This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
By 1968, the psychedelic age was in full swing, with the attendant culture starting to go national at the same time that it was the site of unceasing experimentation. Mirroring the political and cultural explosions of the decade, the drug world evolved past the early love-ins and pure Owsley Stanley LSD in nuanced and often forgotten ways.
Adding new richness to our understanding of the era, the website Erowid has recently been publishing never-before-publicized issues of Micro-Gram, the government's internal drugs newsletter.
Micro-Gram was first published by the "Bureau of Drug Abuse Control" (BDAC)—a division of the Food and Drug Administration—as an attempt to pool information from numerous government offices. In 1973, the BDAC joined with other agencies to become the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) we know and love. The DEA still publishes Micro-Gram today; in fact, a separate public edition ran for a decade beginning in 2003 but has since returned to restricted status.
After revealing the enthralling first four bulletins, spanning November 1967 through January 1968, Erowid has now made public two more editions from later in 1968—Micro-Gram #5 and #6. Suffice to say, things were just starting to get weird.
Boston Scene Report: LSD Candy Hits the East Coast
Cambridge was an early center of the American psychedelic explosion, centered on Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert's various projects at Harvard, with LSD sugar cubes turning up around Harvard Square even before that. The Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) had reported on acid-infused bubblegum in Micro-Gram #4—in Micro-Gram #5, they document it turning up in Boston in early 1968 in the form of "chocolate-filled candies."
The first generation of the Cambridge scene was in the process of turning over, though it remained beyond Micro-Gram's scope. By early '68, Leary and Alpert were long gone, and former acolyte Lisa Bieberman was closing her Cambridge-based Psychedelic Information Center, disillusioned with the rampant, indiscriminate use of psychedelics, including by her ex-colleagues. "Flower power is no substitute for integrity," she wrote in a dark op-ed for the New Republic at the height of the Summer of Love.
The Government Sent Drugs By Train
The government's fight against drugs was still so new in 1968, apparently, that regional labs remained a rarity. Micro-Gram #5 offers handy step-by-step instructions for agents on how to send drugs to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, DC, for proper testing. Registered mail worked, but agents could also send substances via the Railway Express Agency—the government-operated, train-based parcel-delivery system founded after World War I, and discontinued in the mid 70s.
New Strategies for the Ongoing Explosion—and "Rotten Barns"
Early 1968 was also as good a time as any for the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control to assess its drug control efforts, reporting that by the turn of the year, they had broken up 42 underground labs, 36 of them devoted to hallucinogens. Still, one can almost sense the government agents starting to freak out. Though they don't offer specifics, "the production potential of these facilities staggers the imagination," the bulletin remarks.
With the government starting to keep a tighter watch over university and other research facilities, "you can see that we have not only eliminated a lot of 'rotten barns,' but have fixed many others," the unnamed folksy correspondent notes. "This makes a lot more efficient use of money and manpower, than chasing the horses after they get out on the street."
"Carbona Not Glue" and Other Unpleasantries
A decade into the future, the Ramones would sing "Carbona Not Glue," about the brain-wiping non-pleasures of sniffing Carbona, an upholstery cleaning agent also used in the manufacture of fire extinguishers. While the New York punk band's reference was more a comic book–style caricature, Micro-Gram #5 reveals that Carbona's genuinely dangerous non-psychedelic effects were considered a serious enough threat in 1968 that the government considered banning it under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
Micro-Gram documents all kinds of new poly-drug combinations, many of them far removed from the counterculture and the idea of mind expansion and more about simply getting as high as possible. Heroin users are reported to be burning mixtures of Cogentin and Ritalin. A report about Europe notes the misuse of various prescription pills and the over-the-counter cough suppressant Romilar. Issue #6 notes that in Florida, aspiring heads were reportedly trying SANSERT, a new Sandoz drug for vascular headaches; teenagers in an unnamed location are reported to be smoking Queen Anne's Lace.
