The Long, Strange Trip of the Chemists Behind the Legendary LSD 'Orange Sunshine'
'The Sunshine Makers' is a new documentary that shares the untold story of the chemists-turned-criminals who altered the psychedelic world.
Courtesy of Passion Pictures
Everyone who has taken LSD remembers their first time. It's as pivotal as losing your virginity—the walls of the mind are broken open, Humpty Dumpty-style, and cannot be put back together again. The prospect of losing your mind is intimidating, yet LSD saved my life. At 19, I lived without purpose: I'd gotten kicked out of college, was fired from a menial job, had retreated to my parents' house, and spent untold amounts of time getting stoned with a bunch of high-school dropouts.
Then, on my 20th birthday, I dropped acid at a friend's apartment. During my peak, I began to feel the menacing gaze of objects as they oozed and dripped around me. I glimpsed into a mirror and saw a lost soul: my own. "I need to be reborn," I kept saying over and over, like a mantra. I refused to let me friends near me, fighting them off with a pool cue, and they left me huddled in a corner. At dawn, as I was coming down, I wished everyone the best, but I definitively and explicitly ended our friendship. "Happy birthday," one of them replied, sourly. I drove home and enrolled for the next semester at the local community college.
Acid made me want to devote myself to my life, but when chemists Nick Sand and Tim Scully first took it it made them want to devote their lives to the drug. For them, it wasn't dissolution—it was a mission. "We thought LSD was going to change the world," explains Sand in the new film The Sunshine Makers, which premieres at the DOC NYC festival this Wednesday. "By opening people's minds, everyone would experience such a sense of love as to bring about world peace."
Watch an exclusive clip of 'The Sunshine Makers' here:
Sand's partner-in-crime was Tim Scully, and together they are the main subjects in Cosmo Feilding Mellen's fascinating caper of a documentary. Feilding Mellen, the son of British drug policy reform advocate Amanda Feilding, deftly highlights how drug culture's odd couple—Scully, a timid eccentric who eats the same meal night after night, and Sand, a swaggering extrovert who enjoys yoga in the nude—came to unite under a shared sense of purpose.
Neither Sand nor Scully were the first to privately manufacture LSD—certainly, they weren't the first to discover it: that distinction belongs to the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who discovered its psychopharmacological effects in 1943, after an accidental ingestion. But the proliferation of LSD in the late 60s owes much to the labor of the two Americans. Their most famous product was an orange-barreled pill dubbed "Orange Sunshine," and among its disciples were John Lennon as well as a young Steve Jobs. The drug was even spoofed in an early SNL bit with Dan Aykroyd playing Jimmy Carter giving advice to a tripping teen.
Sand's first LSD experience bordered on the biblical. As he recounts on camera: "I was with friends at a lakeside retreat in [upstate] New York. I sat in front of a fire, nude, in the lotus position. I just wanted to be naked. I didn't want to be encumbered by clothing. And then I went much further than that and disappeared. I was floating in this immense, vast space, and a voice shot through me. It said, 'Your job on this planet is to make psychedelics and turn on the world.'"
Three thousand miles away in San Francisco, and sans the voice of God, Scully was struck by a similar thought: "As we were coming down I felt fresh and new. The smells of flowers and trees were intense. I thought: [I] could make this stuff and give it away to anyone who wanted to be turned on ."
In the documentary, Scully admits to being intimidated by the idea of LSD: "I knew I could have a terrifying experience, but I also knew I could have a transcendent one. I was hoping for transcendence." Luckily, he obtained it. "I had a flash," he recalls, "that if everyone tried acid, people would be less likely to be mean to each other and trash the world."
That phrase, "turn on the world," pops up all over the documentary. Sand and Scully both use it independently and without irony, a telltale sign of their longstanding sense of mission.
After college (and after his first trip) Sand made his way to Millbrook, New York, where the independently wealthy psychonaut William "Billy" Mellon Hitchcock owned an estate and offered it commune-style to anyone who wanted to live there and explore altered states of consciousness, including, most notably, Timothy Leary—the godfather of psychedelics.
"Millbrook was more of an intellectual scene," the director Feilding Mellen told me when I recently spoke to him over the phone, "that practiced a more structured approach to psychedelic use."
Scully came from the West Coast, which Feilding Mellen described to me as "a much more wild, Dionysian scene" that traded academic psychedelia for the Grateful Dead, the Human Be-In Festival, and author Ken Kesey's "Acid Test" parties. Prior to his first acid trip, Scully had been an electronics prodigy—he'd made a particle accelerator in high school—but he put his aspiring career on the back burner to apprentice with a curious man named Owsley Stanley.
