting out which is heartlessly unfair to those who are left?’ He believed so and, noting that activists and trippers were rarely the same people, saw acid culture as a failure of social responsibility, just like Muggeridge.
Instead, Anderson suggests other more authentic paths to consciousness expansion, which he enjoyed with his friends—improv, creative cooking, free body movement to music, and cosplay. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether these are, a) better at facilitating social transformation, or b) equally if not more fun when high. Regardless, what underscores his critique is the failure of trippers to share in the seriousness of his own worldview.
The article is followed by a lengthy editorial. It argued that the ‘socially-conscious’ must find a way between the ‘tripsters’ and the law, and even accuses Muggeridge and others of ‘exacerbating the situation.’ However, they themselves go on to criticize ‘the type of social attitude and “philosophy” which seems to be spawned by the psychedelic subculture.’ It was, they believed, a wrongheaded approach to ‘personal transcendence’—a mere byproduct of the ‘mechanisation, standardisation, and intellectualism’ of modern life.
‘What is needed with respect to glaring evils like war, racism, colonialism, poverty, etc. is not vague declarations of love, but love embodied in objective social justice’. They saw in American attempts to develop a ‘chemical religion’ an ‘innate tendency towards ultra-traditionalism and conservatism’. Oddly, they then also say its most disturbing feature is its ‘apparent worship of an extremely dangerous and excessive form of individualism’, i.e. its libertarianism.
Whatever the acid-using community believed, one thing is sure, they clearly didn’t share it.
In many respects, Muggeridge and the Peace News writers are addressing Timothy Leary and the American psychedelic ‘movement’. Although the North American tendency toward religiosity certainly had an effect in Britain, the London Underground was, on the whole, less inclined towards the chemical religion of some of their cousins across the pond—they were much more concerned with developing counter-institutions, alternative ways of living, and having fun.
Once again, this underlines just how fragmentary the counterculture scene was if taken in its broadest sense—no simple ‘us and them’. The very uncontrollable nature of the psychedelic experience was apparently a threatening force to anyone who thought they knew precisely how society should be, rather than, to quote Huxley’s Raja, to actually simply see ‘What’s what’.
Now that the medical veil is being peeled back, the tripper is once again going to be asked what exactly their vision of society is and, more insidiously, judged on whether their response is in accordance with the questioner’s. ‘What do you trip for?’ They will ask. For money? For God? For society? For yourself? The persisting judgement of the law will cloak itself through the prism of these expectations.
I imagine most psychedelic-using communities, however, will quietly continue to design their own ‘sesh architecture’ for the foreseeable future, just as they have done for decades. Perhaps we can get to a point where they’re legally, and culturally, allowed to get on and do that—the point at which society can truly emerge from the acid liminal.
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