Acid media

First synthesised in 1938 but not tasted until 1943, acid is essentially a creature of the postwar era. As such, it enters the human world alongside an explosion in consumer advertising, the rapid development of electronic and digital media, new polymers, and a host of increasingly cybernetic approaches to the social challenges of control and communication.

For many of its early enthusiasts, acid was like a cosmic transistor radio. As the historian and curator Lars Bang Larsen writes: ‘Hallucinogenic drugs were often understood as new media in the counterculture: only machinic and cybernetic concepts seemed sufficient to address vibrations, intensities, micro-speeds, and other challenges to human perception that occur on the trip.’ LSD seemed to, as Timothy Leary suggested in 1966, ‘tune’ the dials of perception, altering the ratios of the senses, ‘turning on’ their associational pathways and gradients of intensity.

The Holy Transfers of the Rebel Replevin, catalog cover, San Francisco Art Institute, 1987. 12 × 12 in.

The actor and author Peter Coyote, who was a member of the visionary Diggers collective in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the 1960s, wrote that ingesting LSD ‘changed everything, dissolved the boundaries of self, and placed you at some unlocatable point in the midst of a new world, vast beyond imagining, stripped of language, where new skills of communication were required … (because) everything communicated in its own way.’

Similarly, Marshall McLuhan, the pop media prophet of the era, told Playboy that LSD mimes the ‘all-at-onceness and all-at-oneness’ of the new electronic media environment. All this set the stage for a kind of technical mysticism that pervaded LSD culture in the late 20th century, one that framed the drug and its physical manifestations with a luminous sense of immediacy. Alan Watts, commenting on the question of how often to take LSD, turned to another media metaphor, arguing that when you get the message, you hang up the phone. But what if the medium is the message?

Of course, the primary medium is the LSD molecule itself, known as LSD-25, the 25th variation of lysergic acid synthesised by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. But unlike macroscopic drugs such as cannabis, LSD is so small and so powerful that its consumption almost always requires an inert housing – water, tablets, sugar cubes, bits of string or pieces of paper – that transports the drug from manufacturer to tripper. In the law, this vehicle is described as the ‘carrier medium’, an object impregnated with drugs that can be sold, seized, presented as evidence, and dissolved into the hearts, minds and guts of consumers.

Eye of Horus, Pyramid/ 151 Gilfeather, San Francisco, ca. 1982. 11⁄4 × 11⁄4 in.

When you print images onto a paper carrier medium, you are adding another layer of mediation to an already loopy transmission. Hence, a meta-medium, a liminal genre of print culture that dissolves the boundaries between a postage stamp, a ticket, a bubble-gum card and the communion host. This makes what is known as blotter a central if barely recognised artefact of psychedelic print culture, alongside rock posters and underground newspapers and comix, but with the extra ouroboric weirdness that it is designed to be ingested, to disappear. Blotter is the most ephemeral of all psychedelic ephemera. It is produced to be eaten, to blur the divide between object and subject, dissolving material signs and molecules into a phenomenological upsurge of sensory, poetic and cognitive immediacy. It is also a medium whose story is tied to LSD’s spiritual decline in the 20th century.

During the blotter age, the quality of the molecule also improved significantly

The early history of LSD has often been framed within the underground as a kind of Edenic narrative. The first crystal versions of lysergic acid represent almost divine substances, praised for their purity, which then become debased by bad chemistry, venal commodification, and the wayward drift of druggy hedonism – a story that itself stands in for the dissipation of the revolutionary energies of the 1960s into the compromises of the 1970s and beyond. In their book Acid Dreams (1985), Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain give us this view, outlining a decline they claim was already well underway by the late 1960s:

So many people were getting high that the identification of drug use with the sharper forms of cultural and political deviance weakened considerably. Instead of being weapons in a generational war, marijuana and LSD often served as pleasure props, accoutrements of the good life that included water beds, tape decks, golden roach clips, and a host of leisure items. High-school kids were popping tabs of acid every weekend as if they were gum-drops. And much of the LSD was like candy – full of additives and impurities. The physical contamination of street acid symbolised what was happening throughout the culture.

