Owsley Stanley, the famous manufacturer of LSD back in the 60's, died this week, and the sentimental accolades have been pouring in. This morning's editorial in the NY Times, Electric Kool-Aid Marketing Trip, was typical. An excerpt:
"Relatively clear-thinking entrepreneurs created some of the most enduring tropes of [the Sixties] -- not out of whole paisley cloth but from their astute feel for the culture and the marketplace. And no one was better at it than Augustus Owsley Stanley III.....The San Francisco Chronicle anointed him the 'LSD Millionaire'."
The article goes on to compare Stanley to Steve Jobs for his insistence on quality control. There is no mention of the bad trips or accidents his output may have facilitated. (His LSD probably inspired plenty of bad art, too, but that at least didn't make him criminally liable.)
I remember reading about him in Rolling Stone Magazine back in the 1960's, when he seemed like an exciting and integral part of the counterculture movement. He hung out with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, they dropped his acid, and Tom Wolfe wrote about him. Hearing his name, which I hadn't in at least three decades, took me back to my youth.
I wasn't the only one to react that way. His name stimulated the nostalgia glands of a lot of obit writers. Yet ultimately, his fame did derive from being a drug dealer.
People do not recall Pablo Escobar with such fondness. (Escobar was the Colombian cocaine king who during the 1980's was thought to be one of the richest men in the world, and who was eventually sentenced by the Colombian authorities, but who dictated the terms of how his sentence should be served -- in his own house.) And I have yet to read any glowing tributes after the deaths of various drug kingpins in Ciudad Juarez and Acapulco.
Of course, Owsley did not decapitate his rivals and leave their heads in public plazas. And, in fairness to him, the drug he manufactured, lysergic acid, was not illegal when he started manufacturing it (though its subsequent criminalization did not stop him).
Perhaps more to the point, the nature of the LSD is entirely different from the drugs which dominate the illegal drug trade these days. It wasn't addictive like heroin or cocaine. It didn't generate violence or psychoses like crystal meth. And if it did make one temporarily insane, it usually did so in a gentle way. LSD was much more "Hey man this is really far out," as opposed to meth's "I'm the biggest badass ever and I'm going to rape and kill you." (And after extended use, meth's message tends to morph into, "Everybody wants to rape and kill me, so I better kill them first.")
No one ever rhapsodizes about the mind-expanding qualities of hard drugs. There is no Timothy Leary of heroin; there is no Carlos Castaneda of crystal meth. And the people who sold LSD did not do so through gangs which would guard their turf murderously.
Accidents did happen due to LSD: Art Linkletter's daughter jumped out of a window to her death because while tripping she thought she could fly. And doubtless there were others, less famous, who succumbed to their illusions while under the influence. But in general, the psychedelic drugs were gentle, and in their own rigor-free way, even intellectually stimulating.
No wonder Owsley Stanley brought on all that nostalgia. Times have changed, and not for the better.