LSD High School: Acid Flashes Back to Popularity

The song says Timothy Leary’s dead. He’s not. And neither is his favorite drug.

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This article was pulled from the Folio archives. It was originally published in September 1993.

In the psychedelic 1960s, a KS Harvard psychologist advised America to “tune in, turn on, and drop out." Timothy Leary argued that if we all expanded our minds  a bit we would become better people and that would make the world a better place. He wrote a national prescription for lysergic acid diethylamide.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that about 10 million Americans have taken Leary’s prescription at least once, but acid use has been on the decline since peaking in the early '70s. LSD never fell completely off the charts, but it came close. Until recently.

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According to Monitoring the Future, an annual study conducted by the University of Michigan, acid’s popularity has grown in recent years among Americans aged 19 to 28, college students, high school seniors, high school sophomores and 8th graders.

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The head of the Drug Enforcement Agency testified before Congress in April 1992, “LSD has made its way into our nation’s school systems at every level.” Acid has come ashore on the First Coast, too.

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Detective Ben Moore, of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, said there has been “a noticeable increase" in arrests involving LSD in recent years, “probably over the last two years.” Doug Joiner, senior program administrator at Charter Center in Jacksonville, said he's observed “an increase of LSD as a drug of choice" among the young people he sees at the treatment center.

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Some of them are very young.

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John is 14. He’s a surfer. A skinny kid with brownish, blondish hair, he picks at the frayed ends of his shorts as he talks. He fiddles with his ring — twisting it on his finger, taking it off, putting it back on. He began dropping acid at 12. He started smoking pot at 10. He's also snorted coke, smoked crack (once) and he’s been a steady and heavy user of alcohol, though he doesn’t see it that way.

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“Alcohol was, like, not really a problem for me, only at parties," he said. “Or we'd go to the Jiffy, run in, grab a case of beer and just haul, haul butt with it and go home and get drunk. ... I probably got drunk every weekend at parties and with friends.”

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Before he got into a treatment program, John did acid once a week, sometimes twice. He says he does pretty well in school.

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“I don't enjoy it but I do good in school,” he said. “I get As, Bs and Cs.  I used to get straight As until I got into drugs. When I was into drugs I never wanted to go to school. I always wanted to skip and go get high. But somehow I always ended up passing. I only made, like, one F in my whole life in school.

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“I never liked school. When I was little, like in elementary, I liked school. I just go to school now to trip and have fun with my friends."

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Bill is an articulate 16 year old. A football player who likes to read, he wore a confident air and a Marine Corps t-shirt. He gets Cs and Ds and isn’t crazy about school. "I don’t really like it but I feel it is something that I have to do to become something in this world today,” he said.

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Bill started doing acid when he was 14. He began with alcohol and pot, then acid, then coke (three times), then PCP (twice). Before treatment, he said, he dropped acid four to six times a month.

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There are a number of theories — rang­ing from marketing to forgetfulness — that explain the resurgence of LSD among young people.

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The National Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) claims that the return of fashions and music from the 1960s, movies glorifying that decade and the media's glorification of Dead Heads have all contributed to acid's resurrection. “We haven’t seen this kind of blatant psychedelic culture since the late ’60s,” PRIDE co-founder Marsha Schuchard told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year.

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Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator for the Michigan University study, believes acid’s popularity may be attributable to the fact that acid has been relatively unpopular for so long. Young people generally don’t know the meaning of the term “bad trip." And the folks who’ve been broadcasting the evils of crack and other, more popular, drugs haven’t said much about LSD lately.

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Ironically, the success of the public relations campaign against drug use may be working against itself in this case. Today’s young people, Johnston told the Associated Press, “maybe aren’t learning as much about drugs as their predecessors who grew up in a drug-infested world."

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Joiner has a more straightforward explanation: “No muss, no fuss. You don’t need needles. You don’t need matches. ... It’s easy. It’s cheap. LSD is for the rural, suburban kid what crack is for the inner city.”

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Moore echoed that assessment. “For the money, you’re getting a high that is lasting more than cocaine will.”

