Flashback

By the time Newsweek has spotted a trend, one of two things is certain: the trend is about to collapse under the weight of its own hype, or the trend was baseless to begin with. With its February 3 story about LSD's comeback among teenagers, "The New Age of Aquarius," the newsmagazine tallied a rare double.

To be fair to Newsweek, its cautionary warning about an acid renaissance is no more foolish than the scores of stories on the subject that ran during the last year in the nation's leading dailies. A Nexis cowboy riding the database range would have roped in more than a few stories on an LSD revival in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and Oregonian, among other papers.

Breathless to a one, they sound minor variations on the acid comeback theme of Joseph B. Treaster's New York Times December 1991 piece: "[A] growing number of young people are using LSD, the drug that helped define the counterculture of the 1960s." "Law enforcement officials say LSD is the new drug of choice for trendy teens," intoned the Houston Post's Barbara Linkin the April before. "After years of obscurity," wrote the Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow Jr. on page one a couple of months later, "LSD is re-emerging as a popular drug among relatively small but growing groups of middle-class users." The LSD comeback story got a sensational boost last winter in suburban Detroit, where a high school senior allegedly spiked her English teacher's coffee with a tab of acid. "Kids have kind of rediscovered it," a counselor told the Detroit Free Press' Nancy Ann Jeffrey last May.

The credit for LSD's "rediscovery" shouldn't go to the kids, who have been consuming the drug at a steady clip for the last two decades. It belongs to the naive press corps, which has conjured up an acid comeback based on a few LSD busts and anecdotal reports of teenage use while ignoring the evidence that no more LSD is being consumed today than during the mid-'70s.

Not even the drug-abuse industrial complex, that interlocking directorate of drug police and drug counselors, believes LSD is more plentiful. In fact, the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee, a government consortium of the CIA, DEA, Customs, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and every other outfit with an interest in drugs, reported last summer that "the overall supply of LSD has remained relatively constant since 1980." Likewise, an authoritative seventeen-year survey of drug use by high school seniors indicates no acid groundswell. The only significant change in the LSD market is its price: when corrected for inflation, LSD is cheaper than ever before ($1 to $10 a hit, 1992 street prices).

The "LSD renaissance" story is a hardy one, biding its time in the newsless shoals of newspaperdom, ready to flower at a moment's notice. Like its cousin, the anniversary story (the fiftieth of Pearl Harbor, the fortieth of Queen Elizabeth II's ascendancy, and, upcoming, the twentieth of the attempted assassination of George Wallace), it is always there, waiting for a reporter to assemble its modular units of anecdote and hysteria to fill those vacant column inches. A reporter need only consult the local police log for evidence of LSD busts, or trend--observe the music and fashion worlds for the eternal signs of psychedelia. England's late-'80s acid-house dance craze spawned LSD-is-back notions, but the most reliable foundation for an acid story is a Grateful Dead tour, always good for a few displays of LSD intoxication and a few busts.

As far back as October 21, 1979, the New York Times had pegged an LSD comeback ("LSD Use Said to Rise Again in Northern California"), reporting on the seizure of 750,000 doses of the drug. The Washington Post chased the Times story with its own piece a few weeks later about LSD use in San Francisco, "Reprise From the '60s, LSD Has Come Back to Flower-Child Town." A year later New York Daily News reporter Sharon Rosenthal announced in a news feature titled "LSD Is Back" that LSD was everywhere. The Washington Post revived the revival three years later in July 1983 with "LSD Found to Be Regaining Its Popularity." That same month UPI reporter Mark Barabak filed a story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, and other papers that plotted LSD's rally in language that reads like the template for today's stories: "Hallucinogenic drugs, popular among a generation that 'tuned in, turned on, and dropped out' in the 1960s, are regaining favor among people who have become cynical about the horror stories surrounding psychedelics, drug experts said yesterday." Sightings continued to the end of the decade: "Sixties Drug Makes Comeback" (Miami Herald, October 7, 1984); "LSD Surges Back in D.C. Suburbs" (Washington Times, May 9, 1986); "LSD Pops Back on the Scene" (an investigative paragraph in USA Today, April 17, 1987); "Officials: LSD Use on Rise in N.E." (Boston Globe, October 11, 1987); "Teenagers Again Turning on to LSD" Sacramento Bee, August 16, 1988); "Renewed Use of LSD Feared" (Los Angeles Daily News, January 31,1989). The recent pileup of LSD stories couldn't have been triggered by an increase in use because the supply is unchanged since 1980, if you believe the government's NNICC report. The belief that LSD's demographic appeal has shifted from older users to younger ones can't be supported either. Since 1975 the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has been tracking drug use among high school seniors for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the first year of the survey, 7.2 percent of the senior class acknowledged using LSD once in the previous twelve months. That proved to be the high point for LSD; the figure dropped to a low of 4.4 percent of seniors in 1985, and in the most recent poll (the class of 1991) only 5.2 percent claimed to have tried LSD.

