Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drug Report: LSD and Flying; Future Drugs; Cannabis Potency, etc.

First off: tidbits of drug news I've found interesting: Science Inches Closer To Home Brew Heroin. While I don't think smart guys with a few flasks, some re-agent, a Bunsen Burner and a worn out copy of Principles of Organic Chemistry, 31st edition, will be making this stuff soon, let's face it: it's only a matter of time before we will all be able to make our own heroin, or maybe even Dave Nichols and Sasha Shulgin-level psychedelics. The costs of hardware are falling precipitously.  Others are doing it right now. But can you trust them? NB the Doctor who says to consider illicit drugs a disease that we've been treating with antibiotics for 50 years. Wouldn't we expect the drugs (and their users?) to become antibiotic-resistant after 50 years?

Speaking of Shulgin: he's only been dead for 13 months and he seems bigger than ever, if my Internet reading is an accurate indicator. No doubt the main reason is that he published two fat books on psychedelic chemistry - PIHKAL and TIHKAL - despite the DEA telling him they'd rather he not. In a conversation Shulgin had with Martin Torgoff, author of Can't Find My Way Home: America In the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000, Torgoff writes, "His reason for publishing this remarkable collection of how-to recipes was twofold. The first explanation was philosophical. 'Every drug, legal or illegal, provides some reward,' he wrote. 'Every drug presents some risk. And every drug can be abused. Ultimately, in my opinion, it is up to each of us to measure the reward against the risk and decide which outweighs the other...My philosophy can be distilled in four words: be informed, then choose.' The other reason had to do with Shulgin's passionate belief in the freedom of information. As he explained it, 'You know where all of Wilhelm Reich's notes and his manuscripts  and writings went after he died? the FDA burned them. I felt the same thing could have happened to my work, which is why I wanted to get the stuff scattered as widely as I could.'" (p.393)

                      Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin, with fan Hamilton Morris, in Shulgin's 
                      home lab in Lafayette, CA. Photo probably by Ann Shulgin?

Fans of Robert Anton Wilson will be familiar with this idea of Reich's books being burned by the Unistat government less than 15 years after we supposedly fought a war against fascism, because, among other things, those fascists violated our basic ideas about freedom of information, and they burned books. (See RAW's Wilhelm Reich In Hell, for the uninitiated.)

Take a moment or two and ponder the AMA-FDA burning Reich's books, and Shulgin's recipes flying all over the world, to some exotic place where people are now tripping on some analogue of mescaline or DMT, or Ecstasy.

Also: those seeking to buy their own copies of PIHKAL and TIHKAL via online vendors: caveat emptor; the fascists no doubt are monitoring the movement of these books. I have them for my own "Walter Mitty" reasons I've discussed many times before here in blogspews about "dangerous" or "demonic" books. I somehow manage to screw up microwave dinners, so I'm a far cry from being able to understand, much less cook up something like Shulgin's underground favorite (or one of 'em), 2C-B:

"A solution of 100 g of 2,5-dimethoxybenzaldehyde in 220 g nitromethane was treated with 10 g anhydrous ammonium acetate, and heated on a steam bath for 2.5 h with occasional swirling. The deep-red reaction mixture was stripped of the excess nitromethane under vacuum, and the residue crystallized spontaneously. This crude nitrostyrene was purified by grinding under IPA, filtering and air-drying, to yield 85 g of 2,5-dimethoxy-(Greek beta letter)- nitrostyrene as a yellow-orange product of adequate purity for the next step..." (PIHKAL, p.503)

The text goes on to make the previous look like "heat on high for 4 minutes, remove, wrapper, let cool for one minute before eating." It gets way out there. It's like reading some experimental poetry to me: I don't get it at all, but the odd linguistic effects of reading it give a sort of Joycean thrill. Clearly, I want my future psychedelic bathtub chemists to have at least gotten an "A" in Organic Chemistry Lab. At a really good school.

