LSD and The Hippies: A Focused Analysis of Criminalization and Persecution In The Sixties


LSD and The Hippies: A Focused Analysis of Criminalization and Persecution In The Sixties

Miranda DiPaolo
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Of all the counter-culture behaviors in the nineteen-sixties, the use of acid was one of the most stigmatized. This article argues that the criminalization of LSD in the sixties was a direct effort to marginalize hippies. The text first lays out a brief history of LSD in its clinical applications and the cultural implications of its expansion into recreational use. The stipulations of the drug’s Schedule I status are then analyzed for validity. In arguing that the Schedule I status of LSD is not substantially supported, the text concludes by reasoning that the criminalization of LSD was a discriminatory act rather than a medical safeguard.


Drugs have been a focus of conversation in America for the last few decades in political and social spheres, and for good reason. The opioid crisis is vicious and horrifying, medical marijuana could be the multibillion-dollar industry our economy needs, and headlines like “Generation Adderall” (NYT) elicit the feeling that we are cultivating a generation of addicts. However, there is a part of the conversation that’s been swept under the rug for over thirty years and is worth reviving. This conversation concerns LSD-25, otherwise known as LSD, acid, or its chemical name: lysergic acid diethylamide. Since LSD was first synthesized in 1938, psychiatrists have been intrigued by the drug and its benefits in treating alcoholism, anxiety and depression. Researchers in the 40’s and 50’s were constantly faced with questions about the safety and effectiveness of the drug, and its criminalization in 1968 both eliminated federal funding for LSD research and classified it as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. However, doubts about the medical efficacy of the drug were not the only reason for its criminalization. Rather, as I argue in this paper, the criminalization of LSD was mainly an effort to marginalize the group of young adults known as ‘hippies’ who openly promoted anti-war and anti-government beliefs. My viewpoint that the criminalization of LSD was rooted in prejudice aligns with many scholars’, including John Ehrlichman, a prominent politician known for his influence on President Nixon’s domestic policy. Like politicians in recent years, Ehrlichman was extremely vocal about his opposition to the war on drugs because of the huge racial and socioeconomic disparities it causes (Abu-Jamal). While the discourse on illegal drugs and marginalization is often focused on cannabis, cocaine, and heroine, I contend that LSD is left out of the conversation too frequently and that it, too, was criminalized in order to target a specific group of people. My argument is based on two main principles. One is that the government has historically used the criminalization of a drug to target and marginalize a population based on race, economic status, or ideology. Secondly, contrary to the Schedule I status of the drug which labels it as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, LSD is both safe and effective. If the government’s label of LSD as harmful, addictive, and useless isn’t valid, then there is a reason to believe that the real motivation for criminalization was the repression of hippies.

To put this conversation into context, I will first give a brief history of LSD and explore some of the factors that led to its criminalization. Next, I will look at various scholars’ perspectives on how the criminalization of LSD is related to the persecution of the hippies. I will then analyze the Schedule I status of the drug, breaking down its stipulations (high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use) and examining each to determine their validity. Finally, I will explore some of the other objections that are commonly discussed in conversations about the clinical use of LSD. In doing so, I will use deductive reasoning to argue that because the alleged dangers are trivial or simply not factual, the criminalization of LSD was not a way to protect people from physical or psychological harm. Rather, it was a vehicle for specifically repressing the counterculture youth in the 1950’s and 60’s.



The history of LSD is a complicated one, rich with failure and controversy as much as success and excitement. This history is significant not only to recognize the potential applications of LSD in psychotherapy, but also to understand how a stigma formed around the drug and why it was criminalized. Additionally, this history can teach us useful lessons about the long-term societal implications of prejudice.

The history of LSD began in 1938 when Swedish chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide. Hofmann accidentally ingested a small dose of LSD-25 and discovered that the substance had mind-altering properties. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, for which Hofmann was researching, brought LSD-25 to the attention of scientists and clinical research began in the United States in 1949 (Novak 90).