This narrative arc is crucial to keep in mind as we unfold the story of blotter. Though LSD was sometimes passed around in the 1960s on actual blotting paper, sheets of perforated (‘perfed’) and printed LSD paper do not come to dominate the acid trade until the late 1970s, reaching a long golden age in the 1980s and ’90s. As such, the rise of blotter mirrors, mediates and challenges the mythopoetic story of LSD’s spiritual decline. For even as LSD lost the millennialist charge of the 1960s, it continued to foster spiritual discovery, social critique, tribal bonds and aesthetic enrichment. During the blotter age, the quality of the molecule also improved significantly, its white sculptured crystals sometimes reaching and maybe surpassing the purity levels of yore. Many of the people who produced and sold this material remained idealists, or at least pragmatic idealists, with a taste for beautiful craft and an outlaw humour reflected in the design of many blotters, which sometimes poked fun at the scene and ironically riffed on the fact that the paper sacraments also served as ‘commercial tokens’.

Blue Unicorn, San Francisco, ca. 1980. 31⁄4 × 31⁄4 in.

In these later years, many older LSD users continued to see blotter as a debased medium that bruised and degraded the holy molecule. The truth is that, properly cared for and kept from light and air, humble blotters can hold their punch for quite some time. This persistent potency also gives us a symbolic key for understanding the medium. Blotter hits are signs not of decline but of canny transformation, as idealism gives way to subversion, militancy to mutation, counterculture to subculture. Mediating the profane as much as the sacred, blotter became the central vehicle of LSD’s own weird drift through the post-hippie era.

As far as we know, LSD’s visionary prowess first emerges in human history as a product of industrial semi-synthesis – an extractive capitalist apparatus that, depending on your characterisation of modern science, suggests at the very least a colonialist exploitation of the organic world as much as a crafted continuity with it. This is important: if LSD represents a sort of magic, it is a magic of the modern West, in all its horror and promethean glory. For all its alchemical resonance, it sprouts from the brow of industrial chemistry, an industry founded on artificial dyes and petroleum products, and it enlists shrinks and spies as some of its earliest shamans.

In 1938, as the now familiar story goes, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was working for the Sandoz corporation, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, experimenting with various modifications of lysergic acid. This was the precursor molecule for a number of naturally occurring alkaloids of the ergot fungus, some of which had already proved quite profitable for his employer. LSD-25 was only the 25th in a series of molecules he crafted, and nothing much came of the effort. Five years later, and following what he later described as a ‘peculiar presentiment’, Hofmann decided to resynthesise that unique material. As he neared the end of the process, he felt funny and went home, enjoying a stream of closed-eye visuals.

Returning to work the following Monday, 19 April, Hofmann decided to intentionally test the LSD-25 on himself to root out the weirdness of the previous week. Knowing the potential toxicity of ergot-related compounds, he showed great caution in restricting his initial dose to 250 micrograms (μg) ­– 750 μg shy of a single milligram (mg). Hofmann knew that the vast majority of drugs and toxins are active at a much higher number of milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For example, the standard dose of MDMA, at least according to the lay therapist Ann Shulgin and her husband, the chemist Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, and their therapist friends, is around 125 mg; over-the-counter ibuprofen pills start at 100 mg; and potassium cyanide gets lethal around 100 mg, which is 400 times greater than the dose of LSD Hofmann took. But even that smidgin was enough to send the good doctor on a bizarre bicycle ride as he headed home early with an assistant, an event now commemorated every 19 April as Bicycle Day.

LSD, like all psychoactive drugs, is shaped and inflected by the forms it takes in the world before it is ingested

Acid’s capacity to punch above its molecular weight would have a significant impact on the material history of the compound as well as the carrier media that shuttled it around the world and into the bodies of human beings. Because of its almost homeopathic potency, LSD has been distributed on and in an unusually diverse and creative range of media, including blotter’s tiny paper doses – even though they are rarely made of actual blotting paper. This is an unusual carrier medium for drugs, to say the least. A single square of typically sized blotter provides far too little surface area to absorb the amount of material required for most drugs to sufficiently tweak the nervous system. In this sense, acid shapes its own unique media.

Ruby Slippers, by William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute 7 ½ x 7 ½ in

The material manifestations of LSD’s carrier media are hardly incidental to the drug’s meaning and import. Even when it’s destined to dissolve and effectively disappear into human bodies, LSD, like all psychoactive drugs, is shaped and inflected by the forms it takes in the world before it is ingested. A bud of cannabis is not a block of hashish is not a chunk of shatter is not an Otterspace Watermelon Delta 8 gummy with 25 mg of THC. These differences go beyond methods of ingestion and metabolic dynamics; they speak to the sorts of meanings and performances that stage and frame the act of consuming things in the first place. In other words, the tangible materiality of psychoactive drugs – as economic, cultural and physical objects – is inevitably compounded with the effects themselves. The bodies of drugs matter.

