Did Anti-Drug Propaganda Help Bring About a Psychedelic Renaissance?


The following is an excerpt from Ryan Grim's new book, "This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America (Wiley, 2009) This is the 2nd excerpt in a series from the book. Read the first excerpt here).

The D.A.R.E. program is now in three-quarters of all school districts, reaching more than twenty-five million American kids. It also has branches in more than fifty nations worldwide. Ironically, it was born just as more than a decade of rising drug use was ebbing among all age groups, including baby boomers, who now had the sorts of responsibilities that can preclude taking recreational drugs: careers, mortgages, and, most important, children.

Apprehensive new moms and dads in the eighties and early nineties helped make D.A.R.E. a global phenomenon, but they were surrounded by countless other sources of parenting help. Best sellers such as Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More and Charles Whitfield’s Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, both published in 1987, helped to build a massive market in recovery and wellness literature during the period. Self-esteem, self-actualization, and self-help, pop-psychological leftovers from the individualistic sixties and narcissistic seventies, became buzzwords to live by as millions of Americans were introduced to their “inner child” and the potentially catastrophic consequences of neglecting it. “With our parents’ unknowing help and society’s assistance, most of us deny our Inner Child,” Whitfield writes of this hidden, wounded aspect of the psyche. “When this Child Within is not nurtured or allowed freedom of expression, a false or co-dependent self emerges.”

Motivational speaker John Bradshaw further popularized the notion with his 1990 best seller, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child. He went on to host a ten-part TV special by the same title and to author four more self-help best sellers. Together, his books would sell more than ten million copies. He and Whitfield both identified a national psychological crisis that had been caused by neglectful, unloving, and “spiritually abusive” parents.

They urged boomers not to make the same mistakes while rearing their own children—whether the one within or the ones without. “Give your child permission to break destructive family roles and rules,” advises Bradshaw. “Adopt new rules allowing pleasure and honest self-expression.” He also assures readers that “mistakes are our teachers—they help us to learn.” Kids will make more mistakes than adults, he suggests, because “they have lots of courage. They venture out into a world that is immense and dangerous. Children are natural Zen masters; their world is brand new in each and every moment.” Children, therefore, shouldn’t be held back by rigid rules but allowed the freedom to explore. They shouldn’t be scolded but reasoned with. Parents should be friends and confidants, not authority figures. In a 1990 New York Times article, Wendy Kaminer summed up the codependency movement’s attitude toward parenting: “Shaming children, calling them bad, is a primary form of abuse.”

The movement was strong enough—and ostensibly permissive enough—to disturb some of the more conservative elements of American society. A columnist in Georgia’s Fayette Citizen was perplexed as late as 1998 by the proliferation of “parenting classes,” many taught by folks just out of college. He called one of the programs and spoke to its director. She told him that “the most prevalent problem is improper parental discipline,” which probably reassured spare-the-rod types. But that wasn’t all. “You wouldn’t believe how many parents still don’t realize that under no circumstances should spanking or hitting be used to discipline children,” she added. And “the second most frequent problem,” she said, “is not parents endangering children, but rather parents who try to ‘control’ their children, which stifles self-expression.”

She was working from a set of assumptions that was backed by more than just pop psychology. At a 1995 Aspen Institute program called “The Challenge of Parenting in the ’90s,” those gathered heard from Harvard professor Stuart T. Hauser, then-director of the school’s Judge Baker Children’s Center. Relying on a longitudinal study he published in 1991, he told the conference that the “chances of a teenager experimenting with new ideas and embracing new perceptions are greatly increased when he or she is in a family where curiosity and open-mindedness are valued, and uncertainty is tolerated.” The goal of his research, he said, was to “enhance” parenting “so that it will not interfere, obstruct, or aggravate the greatest difficulties during the teenage years.” The title of his lecture, “Adolescents and Their Families: Paths of Ego Development,” is telling—the family belongs to the child.

Few parents, of course, wanted no structure or discipline at all. Hauser, in his talk, recommended required educational programs dealing with violence, drugs, pregnancy, and school failure. For young potential psychonauts, the rise of the codependency movement and the spread of D.A.R.E. dovetailed fortuitously: Kids were encouraged to satisfy their curiosity, which uniformed officers piqued by waving baggies of pot in their faces during school.

