Psychedelic revolution: Changing attitudes towards psychedelic drugs in Berkeley and beyond

Don Lattin/Courtesy

Attitudes toward psychedelic drugs are changing, according to Don Lattin — author, former Daily Californian staffer and one-time psychedelics enthusiast. Lattin spoke to The Daily Californian about his new book, “Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy,” and about his own experiences as a student participant in the 1970s Bay Area psychedelic scene.


The Daily Californian: In your book, you describe a change in attitudes toward use of psychedelics in recent years. Is that changing of minds in regards to both spiritual and medical uses?

Don Lattin: Yes. The title “Changing Our Minds” is kind of a double entendre. The public’s perception about the value of psychedelic drugs is changing. Used properly, they can help you change your own mind, help you with issues in your own life. The book is both about a new wave of government approved clinical trials using MDMA, and other trials using psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. MDMA is being tested to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a huge and very expensive problem. Then there’s the research with psilocybin for cancer patients, not treating the cancer but dealing with the depression and anxiety that often goes along with that diagnosis. I’m not writing about the way most people take psychedelic drugs today, including college students — gobbling magic mushrooms and taking a walk in the woods. I would call that recreational use. I’m writing about both the therapeutic use, with a trained therapist or doctor, and also spiritual exploration. And sometimes this is underground and illegal, and sometimes it’s not. There is a popular “sacred plant medicine” called ayahuasca. There are two churches in the United States that, under a Supreme Court decision, can legally have a psychedelic communion using this tea and have visions or spiritual insight, religious insight through this sacred plant tea. And of course there are a lot of people doing this underground — there is both a therapeutic and a spiritual renaissance going on both above and underground right now.


DC: Why are opinions changing now?

Lattin: There was a backlash against both the scientific research and the popular recreational use of psychedelics in the 1980s and ‘90s. With the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, the hippies, there was a reaction against all that experimentation of my generation — against both recreational use and medical research. That started to change about 15 years ago, and the government approved the first clinical trials for MDMA and psilocybin. These trials take a long time. We’re just entering the final phase of this research. The hope is that in five or so years these drugs will be rescheduled and will be able to be used in a therapeutic way.

There’s a new openness to considering the medically beneficial use of (psychedelic drugs). Universities and medical centers are now open to sponsoring this research. There’s nothing major at UC Berkeley but there’s a lot going on at UCLA, at Johns Hopkins, at NYU. Major medical centers are giving the stamp of approval for this research.


DC: Why was there a backlash against counterculture drug use?

Lattin: This really began with LSD, the psychedelic drug most people are familiar with, which was only discovered in the 1940s by a Swiss chemist, and in the 1950s they started doing a lot of research with LSD, using it to treat alcoholism and depression, and people using it for personal growth and spiritual insight. This continued into the 1960s.The other thing that (contributed to the backlash was) the CIA and the U.S. Army were involved with lots of research into trying to weaponize psychedelic drugs, everything from spraying LSD on enemy troops — this was never done but they did research into this, as a “weapon of mass distraction.” One of the first articles I did as a 23-year-old cub reporter in 1977 was about the army LSD tests, a series of revelations about what had happened 10 or 20 years before. Part of the backlash was against what the CIA was doing — there’s a lot more emphasis put on safety so people really know what they’re getting into — not just with psychedelic drugs but with any kind of drugs.


DC: In your book, you mention your own experiences with psychedelics. What was your first introduction to psychedelics?

Lattin: I started at (UC Berkeley) in 1972. I think the first time I tried LSD was when I was in high school but it was a low dose — I had some interesting experiences with it, but it really wasn’t until I was a freshman at Berkeley where (I began experimenting). I had two LSD trips as a first-year student at Berkeley. One was an amazing, beautiful experience with my girlfriend at the time down at Big Sur, on a cliff together. It was a real spiritual awakening for both of us. A few months later, with a few people from my dorm, we had another LSD trip where I had your classic bad trip. I was frightened and paranoid. I had a really difficult time for a few months after that. I really appreciate that these drugs can be very positive but they can also be psychologically dangerous. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a 19-year-old kid who thought I knew everything.