Where's the buzz in having/reading the Shulgin cookbooks if you wouldn't know a methyl group if they ganged up on you behind the tennis courts? After all his abstruse chemical prose, there are always abrupt, jarring tonal shifts in prose: trip reports from his select group of elect psychonaut explorers of inner space, scattered around Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco (Shulgin's lab was on his property in nearby Lafayette, California). And now, one would guess, because of the dissemination of the two books all over the world, there are vast unpublished trip reports for such Shulgin drugs as AMT; 5-MEO-DMT; 5-MEO-DIPT, 4-Acecoxy-DiPT, and DOB.

Drugs That Alter Auditory Perception
A second little thing: about psychedelics and perception of sound: In my old copy of Lee and Shlain's Acid Dreams, I ran across a wild line about the CIA developing futuristic drugs, and there was one that "only alters auditory perception, under its influences all sounds become atonal, while other human faculties remain unaffected." (p.292) The authors give no citation, and when I first read about this, years ago, I thought they had to have been taken in by someone, if not some CIA person, then someone who had been reading a lot of William S. Burroughs. This sounds like a WSB-invented fiction. I would like to think the drug was called "Schoenberg," but I didn't really believe a drug could be that specific in the brain.

That is, until I read about Shulgin's DIPT, which supposedly makes people hear music one octave lower (or so) than its normal pitch. That reminded me of trying to learn blazing fast scale passages from my favorite guitarists by putting the record on at 16rpm rather than 33 1/3: a Randy Rhoads passage played high on the neck suddenly sounds like it's down around the 2nd fret, with Ozzy sounding truly evil and not like the carnival barker I believed him to be in so-called "real life." And then I read about Takao Hensch, a Harvard (those guys again?) professor of molecular and cellular biology, who took adult non-musicians and had them do musical ear-training tests on valproic acid, a mood-stabilizing drug. The subjects developed perfect pitch! I'd love to have perfect pitch, but with follow-up research I see Hensch's subject group was small. Even more irritating: what valproic acid does is potentiate the brain's neuroplasticity: your brain gets a re-set to the time when you were very young, and soaking up language and info like a vast sponge. We could all learn quantum field equations! and Swahili! and Chinese! and...how to do chemistry like Shulgin!? Ah, but the Big Caveat: the brain's neuroplasticity and our earlier "critical periods" for learning (before some neural window closed on us) seem very basic, and evolution probably did that for some good reason, which we won't want to tamper with. For right now, my main model to reason with this is If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is Too Good To Be True. So, we probably ought not tamper with this ancient system of learning.

But we will. Someone will, right? Stay...<ahem> "tuned." Maybe this will turn out to be Something Veddy Innaresting...

Cannabis Potency: A Law-Enforcement Myth That Even Most Pot Smokers Believe?
You've all heard this one: the pot you find now is 10 to 30 times stronger than the stuff the hippies were smoking in the late 1960s/early 1970s. I remember when we bought dime bags of Acapulco Gold and Panama Red: stringy, leafy, stems-and-seedy stuff we loved. Rarely anything that looked like an actual bud. And then rarely we'd find some guy who'd have Thai Stick (awesome!), or even more rarely, "Hawaiian," like Maui Wowie, which was the best stuff I'd ever had. Then, as recounted wonderfully in Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire, Reagan got elected and started a campaign of spraying the Mexican pot crops with paraquat, an herbicide linked to Parkinson's Disease. And so, as Pollan writes, our best gardeners went underground, played with the genes of various strains of cannabis and came up with the most amazingly strong weed, which was grown in the Emerald Triangle of far northern California. And when "sensimilla" (without seeds: a truly utopian concept at the time) filtered into my suburb of Los Angeles, circa 1982: I took one hit and felt like I was on acid. So for awhile even I believed the stories about vastly increased potency.