Because of the hallucinations and altered state of mind associated with LSD, it was originally considered a psychomimetic, a substance that mimics mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Throughout the early 1950’s, doctors aimed to use the drug to discover more about these mental illnesses, which was ultimately unsuccessful. While on the drug, volunteers would be monitored with machines and tape-recorders and would be given “lengthy psychological and intelligence tests” (Novak 91). A typical LSD experience involved hallucinations of intense images, lines, colors, and patterns, distortion of time and senses, and oftentimes a feeling of incompleteness or detachment. Some subjects experienced euphoria while others felt anxious, empty, and lonely. Researchers anticipated the effects of the drug to be similar to those of schizophrenia or paranoia, resulting in the public perception of LSD as a distressing and unpleasant experience.

However, one researcher had different ideas about LSD. Dr. Sidney Cohen was a clinical professor in pharmacology who studied diseases and drugs and had taken an interest in LSD, but later became an opponent of the drug. In 1955, he started taking the drug himself, which many researchers did in order to know what their patients were experiencing, though others refused to take it. As Cohen himself described the effects of the drug, “the worries and frustrations of everyday life vanished; in their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly, inner quietude” (Novak 92). Cohen was expecting paranoia and instead experienced a peaceful sensation akin to meditation.

This is when the perception of the LSD experience transitioned from a disturbing bout of insanity to a profound state of mind that showed potential to benefit the mentally ill. Cohen began doing his own experiments but with a different approach than his colleagues; Cohen attempted to redefine LSD as a “shift of consciousness” (Novak 93). This meant that LSD could be an experience that allows one to transcend the ego and conventionalities of the world, rather than one of paranoia. Cohen’s enlightening experience was shared by other intellectuals like Aldous Huxley, author of Doors of Perception, a popular counterculture book in which Huxley describes what he learned while on psychedelic drugs such as mescaline and LSD. Books like these were especially popular in communities of young, liberal undergraduates, and young adults known as hippies.

By 1956, hippies were far from the only people having positive experiences with LSD. Cohen and his colleagues were using the drug in psychotherapy and were exploring its potentials in treating alcoholism and depression. Patients with minor personality disorders and alcoholism showed great improvement after taking low doses of LSD for about a year, based on behavioral criteria that showed the ability to hold a job, sustain a relationship, and give up drinking (Novak 96). LSD was even endorsed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, who was given the drug by Dr. Cohen and his colleague Betty Eisner. Subsequently, Wilson started a private LSD group in New York. They claimed LSD allowed alcoholics to access a deeper level of consciousness in which they were able to “surrender (their) will,” which was the goal of typical AA meetings (Novak 97). Cohen and other researchers such as Oscar Janiger were also studying whether LSD could enhance creativity, based upon the prevailing belief that creativity stemmed from neurosis (Novak 99). These creativity experiments were inconclusive and many results were never made public, but the idea that LSD could have positive implications outside of a clinical setting held significance to some, like Tim Leary and Richard Alpert, both famous for popularizing LSD.

Leary and Alpert, who was later given the name Ram Dass, are perhaps the most significant people in this history because they are commonly associated with LSD and also because they are linked to its criminalization. Both men were professors of psychology at Harvard University in the early sixties who advocated for the use of psychedelics in therapy but were influential on a much larger scale than Cohen, Huxley, or other scholars. Leary and Alpert not only studied the effects of the drug in clinical settings but took LSD themselves and shared it with their friends. It’s important to note that LSD was not yet criminalized at this time, so the distribution of the drug, while considered unethical to some, was completely legal. Keith Ditman, a UCLA professor who participated in these “LSD soirees” with other professors and scholars, said it became “an intellectual fun drug” (Novak 99).

Though Leary and Alpert believed LSD was helping them to expand their minds, other scholars, like Cohen, were concerned about the casual use of the drug and the sensationalism it began to create. Concern about the use of LSD became more widespread when the public became aware of the Harvard Psilocybin Projects. This was an experiment in which Tim Leary and Alpert conducted experiments with LSD on graduate students, often while on the drug themselves. There were several things wrong with how these experiments were carried out, and Harvard faculty began to express concern. For instance, the professors were often under the influence of psychedelics while conducting the studies which involved “poorly controlled conditions [and] non-random selection of subjects” (Harvard).  By 1962, controversy about the experiments caused them to cease, and Leary and Alpert were dismissed from their positions at Harvard (Harvard).


