Dead End Kids on Acid

A business history of LSD


Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, by Nicholas Schou, Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pages, $24.99

Imagined by different advocates as a tool for spiritual reawakening, for political revolution, or for military mind control, LSD has a mysterious power in our bodies that is reflected in its mysterious power in our body politic. As an old acidhead joke goes, LSD is a highly volatile drug that can induce heart palpitations, panic, and paranoia—in those who have never taken it.

Acid's most hideous wisdom is that it can and will be as beatific, as grinding, as exalted, or as depraved as whatever is within you. America's biggest LSD popularizer, the disgraced former Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, stressed that your reaction to acid depends on "set and setting": the attitudes you bring to the experience and the environment surrounding you. Because of acid's use in government mind control experiments during the 1950s, because of the hyperbolic press coverage that dogged it in the 1960s, and because it was banned by Congress in 1968, the drug's set and setting in American culture inevitably created bad trips.

The historiography of LSD—which was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, working for the private Sandoz Laboratories—has been spotty but fascinating. Hovering at least as a ghostly presence in most of it has been what is usually described as a tough Orange County, California, motorcycle gang turned blissed-out religious cult turned international drug smuggling ring known by the deliciously '60s name the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

In their 1985 LSD history Acid Dreams, Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain described the Brotherhood as "a bizarre mélange of evangelical, starry-eyed hippie dealers, mystic alchemists, and fast-money bankers." Leary was both friend and unofficial guru to the Brotherhood. He described them in his 1982 autobiography Flashbacks as "transfiguring themselves from working class adolescent low riders to apprentice divinities." He said "there was something magical about this band…outlaws who created a global legend and then disappeared quietly from the scene." In a 1972 indictment, Orange County's district attorney falsely portrayed the defrocked professor as their capo di tutti capi in international crime.

Michael Hollingshead, a British adventurer who was one of the earliest suppliers of LSD to Leary, offered the perfect one-line description of the Brotherhood: "the Dead End Kids who took acid and fell in love with beauty." And while they were at it, built up the largest-volume illegal drug smuggling and distribution network of their time. 

Any cinematic treatment of this story will likely be based on the new book Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, written by Nicholas Schou, a journalist who first wrote about the Brotherhood's history and lingering after-effects for the OC Weekly in 2005. This is not the first book purporting to tell the clandestine Brotherhood's full story. In 1984 the British journalists Stewart Tendler and David May issued The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which told the same tale with a wider perspective on the history of LSD, and with some significant differences from Schou's, mostly in extending the Brotherhood's story past the point where Schou stops it. Tendler and May also claim a closer relationship between the group and the Mellon heir Billy Hitchcock and the international smuggler (and suspected government provocateur) Ronald Stark. Schou keeps closer to the original Orange County gang, telling the story largely from their perspective.

Schou would have helped those interested in the ongoing scholarly/journalistic project of getting acid's history straight if he had acknowledged the previous book and explained his reasons for departing from its facts and emphases. Did the O.C. boys he interviewed deny that they had a working partnership with Hitchcock and Stark, or did Schou just think focusing on the original group was a better and tighter way to tell his story? Readers of both books are left to wonder.

Schou's goal is not to clear the underbrush of acid's historiography. He just wants to relate, in a largely voiceless and opinionless way, this corking tale of beatific criminals, pioneering smugglers, alien-loving rock stars, and staggering quantities of drugs. His reporting is diligent, and his story comes mostly from the mouths of participants speaking for the first time on the record after decades of hiding deep underground.

That story deserves to be told. While Leary was not, contra Orange County's D.A., the Brotherhood's mastermind, the guru's largely libertarian approach to acid makes it fitting that he plays a central role in this story of how a drug associated with government experimentation and elite curiosity leaped into the roiling waters of free (albeit black) markets.

The Brotherhood boys were mostly shiftless surfer, motorcycle, and car thugs from beach towns in Orange County in the early 1960s. Only one of them lacked a criminal record, so he signed their incorporation papers in 1966. They were allegedly dedicated to promoting the ideals of an eclectic set of spiritual leaders, from Christ to Krishna. Aboveground, they ran the Mystic Arts World shop in Laguna Beach, selling the accoutrements of spiritually inclined hippieism. Secretly (sort of) they grew into gigantic distributors of pot from Mexico, hash from Afghanistan, and LSD from both the legendary Grateful Dead soundman and outlaw chemist Augustus Stanley Owsley III and, later, the Owsley disciple Timothy Scully and Scully's disciple Nick Sand.

Prior to officially becoming the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in 1966 (which happened a month after California banned LSD), the boys had already built up a thriving pot business, smuggling the goods from Mexico. Then their leader, "Farmer John" Griggs, decided to rob at gunpoint a Hollywood party after he heard that the attendees had lots of this new wonder drug he'd heard about. Acid changed his life, helped him beat heroin, and led him and his friends on an amazing journey. His old crony and Brotherhood mainstay Edward Padilla said the pre-acid Griggs was "a sneaky, manipulative little bastard." Afterward, he had a magical charisma that reportedly made every acid trip with him into a life-changing experience, be you banker or Buddhist. Leary dubbed him "the holiest man to live in this country."

No acid story is complete without the contentious Leary. Griggs, like so many acidheads in the mid-'60s, looked up to the professor, and he visited him at his upstate New York Millbrook estate in 1966. When the Millbrook experiment was shut down by Leary's sponsor Hitchcock, Griggs invited Leary and his family essentially to move in with the Brotherhood, which they did, spending most of 1967 to 1969 with the O.C. saints and smugglers, at first in Laguna Beach and then at a more remote ranch near Idyllwild in the Southern California desert. 