Roland Barthes makes a similar point about food. While we can subdivide and analyse the things we eat in chemical or nutritional terms, food ‘is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behaviour.’ Food – this actual cannelloni, or paratha, or burrito – is inextricably embedded in matrixes of class, ecology, history, cultural identity and social life – and, in the modern world, of advertising and lifestyle as well. As Barthes puts it: ‘Food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies.’ Psychoactive drugs, a cousin of food, are no different here. Their forms and histories inform, transmit and signify even before you take them.

Acid’s technical genesis as a purified and extraordinarily potent compound, as well as its lack of taste, colour and odour, powerfully shaped the molecule’s material manifestations. LSD is essentially too potent to consume in the ‘raw’ or unmixed form of a crystal powder (though plenty of folks have done so over the decades). When Sandoz began marketing LSD to psychiatrists under the trade name Delysid, they distributed the molecule in two primary forms: jars of sugar-coated tablets that contained 25 μg each, and 1 millilitre ampoules of distilled water containing 100 μg each, which could be swallowed or injected. Sandoz also distributed amber glass containers that held 25 mg (25,000 μg) of pure powder, though these were not, of course, intended for direct consumption. Later industrial sources for LSD, including companies such as Eli Lilly in the United States and Spofa in Czechoslovakia, produced similar formats.

The primary solution to the problems posed by LSD powder, as you might imagine, is water. A massive amount of LSD has been circulated over the decades in liquid form by pharmaceutical companies, major underground producers and low-level dealers and consumers, who might purchase a few hundred low-concentration drops in a small opaque vial or ‘Slim Jim’. Things get more interesting when that liquid later impregnates a further carrier medium, whose plastic possibilities began to flower even before the molecule was rendered illicit. In 1960, the British researcher Michael Hollingshead – who called himself, with some reason, the ‘man who turned on the world’ – got his hands on a gram of Sandoz powder. He mixed it with distilled water and confectioner’s sugar into a gelatinous paste he then transferred to a mayonnaise jar – the same container that served up Leary’s first harrowing dose. A few years later, when Leary and crew returned to the US from Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a stash of liquid LSD spilled in Richard Alpert’s suitcase, which meant that some of the pioneering psychonauts at the legendary Millbrook estate in upstate New York got high by sucking on Alpert’s underwear.

The most signature vernacular carrier for LSD liquid in the first years of the acid boom was the sugar cube. In his autobiography The Road of Excess (1998), the British wild man and Leary crony Brian Barritt describes dosing Tate & Lyle sugar cubes with an eye-dropper full of the acid he had purchased from the brilliant junkie writer Alexander Trocchi. ‘I didn’t know that it could be absorbed through my pores until Mr Cube began jiggling about and acting just like he was stoned out of his mind.’ Mr Cube was the Tate & Lyle logo, a cartoon sugar cube with hands and feet, whose visionary dance through Barritt’s sensorium reminds us that LSD not only unveiled modes of consciousness beyond quotidian modernity but could animate that banal commercial landscape into something mutant and goofy.

Once the tabs hit the street, the colours took on different phenomenological associations

The first well-known ‘brands’ of underground acid were produced by the brilliant and eccentric Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the scion of an illustrious Kentucky family who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area following a stint in the US Air Force. In late 1964, after figuring out how to make methamphetamine, Owsley started working on LSD with Melissa Cargill, a chemistry whiz at the University of California, Berkeley, who may well be responsible for their breakthrough methodology. We don’t know much about Cargill because Owsley played the impresario, earning a reputation for his finicky obsession with chemical purity. Indeed, Owsley’s crystal was reputed to be cleaner than the version made by Sandoz.

