LSD and ’shrooms at Yale? In the ’60s, sure

“I would like to see some college set up a psychedelic center and after a great deal of careful preparation, make an expertly guided session available to the students willing to prepare for it,” said former assistant professor of psychology Michael Kahn, advocating the academically-sanctioned use of LSD.

These words were printed in an Oct. 1966 edition of the News, right in the middle of an era popularly considered synonymous with flower power, free love and psychedelia.

Was Kahn’s comment reflective of the mood of the times?

Alumni and sources from the News’ archives reveal that in the late 1960s and ’70s, drugs were associated with progressivism and intellectualism, and as a result became more widely discussed and used, surpassing alcohol as the substance of choice for many students.

Christopher Buckley ’75, the author of “Thank You for Smoking” and a former editor for the News, said students also took mushrooms and nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.

He said a group of his friends had a connection to the night watchman at New Haven Compressed Air, who often “looked the other way” as the students carried out a tank of nitrous oxide, which they would use at “laughing gas parties.” On one occasion, a student dropped the tank on his toe.

“We all sat around doing laughing gas while his toe swelled to about 12 times its normal size,” Buckley said. “But we had a supply of anesthetic, so we elected to self-medicate him.”

Although Buckley’s experience was not necessarily the norm of the era — a 1969 poll by the News said only 9 percent of students had tried hallucinogenic drugs — milder drugs were a pervasive part of Yale culture.

Alumni said the most commonly used drugs of the era were marijuana and LSD. According to a poll conducted by the News in 1969, 35 percent of Yalies had tried marijuana, compared to only 26 percent of students who said they had in News poll of 850 students conducted between Friday and Sunday.

In Dec. 1968, the News published an editorial by F. Jay Dougherty ’71 arguing for the legalization of marijuana. The author, now a law professor and entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, said he still stands by the argument he made as a student.

During his time at Yale, he said drugs seemed to be used for reasons other than simply recreation, as he thinks they are most commonly used now, citing the “stupid, stoner image” of modern users.

“There was a lot of intellectual curiosity and an almost anthropological exploration,” he said, referring to students’ experimentation when he was at Yale. “People who got high were a subgroup of people who were progressive politically.”

Like Dougherty, history professor Geoffrey Kabaservice ’88, who studies Yale, said marijuana use at Yale during the ’60s and ’70s was often a political act of defiance for students who thought the government’s classification of substances as illegal was arbitrary and politically-based.

“[Marijuana] was a way to feel solidarity with that part of your generation,” he said.

Kabaservice said some sources have suggested that by the late ’60s and early ’70s, marijuana had even replaced alcohol as the drug of choice. He said that by the late 1970s, marijuana use had become so prevalent that a professor once noticed a group of inebriated undergraduates in one of the dining halls, and was surprised that they were drunk and not high.

Many students continued to drink alcohol, Dougherty said, but it was looked upon as primitive and conservative.

Throughout the era, topics related to drugs and drug use were discussed openly. LSD, for example, showed up often in old News articles — some of which addressed it directly, while others mentioned it in passing.

One 1968 movie review printed in the News, on the psychedelic film “The Trip,” praised the movie for its similarity to an acid trip, encouraging use of the drug in the piece.

“The sensitivity and expertise with which [the director] creates the effects of LSD are evidence of his first-hand experience. The spectacular visual effects are really psychedelic,” said the October 1968 article. “If you’re stoned when you see “The Trip,” your pleasure will increase tenfold.”

But LSD and marijuana were not the only drugs on campus. One piece, by Hugh Spitzer ’70, on the rising prices of drugs, included a laundry list of substances that the NHPD Gambling and Narcotics Squad claimed were used on campus. Among these drugs were white acid, mescaline, methedrine and various combinations with names like San Francisco Speedball, Pink Wedges and Purple Owsley.

Dougherty added that some students used speed for studying — an observation that mirrors current poll responses, though the results show that students have now turned instead to prescription drugs instead.

Spitzer’s story concluded with the following sentence: “Illegal or not, drugs will most likely remain a part of the scene for some time to come.”

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