Public Attitudes and Criminalization

LSD continued to be popularized by scholarly advocates like Leary and Alpert as well as in pop culture; simultaneously, negative attitudes about hippies surfaced. With psychedelic drugs being an essential part of the counterculture, LSD became a convenient instrument in scapegoating and alienating hippies. In an LA Times article from 1966 entitled “U.S. Plans Intensive Campaign Against LSD,” reporter Rudy Abramson writes that the FDA considered LSD “almost as dangerous as narcotics” and considered LSD to be “all too available on college campuses” (Abramson). In the same year, the New Jersey Narcotic Drug Study Commission publicly stated that LSD was “the greatest threat facing the country” and “more dangerous than the Vietnam War” (Goode 539). In 1967, Science Magazine even published the false claim that LSD damages chromosomes (Goode 539). Because of ostensibly reliable sources framing LSD as a threat to society, the fact it had medical potentials was overlooked. Ultimately, the media portrayal of LSD was disproportionate to the actual threat of LSD.

My view of this disproportionality aligns with that of Erich Goode, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who specializes in the sociology of deviance. Goode argues that the media used “stereotyping, exaggeration, distortion, and sensitization” (536) in order to generate hostility and “moral panic” towards LSD, not because of its material threat to the individual user or to society, but because of its “deviant potential” (539). This deviant potential is seen distinctly in the hippies: young adults who fervently promoted views of unconventionality, sexual liberation, and constructive dissent, who were often seen as dirty because they were barefoot, bearded, and long-haired, and who recreationally did LSD and other psychedelics. It’s clear how a group like the hippies became the subject of the moral panic in the sixties, and how LSD became the perfect means to foster this panic in the media.

Michael E. Brown, assistant professor of sociology at Queens College, argues that this irrational and extreme media portrayal led to the institutional persecution of the hippies. He provides several examples of this persecution, from signs that read “Hippies not served here” or “Keep America Clean: Get a Haircut” to police sweeps in San Francisco streets and the police attack on the peaceful “Yip-In” at Grand Central Station in 1968 (Brown 36). Brown discusses the media’s polarized description of hippies in stigmatized phrases like “acid heads,” “generally dirty,” “a cult (influenced by) hallucinogenic drugs.” Headlines like “Hippie Mother Held in Slaying of Son” (Brown 42) diverted from the fundamental ideas the hippies promoted: peace, love, and community. Uncoincidentally, the means of oppression Brown describes sound eerily familiar because it resembles that of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, Mexican-Americans in the early forties, and Japanese-Americans during World War II (Brown 42). Touching on this, Brown points out that the “emphasis on drugs as the cornerstone of the (counter) culture” created a “‘national character’ approach reminiscent of the World War II anti-Japanese propaganda.” (Brown 41) This idea of ‘national character’ means a group is portrayed to have an inherent quality that has negative implications for the moral character of society as a whole. Thus, objectification and slander of hippies in the media led to a cultural standard of hatred and was subsequently reflected in changes in the law.

Because of the increasingly negative media portrayal of LSD, public fears about LSD soared, compelling the federal government to take action, especially after opponents of the drug began presenting their case to Congress. Following the Kefauver-Harris Amendment in 1963, which says the FDA must give prior approval for testing of all investigational drugs (including LSD), the government officially banned the drug in 1967. The drug was classified as Schedule I, which the DEA defines as “drugs, (substances, or chemicals) with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (DEA). If the stipulations of this classification hold up in a technical analysis, then we can conclude that the dangers of LSD were legitimate cause for its criminalization. If these stipulations don’t hold up, I maintain that the reason for LSD’s criminalization was to persecute and silence the hippies.


Analyzing LSD

Now that we are familiar with the abridged history of LSD and how cultural attitudes influenced its criminalization, I will now analyze a few of the objections to LSD to determine the severity and validity of each and whether they warrant prohibition of the drug. Undeniably LSD would not work for every patient, and many would experience side effects. These are inherent qualities of any drug, whether prescription, over the counter or illicit. Thus I will refrain from going into detail on those factors and focus on other concerns of safety and efficacy. The Schedule I definition states that LSD has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse; I will now analyze both of those criteria, then further analyze other significant objections to the clinical use and research of LSD.