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Kids who use acid have an even simpler explanation.

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“You don’t know what you’re doing on acid," John said. “But it’s fun to do.”

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Bill said, “I was doing it for fun; something to get undepressed."

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Kids today, Bill said, “Are bored with the world. They’ve already done stuff and they get bored with it and they tiy to find new experiences, new things to do, something — a rush. Teenagers, most of the teenagers I know, like a rush, like to live on the edge. That’s how I like it.”

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John, too, talked of acid as an antidote to boredom. At school, he said, “It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. It’s boring. You just listen to teachers all day and do work. It’s boring."

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Other activities hold the same lack of attraction.

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“I don't like sports. They’re boring. … i can draw but i only draw when I’m bored." 

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The typical young acid user, according to Joiner, is “generally Caucasian, generally from a middle class, upper class family. Articulate. Has command of the language. Has potential academically. Quite social. Someone with some family issues, family problems, not quite sure what their future is going to be about. It’s doom and gloom. Won't admit their depression.” 

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Acid users, generally, are not as violent as cocaine cowboys or as desperate as heroin addicts. Because of their economic status and the fact that their drug of choice is relatively inexpensive, according to Moore, LSD users rarely steal to support their habit.

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John got into treatment after he was arrested for breaking and entering. Marijuana was his expensive habit. He said he was going through a quarter bag — $ 125 worth of pot — every two or three days. To provide a steady flow of cash, he would steal to raise money to buy a quarter sheet of acid — 100 hits for $175 — and retail the acid for $5 per hit. That’s a profit of $325 per sheet.

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“That’s where I got most of my money," John said. “It’s a good profit. But it’s kind of dangerous selling [because of the threat of arrest and prosecution]. It’s kind of scary selling.”

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Bill said he would never sell drugs.

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“I couldn’t put myself to selling and thinking I was going to kill somebody else,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”

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Getting a legitimate job is not an alternative, as far as John is concerned.

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“You can’t get a job when you’re 14.... I  got police records. They ain’t going to hire me. I’ve put out applications for jobs," he said. “The only job you’re going to get is mowing yards by yourself. I wouldn’t never do that. It’s too hot. I ain't got — I just won’t do it."

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Selling acid is such easy money, it’s easy to see why John has that attitude. When John was in middle school, he would skip school and sell acid at a high school. Once the word was out that he was selling, John said, “there'd be a hundred people there trying to get acid."

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Today's acid is different from the blot­ters that were passed around the fields of Yasgar’s Farm.

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“I'm not quite sure that the potency is what it used to be in the late '60s and '70s. ... It's different," Joiner said. “I just don't think it’s made quite the same. You hear kids now saying, 'I'm taking four or five hits of acid.' You ask a kid, 'Have you had a bad trip?’ [He says] ‘No. What’s that?’

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"You know, when you take acid and things start to go wrong for you or you hallucinate.' [They have] no concept.”

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“It’s made me think that what’s being made in these garages or wherever these labs are, just isn’t quite the same," Joiner said. “At least, we haven’t experienced it here."

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The lower dosage, Joiner believes, is one reason there have been relatively few incidents of truly bizarre behavior and relatively few truly tragic trips reported among today's LSD users.

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Not that such things are unheard of. Joiner told of one girl who, after very limited exposure to LSD, suffered permanent brain damage. She was a very good student, he said, who “all of a sudden couldn't grasp what the teacher was saying —at all."

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One boy, after heavy use of LSD, would slip into another personality. He became a wolf. Joiner said the young man told of going around on all fours and and talked about his spiritual connections to the moon. He growled.

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“He really took some pride in that personality as opposed to the other person: the actor, the bright, articulate A and B student who was a depressed kid, a very angry kid and an abused kid,” Joiner said. “I think this other personality gave him strength over other parts of his life.”

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Joiner also told of another teenager. “For him, five, six hits of acid a day was not a problem. He got into cross dressing, had some identity issues in terms of wanting to dress like a female — makeup, the whole nine yards.”

