The Sunshine Makers, my new feature documentary about Tim Scully and Nick Sand, the underground chemists who thought they could save the world with LSD and fuelled the 1960s psychedelic revolution, comes out in US theaters on 20th January 2017. That same day, Donald Trump is inaugurated as President of the United States of America…. So what the hell happened to the psychedelic revolution?
When Tim and Nick set out on their mission they believed that LSD had the power to transform the world. Why? Because on LSD your egoic sense of self can melt away and leave you with a profound feeling of unity with all living things and the universe as a whole. Tim and Nick’s logic was simple: if people feel connected to everyone and everything, they will treat each other and the planet with kindness and create a new age of Peace and Love.
[See clip of Tim & Nick’s first trips here]
Together these psychedelic commandos made millions of doses of Orange Sunshine, the most famous LSD ever produced. It reached the four corners of the world. Nick even sent huge batches to Vietnam to help the soldiers there see the futility of war. They had calculated they would need to produce 750,000,000 doses of acid to turn on everyone who wanted it and they were only a couple of years away from completing their mission. The revolution was happening. A psychedelic nation was forming. Tim, Nick, and thousands of others like them genuinely expected the Man to fall and the dawning of a new era within five years.
So what went wrong? Where did all this positive momentum and potential go? When did the tide suddenly turn against them? These questions fascinated me during the whole process of making The Sunshine Makers. I asked everyone. And almost everyone had a different answer.
One explanation goes like this. The establishment felt deeply threatened by the rise of LSD, seeing it as a virus eroding their authority and the fabric of decent society. They fought back hard. Nixon’s War on Drugs spread hysterical propaganda about the dangers of LSD and the police brutally stamped on the peaceful psychedelic movement, driving it down into the criminal underworld, and eventually into oblivion.
And the government weren’t the only problem. The revolution was being eroded from the inside too. Tim Scully and many others wanted LSD to be a tool for introverted spiritual growth. But without any elders, traditions, or cultural norms around the use of psychedelics to offer guidance, the Haight Ashbury scene – the epicentre of the psychedelic movement – quickly turned LSD into a party drug. Instead of being a sacrament as Tim had hoped, LSD increasingly became a hedonistic tool for sex, drugs and rock n roll. Tim explained to me that he saw too many of his friends have “peak experiences” without changing their behaviour and too many people using the drug dangerously and irresponsibly. In his eyes the transformational power of LSD was being wasted…and with it the chance of changing the world. As a former police officer told me: it’s a sad story of naive idealism fading in the face of reality.
But is that really the whole picture? Tim’s fellow Sunshine Makers, Nick Sand and Mike Randall see their story through a very different lens. According to Mike they were LSD evangelists founding a new religion, like Jesus had done 2000 years earlier. Like Jesus before them, they were on a spiritual mission, not a political one. Like Jesus, they had a revolutionary new understanding of human existence and they wanted to share it with everyone. And like Jesus, they would face brutal opposition from the establishment they threatened to undermine – only this time it was in the shape of a War on Drugs rather than a crucifixion.
It’s a provocative analogy, but what does it mean for us today? Mike explains that fifty years after Jesus, Christianity was a tiny forbidden sect with very few followers. By comparison LSD is in fact doing wonderfully well: millions of psychedelic disciples have spread far and wide across the world, infiltrating every corner of society. Ask an old acid head and they’ll remind you that nobody had even heard of yoga, meditation, environmentalism, Buddhism, organic foods etc before LSD hit the streets. Now these are all mainstream. We may have forgotten it but countless cultural freedoms we take for granted today – long hair, rock n roll, sex before marriage etc – represent hard fought victories for this revolutionary generation.
And now even science and business, the churches of our modern society, are being psychedelicized! Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and pretty much the whole of Silicon Valley have publicly acknowledged the benefits of LSD. Meanwhile eminent academic institutions like Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins, and NYU are proving in the lab what the hippies knew all along: that psychedelics have extraordinary therapeutic and transformational potential. For example a recent Beckley Foundation study with Imperial College gave psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to people who had suffered from depression for 18 year and been unresponsive to any conventional treatments. After only two doses, 67% of participants were depression-free one week following treatment and 42% remained in remission after 3 months. These are the kinds of results that are very hard to argue against.
So yes, the psychedelic revolution never happened the way Nick Sand, Tim Scully, and the other young LSD evangelists had imagined in the 1960s. We still don’t live in a world of peace and love – Trump is a rather perverse reminder of that fact. But if acid can help us with anything it is to help us see the funny side. (And boy do we need to see the funny side right now)… Fifty years after Tim and Nick decided to save the world, they’re still laughing. They have learned with age that change happens slowly, while time passes quickly… The revolution hasn’t died, it just has grey hair now. It’s become a generational movement – there are grandparents alive today who take LSD – that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. That’s how a belief system truly becomes woven into the fabric of our society. It may still be some time before LSD can fully emerge from the underground, but there are unmistakable signs that a psychedelic Constantine conversion is fast approaching.