12 Things You Might Not Know About Philly and LSD

Talk about your long, strange trips ...

Photo | DEA.gov

Photo | DEA.gov

When news broke last weekend that a trio of kids at Villanova University went on bad LSD trips — two got arrested for dealing — you probably thought: Huh. Kids are still doing LSD? Turns out drugs are like fashion; everything old is eventually new again. Here, a look back at the history of LSD in Philly and elsewhere.

1. Ergot, a fungus found in spoiled rye, was used as a folk medicine for centuries; it helped ease childbirth and stemmed bleeding afterward. But too much ergot caused the illness known as “St. Anthony’s fire.” The fungus ran rampant in Germany in the Middle Ages, poisoning hundreds of victims and causing convulsions and hallucinations; it’s also been blamed for the Salem witch trials and an outbreak in Russia in the 1920s that killed 10,000 people. In 1938, a Swiss chemist, Albert Hoffman, ingested a dose of a synthetic facsimile of the fungus that he’d created — lysergic acid diethylamide — and went into “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition” in which he saw bizarre lights, shapes and colors, as he reported to his boss. His later experiments showed LSD caused behavior changes in cats (they became scared of mice, for example), made aquarium fish swim in strange patterns, and altered the way spiders built their webs.

2. Doctors and psychologists investigated the drug’s effects on people for many years, studying whether it could ease depression, chronic migraines and PTSD, among other illnesses. Bill Wilson, the depressive Californian who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, took LSD in therapy in 1956 and experienced the opening of the “doors of perception” and “essential All-Rightness” of the universe; he credited the experience with saving his life. Steve Jobs called taking LSD in the ’70s “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life” and suggested adding it to the nation’s water supply.

3. In his 2008 book Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer, Temple Law professor David Kairys discusses his legal work for the family of Frank Olson, a scientist who threw himself from a 13th-story window in 1953 after being given LSD by CIA officials. Olson’s death led to a cover-up that wasn’t made public until decades later.

4. John C. Lilly, a Penn-trained neuroscientist whose work in West Philly centered on trying to locate “the conscious self” in the brain, took LSD in the 1960s after being introduced to the drug by colleagues at the National Institutes of Mental Health. His work inspired the 1973 movie Day of the Dolphin; according to his New York Times obituary, he dreamed of creating “a floating living room where humans and dolphins could chat.”

5. Speaking of Penn, in 1961, Ira Einhorn, who’d won a football scholarship there, dropped out to travel to California, where he dropped acid with Ken Kesey. When Einhorn returned to Philadelphia in 1964, he made a name for himself as the city’s leading hippie, taught at Penn’s Free University, made friends with the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, and in 1972 met blond, beautiful former high-school cheerleader Holly Maddux. Maddux moved in with him within days and lived with him until she vanished in 1977. Her body was found nearly two years later, mummified inside a trunk in Einhorn’s closet. Einhorn fled the country on the eve of his 1981 murder trial, was convicted in absentia in 1991, and in 2001 was finally extradited from France and tried again. Though he claimed to have been framed by the CIA, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

6. Over the years, there have been regular bursts of LSD use locally. In 1991, 15 students at two Medford high schools were arrested for it; in 1993, 10 students at Pennsbury middle and senior high schools were arrested for LSD and pot. An Upper Merion freshman and three Quakertown teens were arrested for LSD use in 1995, as was a Council Rock High senior in 1996. In 1999, three Central Bucks middle-schoolers were arrested for the drug. In 2012, two schoolboys from Easton, ages seven and 10, ingested LSD from a bottle of breath mints they found on the street. And just last year, a Colmar man was busted after advertising “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on Craigslist. Annual surveys taken nationwide between 1975 and 1997 showed the least LSD use reported by the class of 1986.

7. The Drug Enforcement Administration says current LSD samples contain from 20 to 80 micrograms of the drug per dose, far less than in the 1960s and ’70s, when the range was from 100 to 200 micrograms per dose, and sometimes even more.

8. In January 2012, in what Philly police called the biggest bust of its kind in 15 years, five people were arrested in connection with a $15,000-a-week LSD ring operating out of Drexel University. A raid on the suspects’ West Philadelphia apartment yielded 9,500 tabs of LSD on paper printed with images of Homer Simpson and Spongebob. Those arrested included anti-war activist Raphael Zappala and one of the founders of the FDR skate park.

9. In May of that same year, a “psychedemia” conference at Penn examined “visionary art and psychedelic culture.” Penn medical ethics professor Jonathan Moreno told the Inquirer that the government’s crackdown on medical research into psychedelic drugs in the 1960s was “extremely destructive. It created a major stigma.”

10. In “The Gang Gets Invincible,” the second episode of the third season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank drops acid during an Eagles tailgate, gets locked in a bathroom, and winds up in a trash can.

11. In 2014, Radnor Township police arrested a man on LSD after he walked down the street swinging two “aggressive-looking” machetes. What is it with the suburbs and acid?

12. A 2012 Daily News report on that guy in Florida who ate the face of another guy led to one of our all-time-favorite corrections, as headlined on the website of journalism’s Poynter Institute: “Philadelphia Daily News Clarifies That Bath Salts Are Not LSD.” Glad they set that straight.

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