In my search for ever-obscure rock music from my generation – not the greatest generation but the flower generation – I came across a CD collection of rare songs titled “Brown Acid: The Seventeenth Trip,” appropriately subtitled: “Heavy Rock from the Underground Comedown.” The record review began as follows: “Lucky number 17? You better believe it. We here at Brown Acid have been scouring the highways and byways of America for even more hidden stashes of psych/garage/proto-punk madness from the so-called Aquarian Age. There’s no flower power here, though – just acid casualties, rock stompers, and major freakouts.”
I pride myself on knowledge of rock and roll music, so how did I miss the release of the previous 16 “trips”? Was it because the record label (RidingEasy Records) focuses on heavy psych, doom, and metal, and is home to Monolord, Electric Citizen, Salem’s Pot, Mondo Drag, Brown Acid Comps, Slow Season, The Well, Shooting Guns, R.I.P., Dunbarrow, Danava, and many more bands that are not among my collection?
Psychedelia seems to be everywhere these days, especially in my field of psychiatry, where hallucinogens are front and center in psychiatric R&D, and there are now FDA-approved agents for depressive disorders (although they are quite expensive). Psychiatrists and other “helpers” (not necessarily healers) began dabbling with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s, lending their name in part to the “turn on, tune in, drop out” counterculture popularized by LSD guru Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist. Hallucinogens have been used for centuries for spiritual purposes, shamanism, and healing. We are now seeing a resurgence of interest in their therapeutic potential.
Several studies have shown that hallucinogens, particularly psilocybin and LSD, may be effective in treating mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. They appear to work by disrupting patterns of thought and allowing patients to have transformative experiences. Some hallucinogens may promote neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to form new connections and change its structure and function. This could potentially be harnessed for therapeutic benefits. For example, psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms,” has been used in clinical trials to treat existential anxiety related to terminal illness. Patients have reported significant reductions in anxiety and depression, often after just one or two sessions.
Other hallucinogens, like ketamine and its “sinister” enantiomer, S-ketamine, have shown promise in treating postpartum depression, treatment-resistant depression, and depression with suicidal ideation, sometimes providing relief from symptoms within hours of use. Ketamine exerts its activity on the brain primarily through its actions on the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptor (glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain). NMDA receptor antagonism causes complex “downstream” effects and is believed to be the mechanism of action underlying the antidepressant effects of ketamine. However, multiple other NMDA receptor antagonists have failed to demonstrate antidepressant efficacy, suggesting additional neural pathways are involved.
While early results are promising, there are few long-term studies on the safety and effectiveness of hallucinogens. Many hallucinogens are classified as Schedule I drugs, meaning they are illegal and considered to have no medical value. This makes it difficult to conduct research and limits access to potential treatments. While hallucinogens are generally not considered addictive, they can be misused. They can also potentially lead to dangerous behavior, particularly if used without medical supervision.
Some people may have negative reactions to hallucinogens, including panic, paranoia, and psychosis. There is also the risk of triggering latent mental health problems. Due to their illegal status, there is no standardization or quality control for hallucinogens. This means that users can’t be certain of the strength or purity of what they’re taking.
So, while hallucinogenic drugs show promising therapeutic benefits, their limitations and potential risks should not be overlooked. More research is needed to fully understand their potential and to develop safe and effective treatment protocols.
That’s the scientific overview. Here’s the mythical one.
Those of us belonging to the “Woodstock Generation,” or those who were aware of this incredible hippie festival held for “three days of peace and music” in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate (Bethel) New York, may recall announcer Chip Monck’s cautionary words about the “brown acid”:
“To get back to the warning that I’ve received, you might take it with however many grains of salt you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that. Of course, it’s your own trip, so be my guest. But be advised that there is a warning on that, OK?”
This has to rank among the most magnificent public service announcements of all time. I’m not sure how accurate Monck’s warnings were, or what effect they had, but that is beside the point. Because, fast forward six decades, and it’s pretty clear that the acid is still floating around – in whatever form and color – and it’s finding a legitimate place in the armamentarium of psychiatric treatment.
I did not attend Woodstock. I was a junior in high school at the time, and too young to appreciate the significance of events that were about to unfold. (Could anyone really anticipate the magnitude of the event?) However, I have seen the full-length feature film a number of times, and I suppose that this counts me as an expert of sorts.
Mike Greenblatt, author of Woodstock: Back to Yasgur’s Farm, wrote that when he returned home from the festival, his mother clutched him to her bosom and cried. “Since then,” he says, “I’ve done nothing my entire life but listen to music and tell people about it [Woodstock].”
There were at least 400,000 other stories from those who made it to Woodstock, and millions more from people who wished they were there but never made it. Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The reason I wrote this piece was to let you know that the brown acid at Woodstock and the newfound popularity of psychedelic drugs in psychiatry are not the headlines. No, the reason I wrote this essay was to remind you that the real story behind Woodstock is the untold stories that never saw the light of day. Let’s not forget to honor our patients by telling their stories and sharing ours with them.
Arthur Lazarus is a former Doximity Fellow, a member of the editorial board of the American Association for Physician Leadership, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Every Story Counts: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Narrative Medicine.