Why Leading Beatnik Poet Allen Ginsberg Was a Crusader for Legalizing LSD

The following essay, “Ginsberg in Washington: Lobbying for Tenderness” by Don McNeill, originally published in 1966 in the Village Voice, is included in the new book First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg edited by Michael Schumacher (University of Minnesota Press, March 2017):

Allen Ginsberg strongly advocated the use of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, as a means of self-discovery through the expansion of consciousness. He kept massive files of news clippings and magazine articles, general interest and scholarly, on drug use, legislation, law enforcement, and scientific and anecdotal studies; his knowledge on drug-related issues was encyclopedic, and, not surprisingly, he was very vocal in expressing his opinions on such topics as Timothy Leary and his Harvard LSD experiments, and on the legalization of marijuana, to name just two.

His knowledge and high media visibility made him an ideal witness when, in 1966, a Senate subcommittee conducted hearings about LSD and the drug’s impact on society.

Allen Ginsberg, lobbying for tenderness, bared a large part of his soul last week before a Senate subcommittee investigating the use of LSD.

“I’m here to tell you about my personal experiences,” he began softly, “and am worried that without sufficient understanding and sympathy for personal experience laws will be passed that are so rigid that they will cause more harm than the new LSD that they try to regulate.”

The atmosphere was neither hostile nor sympathetic, rather, curious as Ginsberg took the stand. He bowed, a small Buddhist bow, and tried to dispel some of the apprehension among the Senators, press, and spectators in the floodlit, marbled caucus room. “Whatever prejudgment you have about me, or my bearded image, I hope you will suspend it so that we can talk together as fellow beings in the same room of Now, trying to come to some harmony and peacefulness between us.”

His efforts were first to establish a common bond with those listening. He noted the common frustration with the lack of a place for the human, personal, individual factor in our society. It is “a feeling of being caught in a bureaucratic machine which is not built to serve some of our deepest feelings . . . a machine which closes down our senses, reduces our language and thoughts to uniformity, reduces our sources of inspiration and fact to fewer channels—as TV does—and monopolizes our attention with second-hand imagery—packaged news, as we’re having it packaged now”—and the network cameras whirred softly—“and doesn’t really satisfy our deeper needs—healthy personal adventure in environments where we’re having living contact with each other in the flesh, the human universe we are built to enjoy and live in.”

One More Thing

“All this is inevitable,” he said, “especially since we have come to value material extensions of ourselves.” But he still emphasized the need for some respite. “Human contact is built into our nature as a material need as strong as food . . . We can’t treat each other only as objects—we can’t treat each other as Things lacking sympathy. Our humanity would atrophy crippled and die—WANT to die. Because life without feeling is just one more ‘Thing,’ an inhuman universe.”

Ginsberg described experiences he had had using various psychedelic drugs. The purpose of the description was twofold. First, to further attempt to establish a rapport by sharing deepest personal experiences. He often repeated his fears that his candor would be rejected. Secondly, he “wanted to explain why that very personal thing has a place here,” that those human experiences might be a possible refuge for a Person in this plastic world.

He spoke first of his early experiences with peyote, experiences which he described in his poem “Howl” (a copy of which he submitted to the Committee). The peyote vision “felt so strange and yet familiar as if from another lifetime . . . like the myths of all religions, like the graceful appearance of a Divine Presence, as if a God suddenly made himself felt in my old weekly New York Universe.” He spoke of his experiences with the psychedelic vine Ayahuasca in Peru, and recounted his conversations with holy men in India. And he told of how the night before the Vietnam Day march in Berkeley last fall, he, the novelist Ken Kesey, the marchers, and the Hell’s Angels “all had a party at the Hell’s Angels house.”

Violent Clash

Prior to this, Ginsberg said, “the public image of a violent clash between students and Hell’s Angels escalated in everybody’s mind—like a hallucination.” At the party, organized by Kesey, “most everybody took some LSD, and we settled down to discussing the situation and listening to Joan Baez on the phonograph and chanting Buddhist prayers. We were all awed by the communication possible—everybody able to drop their habitual Image for the night and feel more community than conflict. And the evening ended with the understanding that nobody really wanted violence; and there was none on the day of the march.”