First, I will investigate the claim that LSD has a high potential for abuse. In the article “Psychedelic Drugs in Biomedicine,” Kyzar argues that LSD is not addictive and actually contains a chemical component that has anti-addictive properties, contrary to its Schedule I status (Kyzar 995). Certain proteins in the human brain known as trace amine-associated receptors (TAARs) facilitate the expression of dopamine (related to reward-motivated behavior) and serotonin (related to feelings of happiness). LSD could be essential in treating people with low dopamine and serotonin levels--which translates to depression and addiction--by activating the TAARs which produce those neurotransmitters. The implications of LSD being non-addictive go beyond disproving its Schedule I status; this discovery could be a breakthrough in reducing drug dependency and addiction fostered by overprescription and the addictive nature of conventional medications like antidepressants and opioids.

I will now discuss the second component, which is that LSD has no accepted medical use. Despite the cultural stigma it carries, LSD was, and still is, accepted by many psychiatrists and researchers as having immense potential to treat alcoholism, anxiety, and depression. Because of its illegal status and insufficient funding for research, LSD cannot be implemented as a treatment and is rarely tested on humans, so although there are various studies from the fifties and sixties, there is limited research from the last decade. Here, I will review a few recent clinical studies which used LSD in psychotherapy to evaluate its efficacy in a modern application. In the article “Psychedelics as Medicines: An Emerging Paradigm,” DE Nichols et al. review several 2016 studies from UNC-Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, and Louisiana State University. One of the studies they discuss entailed dying cancer patients undergoing LSD therapy for anxiety and depression. It found that two-thirds of these patients had improved mood and reduced anxiety and fear (Nichols 209). In another study, 12 patients with life-threatening illnesses were given a 200 µg dose of LSD. Nine of the 12 participants reported a significant reduction in anxiety as much as 12 months later (Nichols 210). The article also reviews some earlier studies which show significant decreases in alcohol misuse and heroin use for at least one month post-LSD treatment (Nichols 211). While funding for this type of research is scarce and the taboo nature of psychedelics prevents these studies from being conducted more frequently, the evidence we have shows promising results.

Besides increasingly proving its efficacy in hundreds more studies than the ones I have provided, LSD has also proven to be safe. In Reiche’s analysis of studies of LSD as a treatment for anxiety and depression, the short-term side effects reported include nausea or vomiting, headaches, breathing difficulties, anxiety, and moderate increases in blood pressure. In comparison to other prescription drugs, these side effects are exceedingly ordinary. Likewise, of the various studies analyzed by Reiche from 1960-2017, none reported serious medical complications or need for medical intervention regarding LSD. Reiche also touches on the long-term effects of the studies, the psychological aspect being the most significant. In the studies he examined, there were no reported cases of flashbacks, Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), or prolonged psychosis (Reiche 7). HPPD is often the most concerning of the long-term effects to physicians. The syndrome consists of recurring experiences of the perceptual features associated with a psychedelic trip like geometric hallucinations or intensified colors. The prevalence of HPPD is considered low (Orsolini) but a large concern is the lack of knowledge about it, and especially how it relates to pre-existing conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although Reiche’s data encompasses a wide range of studies, we cannot jump to conclusions based on this data alone. Reiche acknowledges problems with many of the studies, especially earlier ones, like lack of psychological preparation for taking LSD, which I will now elaborate on, as this element of unpredictability has been a significant objection to the clinical use of LSD

Some scholars, such as Dr. Cohen in his later years of LSD research, argue that because of the unpredictability of LSD, the effects can’t be measured effectively. Though it’s true that the experience of LSD can be unpredictable and difficult to measure quantitatively, I argue that this does not necessarily invalidate the clinical potential of LSD. Environmental factors largely affect the LSD experience and knowledge about those factors can determine the success of an individual’s experience. Those factors are referred to as ‘set and setting’ (Sayin 318); lack of understanding of set and setting is one of the reasons early experiments went so poorly. Setting, meaning the subject’s surroundings, significantly influences what kind of experience they have. For example, subjects who are in a more aesthetically pleasing room, rather than a metallic, clinical-looking room, and subjects who have access to music or art supplies are more likely to have positive experiences. Set, meaning the mindset of the subject before taking LSD, acts as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. As aforementioned, a lack of psychological preparation can be detrimental to the patient’s experience. For example, the subjects who were told beforehand that they would be in a psychotic or schizophrenic-like state tended to be more paranoid and anxious while on LSD. On the other hand, Cohen and Eisner’s subjects were expected to have an introspective, enlightening, and euphoric experience, which is generally the kind of experience those patients had (Novak 98). While unpredictability is seen as a shortcoming of LSD to some, I maintain that set and setting may be less of an obstacle than an opportunity to enhance the experience of an LSD session. While it’s still a legitimate concern for opponents of LSD, unpredictability is somewhat less acute than issues of safety and potential for addiction.


