What do you think of when you hear the word “psychedelic?” Swirly graphics? Electric guitars? Timothy Leary? It’s easy to come up with stock images, even for people who wouldn’t dream of taking LSD or other psychedelic drugs. We’ve lived with artwork, music, and language inspired by psychedelics for 50 years, long enough to make them familiar to everyone including Aunt Mabel who voted for Richard Nixon.
The familiarity is one half of a paradox. We slap psychedelic graphics on everything from clothing to magazine ads, but the psychedelic experience itself is forbidden. If you’re a fan of the Beatles, you can listen all you want, but if you’re curious about the substance that inspired the music, you’re risking a lengthy jail term and a hefty fine.
The taboos extend beyond the substances to the people who use them. I’m old enough to remember the infamous “LSD episode” of the sixties cop show Dragnet. It portrayed psychedelic users like “Blue Boy,” the guy below, as freakish monsters. It was typical for the media of the time.
I’ve been trying to think of another paradox like the one we’ve created with psychedelics—another case where mainstream America adopted the language and trappings of a group they despised and suppressed. The only other example I can think of is African American culture.
At the time of that Dragnet episode (1967), black music and slang and styles were becoming common, but the people themselves lived in the shadow of segregation and lynching. The Civil Rights laws came along at about the same time as the War on Drugs. One paradox started to close as another opened.
Now we have a black president. Popular music and TV are dominated by African American culture. Psychedelics, however, are just starting to emerge from the deep freeze.
Perhaps we’ll have a Civil Rights moment, like we did in the sixties, when we admit that psychedelic consciousness is just another mind/body state like black skin is just another kind of pigmentation. We can drop the boogeyman nonsense and use psychedelics as serious, practical tools for research, medicine, and spiritual discovery.
For now, while we’re waiting for the War on Drugs to collapse from exhaustion, we can start to reclaim our psychedelic heritage. The artifacts are in plain sight. That tie-died t-shirt? It’s been gathering dust at the back of the closet, but it was inspired by a powerful vision and it can be powerful again with a little love and pride.