It is generally believed that the first widespread, illegal use of drugs in the UK started with the extensive immigration of West Indians into Britain in the mid-50s.
Cannabis had long been in everyday use in the Caribbean and, naturally enough, many of the new immigrant population continued using their traditional form of drug relaxation.
At the same time, a number of jazz musicians in Britain took to using cannabis (as others were later to use heroin) in imitation of their American music idols.
Also around this time many young people in Britain, inspired by the novels, poetry and widely-publicised exploits of the luminaries of the Beat Generation, adopted a non-conformist lifestyle that included considerable use of cannabis and heroin.
By 1967, drugs had become a focal point in the growing conflict between the younger generation and the rest of society – as the release in June 1967 of The Beatles‘ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – an album steeped in drug mysticism and full of veiled references to drugs – so clearly demonstrated.
(SPEED/PURPLE HEARTS/DEXYS/FRENCH BLUES/BLACK BOMBERS)
Sometime around 1960, the amphetamine craze started in London’s West End, and by 1963 it had become nationwide.
Amphetamines were in everyday medical use on prescription as a pick-me-up for tired housewives and the like, and there were a number of spectacular robberies from chemists’ shops and pharmaceutical warehouses to satisfy the ever-growing black market demand for amphetamines.
An integral part of the frenetic lifestyle of the Mods, amphetamine pills such as Purple Hearts, French Blues and Black Bombers made it possible for Britain’s newly-rich working-class youngsters to cram a week’s experience into the 60 continuous hours of the weekend that was their only real free time.
They weren’t purple and they weren’t heart-shaped, but triangular blue ‘purple heart’ Drinamyl amphetamines from the house of Smith, Klein and French and shipped into the West End of London via the Krays East London heartland became the main drug of choice of Mods and swinging British teens.
Despite the fact that politicians had banned possession of speed without a prescription the previous year after pill-driven Mods and Rockers had fought it out on Britain’s holiday beaches.
The Marquee in Wardour Street and The Scene off Windmill Street were the pill palaces for a wild night.
After a new law came into force in 1964, the street price of purple hearts went up from 6d to 9d. It didn’t make a lot of difference.
Up the road at the Flamingo, an altogether mellower groove was going down as black-influenced jazz and R&B sounds cut a swathe through the marijuana haze.
Dope had begun it’s drift from Brixton and Notting Hill blues parties, through the British beats and bohemians and into the mainstream. Bob Dylan arrived in March 1965 and turned The Beatles on. By October, The Beatles MBE were skinning up in the the bogs at Buckingham Palace.
Convictions for possession of marijuana almost doubled in Britain from 1965 to 1966, and then doubled again in 1967, and increased – more slowly – in the following couple of years. The proportions of white and black people arrested shifted too. In 1963, the majority were West Indian immigrants, but by 1967, 75% were white and under the age of 25.
The Wootton Report in 1968 conservatively estimated that as many as 300,000 people in Britain had used marijuana.
And so from feisty to laid-back to “tune in and drop out” – The Byrds‘ hit Mr Tambourine Man held a coded lyric heralding the coming of the era’s signature drug, LSD.
In 1943 a Swiss chemist, called Albert Hoffman, accidentally discovered the unusual properties of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25, better known as LSD (and colloquially, simply as “Acid”).
The drug was used as a psychiatric aid in the study of psychosis, and tested by the CIA in the 50’s for use as a ‘truth drug’ and to disorientate the enemy.
In the UK it arrived in a large mayonnaise jar, courtesy of our own self-promoting psychonaut Michael Hollingshead, founder of the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea.
Hollingshead gave Timothy Leary his first whack of LSD in Cambridge, Mass. in 1961 and unleashed a beast.
Sensing the enormous potential of this powerful consciousness-expanding drug, noted Beat novelist Ken Kesey recruited an intrepid band known as the Merry Pranksters, who were dedicated to the idea of introducing as many people as possible to the delights and horrors of acid.
In 1965, Kesey and the Pranksters staged the notorious series of ‘Acid Tests’ in San Francisco, events at which large numbers of people were unknowingly dosed with LSD and then left to sort out the consequences.
In 1966 they took their ideas a stage further when, working in conjunction with Augustus Owsley III – a noted acid manufacturer – and the newly-formed Grateful Dead, they staged the famous Trips Festival in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall.
There was little the police or authorities could do about it – because Acid at that time was still legal.
“Acid is not for every brain. Only the healthy, happy, wholesome, handsome, hopeful, humorous, high-velocity should seek these experiences”
Dr Timothy Leary
Founder of the League For Spiritual Discovery
At the same time, a much darker side in the drug scene had started via the music scene. Many of England’s finest jazz musicians, like Tubby Hayes and Phil Seaman, were heroin users and stayed out on the margins of the Swinging 60s, marching to a very different beat.