Behind the tie-dyed wave of rebellion that swirled across the US in the 1960s were a test tube, a Bunsen burner, and a periodic table. In the hands of two talented and idealistic chemists, the tools of the scientific establishment were repurposed to manufacture the fuel of cultural change: lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
One particular strain of the drug, known as Orange Sunshine, became synonymous with the psychedelic revolution, and was famous for being the purest acid ever made. Yet the drug’s co-creator Tim Scully tells IFLScience that the chemical ultimately “didn’t manage to save the world,” in part because its users turned their back on science.
However, with the number of scientific research papers about LSD reaching their highest level for 50 years in 2016, mainstream science may now have a chance of bringing about its own psychedelic revolution.
The Chemistry of Rebellion
A new documentary called The Sunshine Makers tells the story of the rise and fall of Orange Sunshine, and how Scully, along with his friend Nick Sand, attempted to manufacture 750 million doses of the drug, in an audacious attempt to “turn on” the world and usher in an era of peace and love.
As rebellious as this project may sound, you don’t create such a vast quantity of impeccably pure acid without discipline and scientific rigor – not to mention an expert grasp of chemistry. “Lab technique is everything when you’re making acid, because lysergic compounds are very fragile and easy to mishandle,” explains Scully.
Working in a Breaking Bad-style makeshift lab in Point Richmond, California, the pair had to block out all outside light, because “daylight is death to LSD. In the presence of water, UV light turns LSD into lumi-LSD, which has a water molecule attached.” Then there’s the problem of burning off solvents without heating the solution to above room temperature. The solution? “We were getting through about a tonne of dry ice a week.”
But just as the finished product helped to warp the values and beliefs of its users, the cultural and scientific remit of LSD itself was largely defined by the prevailing wisdom of the world outside the lab.
Nick Sand, Tim Scully and co making LSD. The Sunshine Makers
How The World Changed LSD
Back in the 1960s, neuroscientists believed that psychedelic drugs were psychotomimetic, meaning they induce psychosis, and began to experiment with these substances in an attempt to study the psychotic mind. This model was later abandoned when it became clear that the effects of LSD are in fact far removed from psychosis. Interestingly, a study published last year found that the acute effects of LSD do share some similarities with psychosis, but that these quickly give way to longer-lasting therapeutic effects, like elevated mood and decreased anxiety.