Newsweek
could have embraced this statistical evidence to prove that LSD use is unchanged among high-schoolers, but instead it twisted the survey results to warn that more seniors are now trying LSD than cocaine. That's true, but only because of a steep decline in cocaine use, from 13.1 percent of high school seniors in 1985 to 3.5 percent in 1991. The survey has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1 percentage point, so it is statistically possible that in 1991 there were still more cocaine-using seniors. So much for the LSD plague.

One reason the press is hyping the nonexistent LSD boom is that it has overdosed on crack stories. Novelty is the lifeblood of journalism, and after six years of horror stories about that drug, editors needed a break. Another contributor to LSD's "rebirth" was a high-profile drug bust of twelve students at University of Virginia fraternity houses in March 1991. The police haul from the bust was small: a dozen partly filled baggies of pot, dope-smoking paraphernalia, three bags of mushrooms, and one bag of LSD--not exactly the Medellin cartel. Such a pitiful stash would have earned the UVA fraternities expulsion from the Greek councils of most colleges in 1969--for inhospitality. Just the same, the UVA bust electrified the desk jockeys who shape the news, with AP wire accounts running in practically every major daily: LSD is back!

The odd thing about the recent wave of LSD reporting is that most of today's editors were on campus in the '60s and '70s, and many of them staged their own blitzkriegs through the pharmacopoeia. They know from experience that drug busts are exaggerated by police, that not every drug user becomes a Charles Manson, and that not all drug use constitutes drug abuse. But many of these '60s people now have their own children, children they hope to send to fine schools like UVA. As the minds of these journalists sclerose, the thought of Jason and Heather tripping is scarifying.

At least one reporter, Dan Donovan of the Pittsburgh Press, defied the LSD comeback hysteria. In "LSD's Comeback Called Modest Here" (September 15, 1991), Donovan phoned the usual sources--cops and drug treatment officials--and concluded that the minor increase in use could be attributed to Grateful Dead tours of western Pennsylvania. The story was buried on page A20 of the Sunday paper.

Latest in Magazine Work

A Tripster in Wolfe's Clothing Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2006

Spinning Into Control Hearst Lecture, April 29, 2004

The Web Made Me Do It New York Times Magazine, Feb. 15, 1998

Flashback New Republic, March 2, 1992

Designer Drugs Science 85, March 1985

Magazine Work Archive

Latest Posts

Democracy's Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Reporting, Reason, April 2017 Book Reviews

The Voyeur's Motel New York Times Book Review, July 11, 2016 Book Reviews

The Rise of the Right to Know December/January, 2016 Book Reviews

Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword May 5, 2015 Book Reviews

Diaries: George Orwell Sept/Oct/Nov 2012 Book Reviews

My Romenesko verdict: no harm, no foul Nov. 11, 2011 Columns

Who gets to be anonymous? Nov. 9, 2011 Columns

Unoccupy Google Reader Nov. 3, 2011 Columns

The Tripster in Wolfe's Clothing March/April 2006 Magazine Work

The State of Media Criticism; Getting Sacked Sept. 5, 2011 TV/Radio

Suck Amok Nov. 1, 1995 Miscellany

Me & My Monkey Jan. 13, 1995 Extra!