Owsley started distributing his acid, often for free, in the spring of 1965. He sifted his powder into gelatine capsules or passed it on as ‘Mother’s Milk’, a liquid that was tinted blue so that distributors could track which sugar cubes they had dosed. These methods were imprecise, and with a material as potent as LSD, careful dosage was key. Exposure to light, which degrades the molecule, was also an issue, as was the ease of counterfeiting capsules. While living in Los Angeles with the underground LSD chemist Tim Scully and the Grateful Dead, Owsley pursued greater quality control, and to that end fashioned 4,000 or so of the first LSD tablets. Using a simple machine to triturate the material, thoroughly mixing it with binders, he then made a paste and spread it on Bakelite sheets to press evenly into tablets. Owsley decided to dye his tabs a purplish blue in order to confuse the drug tests then used by the police, which turned contraband purple if LSD was present. These notoriously powerful tabs, whose 250 μg were chosen in honour of Hofmann’s initial dose, were often sold as Blue Cheer, which also happened to be the name of a popular detergent at the time – making Blue Cheer the first example of an underground LSD preparation that took shape in a parodic funhouse mirror held up to mainstream commodity culture. It would not be the last.

Perhaps Owsley’s most insightful contribution to the history of LSD’s material packaging, however, was a little unintentional experiment in social psychology he performed in 1966. Along with Scully and Cargill, Owsley whipped up a 10-gram batch of pure crystalline LSD powder and divided it into five equal piles, which were then dyed different colours before being buffed with lactose and calcium phosphate to make the powder suitable for tableting. Once the tabs hit the street, where they were often called ‘barrels’, the colours began to take on different phenomenological associations, despite the fact that the LSD was all demonstrably the same material. The red ones were, against type, supposed to be mellow, the greens speedy, and the blues a good blend of the two. According to Scully, one of the colours was even supposed to be particularly ‘spiritual’.

It’s impossible to know if the freaks on the street truly experienced this range of reactions, but given what we know about LSD, not to mention the psychology of brands and placebos, it certainly stands to reason. According to a well-known fMRI study performed at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in 2004, participants given a squirt of anonymous cola showed activity in different brain regions (particularly the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) when the brand name for the sugar water was announced; however, this shift registered with Coke but not Pepsi, suggesting a clear neural correlation to brand power. Things grow even more curious with placebos. Numerous studies have shown that the relative effectiveness of placebo pills varies depending on their colour and shape, factors that are of course taken into account in the design and marketing of pharmaceutical preparations.

Acid cranks these priming factors up to 11. In the words of the Czech-born psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who oversaw more LSD sessions than any other psychiatrist, LSD is, in contrast to typical drugs, a ‘nonspecific amplifier’ rather than a mechanistic agent. And what generally gets amplified, according to Grof, is the psyche, which is highly sensitive to expectations, cultural narratives and external suggestions. This sensitivity undergirds the well-known psychedelic principle of ‘set and setting’, which, as the drug historian Ido Hartogsohn explains, divides the nonpharmacological agents of drug experience into ‘set (personality, preparation, expectation and intention of the person having the experience) and setting (the physical, social and cultural environment in which the experience takes place).’ Even before Leary made this phrase a psychedelic mantra, psychedelic researchers recognised that the mindset of the tripper, coupled with specific features and qualities of the trip room, played an often significant role in the experience.

The important point here is that blotter, like all carrier media, directly contributes to the set and setting. Given this psychic sensitivity to material and symbolic conditions, the physical packaging of LSD will impress itself to some degree upon the roiling incorporeal slipstream of the trip. Fat blue LSD tablets or plain sugar cubes or orange-coloured blotters are not ‘the same’ drug, even if their dosages and source material are identical. The printed images of blotter add a whole other dimension of priming through their sometimes-potent signs. With acid, again, the medium really is the message.

The most likely candidate for the first printed blotter, Mr Natural is one of a number of LSD sheets that appeared in the 1970s and ’80s featuring R Crumb’s funny, free-thinking guru character. The Midwest Research Institute’s Drug Atlas includes an example seized in July 1971 – an orange four-way, costing $2.50 – that shows the disreputable saint pointing to the sky (identified somewhat confusingly in the Blotter Index as ‘Mr Natural #2’). ‘Sold as LSD,’ the Atlas reads; ‘reportedly gives a good experience.’

Though they may have been circulating in the UK since the 1960s, blotters formally appeared there by at least 1974, when the Freek Press at the Windsor Free Fest reported the presence of orange and white sheets. A year later, another blotter, this one ‘marked with a strawberry’ and ‘weak or strong depending on the strength of your head’, was gobbled at the Watchfield Free Festival. For the most part, however, blotter in these earlier years, whether in the US or the UK, rarely included any ‘marks’ at all. But soon, blotters would be covered in artwork, a psychedelic echo of modern art’s mutation from high abstraction to pop.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice, cardboard container, San Francisco, late 1970s. 51⁄2 × 51⁄2 in.