Leary had enough public twists and turns in his attitudes and advocacy that it's easy for anyone to find a version they can hate or love. The Leary of this moment was part mys-tic (he inspired the Brotherhood to organize themselves as a quasi-church) and part political leader (he launched an aborted run for governor of California from the Brotherhood ranch). Against the wishes of early allies such as Aldous Huxley and British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (the man who coined the term psychedelic) and his academic sponsors at Harvard, Leary didn't think access to acid needed to be controlled by a mandarin class. He was perhaps recklessly laissez-faire and capitalist in his approach to LSD, thinking that anyone should be free to alter his own consciousness and adopting the marketing strategy of media guru Marshall McLuhan by "advertising" the drug though his public persona. (Always smile!)

Leary therefore was willing to give his imprimatur to the new youth hero, the "righteous dealer." The Brotherhood made their big money smuggling pot and hash. The acid they took more seriously as a sacrament, and Brotherhood members would give away thousands of hits—even dropping them from small aircraft—at big rock festivals and youth gatherings.

Does this make them heroes or villains? Schou doesn't openly express an opinion. He does, however, give more emphasis to the role of "orange sunshine"—the Brotherhood-branded acid variety that dominated the scene in 1969–1970 and fed the heads of the Manson family and the Hell's Angels at Altamont—than he does to the personal journeys of understanding or pleasure by hundreds of thousands of other acid eaters. (Tendler and May claim that orange sunshine was not LSD at all but a very close chemical cousin that was not yet technically illegal. Schou does not address this issue, though he does note that many acid-loving Brothers found orange sunshine different and off-putting.)

Schou's story delivers the usual situational clichés familiar from bohemian histories that arc toward success, whether in the arts or business: The Brotherhood started out being just about the drugs, man (and the enlightenment and joy and understanding that supposedly came with them), but then everything degenerated and it was just about the money. The specific events that tore apart the Brotherhood's circle in what is ultimately a pretty harrowing tale are predictable, both for those who think acid can be used responsibly and those who hate the drug to its indole core. An accidental drowning of a teenager, accidental dosings of kids, an accidental overdose of their leader, passport fraud, near-sinking of smuggling boats, indictments, arrests, and hanging out in Maui making a movie with Hendrix: All these mishaps and more befell the Brotherhood.

The book is necessarily told largely through the reminiscences of the brothers. Schou managed to track down many of them and win their trust. You can't help suspecting that some of these old heads are exaggerating the drama and grandeur of their youth. But the book never wallows in the worst possibilities of a bunch of aging hippies reliving their glory days—except maybe for the Hendrix-in-Maui part.

Schou has performed a signal service to a full understanding of LSD's cultural connotations by writing what is essentially its business history, largely separate from the ideologues, bureaucrats, and scientists who dominate most other writings about acid. A certain aristocratic disdain for grubby commerce has hung over such social and intellectual accounts. Schou reminds us that markets are what ultimately bring anything to cultural prominence.

Contemplating the fates and outcomes of a bunch of aimless suburban street criminals after their minds are blown by acid gives you only a narrow view of the acid experience, however. If you read Orange Sunshine in combination with other recent books that touch on acid's cultural history, such as John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said and Don Lattin's The Harvard Psychedelic Club, a broader picture emerges. When scientists, spiritualists, and technologists get into acid, their acid paths tend to be shaped by scholarship, spirituality, and technology; when criminals do, the path remains criminal. (My own book Radicals for Capitalism discusses a wave of acid mania among libertarian funders and activists in the 1950s, a decade before the Brotherhood helped bring it to the people. The drug did not lead any of them to self-destruction, criminality, or early deaths.) Acid is not the reliable behavior change mechanism the Learyites hoped for.

Schou's research, like that of others who have taken on the Brotherhood, reveals criminals who tended to eschew violence and were in many cases more sinned against than sinners, by everyone from Laguna Beach cops to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. One Brotherhood hash smuggler, Rick Bevan, told Schou: "The price we paid was far more than any of us ever expected. Lives were lost, people spent years in prison, but all of that was worth it because we totally succeeded.…We ushered in the age we are in now, which reflects a much more open-minded, open-hearted, and spiritually inspired world."

It's hard to hear that without cringing a bit at the Baby Boomer grandiosity. The number of acid users remains small; according to the federal government's survey data, only about 9 percent of Americans claim to have used the drug. But the legend of the Brotherhood still has a tenacious hold on the world of acidheads, such that tracing the group's influence is tricky—every "cool" dealer of the period tried to claim its legacy.

In 1972 a major series of busts broke the gang. (Sources within the group believe their international operation was what convinced the feds to create a unified Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973.) But as Schou writes, the government's "self-perceived victory over the Brotherhood was pure fantasy." Many of the indicted brothers continued careers in illegal drugs during the ensuing decades, and with or without the Brotherhood, Americans could and still can get their pot, hash, and acid.

The government has succeeded in maintaining a set and setting where the suppliers of acid are awful criminals and the users are experimenting in an atmosphere of hazard, uncertainty, and paranoia. The scientific and therapeutic understanding of LSD has barely advanced beyond the state of the art in Leary's days. That acid should be a street drug of uncertain provenance surrounded by criminals was the government's own bad trip, one that helped push the Brotherhood's story toward its unhappy ending.