Many Americans often associate the 1960s with the era’s thriving drug-centric counterculture, but in fact, many of the drugs in which Americans were indulging during this period had been popular for decades. Marijuana had been widely used as a recreational drug for nearly a century; the United States only banned it in the 1930s. Pot became popular among bohemians in the 1950s, which is when the Beat Generation writers openly embraced it. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other Beat artists were relatively vocal about their use of marijuana, and they referred to it frequently in their work. The relationship between marijuana and the Beat Generation foreshadowed the role that psychedelic drugs would play in the 1960s counterculture (CPS Teaching American History Project). Americans also had been using cocaine in various forms for centuries, although it was only in the twentieth century that it became available in the powder form that is common today. Although cocaine use would peak in the United States in the 1970s and the 1980s, it was already increasing in popularity in the 1960s (Foundation for a Drug-Free World).
Although marijuana and cocaine were widely used in the 1960s, the decade is best known for the advent of psychedelic drugs. Starting in the Second World War, the booming pharmaceutical industry invested heavily in researching new drugs. This new focus on innovation led to Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD in 1938. He synthesized the chemical while attempting to distill squill (a medicinal plant) and ergot (a type of fungus) for use in healing medicines. However, he did not discover the drug’s psychoactive effects until 1943, and it took another decade for LSD to attract the attention of other researchers and the mainstream media. In the 1950s, LSD was used in medical research on a wide variety of topics, including creativity, alcoholism, and psychosis (Novak 110). Similar research was also conducted with naturally-occurring psychoactive drugs such as mescaline and psilocybin mushrooms.
By the early 1960s, the recreational use of psychedelic drugs was becoming increasingly widespread. High-profile advocates including Dr. Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Ken Kesey accelerated mainstream acceptance. Figures like Leary argued that using psychedelics benefited one’s mental health and could reveal life’s secrets.
As the decade wore on, LSD use became extremely popular in countercultural circles, with neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district becoming meccas for those who wished to adopt a psychedelic lifestyle. Psychoactive drugs and the culture surrounding them also had an important influence on the art of this period. LSD inspired an entire genre of music called psychedelic rock, pioneered by artists like Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles. Its influence can also be seen in visual art and literature from this time. Books such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Huxley’s Island, Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas famously explore the psychedelic experience.
As more Americans started experimenting with LSD, the authorities took notice and in 1966, LSD became illegal in the United States. However, this had little impact on its popularity, and people kept using LSD throughout the twentieth century. However, its cultural cachet gradually decreased as younger generations started experimenting with new drugs like ecstasy and MDMA.