But I had had conversations with renegade pot growers, guys who really knew their stuff, and they said that was all Cop Propaganda. I said, but what about all the amazing buds you guys have come up with, like Blue Cheese, Purple Urkel, Green Crack, and others? They said that stuff was always around, but I was too penurious to be able to afford it. Because it was scarce. Only the Beautiful (and rich) Dope Smokers were indulging in stuff like Dogshit Orgasm or Purple Kush...But still I was skeptical.

Then I read Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science. Goldacre is a tireless debunker of "woo" and at one point in the book smelled bullshit about the "it's 30 times more potent now...so...the children will all be KILLED!" shit the cops were playing. He uses math and stats and logic to debunk increased potency since 1970. (see Goldacre, pp.189-193) I was impressed by his zeal and rationality, but...I had access to all sorts of weed that was so potent, so...good I required more dissentual data about increased potency. It turns out if you look, you can find.  I read Brian Preston's Pot Planet: Adventures in the Global Marijuana Culture, which I remember liking a lot, but I don't remember much about <cough>. Preston quotes an expert who says it's not true that pot is way more potent than in the 1970s; it's just that the very potent stuff [17%-30%THC] is way easier to find now.

                Blueberry Afgoo, left. NYC Diesel bud on right. Photos by Erik Christiansen

I've started to come around. I think Goldacre and Preston's expert are probably right; Pollan is not wrong; he's inadvertently explaining (in his wonderfully written chapter in Botany of Desire about cannabis) why the Really Good Stuff is so omnipresent now. And some people still doubt Progress!

Flying on LSD: Literally
Who knows the deep story about Captain Trips? Who was Al Hubbard, anyway? We have reason to suspect he's telling the truth about growing up poor in Kentucky and getting rich in uranium. Why disbelieve his stories and documents about working for the OSS (and then the CIA?) Aldous Huxley found him charming. (Two more disparate personalities you'll rarely find in a friendship, by the way. Hubbard was a spy, a Cold Warrior, and not educated. Aldous was nothing if not ridiculously well-educated.) Hubbard had a mystical experience on LSD, seeing himself being conceived during his parents' sex act. He flew all over the world in his own plane, with his seemingly unlimited supply of great acid. He wanted to turn on the world. Was his motivation on the level? And his ties to the highest levels of the Unistat government made his "Johnny Acidseed" jaunts easy. He received a happy birthday card from Ronald Reagan just before he died. At a party at Oscar Janiger's house in 1979, Timothy Leary greeted Captain Al with "I owe everything to you!" (Acid Dreams, p.293)

Now: I haven't flown anywhere in a long time, largely because 1.) before 9/11 every time I took my bags to airport I got sidelined while everyone else went on with their business of passing through security, waiting for their flight, etc. But not me. I always had to wait for my "security" to be cleared. Sometimes this only took five minutes. Other times: 30 minutes or more. Why? Because, at some point in the 1970s - this is all I've ever been able to get from airport security people and researches online - some person in Canada hijacked a plane, and they used a false name. That name is my exact name. (You may have seen this on 60 Minutes many years ago.) The hijacker used one of the most common Unistat names there is: "Robert Johnson." The name on my birth certificate is this name, although I've always gone by my middle name: Michael. But then I asked, "How come you cleared me six months ago, this is the same airline, and you have to clear me again?" Just following orders. So, my name is on a list, totally undeservedly so, and yet no one can do anything about it? Later I found out I could pay some fee to...someone and it would make all that go away. But I thought this was just bullshit. I still do.

Then: 9/11 and the quasi-fascistic/quasi-Kafkaesque TSA of true "security theater" arrived. I'll do a blog on how profoundly worthless the entire TSA security theater show is some other day. Or, as Ring Lardner said, "You could look it up."

