OWSLEY STANLEY: MAN WHO DRUGGED THE WORLD
By Simon Edge
OWSLEY Stanley, who died this weekend, made most of the world's
supply of mind-bending drugs in his tiny kitchen, thus helping to
create flower power, hippiedom and a warped revolution
There has been a trip taken by many people over a number of years,
starting in the Sixties, says Owsley Stanley in a wordy essay on the
website where he sold hand-crafted metal jewellery from his adopted
home in northern Australia. "It is a trip to renew our connection
with the planet we live on and its lifeforms… We thought of ourselves
as exploring new ways of looking at the universe but as it turns out
the adventure is almost as old as man himself."
Stanley, once described by US agents as "the man who did for LSD what
Henry Ford did for the motorcar", has now set out on a different kind
of trip, following his death in a car crash on Sunday night at the
age of 76. A dogmatic eccentric, who had moved to tropical Queensland
in order to be safe from the ice age he believed would be unleashed
by global warming and who refused to eat anything other than meat and
dairy foods because he thought vegetables were toxic, he was not by
all accounts the easiest character.
But for a few years in the last century he was synonymous with the
drug he manufactured in vast quantities and dispensed free because he
and his hundreds of thousands of hippie followers were convinced it
would save the world. In the Oxford Dictionary of ModernSlang,
"Owsley acid" is defined as "high-quality LSD". That's the
hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (the abbreviation
comes from its German name) first created from a grain fungus bya
Swiss chemist in the Thirties.
With its mind-bending psychological effects it was used for a while
as a therapeutic mental health drug. Patients included the actor Cary
Grant, who announced excitedly: "I have been born again." It was also
studied with great interest by the CIA, which tested it widely and
even tried to slip some to Fidel Castro before a TV address. In the
early Sixties it was discovered by the fledgling counter-culture
springing up in San Francisco's run- down but picturesque Haight-
Ashbury district. Already interested in Native American spiritualism
and back-to-nature simplicity these early hippies were entranced by
the "psychedelic" view of the world that even the tiniest dose of
acid as LSD was nicknamed could provide.
Among them was Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who was born in Kentucky
in 1935 and whose grandfather of the same name had been governor of
that state. Studying at the University of Berkeley, just across the
bay from San
Francisco, he dropped out after less than a year having discovered
the recipe for LSD in a chemistry journal. He reputedly made
1.25million doses between 1965 and 1967.
His makeshift laboratory was raided by police soon after he started
but since LSD was not yet illegal officers were forced to give his
equipment back. With a reputation for making the purest product
Stanley became the official supplier to novelist Ken Kesey, who had
been introduced to the drug as a CIA volunteer and now organised
"acid test" parties where guests sipped from LSD-spiked punch.
Meanwhile Jimi Hendrix's song Purple Haze was said to be inspired by
a potent batch of Owsley acid.
When the drug was made illegal in California in 1966 Stanley carried
on running a secret lab. This was raided in 1967. He escaped jail but
finally went to prison for two years when he was arrested for
possessing marijuana and a judge revoked his bail. "I wound up doing
time for something I should have been rewarded for," he said in a
rare interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. "What I did
was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for
political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I
was a good member of society only my society and the one making the
laws are different."
That may not convince everyone but he certainly did not conform to
the standard image of a drug baron. Because the doses involved in
taking LSD were tiny it was difficult to manufacture the drug in
modest quantities and Stanley gave a great deal of it away in order
to keep the street price down. He said he wanted to get out after it
became illegal but he felt an obligation to the hundreds of thousands
of hippies who were switching on to the new psychedelic consciousness.
"I got to San Francisco in 1967 and we were definitely happy
customers of Owsley Stanley," says Ben Collins, now an HIV consultant
in his 60s but then a student at Stanford University. He recalls
travelling to a desert gig by the band Jefferson Airplane, where lead
singer Grace Slick kept whispering the refrain "Drop acid, drop acid"
into the microphone.
Collins and his friends didn't know what this meant but by the end
of the summer they did. Colins says: "It had a transformative
influence on the college campuses and the major hip cities. A lot of
people dropped out and Stanford virtually shut down for a while. It
felt creative and incredibly positive and you really did have the
impression that if everybody just lived together dropping acid it
would solve the problems of the world.
"We were watching terrible images from Vietnam on the news every
night and all the young men taking LSD were facing the draft so there
was an incredible need to escape from the world to some other place
and 'get out of it'. It's no coincidence that the anti-war movement
became so powerful at that time." Young people flocked to Haight-
Ashbury to take part in what became known as the Summer of Love. By
the autumn of 1967 the leaders of the hippie community pleaded with
them to stop coming and to take the counter-culture to their home
By that time LSD was becoming embedded in the culture and not just
in songs by bands such as the Grateful Dead, for whom Stanley worked
as manager and sound engineer. The Beatles' album Magical Mystery
Tour was clearly inspired by psychedelic imagery and the BBC banned
their song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds because of the cheeky
abbreviation its title seemed to spell. Meanwhile the drop-out
communities with their new ways of living spawned new movements for
women's liberation and gay rights, and lent valuable support to the
growing civil rights movement.
Not everyone was impressed. The writer Joan Didion went to stay in
Haight-Ashbury and wrote of the squalor she found there, with lost
teenagers sought by frantic parents and rape dressed up as free love.
"We are seeing the desperate attempt of pathetically unequipped
children to create a community in a social vacuum," she wrote. "We
had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we
happened to be playing. They are less in rebellion against the
society than ignorant of it."
For his part, Stanley moved to Australia, became a great-grandfather
and was said to have become less crabby with age. "I never set out to
change the world," he said. "I only set out to make sure I was taking
something [where] I knew what it was. And it's hard to make a little.
My friends all wanted to know what they were taking too. Of course,
my friends expanded very rapidly." Unlike later kinds of recreational
drugs, LSD is not addictive. Some heavy users reported "flashbacks"
but these are no longer officially recognised as a psychiatric symptom.
The main danger was an impaired ability to make sensible judgments
and understand common dangers. According to one popular urban myth,
people tended to jump off buildings because they thought they could
fly. Today the drug has largely disappeared, partly because the new
way of looking at the world lost its attraction. "After lots of acid
trips I got jaded," recalls Collins. "'Same ol' eternal verities,' I
would mutter at the end of another 24-hour trip."