Meanwhile, the March 1968 edition follows up on the previous special issue devoted to PCP, then known to the government as the "Peace Pill," detailing that some users were reported to be smoking marijuana laced ("impregnated") with PCP. Often masquerading as other drugs, including LSD and cocaine, early 1968 seems to mark the beginning of the age of adulterated psychedelics. Micro-Gram #6 likewise reports tablets containing 270 micrograms of LSD with a bonus 0.9 milligram boost of STP for extra chaos.
MDA Arrives on the Government's Radar
A relative to MDMA, the similarly love-y MDA makes its first appearance in the government scopes in early 1968, with several pills confiscated in Washington late the previous year and a lab bust in New York.
Used in various cough suppressants and antidepressants, Peter Stafford's Psychedelics Encyclopedia reported MDA in use in the counterculture since earlier in the decade, and in the 21st century, it continues to turn up frequently in EcstasyData results, not infrequently being branded as some variety of ecstasy/molly/MDMA.
Explosive Love Beads in Minneapolis!
One of the most intriguing items in these editions of Micro-Gram is a mention of the Blue Hand, a mysterious group out of Minnesota. "We are checking out a report that 'hippies' in the Minneapolis area have formed an organization for protection against law enforcement officers," the item reads. Suggesting they are making explosive items out of friction-sensitive pellets, Micro-Gram warns, "Do not mistake for pills or love beads."
There is little further information available about the Blue Hand, perhaps a midwestern equivalent to the violent New York art radicals of the Black Mask, who evolved into the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers in late 1967. Both are evidence of the year's brewing political unrest, as portions of the once-peaceful counterculture merged with the politics of the New Left and began to move in less peaceful directions.
Not Every Drug Took Off
"NEW HALLUCINOGEN" notes the lead story in Micro-Gram #6, reporting that a drug called IT-290 was available for $17 a gram from the Aldrich Chemical Company's catalog and being used for tripping.
Known more properly now as AMT, and also sold in 1968 as IT-403, U-14, 164E and Indopan, it had been administered to the author Ken Kesey during his time participating in government psychedelic tests at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital in the early 60s. "The Rolls Royce of psychedelics," Kesey was rumored to have called it (though that might have been Neal Cassady describing mushrooms). AMT never quite took off in the 60s and 70s. It turned up for sale on the internet in the late 90s, before the government finally criminalized it in 2003.
In that same issue, Micro-Gram notes that DET had been confiscated on the street, as well. Though it, too, would reappear over the years, DET remained so obscure even by the standards of Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin that for many years the legendary chemist wasn't even entirely clear on its effects.
The Government Couldn't Spell Albert Hofmann's Name Either
Albert Hofmann's only references in the Micro-Gram newsletters posted to date are just that—items on bibliographies—and none have to do with the Swiss chemist's invention of LSD.
Perhaps having Abbie Hoffman on the mind, who was starting to earn himself media attention in the East Village in early 1968, Micro-Gram gives the Sandoz chemist the double-F/single-N treatment multiple times. More significantly, though, in "References For Synthesis of Some Hallucinogenic and Stimulant Drugs," Micro-Gram provides a short bibliography for government chemists in its brief overview of the available patents and literature on a variety of substances.
Nobody Really Knew Much About Psilocybin Yet
"We have been telling the agents and police officers in our schools about the potential hazards in raiding clandestine drug laboratories," Micro-Gram notes in issue #6, and advises that experts should always be called in for safe dismantling.
The issue does, however, provide the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control's 13-page supplement, "Notes on Clandestine Laboratories." Mostly a checklist of the various equipment and reagents one might use to identify exactly which kind of underground chemists they'd busted, as well as what kind of tablet machines to look for, it also offers basic descriptions of the substances involved.
Though R. Gordon Wasson had moved psychedelics into the mainstream with his 1957 LIFE magazine report on his mushroom experiences in Mexico, they were still a rarity in North America. But Albert "Hoffman" had successfully synthesized psilocybin on behalf of Sandoz, and his earliest (and quite arcane) techniques are summarized for agents who might encounter a lab.
Heads would figure it out, though, and in another decade, Terence and Dennis McKenna would solve the problem of how to grow psilocybin-containing mushrooms in North American environments, revolutionizing their production and maybe even making them more prevalent than LSD.