LSD is back in the news, as scientists begin to study this intriguing substance again.
After spending years banished to the realms of forbidden science, a study published in March from The Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences USA used neural imaging to examine the areas of the brain activated by the psychedelic drug. David Nuitt, a lead researcher, told Nature that he thinks LSD has potential to treat addiction and depression.
In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists and psychotherapists were fascinated by the therapeutic potential of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms), even as everyday Americans experienced their effects firsthand by the thousands. A politically-motivated surge in the war on drugs sent both research and psychedelic culture underground.
“Orange Sunshine,” which premiered at SXSW in March, tells the story of The Brotherhood Of Eternal Love, the hippie surfer cult that fueled America’s LSD boom. In the name of helping the country “turn on,” they created and distributed millions of hits of acid to celebrities and festival-goers alike.
“It’s an incredible story,” director William A. Kirkley said during a Q&A session after the screening I attended.
“I’m from Orange County and I had heard almost urban legends of this group growing up,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that something happened in a place that’s so conservative.”
Michael Randall, a key member of the Brotherhood, and his wife Carol, who also played an important role in their activities, were also in attendance. The pair spoke proudly of their continued use of LSD — they tripped together at New Years — and continue to advocate for responsible, spiritual use of psychedelic drugs.
“As people, as a group, as a brotherhood we educated people on how to turn on, tune in and go within,” Carol explained.
Now “we put out a psychedelic guidebook that we give away for free” at festivals, she added.
To fuel their sincerely-held belief that the world would be better if we all took acid, the Brotherhood also built an international drug smuggling ring. Members traveled the world, purchasing marijuana and hashish wholesale in Afghanistan and distributing psychedelics.
There’s obviously a fascinating contrast here, between an idealistic, spiritual group that wanted to make the world a better place, and the drug empire that resulted. Along the way, they broke Timothy Leary, the counterculture’s philosopher king, out of prison, and dosed police officers with LSD at protests.
Of course, the state came down on them hard, resulting in the death of some and the exile of others, including the Randalls and their children, who went into hiding for years.
“We stayed together as a family,” Michael explained. “We didn’t have much choice. We made certain lifestyle and cultural decisions and repercussions resulted and the kids were along for the ride. They always knew they were loved.”
He defended his choices, adding, “If it was scary, it was coming from the authorities that chased us around and were so cruel and reckless.”
The film uses a mixture of interviews, photographs, and staged reenactments of the events of the era, much of them filmed on Super 8 film.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of archival material with their story — being in the drug business, you usually don’t have your picture taken that much,” Kirkley explained.
The film often feels like a home movie, with moments of lyrical magical realism mixed in. It’s a technique that mostly works, but occasionally felt jarring in moments when the juxtaposition between real life and fictional recreation felt especially stark.
While the film features some law enforcement viewpoints, mostly from Neil Purcell, the Laguna Beach chief of police (he’s “still unamused a half-century later” declared Variety), and there’s one notable overdose in the tale, Kirkley mostly allows “Orange Sunshine” to be a positive vision of the influence on LSD, saving its criticism for the fatal tyranny of the war on drugs.
“I really wanted to tell their perspective and their story. We’ve all see those LSD documentaries from the law enforcement side” full of anti-drug horror stories, Kirkley suggested.
Randall believes that LSD is safer than alcohol. “If you took what percentage of people that took LSD had a bad trip. A bad trip that really became where they did harm to themselves. I think that it’s a lot less than people under the influence of alcohol have had bad trips.”
However, he stressed that “it’s a spiritual path and a beautiful spiritual path but it’s not for everyone. It’s demanding and rewarding.”
Despite those cautionary notes, Randall closed by saying, “We encourage everyone to take LSD.”
- LSD: My Problem Child [Online], by Albert Hofmann, inventor of LSD
- Acid Dreams The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties, and Beyond [PDF], by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
Orange Sunshine: Tune In, Turn On With 100 Million Hits Of LSD (#SXSW) by Kit O’Connell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://kitoconnell.com/2016/04/19/orange-sunshine-sxsw/.