Ginsberg finally told of an LSD experience at Big Sur last fall. It was his first in several years, he said, and was shortly before the Berkeley Vietnam demonstrations. “We were all confused . . . many angry marchers blamed the President for the situation we were in. I did, too. The day I took LSD was the same day that President Johnson went into the operating room for his gall bladder illness. As I walked through the forest wondering what my feelings toward him were . . . the awesome place I was in impressed me with its old tree and ocean cliff majesty. Many tiny jeweled violet flowers along the path of a living brook that looked like Blake’s Illustration of a canal in grassy Eden: huge Pacific watery shore. I saw a friend dancing long haired before giant green waves, under cliffs of titanic nature that Wordsworth described in his poetry, and a great yellow sun veiled with mist hanging over the planet’s ocean horizon. Armies at war on the other side of the planet . . . and the President in the valley of the shadow—himself experiences what fear or grief? I realized that more vile words from me would send out negative vibrations into the atmosphere—more hatred against his poor flesh and soul on trial—so I knelt on the sand surrounded by masses of green kelp washed up by a storm, and prayed for President Johnson’s tranquil health.”

Formidable Task

Ginsberg had tried to dispel the apprehension about the psychedelic experience as gently as he had done with the apprehension about himself. It was a formidable task. The hearings to date had had the cold aura of a scientist examining something wriggling under his microscope, a germ, perhaps, a “menace” in the words of Chairman Thomas Dodd. He didn’t like the looks of it, but was determined to find out what it was. Ginsberg, to use liberal analogy, was Archy the Cockroach come to life, telling depression-ridden America of the ’30s to be gentle and look at themselves. But America still stomped on roaches and Ginsberg’s testimony may have been equally futile against the “just the facts, ma’am” scrutiny of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. He was not rebuked. More likely, he received the much-taunted “white liberal” treatment. He was smiled at and ignored.

He had pointed out the need for a self-liberating experience, a need which everyone, consciously or not, shares, and he gave examples of personal experiences with psychedelic drugs which, for him, had helped fulfill this need. Ginsberg now went on “to offer some data to calm the anxiety that LSD is some awful mind-bending monster threat which must be kept under lock and key.”

Ginsberg offered three main ideas regarding this anxiety. He suggested that “there has been a journalistic panic exaggeration of the LSD danger,” noting wide discrepancies in the news reports on the young Brooklyn girl who accidentally swallowed a cube of LSD. He provided statistics showing that “there is negligible danger to healthy people in trying LSD and comparatively little danger to most mentally sick people.” And he urged the Committee not to disregard “the appearance of religious or transcendental or serious blissful experience through psychedelics” and suggested that they “treat LSD with proper humanity and respect.”

When he had finished his statement, Ginsberg was questioned by Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Quentin Burdick of North Dakota, who was acting chairman in Dodd’s absence. Many of the questions seemed to be standard ones asked of the “pro-LSD” witnesses in these hearings—for instance, on the source of the drugs. One could not help but get the impression that such questions were asked merely to get them on the record. When asked where he obtained the drugs, Ginsberg replied that “in order to speak freely on the subject, I’ve had to stop my use. I have heard that the Narcotics Bureau has been trying to set me up for an arrest.” Burdick prodded: “You don’t know where it comes from?” “I literally do not know,” he replied. At this point, Javits reminded Ginsberg of his privilege against self-incrimination. Other witnesses, when asked about the source, almost invariably said that they had obtained the drugs from “friends.” The consistency of the “friends” answer became almost a joke to the Committee, evoking some laughter.

Although Javits had amiably spoken with Ginsberg a number of times before his testimony, his questioning became somewhat sharp, though far short of the harsh Teddy Kennedy–Timothy Leary exchange in the same room a few weeks ago. Javits repeatedly reminded Ginsberg that he was not qualified to testify on any of the medical aspects of LSD. “Do you consider yourself qualified to give medical advice to my sixteen-and-a-half-year-old son?” Javits asked. Javits indicated that he was concerned about Ginsberg’s influence “among young people” and wanted to make it clear that the poet should not give “medical advice.”

As he concluded his statement, Ginsberg suggested that “if we want to discourage use of LSD for altering our attitudes, we’ll have to encourage such changes in our society that nobody will need to take it to break through to common sympathy.” He suggested that the new generation, many of whom have experienced this “new sense of openness,” will “push for an environment less rigid, mechanical, less dominated by automatic cold war habits. A new kind of light has rayed through our society—despite all the anxiety it has caused—maybe these hearings are a manifestation of that slightly changed awareness. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to speak like this a year ago. That we’re more open to each other is the new consciousness itself: to reveal one’s visions to a Congressional Committee!”

From the Village Voice, June 23, 1966. Reprinted by permission.

This essay, “Ginsberg in Washington: Lobbying for Tenderness,” by Don McNeill, 1966, is included in the new book First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher and published by the University of Minnesota Press, March 2017. Copyright 2017 by Allen Ginsberg, LLC, and Michael Schumacher. www.upress.umn.edu


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