One of the most celebrated blotters of the era featured Mickey Mouse in his Fantasia guise as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. These sharply designed four-colour sheets came perfed into 100 units, each featuring their own budding rodent wizard. This was charming enough, but if you bought a gram, you’d get a red lacquered box that was also affixed with an image of Mickey, now surrounded by 17 gold stars. Inside lay a bundle of 40 sheets wrapped in a container of gold foil affixed with another image of the mouse, this time accompanied by the word ‘Sandoz’ – alerting the discerning buyer that the batch was most likely made from LSD synthesised by the original Swiss sorcerers.

Blotters are pleasant to handle: potent graphic fetishes that feature the gentle crispness of a thin matzah

Blotter was and is cheap, rarely exceeding $2.50 a hit or so, which meant that it actually offered less of a markup per unit that either tablets or gels. What disposed distributors to blotter was volume, ease of production and concealment, and speed of dissemination. Sheets are easy to transport, easy to mail, and easy to hide. When the notorious pranksters in the Tibetan Ukrainian Mountain Troupe descended on British festivals in the 1980s, they smuggled in sheets of acid-impregnated green cartridge paper that, because it resembled gasket paper, was stashed in toolboxes and laminated on-site with illustrated fascia brought in separately. On the production side, blotter offered a number of advantages over tableting. Printing, and especially silk screening, used far less arcane and suspicious technology, and because the sheets were dipped after the fact – ‘asynchronously’, we would say today – blotter makers could maintain some distance from the patently criminal production and distribution of the molecule itself. Blotters also weighed considerably less than tablets, though one of the most common reasons given for blotter’s ascent – the passage of so-called carrier weight laws in the 1980s – doesn’t really hold water.

Illustrated blotter is also fun. Whether circulated on the scale of multiple sheets, sometimes called ‘pages’, or as hits or ‘10-strips’ swapped in a parking lot, blotters are pleasant to handle: potent graphic fetishes that feature the gentle crispness of a thin matzah. Like chocolate bars with their grid of grooves, blotter asks to be fondled, torn and crumbled, nibbled. But like coins or stamps or show flyers, it also has the feel of ephemera you might want to hold onto for a while. As a crucial but underrecognised vector of underground print culture, illustrated blotter not only promises individual transport, but affirms participation in a marginal and collective demimonde that was and is sustained partly through an ongoing publishing effort, one that relies on print’s capacity to build fanciful alternative worlds with mechanically reproduced signs. When Mr Natural waltzed across the first printed blotter, he offered the ironic cartoon promise that the acid revelation just keeps on truckin’, a promise you could participate in by eating the underground comix panel rather than just looking at it.

Both literally and figuratively, blotter serves as an avatar of LSD-25 (though it bears repeating that today’s black-market blotter is often dosed with other psychoactive molecules). This makes blotter a particularly interesting lens through which to view today’s much-hyped ‘psychedelic renaissance’. Over recent decades, a perfect storm of clinical researchers, psychotherapists, venture capitalists, journalists, wellness entrepreneurs and decriminalisation activists has radically transformed the medical, cultural and even legal profile of psychedelics in the US. This process is inconceivable without the historical catalyst of LSD, which is far and away the most influential psychedelic in modern postwar history, and one that remains widely available and widely consumed. But LSD has been largely marginalised in the contemporary discourse around the promise of psychedelics, a process that is reflected in the strange and even uncanny status of blotter art.

There remains something suspect about blotter, a stain that is both a blessing and a curse. As the blotter producer Matthew Rick, who started selling sheets as non-dipped ‘art’ collectables at festivals in 1998, puts it: ‘(B)lotter is the last underground art form that’s going to stay underground, simply because you’re creating something that looks like and functions like a felony.’ In other words, blotter is ontologically illicit; it is, as Rick says, ‘drug paraphernalia by its very existence’. So even as blotter continues to stoke and reflect consumer and collector desire in the 21st century, there is something irredeemably tainted about it, as if the perforations that define the form puncture whatever cultural legitimacy it might gain. ‘Pop culture can take the edge off of anything eventually, but you can’t take the edge off of this stuff,’ says Rick. ‘It doesn’t matter how far down the rabbit hole you go. Disney is just not going to make a blotter edition.’

This piece is from Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium (2024) by Erik Davis, published by MIT Press.

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