The Storms of Youth

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) arose on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in the fall of 1964. This was a period of unbridled optimism and enthusiasm among student activists. The Cold War had finally thawed, and many were eager to flex their political muscle for a variety of issues: civil rights, disarmament, university reform, and so forth. Nothing less than a wholesale transformation of society was thought to be in the offing. The cities would be renovated, the institutions remade, the downtrodden uplifted, and justice would ultimately prevail. It was a moment saturated with possibility, and those who joined the protest struggle were confident, in the words of Lautreamont, that "the storms of youth precede brilliant days."

The young radicals were fashioning the beginnings of a unique political gestalt that encompassed a dual-pronged radical project. They believed that challenging entrenched authority entailed a concerted attempt to alter the institutions and policy-making apparatus that had been usurped by a self-serving power elite; at the same time, they sought to lead lives that embodied the social changes they desired. For sixties activists, the quest for social iustice was in many ways a direct extension of the search for personal authenticity. They were as much concemed with questions of psychic liberation as with economic and political issues. Their demand for a high-energy, freewheeling, erotic culture was a keystone of their anti-authoritarian crusade.

For many of the new bohemians, radicalism had become a way of life. Moving against the structures of antifreedom involved distinctive modes of dress and speech, how you wore your hair, what you smoked, the kind of music you listened to, and so forth. Getting stoned and floating through the day formed the basis of an almost ritualized existence for these people. Finding the clothes, making the connection, copping the dope and smoking it, and leavening the mixture with one's ongoing experience was in many ways a full-time job in itself.

During the nascent phase of the student movement, taking drugs was a way of saying "No!" to authority, of bucking the status quo. Drug use and radical politics often went hand in hand. If a certain percentage of young people in a given college town were smoking pot or dropping acid, then there was generally a corresponding level of political activism. Not everyone who turned on was also involved in political protest, but there was a significant overlap between the two groups. Many people associated with the FSM, including half the members of the steering committee, were getting high. In this respect Berkeley was not much different from other schools, it was just the leading edge of the political and cultural groundswell that would soon sweep the entire country.

It is impossible to understand the politics of LSD without also considering the politics of marijuana, as the two were linked within the drug subculture. The popularity of both suhstances was inseparable from the outlaw ethos surrounding their use. Dope was an initiation into a cult of secrecy, with blinds drawn, incense burning to hide the smell, and music playing as the joint was ritualistically passed around a circle of friends. Said Michael Rossman, a veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, "When a young person took his first puff of psychoactive smoke, he also drew in the psychoactive culture as a whole, the entire matrix of law and association surrounding the drug, its induction and transaction. One inhaled a certain way of dressing, talking, acting, certain attitudes. One became a youth criminal against the State."

That dope was fun and illegal made the experience all the more exciting. The toking ritual drew people together in a unique way, so that they felt as if they were part of a loose tribe. Who you got high with was as important as what you got high on, for you shared parts of yourself along with the smoke. Getting stoned was a reprieve from dead time, school time, television time, punch-the-clock time, and that was what made the drug so attractive.

Once you had smoked marijuana and enioyed the experience, an interest in other drugs was natural. For many people lighting up was a prelude to tripping out; the set they took off the smoking high disposed them favorably toward LSD. Although acid and grass are both aesthetic enhancers, the strength of LSD put it in a whole other category. Whereas pot is mild enough to be playful, acid is an intense and unremitting dose of bacchanalia.

In some sense one is forced to earn whatever psychological truths can be gleaned from having the mind stretched to unknown limits by a psychedelic. That was what Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters meant when they invited people to try and "pass the Acid Test." The willingness to endure what could be a rather harrowing ordeal was for many young men and women a way of cutting the last umbilical cord to everything the older generation had designated as safe and sanitized. If smoking marijuana turned people into social outlaws, acid led many to see themselves as cosmic fugitives.

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An excerpt from Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press)
Copyright 1985 by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
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