Drug War Casualty John Stern and Unregulated Doses of LSD in Yorkville 1967

Cover image of Satyrday from photo insert, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s by Stuart Henderson (1977).

On March 16 1967 a twenty-year-old student at the Royal Conservatory of Music plunged to his death from the Bloor St viaduct, becoming Toronto's first LSD casualty. John Stern, a aspiring musician, son of an upper-middle-class family from the Toronto borough of York, took the drug for the first time in his life at around 5 o'clock in the afternoon and was dead before midnight. With this tragedy coming less than a month after the much-vaunted Perception '67 festival at the University of Toronto- a three-day event designed around the idea of mind-expansion and psychedelic experience- Stern's apparently drug-directed suicide led many to speculate whether too much support was being afforded the chemical brew. It didn't help that Stern's father, grief-fuelled and biting, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of 'pseudo-experts' who glamorized the drug by suggesting that it might 'expand the horizons' of creative people.

pp. 175-176 Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s by Stuart Henderson (1977).

But, while it may have been Alpert's encouragement that had inspired the young man to take LSD for the first time, it turns out that what Stern ingested can only be described as a rather heroic dose of pure, 'clean' acid. The long-awaited shipment of uncut LSD had arrived from Chicago only a few days prior to Stern's death on 16 March, too soon for word to get around warning of its astonishing strength. Rather than being packaged in 200-300 microgram capsules (a standard 'dose'), these pills were each packed with about 500 micrograms of the mind-bending chemical.

If the only on-record account of dropping this particular batch of the drug is any indication, even the experienced were powerless to retain any form of control while riding that much pure acid: 'I took [two capsules for]what I thought to be a healthy dose- 400 micrograms. Judging by what happened, it must have been 1000 micrograms. I was so frightened I sat on the floor with my legs crossed, in the same spot, for five hours. I flipped out completely. I went through a complete mental and physical death. I was disoriented. I achieved a state of non-being. I wanted to go even further and get out of my body [and] one way of doing that is to destroy your body.' So many trippers were finding the LSD experience too intense that psychedelic dealers began to realize that demand for their product might start to suffer. One former Village LSD dealer explained the situation: 'So what happened was that people started having bad trips- and of course the press was relentlessly negative on the whole thing, throughout North America- I think the dealers cut the doses way down... In fact I know it. The classic dose was about 250 micrograms- that's 250 millions of a gram. It was cut down from that to about 40 mics. Which will give you a buzz, but nothing like before. Later on, when I was intending to take a trip, and when I knew what the source was, I would often take six doses, which would move it up to the classic dose.'

But was John Stern the victim of hype surrounding LSD? Not according to Satyrday, which ran a scathing article condemning the 'sensation-hungry' press for propagating a fabricated story making out Stern 'to appear untarnished' in his personal life. 'What the fearless press did not report was that those who knew Stern in Yorkville say he had at least 20 to 30 previous "trips" on LSD, and was obviously no stranger to its effects.''He was known by many as "Stern the Burn," a reference to his connection with the dope business in Yorkville...Our informant and others said Stern kept his stash at his parents' home...Did [his father] know, for example, that his son was pushing hashish and marijuana at Yorkvile? His father charged that Yorkville was a bad influence on his son. Perhaps it was the other way around.'With this, one of the clearest examples of disagreement between Satyrday and the mainstream papers, we are left wondering: How did the mainstream papers miss this information? Or why would it have been suppressed? Satyrday offers its own interpretation: referring to Stern's death as 'the event our Establishment has been waiting for,' Satyrday suggests that whitewashing Stern's character might have been deliberate, a ruse to stir up anxiety over a new danger to middle-class youth.

pp. 179-180, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s by Stuart Henderson (1977).