The Secrets Inside 1960s Editions of the US Government's Private Drugs Newsletter
Trip reports from government researchers, confusion about how LSD gets made, and much more.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
The history of the government's side of the war on drugs is often even more arcane and mysterious than that of the chemists and distributors operating underground. Dating to 1967 and 1968, the first four issues of Micro-Gram, the government's restricted internal drug memo, recently appeared on Erowid, the always-essential psychoactives library. Providing fascinating semi-real-time glimpses into the spook side of the Heads vs. Feds battle, the cover of each issue cautions that "Use of this publication should be restricted to forensic analysts, or those with a legitimate need."
Micro-Gram was first published under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration as an attempt to pool info from numerous government offices—the government's anti-drug operations eventually moved from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC), and eventually to the current DEA. Micro-Gram is still published by the DEA today; a separate public edition ran for a decade beginning in 2003 but has since returned to restricted status. While Erowid has previously uploaded numerous 21st-century issues of the publication, as well as a 44-page 1987 supplement reproducing confiscated LSD blotter, the earliest issues were not previously available.
Debuting in November 1967, shortly after the Summer of Love wound down, the Xeroxed bulletins are a Thomas Pynchon–esque tangle of departmental linguistics and subtexts, chemistry and unfolding history. Many issues of Micro-Gram fascinatingly detail the methods and results of official analyses of drugs (the word "psychedelic" is almost never used).
Here are some glimpses into the government's state of mind.
The FEDS Funded Studies of the Long-Acting Psychedelic "STP"
The tales of three-day freak-outs on STP—2,5-dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine; the initials stand for Serenity, Tranquility, and Peace—are the stuff of both psychedelic legend and fact. STP was so intense that thorazine, the usual emergency room reversal for LSD, actually made the problem worse.
"We have received samples of bubble gum, chewing gum, and sponges suspected of containing LSD."
First manufactured by chemist Owsley Stanley and his crew in 1966 and 1967, some truths of STP are revealed in the first issue of Micro-Gram: that it's actually an intense overdosed form of DOM, first synthesized at Dow Chemical in 1964 and tested by Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin. Formal psychedelic research had all but stopped by 1967, but Micro-Gram paints the way to some government-funded STP studies that year at both Johns Hopkins University in Maryland (a site of current psychedelic studies) and the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto (where future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter had first experienced LSD a few years earlier).
Micro-Gram discerns that the problem with STP isn't necessarily the drug—"low doses produced euphoria"—but dosage. At first, they get the thorazine issue wrong, suggesting that it counters the effects. A correction comes quickly. They don't quite suss out the truth of the matter, either, about how DOM/STP turned into a disaster: Owsley Stanley put a decimal point in the wrong place.
The Unceasing Search for New Highs Was Well Under Way
"Season's Greetings," says the second issue of Micor-Gram, published in December 1967 and leading with the news of the latest psychedelics to be criminalized: bufotenine, diethyltyptamine (DET), and ibogaine. The authors duly note some appropriate info about the materials (including bufotenine's availability in "dried glandular secretions of certain toad species") but aren't so up on their underground knowledge.
"The behavioral effects of the pure [ibogaine] compounds in man have not been reported," the issue reads, mentioning its horrifying effects on cats and dogs. A few years earlier, an underground drug user named Howard Lotsof had accidentally discovered that ibogaine's intense multi-day trip also served as an addiction interrupter. But by 1967, the prohibition of LSD had landed Lotsof in jail, and his knowledge with him.
Coming close to achieving the modern listicle, Micro-Gram's jam-packed issue #4 lists 15 "Psychotomimetic Agents and Other Substances Affecting the Mind," including ayahuasca ("produces frenzy, visions, psycho-eroticism, and sleep"), and morning glory seeds. While the government outlawed new psychedelics, chemists and users continued to seek new ones, a narrative reflected presently in the UK's new Psychoactive Substances Act.
DMT Was Distributed on Parsley Leaves; LSD in Comet, Sponges, and Bubblegum
Another subplot in the Micro-Grams is a history of mediums for drug distribution. Issue #2 reports DMT and DET circulating in capsules and on parsley leaves. "Recently this laboratory received capsules which contained a green powder with the odor and appearance of a commercial cleaner," the Los Angeles District of BDAC reported later, in January 1968. "The field test on this material gave a negative reaction for LSD. Closer examination of the powder revealed light gray specks dispersed throughout. When these specks were picked out and tested, a positive LSD test was obtained. The Comet cleanser seems to mask the p-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde color development."
The report goes on to say, "We have received samples of bubble gum, chewing gum, and sponges suspected of containing LSD. The latest samples have been 'PEZ' candies with LSD."
Micro-Gram Contains Trip Reports by Government Researchers
The early issues of Micro-Gram are filled with fragments, from teenagers using Asthmador (featuring derivatives of datura and atropa belladonna) to Central American snuffs, though the reports rarely, if ever, attempt introspection.
The secretive publication focuses on the facts, but issue #2 also includes a trip report for DET, diethyltryptamine. "The author of this study self-administered the drug," it notes of the unnamed government researcher, who produces a vivid example of the genre.
"The mask-like faces of the person, the dream-like mysteriousness of the objects, and the room gave me a feeling that I had arrived in another world, entirely different and queer and full of secrecy and mystery," it reads in part. "This wonderful but strange world attracted me at one moment, but the next moment I did not want to accept it."
The reporter seems to have kept his head together, though doesn't report back on how he felt later.
One Issue Focuses Entirely on PCP—The "Peace Pill"
Issue #3 of Micro-Gram, published in January 1968, is a special three-page bulletin on the arrival of phencylidine HC1, billed initially as a "Peace Pill" for its easy rhyme with the drug's abbreviation: PCP. The name wouldn't prove accurate, and other slang prevailed.
"In certain doses the drug is known to cause delusions and hallucinations in humans," Micro-Gram notes. The drug would have fates outside the psychedelic community, though it retained its link to the counterculture.
"The poor man's psychedelic," said the graffiti writer known as Bilrock about the drug's influence on street art in New York a decade later. "Even though it's terrible stuff, it took [graffiti writers] to other realms. They were amazing. Some of the best graffiti artists were dusties. It ruined them, too."
Standards for Chasing Down Psychedelics Were Being Developed
"When we are notified by BDAC that are are 'going to court' with a sample containing LSD, we use all or part of the following qualitative and quantitative tests," issue #4 notes, beginning to lay out the standards the government used when chasing down psychedelics.
The same issue also presents "A Rapid Identification Test Kit for Material Containing Ergot-Type Alkaloids," as well as more specialized techniques, like "Infrared Identification of LSD in Capsules, Liquid, Sugar Cubes, and Tablets." Every issue of Micro-Gram likely contains an alternate history ready for decoding by chemists, too.
There Were a Lot of Questions the Government Couldn't Answer
Issue #4 reports on a group discussion in San Francisco. "What is the source of the lysergic acid being used to manufacture LSD?" they wonder about the precursor chemical required for manufacture.
"No answer given, although it was generally agreed that it was not being synthesized. How much LSD is being prepared illegally? No one could estimate. Several analysts commented on the apparent good quality of the LSD."
The January 1968 Micro-Gram doesn't report it quite yet, but the very likely source of that pure LSD, Owsley Stanley, had been busted in Orinda, California, in late December 1967. Other questions would remain unanswered for decades, though future scans of Micro-Grams could reveal much more.