By all accounts, Stanley, who died in a car accident in 2011, was a savant. A former air force pilot-cum-ballet dancer, Stanley eventually added to his non-sequitur CV: manager of the Grateful Dead and the first major underground LSD chemist. Scully met Owsley in 1965 after Scully, then 21, sought the 30-year-old's advice for producing LSD. Owsley, impressed with Scully's technical abilities, not only took him on as a lab apprentice, but hired him to be a soundman for the Grateful Dead. When Owsley decided to open a lab in Point Richmond, a small town on the north end of the San Francisco Bay, Scully followed. Together they would make a popular strain of LSD known as "White Lightning," that Owsley claimed to be 99.9 percent pure.
"The purity of different types of acids was an important part of psychedelic culture," explained Feilding Mellen. "People believed that the purer the acid, the better the trip. It was all very subjective, of course—Owsley would pay attention to the music they were playing in the lab at the point of crystallization, and would then pray over the equipment to imbue it with positive vibes. Tim's a scientist and initially thought it was all mumbo jumbo, but he eventually got sucked into it."
When LSD became illegal in California on October 6, 1966, Scully went first to Denver to open a new lab. When that was busted, he journeyed to Millbrook in the hopes of getting Hitchcock to fund a second lab. It was here that he met Nicholas Sand who, along with his partner Jill Henry, followed Scully back to California. Together they got to work making the pill that would make them cult figures: "Orange Sunshine."
Much of The Sunshine Makers is comprised of old footage and photos of Sand at Millbrook and later working with Scully in their shared laboratory. Their equipment is sophisticated, and their equations and recipes are rather head-spinning (here's the first step of the synthesis recipe for those who speak chemistry: "React N-benzoyl-3-with thionic chloride, then aluminum chloride, to get 1-benzoyl-5-keto-1, 2, 2a, 3, 4, 5-hexahydrobenzindole. Continue to step two"). Sand is the athletic, clean-shaven pretty boy, while Scully dresses in a buttoned-up shirt and slacks, the typical middle-class uniform. Neither Scully nor Sand mention music or smoking pot—these things seemed beside the point. The portrait that emerges is of two psychedelic scientists serving the countercultural cause.
But as the movement attracted more seekers, Millbrook was phased out as Haight-Ashbury became the movement's epicenter. And very quickly, Sand and Scully's Orange Sunshine became its drug of choice, even as the Summer of Love was fading into a harsh winter of authority crackdowns and burnt-out youth. This is what makes the story of The Sunshine Makers remarkable—that even as the idealism of the 60s turned into the gritty reality of the 70s, the drug that brought about the psychedelic revolution never went away, nor did the hope of a peaceful social mutiny by those who manufactured and distributed it.
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So then what happened to the revolution? As Feilding Mellen sees it, "The entire subculture turned sour. People started getting into more addictive drugs, like meth, and heroin. Haight-Ashbury became this place that was flooded with naive young people who were open to predators. A lot of those people were taken advantage of or turned toward crime."
By default, Scully and Sand had also become criminals, and a large portion of the film focuses on how the chemists kept their operations strictly clandestine. It's an inspired stroke on Feilding Mellen's part to interview the two police detectives assigned to the psychedelic case, Gordon White and Patrick Clark. There's a hilarious contrast between Scully and Sand's chill-out-man idealism and the fearful conservatism of the police when Feilding Mellen asks Clark if he's ever dropped acid. He looks thoroughly horrified. "Take LSD," he says. "Are you crazy?"
Though Scully and Sand were saved time and time again by police incompetence, their luck finally ran out in 1973. Their old patron Hitchcock had been arrested for tax evasion, and in exchange for clemency, he ratted out his former collaborators. By this time, only Sand was still actively making psychedelics in a St. Louis townhouse. Scully, ever cautious, had left psychedelic manufacturing in 1971 to form an electronics company. "It was really Sand that the authorities wanted," explained Feilding Mellen. "And if Scully had cooperated with authorities to help indict him, he probably could've saved his skin. But he refused."
The story does not end there, nor does their friendship. Despite jail time, and with the meek Scully serving more time than Sand, the documentary shows that the unlikely pair have kept their friendship forged out of firmly held ideals. After all, if they hadn't been able to maintain it, Sand and Scully would have failed in the one thing they've always believed in—love.
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The Sunshine Makers makes its world premiere at DOC NYC in New York on Wednesday, November 18.