By breaking down the Schedule I status and analyzing each of the medical objections to LSD, it is clear that, while these concerns are legitimate and should continue to be researched, they do not accurately represent the physical threat of LSD. The media and government have, for decades, portrayed LSD as a drug which is harmful to society, and its Schedule I classification and lack of accepted research heighten the misconception that LSD has no medical potential. However, the claims used to back up this misconception are negligibly supported if at all. By eliminating a physical threat as the reason for the criminalization of LSD, we are led to the conclusion that through this criminalization, the government effectively and quietly persecuted and silenced the hippies because of their untraditional way of living and thinking. We should use this as a basis for acknowledging and questioning other instances in which the government has and will silence groups that threaten society’s conventional power structure. The history of LSD should make us more aware of prejudice when it’s instilled in us by the media, and should teach us to encourage the research of drugs we know little about rather than letting fear and misunderstanding hinder potential scientific advancement.


Works Cited

Abu-Jamal, Mumia. “Ehrlichman: ‘War On Drugs Really ‘Bout Blacks & Hippies.” Turning The Tide, vol. 28, Issue 7, Apr-Jun 2016, pp. 2. ProQuest.   

Brown, Michael E. “The Condemnation and Persecution of Hippies.” Trans-Action, vol. 6, Issue 10, Sep. 1969, pp. 33-46.

“Drug Scheduling.” DEA, U.S. Department of Justice,

Goode, Erich. “Moral Panics and Disproportionality: The Case of LSD Use in the Sixties.” Deviant Behavior, Jul 2008, Issue 29, vol. 6, doi: 10.1080/0163962070183937

Kyzar, Evan J. “Psychedelic Drugs in Biomedicine.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, vol. 38, Issue 11, 2017, pp. 992-1005

Lindemann, Lothar et al. “Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1 Modulates Dopaminergic Activity.” The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, March 2008, doi:10.1124/jpet.107.132647.

Nichols, DE et al. “Psychedelics as Medicines: An Emerging New Paradigm.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, vol. 101, Issue 2, Feb. 2017, pp. 209-219.

Novak, Steven J. “LSD before Leary: Sidney Cohen's Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research.” Isis, vol. 88, no. 1, 1997, pp. 87–110. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Reiche, Simon et al. “Serotonergic Hallucinogens in the Treatment of Anxiety and Depression in Patients Suffering from a Life-threatening Disease: A Systematic Review.” Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, vol. 81, 2018, pp. 1-10

Sayin, Ümit, “A Comparative Review of the Neuropsychopharmacology of Hallucinogen-Induced Altered States of Consciousness: The Uniqueness of Some Hallucinogens.” NeuroQuantology, vol. 10, no. 2, 2012, pp. 316-340.

Schwartz, Casey. “Generation Adderall.” The New York Times, The New York Times, Oct. 2016,

“Timothy Leary .” Harvard University, Harvard Department of Psychology,

Orsolini, Laura et al. “The ‘Endless Trip’ Among the NPS Users: Psychopathology and Psychopharmacology in the Hallucinogen-Persisting Perception Disorder. A Systematic Review.” Frontier in Psychiatry, vol. 8, Issue 240, Nov. 2017, doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00240


About the Author(s)

Miranda DiPaolo is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Journalism and Religious Studies. She is a writer for the Arts, Culture, & Entertainment desk at the Daily Tar Heel and a writer for the Arts & Music desk at Coulture Magazine. She also works as a DJ at WXYC. Miranda is from Charlotte, North Carolina. In her free time, she plays guitar, reads, and makes art. Miranda took an interest in the topic of LSD and hippies after reading Be Here Now by Ram Dass and has continued to read and study the Beat Generation throughout the last two years.