The Psychedelic Era Comes to Vancouver, 1965-67

Publication Year: 
2010

Image retrieved from sfu.ca on August 30th, 2013.

For most baby boomers in Vancouver during the 1960s, getting high meant toking up on a marijuana joint or, for the more adventurous, tripping out on a tab of acid or a hit of mescaline. These drugs distinguished the baby boomers from their more restricted and seemingly unimaginative parents, most notable because their drugs of choice were either illegal or viewed with great suspicion. In Canada, marijuana became illegal in 1923: the law was so effective – or irrelevant – that there was only one recorded arrest for possession in the year 1965. The aura of social opprobrium that surrounded marijuana in the 1950s became part of its attraction a decade later.
Vancouver's interest in marijuana dates back to the late 1950s. The bohemian writer Peter Trower, who spent his early days working in the logging camps of British Columbia, recalled rumours of black porters on the Great Northern trains bringing supplies in from Seattle. In the early 1960s the availability of marijuana increased with the establishment of ties to Mexican suppliers. But Trower attributed the really “big explosion” of pot usage in the mid-1960s to the large number of American draft dodgers; some came to Vancouver while others went to the hinterland to grow cannabis in the Kootenays and the Gulf Islands, and pot came to form the basis of their new Canadian identity.
Offering the possibility of spiritual enlightenment, LSD emerged as the most exotic of the psychedelic drugs appearing on the local scene. Applying Norman O. Brown's non-Freudian analysis, Dan McLeod of the Georgia Straight wrote that he believed an acid high weakened the ego and made it easier for individuals to overcome an innate feeling of “separateness or loneliness.” Moreover, by reaching a higher state of consciousness, everybody could become a philosopher or a poet. McLeod came to share Timothy Leary's view that LSD was a religious experience and imagined “thousands of people in Vancouver using mind-expanding chemicals for the first time, to experience the God powers of all your senses.”
LSD first became popular among younger university students who had heard about the experiments in California. In the summer of 1965, Robert Smith, a promising UBC undergrad, decided not to return to classes that fall. Instead he and a small group of friends went south to Mexico, Where they experimented with marijuana, Next stop on Smith's adventure was a visit to southern California; he stayed there for several months, enjoying the pot and acid parties that were becoming increasingly popular. When he returned to Vancouver in late 1965, according to one newspaper account, 'He came home – but some LSD came with him.”
Through 1966, many other Robert Smiths would pursue their own California travels, returning home to tell exaggerated tales of their psychedelic experiences. That same year the American media gave Vancouverites enticing images of events in Golden Gate Park, the Trips Festival, and the antics of the Merry Pranksters. The works of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg appeared in local bookstores and lent a certain literary and academic authority to the LSD lifestyle that resonated with impressionable teenagers and even some faculty members at UBC.
In a survey of provincial drug use, the Narcotic Addiction Foundation concluded that use of LSD increased dramatically throughout 1966. Psychiatrists noted that fifty-two persons had suffered some disabling consequences from taking the drug; thirty-four involved ambulatory treatments, ten were hospital referrals, and eight were evaluations. One reason for the growing popularity of LSD was that possession was not illegal, in contrast to the draconian laws pertaining to marijuana (until the mid-1960s, marijuana possession could net a seven-year jail sentence). Others pointed at the excesses of American culture as an explanation. According to UBC psychologist Conrad Schwartz, much of the new popularity of drugs could be traced to Timothy Leary, “the high priest of the LSD cult.” his preaching about a psychedelic religion had particular appeal to Vancouver's youth, who were unable to distinguish between theology and the wares of “a snake oil sales man...He has a lot to answer for from a moral point of view,” noted the concerned doctor. One distraught mother blamed the allure of the San Francisco drug lifestyle when her son returned home “a helpless crying vegetable.”
