Skip to content

Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

A Trip Underground

Psychedelic Periodical Culture

Robert Dickins

Founder of Psychedelic Press, Robert Dickens takes us on a countercultural trip through printed matter, from the 1960s to now.

Ken Kesey biographer Rick Dodgson recently told me with some delight that it’s worth remembering that “the hippies won!”. He didn’t mean of course that militarism has abetted, nor that capitalism has crumbled, but that they were part of a liberal social shift that took root during the 1960s and 1970s; foot soldiers in an earlier round of the culture war.

In an era of blossoming new rights, however, the hippies’ favourite tipple LSD became something of an anachronism. Its manufacture, distribution and possession was prohibited worldwide by the early 1970s. The nascent culture that had grown up around LSD and other psychedelic substances, psychedelia, was driven underground by the law.

Today, I run a quarterly journal dedicated at heart to illegal activity. The Psychedelic Press is a discursive space for marginalized enthusiasts, carrying aloft a flame that might help reignite a dark night of the mind. Following a lineage of small press periodicals that have negotiated the relentless tide of prohibition, it is necessarily grass-roots and radical; a reverse trajectory compared to its contemporary movements.

"Today, I run a quarterly journal dedicated at heart to illegal activity."

Back in the 1950s preclinical drugs were barely regulated in the US. LSD and other psychedelics were freely experimented with by scientists, and respected journals duly and dryly reported study outcomes. Researchers examined its psychological and biological efficacy, treated patients, and sought the opinion of writers, artists and philosophers. Some even began privately sharing its extraordinary properties with friends and family.

Out of this extraordinary milieu a psychedelic culture arose, as LSD increasingly left the lab, leaking onto college campuses and into the minds of a growing counterculture. As a loose collective, psychedelia was, and indeed continues to be, a curious blend of scientists, writers, therapists, artists, and hedonists. A perfect cultural storm during a time of social unrest. It signalled its beliefs through its first periodical: the Psychedelic Review (1963-1971).

The journal was founded by Drs Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert; quintessential figures of the period undertaking official psychedelic research at Harvard University before joining the countercultural vanguard. Although discussing ongoing studies, Psychedelic Review (PR) was also a medium for placing psychedelics in the context of wider philosophical and social questions. It reflected the literary and artistic interests of those who had experimented with LSD during the previous decade, and had a radical liberal project built in.

Inspired in part by author Aldous Huxley, at the journal’s centre was a belief in LSD’s potential for a liberation of the self. Noting its ability to permeate egos and resolve emotional crises, British expatriate writer and friend of Huxley, Gerald Heard, asked in its first issue, ‘Can Drugs Enlarge Man’s Mind?’:

“…the practical answer to ‘What Can LSD Provide?’ seems to be that LSD remains for the time being what it is: a ‘research drug’, to be used with greatest care to explore the minds of those who would volunteer to aid competent researchers by offering themselves as voyagers to the ‘Gate of Ivory’.”

There is undoubtedly an underlying elitism in this liberation, but the seeds for wider radical social appraisal were also there. In the same issue, writer and religious philosopher Alan Watts claimed, “Theoretically, many scientists know that the individual is not a skin-encapsulated ego but an organism-environment field.” If the mind of the individual is to be liberated, it must also necessitate a break with their social and political environment too.

“Theoretically, many scientists know that the individual is not a skin-encapsulated ego but an organism-environment field.”
Alan Watts

Roger K Green argues that both the ‘trip’ and the ‘psychedelic aesthetic’ were methods of exploring liberal subjectivity in the 1960s through the mechanism of LSD’s ‘expanded consciousness’. Aesthetically, PR’s cover art exemplifies this, morphing over the 1960s into designs akin to the styles of counterculture poster design. Inside, the LSD-inspired art of Isaac Abrams and others juxtaposed with scientific papers and experimental writing.

As the decade progressed, LSD in the PR represented a powerful tool for personal and social liberation. Wrapped up in the social changes of the era, and fuelled by a belief in the universal nature of people, the planet and the cosmos, trippers returned to base-level consciousness with an experiential critique of the conservative nation-state’s barriers and borders; its cross-disciplinary interests showcasing a pervasive territorialization of culture.

Simultaneously, however, legal and medical regulations were gradually enacted. They hampered scientific research and circled non-medical use, creating an atmosphere of top-down control; the anathema of LSD’s liberal subjectivity. A 1964 PR article entitled ‘Psychedelics and the Law: A prelude to question marks’ eerily foreshadowed prohibition. Roy Bates wrote, “The main issue is not drug law but individual human rights,” arguing:

“Included in the circle of freedoms which may give constitutional protection to psychedelic enterprise are not only those named and famous […] but innominate ones, such as the right of the individual to acquire, expand, and spread knowledge, and the ‘inalienable’ right to the pursuit of happiness.”

By 1969, the culture war for the mind of America had intensified. According to Walter Sneider’s provocatively titled ‘Some Consequences of the LSD Revolution’ (Issue 9), “Laws directed toward the prohibition of LSD miss the mark because it is not the drug which is revolutionary but the experience induced by it.” Adding, “As the LSD experience becomes more commonplace and an ever larger number of individuals come under its influence, the cumulative impact on social norms will certainly be dramatic.”

“Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.”
Hunter S Thompson

By the early 1970s, however, the revolutionary aims of the counterculture had dwindled. Perhaps not faded but transformed, as elements of its particular liberal worldview were sequestered by the mainstream. As other rights began to be won, (some) users of (some) drugs became marginalized. Psychedelic aficionados were driven underground as the manufacture, distribution and possession of many of their emblematic drugs became illegal.

Psychedelic periodicals including the PR, Inner Space and the Psychedelic Information Centre all ceased to be. While elements of the underground press continued to laud psychedelics for a time, it was not until the 1980s and the coincidental (?) rise of neo-conservativism that psychedelia’s own community press reappeared. The Psychozoic Press, Mondo 2000, TRP, the Entheogen Review among others, were all grassroots publications advocating a culture of mind liberation from state-mandated consciousness.

When the Psychedelic Press was founded online in 2008 there was just a handful of scientists toiling against regulations, yet the substances themselves were staple parts of numerous different Western subcultures – from raves and magical circles, to Silicon Valley and a burgeoning drug tourism in South America. As Hunter S Thompson said, “Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used.”  Servicing a digital age, the journal continued in the anachronistic tradition by turning to print in 2012: a tangible testament to freedom like the chemicals themselves.

Nowadays, the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and many other substances is back in the popular consciousness. In part this has been made possible by the continuing struggle to explore these substances in the wilderness – through the trip itself and the knowledge that thousands of trippers have garnered, written and shared through its underground press. After all, liberation emerges in spite of laws.

Continue Reading

Back to issue