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The boy did well in treatment, Joiner said.

“But the community is much stronger than we are and he’s right back to his old ways."

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Among adolescents and teenagers, Joiner said, drug abuse is “always coupled with something. ... A lot of escapism, a lot of coping. It’s a very stressful world today. ... There are too many choices and nobody to bounce them off of.

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“The issues are self-esteem, acceptance and belonging. One kid said it’s like a war out there and you’ve got to choose your sides.”

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The problem is rarely simply “out there.”

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“There are generally other things that are going on in the family,” Joiner said.

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Joiner said he encounters “a lot of blended families — by blended I mean someone in the family is not the natural parent.”

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Those things seem to hold true in John and Bill’s cases. Neither seems to find much support at home or at school or anywhere else.

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John did drugs with his older brother regularly. His brother, John said, “does every drug you can name." His cousin uses a lot of cocaine. His father smokes pot. “My dad used to give it to my brother when he got old —like 15."

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John believes both of his parents knew about his drug use.

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“My mom, she says she didn’t, but I'm pretty sure she did. Because we smoked pot in the house and it smelled.”

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In John’s eyes, authority figures outside of his house approved of — or, at least, tol­erated —his drug use.

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“My teachers used to know I’d come to school high. They didn’t care. It wasn’t no big deal. It wasn’t hurting them any so they didn’t try to help me or nothing. Even the dean knew I got high. He got high himself. It wasn’t no big deal. He used to get high. He used to buy it from my dad. ... I’ve got­ten high with cops before. Cops smoke pot. We got busted and they'll just take our pot and let us go. It's no big thing.”

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“Most of my friends’ parents do drugs or their dad don’t live with them and their moms can’t stop them from doing drugs," John said. There was disbelief in his voice when he said, “I know girls, a lot of girls now do drugs. They live with their whole families and they still do it."

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John seems to think of drug abuse as a universal inevitability.

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“They don’t teach nothing about drugs in school and if they did nobody would lis­ten to them anyway. I was in third grade and we had to write these speeches about drugs, like, Td never do drugs.’ A year later I was smoking pot and breaking in houses and stuff. You may not think it would happen to you but it'll happen to you sooner or later.”

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Bill said his father smoked pot and “one of my stepfathers did marijuana a lot.” His mother and her current husband don’t do illegal drugs, he said. “They’ll go out on Monday and Wednesday and have a few drinks. They never come home drunk. My stepfather has a couple of times."

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Bill said peer pressure didn’t figure into his drug abuse. He has two sets of friends. One set does drugs. The other doesn't.

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“I don’t hardly feel any peer pressure,” he said. “Usually I do it on my own. I don’t need nobody to push me into doing it. ... I’ve had plenty of teachers and guidance counselors and everything try to help me and I’ve talked to them about it. But usually, it just goes in one ear and out the other.... I feel that if I am going to do it, it’s going to be something that I’m going to do. No one’s going to change my mind for me."

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During the '60s, acid was touted as a mind expanding drug, a spiritual experience. That’s not the case these days.

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“I don’t hear kids talking about that," Joiner said. “They get high. ... They party. There’s not an element of existentialism that exists in the highs that kids are experiencing today.

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“I think there is a small element that — yes, there is an artistic expression and some mind expansion,” he said. “We don’t see that in this population. We see the escapism. Daily living problems or the need to belong is so important for kids and what is there for them to belong to? Not everybody wants to be a 4-H Club member because it ain’t cool."

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John said that he did LSD “looking for laughs. You don’t find yourself. You wake up the next day and you have pains in your back. It’s really bad for you," he said. “But when you have it in front of your face, you take it. It’s for fun. It ain’t for finding yourself or nothing like that. It's for fun.”

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And what about Timothy Leary? What does he think of the renewed popularity of acid? He doesn't like it.

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Leary told The New York Times that LSD should be used only “for noble, spiritual purposes." He said he never advocated acid as a party drug and deplores “in the most passionate tones'' that anyone would use it that way.

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“It’s not casual when you’re activating your brain,” he cautioned.

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