Anyway: when I did fly, it was always a tad sensory overload to me. Aside from the security issues and the waiting, flying was a rich source of stimuli, observation, and odd perspectives that I actually enjoyed. (I once flew 16 hours to Tokyo, which was grueling and not fun at all. Another story...) The idea of being on LSD while flying just seems like too much to me. But not to Timothy Leary. Here he is in 1969. The Supreme Court had set him loose from a 30 year charge for having half an ounce of weed. He was finally free, after four years, to leave the country:

"In mixing sacrament for the trip I had accidentally taken too much and sat primly in the Air Iberia waiting room at JFK, rushing, sorting out James Bond paranoias, hoping that Franco's agents would fail to penetrate my disguise. (I've been busted three times in airports.)"

Leary and his wife Rosemary get on the plane. "Two elderly men in uniform tottered by, painfully lugging briefcases, gold teeth flashing forlorn smiles. 'They look like retired generals from the Spanish Civil War,' I whispered. 'Hush,' said Rosemary. 'They are our pilots.'"

Leary starts to get telepathic signals from the other elderly Spanish passengers. He imagines them all as old, committed fascists under the Franco regime. He says to Rosemary, "What have we got ourselves into this trip? This plane is like the second-class bus from Malaga to Torremolinos. It will never make the Atlantic!

"Rosemary was pretending she didn't know me. 'How much did you drop? Really!'" Leary felt like it took "3 1/2 hours to wheeze down the runway and takeoff." He's convinced the steward is a secret police agent. Eventually two Spanish stewardesses approach Leary. We know who you are...do you mind if we ask you some questions? Leary, to himself: "Here we go!"

The stewardesses asked Leary if he had any dope on him. He denied it. You always deny it, he'd learned. The stewardesses were disappointed. "What a drag. Our friends in Madrid will be disappointed. Well, at least give us your autograph."

Leary, taken aback, asked, but what about Catholic Spain, Franco, the secret police?

"Young people are the same all over the world, Doctor Timothy. [...] Young people like to get high and feel good and make love." (Jail Notes, pp. 137-138)

                                  Michael Horowitz in 1972. Photo by Timothy Leary

It's July 1970 and Leary is back in California, in prison. Recently he'd made Michael Horowitz his official archivist. Horowitz writes, "I was no longer a hippie minding his own business; I was now a member of the entourage/support team of the High Priest, the Disgraced Harvard Professor, the Pied Piper, the Acid Martyr - the world's best advocate of 'better living through chemistry.'"

Leary was doing 10 years for possession of two roaches. Leary had asked Horowitz to visit him in prison. Michael's friend came to his Berkeley apartment to drive him to the airport. Michael decided to cut a hit of strong Windowpane acid in half, to share with Leary. His friend honked his horn, and impulsively, Horowitz swallowed his half and kept the other half hidden underneath his fingernail. "The desire to be tripping on acid while meeting the High Priest of LSD got the better of me, so I slipped the other half under my tongue."

In less than an hour Horowitz climbed into a Navaho Piper Cub to fly to the California Men's Colony at San Luis Obispo. Horowitz writes that he enjoyed flying while stoned, while I get a panic attack just reading about this...and typing it to you, Dear Reader. But just think: Horowitz was going to enter  the world of the Prison. As they approached, a sign said 20 years for bringing in "narcotics" or weapons. He became acutely aware of the "tiny thing under my thumbnail." Horowitz had a huge hippie 'fro, purple-tinted glasses, and a fringe-leather jacket with "Timothy Leary for Governor" on it, bell-bottom jeans. He felt all the guards were staring at him, and the paranoia, mounting, he wished the acid would quit coming on stronger and stronger. Hilariously, Horowitz writes, "What was I thinking? That this was something other than a fucking prison?"

"'Look at that freak visiting Leary!,' one of the guards hissed from across the room." As he's given multiple forms to fill out, using the writing hand that had the other half-hit of Windowpane under the nail, eight burly guards came up and surrounded him. He tried to read and fill out the forms, but the words swirled on the page. (If you've never done acid you have no idea how INSANE this scenario must have felt.)

When asked his purpose for the visit, Horowitz somehow blurted out "editorial and archival matters." One of the guards sneered, "What does that mean?" Michael answered.