Local psychologists noted that the age cohort and sociological profile of the local LSD user basically followed the American precedent. LSD was not a drug of “ the criminal population,” stated Dr. A.M. Marcus of the Narcotics Addiction Foundation; rather, it was “a mind expansion drug which criminals are not interested in.” And it was not the Downtown Eastside underclass that became users, but the highly educated middle class.” College students, many of whom lead lonely isolated lives, are being seduced into using LSD or other psychedelic drugs by the promises of increased creativity,” argued one Vancouver psychiatrist studying the topic. In the 1966 fall term, fourteen UBC students were treated by university health services for LSD-related symptoms, and it was estimated there were over a hundred users over all on campus.
University students getting high did not attract widespread public attention, but more alarming incidents off campus did. In December 1966, two LSD-related deaths were reported. One involved a youth who was “probably experiencing a distortion of his sense of space,” according to the police report, and tragically miscalculated his leap off the Burrard Street bridge. What really ignited an LSD-inspired wave of hysteria was a police report that thirty teenagers from four high schools on Vancouver's west side were regularly experimenting with the drug “for kicks.” The police believed the drug was being brought in from California and students were paying $12 a pill, which would typically be divided into four doses. One constable believed it was time for public authorities to act. “It [LSD] has got to go – it's a damnable thing. It's supposed to expand the mind but far as I am concerned it explodes it.”
As noted in Chapter 1, the LSD issue became the flashpoint for Vancouver's clash of cultures. One Kitsilano hippie flippantly mused bout the possibility of putting LSD in the water supply, but what really sparked concern was LSD's perceived threat to the generation then in high school. Mayor Tom Campbell, never one to be indecisive, declared “War on marijuana and LSD.” To this end, the mayor called for police action against drug dealing in Kitsilano and near the main public library downtown. Patrick McGreer, a local member of the BC Legislative assembly,lobbied the provincial government to pass a special legislation making possession illegal. Not everybody was impressed with these actions. According to the Alderman Harry Rankin, the public was being “whipped into a state of hysteria over LSD.” He was particularly dismayed that on Fourth Avenue there were more “cops than hippies.”
In was in this context of growing cultural polarization that Vancouver's controversial underground newspaper, the Georgia Straight, was conceived in the spring of 1967. Dan McLeod and like-minded Cultural progressives set up the paper, in part, because they believed the Vancouver Sun and Province were publishing misguided and ill-informed attacks on the drug culture. Straight writers acknowledged that there were indeed some harmful impurities in LSD being sold, but they insisted that mainstream society had equally dangerous mass consumption habits, including watching television (the Straight headlined research, sponsored by the US Congress, which showed that “T.V. Rays Cause Brain Damage”). In the end, the Straight asserted that “materialist civilization” was “hypnotized, clobbered, stoned, and asphyxiated” far worse than the Fourth Avenue counterculture.
The Straight also responded to what it viewed as the exaggerated anti-drug “propaganda” campaigns in the local high schools. Cartoons parodied the “social ostracism” theme that had worked so well in the “halitosis scare” used to advertise mouthwash. The police and the “irresponsible” behaviour of Mayor Tom Campbell attracted the attention of Straight cartoonists on several occasions.
Initially the Straight mostly reprinted the work of American cartoonists, such as Ron Cob, but two talented Canadians swiftly became local favourites. Rand Holmes produced the Harold Hedd series and was especially known for his depiction of the Vancouver police during the 1971 Gastown riot. Equally controversial, at least in the eyes of civic officials, were the Acidman cartoons of Peter “Zipp” Almasy, who later acknowledged that the creation of “Acid Man probably happened while I was drunk.” He recognized his limitations as a “good but imitative” artist who borrowed ideas and characters from Marvel comics, only “without that goddamn American censorship.” In his comic strips, Almasy did not promote love, peace, and goodwill for reaching an accommodation with culturally regressive civic officials, Instead he was inspired by the words of the American comic and social critic Lenny Bruce: “I spit in the face of authority.”

pp. 91-94, of City of Love and Revolution Vancouver in the Sixties by Lawrence Aaronsen (2010)

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