To generate enough cash to purchase the raw materials to make LSD, Owsley and Cargill began making and selling methedrine in a makeshift bathroom lab in Berkeley. On February 21st, 1965, police raided the house and confiscated various chemicals, including a substance they wrongfully identified as speed. Owsley hired the vice mayor of Berkeley as his attorney, who "forced them in court to furnish us with a sample, which we submitted to an independent laboratory that proved them wrong, leading to the dismissal of all charges."
After obtaining a court order that made the police return his lab equipment, Owsley and Cargill split for Los Angeles. Because the materials needed to synthesize LSD were still only available to serious researchers, he formed the Bear Research Group and paid $4,000 every three or four weeks to the Cyclo Chemical Corporation for bottles of lysergic monohydrate, the basis for LSD.
From the start, Owsley felt that his state of mind while he was making acid would affect the nature of the product. "It's something that goes from being absolutely inert to so powerful that twenty-five micrograms will cause a change in your consciousness," he says. "You're concentrating a lot of mental energy on one package. And if you believe, as I did, that the universe is a creation in the mind of a being that is creating time and space, then everything is mental. So when you had something that affects the minds of thousands and thousands of people in the palm of your hand, how could you not believe that your state of mind mattered?"
By May 1965, he was back in the Bay Area with 3,600 capsules of extraordinarily pure LSD, dubbed "Owsley" by a pot-dealing folk guitarist friend. "I never set out to 'turn on the world,' as has been claimed by many," Owsley says. "And I certainly never made $1 million from drugs. I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body. Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus. I was not responsible for his wings, but they did carry me to all kinds of places."
Throughout the summer of 1965, in a big house down in La Honda, about forty miles south of San Francisco, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters hosted wild parties with guests that included Hunter S. Thompson, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and various Hell's Angels. When Owsley showed up one day during the fall, he walked over to Kesey and handed him a couple of hits of acid. Because Kesey had his own source (a Prankster known as "John the Chemist") and was suspicious of newcomers, he did not seem all that interested in the gift. After sampling it, he changed his mind.
"For most people," Owsley says, "the proper dose is about 150 to 200 micrograms. When you get to 400, you just totally lose it. I don't care who you are. Kesey liked 400. He wanted to lose it." Thanks to Owsley, the Pranksters now had enough LSD on hand to begin throwing parties at which everyone could get a dose. Kesey and the Pranksters called these gatherings the Acid Tests, a series of mind-blowing events at which people tripping on LSD were exposed to flashing strobe lights, tape loops and sometimes — if the band was not too stoned — even a set by the Grateful Dead.
On December 11th, 1965, the Dead played at the Muir Beach Acid Test in a lodge by the sea in Marin County. The sound of Jerry Garcia's guitar grabbed hold of Owsley, and he freaked out on acid for the first time. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe described how Owsley completely lost control of himself, dissolving into "gaseous nothingness" until he became nothing more than a single cell. "If he lost control of that one cell, there would be nothing left," Wolfe wrote. "The world would be, like, over." "I lost control of that cell as well," Owsley says. "They were all gone. That was the initiation. The price I had to pay to get through the gate. Ego death. I thought I was going to die, and I said, 'Fuck it.' And that was good."
Running out a side door during his freakout, Owsley leaped into his car, gunned the engine and promptly ran into a ditch. When he finally returned to his physical body and found it mostly intact, Owsley was horrified by the way Kesey and the Pranksters were messing with people's minds. "Kesey was playing with something he did not understand," Owsley says. "I said to him, 'You guys are fucking around with something that people have known about forever. It's sometimes called witchcraft, and it's extremely dangerous. You're dealing with part of the unconscious mind that they used to define as angels and devils. You have to be very careful, because there are all these warnings. All the occult literature about ceremonial magic warns about being very careful when you start exploring these areas in the mind.' And they laughed at me."
Even as he was freaking out that night, Owsley experienced the single insight that would shape his life for years to come. The Grateful Dead were not just good — they were "magic personified." Then and there, he decided to "work for the most amazing group ever, have a fabulous time of it and try to make a positive contribution." Though Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh was the band member with whom Owsley would forge the closest ties, he saw Jerry Garcia as "the sun in the center of the solar system. Take out the sun, and the planets all go their own way. Garcia was the center. Once he stopped exploring, the whole scene stopped exploring."
Three weeks later, on January 8th, 1966, Owsley sashayed into the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco for another Acid Test. Barely recognizing him as the freaked-out dude from Muir Beach, Lesh would later write that Owsley looked like "some Robin Hood figure out of swashbuckling antiquity." By then, Lesh, like so many others in the burgeoning Bay Area scene, had been tripping on Owsley's product for more than a year.
"So you're Owsley," Lesh said. "I feel as if I've known you through many lifetimes."
"You have," Owsley replied, "and you will through many more to come."
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