He was directed to a gate. A guard said to another, "It looks like like he's on something, don't it?" And they laughed. Security doors, gates, drab prison dullness of walls, electronic security. Finally he meets Leary and they hug and Horowitz relaxes a little, buys them both a coffee and candy bars, feels less like "Joseph K visiting the Castle" and more like a fellow Merry Prankster. Finally, Leary realizes Horowitz is on acid.

"You're on acid? Shit! What do you think this is? Fillmore East? I'm looking at ten years! I desperately need your help - and you show up on acid!"

"I have some for you."

"Great. I just can't wait to trip in this place! Look around - it's the perfect set and setting, isn't it?"

"Sorry," I said, downcast, feeling I had totally blown it.

Leary perks up, tells Michael about the book he's writing on DNA and LSD and the stages of evolution and says, wait till the guard turns away before you slip me the hit of acid. Horowitz is elated: he gets to get high with Leary and hear him talk about his ideas. Then he looks down and notices the hit is gone: it's not on his fingernail.

"Um, Tim..."

Okay, so that was more about prison than flying. But when I first read this story (in Psychedelic Trips For the Mind, pp. 49-51), the flying in a Piper Cub to a prison was enough to give me an mild anxiety attack. What's all the fuss about whether we can explore parallel worlds as theorized by some High Priests of physics? We already have ways to explore parallel worlds. It's called literature.

Finally: Allen Ginsberg, while the Bard of the counterculture, had also, from an early age, believed in watching the watchers. He'd kept files and clippings and notes on the FBI, the CIA, police of all kinds, politicians, world leaders. (And you bet your ass they had a massive dossier on him, too.) He'd come to realize the CIA's role in disseminating LSD in Unistat, and it was always a hot topic of conversation with his friends.

From Ed Sanders's book The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg:

                              October of '77
                              he was in the air on the way
                              to a symposium called LSD: A Generation Later
                                           at UC Santa Cruz

                              and dropped a hit on the plane
                                          thinking about the CIA and LSD.
                              Later at the symposium
                              he told what he'd done and asked
                     "Am I, Allen Ginsberg, the product of
                       one of the CIA's lamentable, ill-advised, or
                       triumphantly successful 
                                            experiments in mind control?"
                          (p. 129)

Other Writings Consulted
"SiHKAL: Shulgins I Have Known and Loved," by Hamilton Morris
Nomad Codes, Erik Davis, pp.207-211, wonderful writing on the impact of Shulgin
Visionary State, by Erik Davis. Contains two wonderful large, full-color photos of Shulgin's lab, taken by Michael Rauner.
Pharmako-Gnosis, by Dale Pendell. Stunning erudition throughout.
Storming Heaven, by Jay Stevens
"Why Harvest Opiates When You Can Get Yeast to Produce Them?"
Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s & '70s, pp. 17-40, "The Intoxicated State/Illegal Nation: Drugs in the Sixties Counterculture," by David Farber

                                            art by the wild Bobby Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Great blog, as usual. Your erudition continues to astound me. I must admit, when I saw the heading "Flying on LSD: Literally" I thought we had entered comic book territory. Perhaps you wrote something about people actually flying through the air but some...force convinced you to omit it.

michael said...

Those who hang-glide or have test-drove a jetpack or went skydiving, etc: probably have experienced something like Superman flying. Maybe? I have done it in dreams and it's "real" there and completely wonderful.

Many were the times when I sat in my seat on a jet and looked down at the clouds and then visualized being "out there" watching the jet head toward New York or London and thought, "We humans did this."

Which seems marvelous to me. I know: we all take it for granted. And a lot of flying on crowded commercial flights is very uncomfortable, but on another level it will always be inseparable from magic to me.

I've been watching YouTube vids of cameras on personal drones, looking down at the landscape from 400 feet up, and have had the odd feeling that I'd "been there" before. I think it was in dreams.

Why have comedians used commercial flying as a jumping-off point for so many jokes? I ask rhetorically.