Struck by White Lightning: A Correspondence with Owsley Stanley

BY HENRIK DAHL

In January 2003, I was making research on The Merry Pranksters and especially their Acid Tests, and decided to get in touch with legendary counterculture icon Owsley “Bear” Stanley, thinking he would know a lot about the group’s activities. After all, it was at the Acid Tests that he first met the Grateful Dead, the band he would work with for many years. We corresponded by email.

When editing our correspondence, I decided to leave out the parts that didn’t fit in with the article that I wanted to write. But since Owsley Stanley’s death on March 12, 2011, people have been asking about the unpublished material, and after taking a new look at it I found that some of it is indeed worth sharing.

All quotes in the interview below have remained unpublished until now.

*

– MDMA damages the brain. Acid heals everything.

The quote belongs to Owsley Stanley, sound engineer for primordial psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead, and generally regarded as the first underground LSD chemist. Even though his illicit activities caught up with him and landed him in prison in 1970, it doesn’t stop him from speaking his mind on psychoactive drugs more than 30 years later.

Not many people in the psychedelic scene have criticized the use of MDMA. Does this have to do with the fact that scientists such as the Shulgins are very respected in the community?
— It was watching Sacha Shulgin’s decline in intelligence and ability to be cool that rang my warning bells loudest on MDMA. I still have some material he gave me, but I will never take it. People don’t speak out much because all those who have taken much of it are addicted and defend it to the bitter end. It removes the ability to self-assess, much as incompetents cannot see how poor their work is.

You are scheduled to take part in the upcoming Mind States IV conference.* Will you discuss MDMA in your talk?
— I cannot fail to speak my piece on the brain damage and problems I perceive are due to MDMA use. It is very near in effect to similar mg amount doses of meth, by the way. Except the comedown from MDMA is far worse.

Owsley Stanley (photographer unknown).

Owsley Stanley made his first LSD in a house in Berkeley, California. The lab, which was situated in the bathroom, was raided in February 1965. The police were looking for methamphetamine, but found only LSD, which was still legal. Despite the raid, Owsley Stanley continued making the drug. For instance, he became a supplier to The Merry Pranksters. In the spring of 1966 he rented a house in Point Richmond, a middle class neighborhood in California. Together with his apprentice Tim Scully, the two set up a LSD lab in the basement. They were assisted by Owsley Stanley’s girlfriend Melissa Cargill, a skilled chemist. The lab turned out more than 300 000 tablets containing 270 micrograms each. They called their product White Lightning. In late 1967 another one of Owsley Stanley’s labs was raided. Since LSD had become illegal at that point, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Acid is still being used today, but according to a DEA report from the mid 1990s, LSD blotters contain about 80 micrograms at the most. A typical dose in the Sixties was considerably stronger. What’s your view on the shift that has occurred in the strength of a single dose of LSD?
— Acid on blotter is so unstable (~ 3 days to several weeks at most) you have to be lucky to get 80 mcg. If you want serious changes you need 150-250 mcg, if you want a nice party spirit, then 100 will do, <50 is marginal at best for anything.

MDMA damages the brain. Acid heals everything.

Owsley Stanley rejects being called a chemist, saying he was “soundman for a band, Grateful Dead”. Even so, he clearly knows a lot more about LSD than the average user.

— Blotter is stupid as a dosage format. It will not keep – some stuff goes off in hours, some in days, all are dead in weeks. Acid dispersed on paper is subject to light, air, moisture, heat, bacteria and the various impurities and chemicals in both the paper and the liquid used to impregnate the paper, and even to various chemical vapours in the air. It is totally worthless, stay away from it. Window pane (gelatin) is only marginally better, even the lowly sugar cube is superior to both of these. A easy and very effective dosage form is to dissolve pure crystal acid in either sterile pyrogen-free water for injection, with preservatives methyl and propyl paraben, or – as a less desirable alternative, pure vodka. The solutions should be protected from light in dark glass and/or wrapped with al foil, and then kept frozen until used. The paraben water is usually found in 30ml bottles to which 100 mg can be added – resulting in drops (as from a Murine bottle) giving 120mcg/drop. Obviously you can use 50 mg and get 60/drop, which might suit some situations. Frozen in the sterile paraben water it will keep in perfect condition for at least 30 years (been there – done that). Even proper tabs like White Lightning with Ca3(PO4)2 as stabiliser would have to be kept frozen to last a significant length of time.

— Blotter is not even stable for 30 hours. Deterioration commences as soon as the liquid carrier is soaked into the paper.

Melissa Cargill, a chemist, assisted Owsley Stanley in making LSD (photographer unknown).

If your information is correct, isn’t it ironic that most of the acid ends up on blotters?
— “Most of the acid”? This is not what my informants tell me. Current trend seems to be to vodka solution. I have not seen any blotter in over 15 years.

Were there any substantial number of bad trips at the Acid Tests, or would you say that the setting prevented them from happening?
— There is always the odd bummer in the inexperienced, since acid releases your inner secrets.

By Henrik Dahl

*For unknown reasons, Owsley Stanley cancelled his appearance at Mind States IV.

Feature image: Back cover of Grateful Dead’s 1973 live LP “Bear’s Choice,” compiled by Owsley Stanley.