Healthcare activist Mykey Barbitta says that his first exposure to marijuana came during a D.A.R.E.-like field trip to a police station in fourth grade. “They had that cabinet that had all the drugs in it and they said, ‘These are all dangerous,’” he recalled. “I saw marijuana sitting there at the bottom, right in the middle, and I’m like: this I can see, the needles, the pills. I can understand, in fourth grade, that those can hurt you. But how can that little leaf hurt you? I just had my doubts ever since then.”

Today, Barbitta is a drug dealer: he runs a state-sanctioned medical-marijuana shop in San Francisco.

Not surprisingly, the University of Michigan survey shows that just as the inner child was breaking out, LSD use among the children of the most educated parents—the sort who might watch a John Bradshaw special on PBS—began rising. According to most surveys, it’s almost always the children of the least educated parents whose drug use is the highest. But not for LSD in the nineties, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast among white, educated young males.

In 1975, 11.2 percent of all twelfth-graders said that they’d used “hallucinogens” at least once that year. Use skewed toward males, with 13.7 percent claiming to have used compared to 9 percent of women. Use of LSD specifically stood at 7.2 percent. The numbers for both hallucinogens and LSD slowly declined over the next fifteen years, dipping to a low of 5.5 percent of all seniors having taken hallucinogens in 1988.

Then the trend started turning around, and by 1994, use of LSD was back to 1975 levels. Mid-nineties acidheads differed demographically from those of twenty years before, however. The Michigan survey breaks the nation into the Northeast, the North Central, the South, and the West. Acid use in the seventies was spread evenly throughout the country, save for the South, which lagged behind. As far back as the surveys go, blacks barely register on the hallucinogen scale. Whites top it, although Latinos aren’t far behind. The level of education of a child’s parents, however, played little role in whether that kid would try acid or hallucinogens.

Beginning in the late eighties, children of the most highly educated parents took the lead in acid use. In 1975, kids with uneducated parents used hallucinogens at precisely the same rate as kids of highly educated parents—and both groups used it less than children with moderately educated parents. By 1990, the kids of the highly educated were more than twice as likely to trip.

Meanwhile, kids in the Northeast cracked 13 percent for hallucinogen use in 1996 and 1997 and nearly hit 12 percent for acid in those years—the highest of any subgroup for both categories. Numbers for the West for these years are high, too, with a peak of 8.8 percent LSD use in 1996. Whatever their parents’ educational background, kids who said they wouldn’t be going to college or would be going for fewer than four years dropped acid at a significantly higher rate than others.

Acid’s sixties-era distribution network was there to meet the demand. The Grateful Dead, long known to be something of a psychedelics delivery service, had continued to tour throughout the eighties and dropped a top-ten comeback album, In the Dark, in 1987. The year before, Skeletons from the Closet: The Best of Grateful Dead, which had been released in 1974, earned Platinum certification by finally reaching one million copies sold. The nineties, though, saw sales really take off. In the Dark went double-Platinum in 1995, and the neophyte-friendly Skeletons hit double-Platinum in 1994 and triple-Platinum just six months later, in early 1995. The cultural comeback the Dead made was in evidence following that year’s drug-related death of front man Jerry Garcia, which played out on the cover of Newsweek and was memorialized with congressional speeches. LSD use among high-school and college students peaked at the same time.

College campuses in the early to mid-nineties were dominated by tie-dyes, some of which came from Dead shows, where hard-core fans set up not only T-shirt booths, but also a drug bazaar known simply as the Lot. There, youngsters all over the country could get a night of mind-blowing psychic exploration for as little as five dollars—and often for free. The Dead had company on the road, too. New England–founded jam band Phish and its southern counterpart, Widespread Panic, grew in popularity during the period. So did gatherings such as the Furthur Festival, which featured projects by various members of the Dead and replicated the Lot scene.

Psychedelia, despite the loss of Jerry Garcia, was on the rise.

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