I became a religion reporter, writing about religion and spirituality for most of my career at the San Francisco Chronicle, and some of the experiences I had on psychedelic drugs got me interested in philosophy and religion and mysticism. What are these experiences? Are these the same kind of experiences people reach through meditation? I got interested in spirituality back in the ‘70s because of some of the positive experiences that I had on psychedelics. But you have to be very careful and know what you’re doing and what you’re taking.


DC: How did psychedelics play into the counterculture movement?

Lattin: The ‘60s were a time of incredible rapid change. People’s attitudes were changing about race, about sexuality, about issues of war and peace. It was a really exciting and mostly hopeful time but it was also a very divisive time. Kind of like now. The psychedelic drugs were a part of that whole mix.

I think psychedelic drugs got a lot of people interested in the environmental movement. People had these eco-mystical experiences where they saw themselves as part of nature, not nature as something to exploit. I think that insights people had on psychedelics also helped fuel the anti-Vietnam war movement in some ways. I don’t want to overemphasize the effect that it had — there were a lot of other things going on, obviously — but psychedelic drugs had a real and mostly positive impact on the culture in my opinion.


DC: What was the Bay Area drug culture like at the time? Was the Bay Area accepting of drug use?

Lattin: Oh yeah. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Bay Area was like ground zero of the psychedelic counterculture. This summer is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, 1967. That spirit was still alive in the early ‘70s, (but) it had changed. Some people think that it had a bit of a harder edge by the early ‘70s but that spirit was still here. That was when all the rock bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the psychedelic sound, that was all very fresh and exciting. I caught the tail end of that — what we call “the ‘60s” kind of went from 1965 to 1975.

People went on to find kinder, gentler ways to expand their mind and find spiritual insight. Meditation, yoga.  A lot of people — I don’t know how many people over the years, people my age — I ask “how did you get interested in meditation?” (And) a lot of times it was from a mystical experience people had on psychedelic drugs. That can give you a taste of the experience but there are other ways without drugs that you can cultivate that same kind of awareness. A lot of the interest, particularly of baby boomers, in meditation and yoga was at least in part because of experiences people had on LSD. The Beatles experimented with LSD, and then they went off to India and found a guru. … It became very popular. The whole culture embraced this, for better or worse. Some people kept taking drugs and then started taking more dangerous and addictive drugs, like cocaine or heroin or even alcohol, which can be a very dangerous drug too.

Drugs are not the answer. They can give you an opening, a taste, but you have to be very careful not to abuse them and also be aware of the psychological dangers. Psychedelic drugs are not addictive in the sense of tobacco, but they’re very powerful substances and you have to take them with caution. And they’re illegal. I’m not recommending that people break the law and do this carelessly. I really want to stress that. These drugs have value when they’re used responsibly but it must be done with extreme caution.


DC: What is the experience that people are looking for, either through psychedelics or the other disciplines you describe, such as meditation?

Lattin: Having a sense of oneness with the universe, with the earth, with nature, with other people — almost a melting together. That’s a classic mystical experience. Some people can get that with a walk in the woods. Others need heavy artillery. Just a sense of awe and wonder, a feeling of profound gratitude, compassion.

MDMA in particular, some people call them empathogens because they make you have feelings of empathy and love and compassion. Obviously you don’t need drugs to have those feelings, but for some people, including myself the first time, I experienced MDA, which is a little different but similar to MDMA, my thought was, “Why don’t I always feel this way? This is how one ought to feel.” It varies between the different drugs. MDMA, you don’t have visions or hallucinations, it’s just more of a feeling of euphoria and love and compassion and empathy. That’s why it’s a good drug for therapy, to talk about difficult experiences, past trauma, whether it’s a war experience or sexual abuse. That particular drug really helps people talk about these fearful experiences with a therapist and find a way to move on in their lives. The other more classic psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD tend to be more mystical, an out of body experience or sense of connection. They have different effects and that’s why the research is important, to find out which drugs can best be used to help people. In some ways if you’re a cancer patient you’re facing death, the fear of death, existential dread for some people. With a spiritual guide or a therapist they can really look at that and it’s almost like a little dress rehearsal for death in a way (laughs). You get out of your ego, get out of your body. I interview cancer patients in my book who said it allowed them to live because they didn’t have the fear of death that they had before.

Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected].