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Ken Kesey

In 1959 Ken Kesey, a graduate creative writing student, volunteered to take part in a government drug research programme.

Over a few weeks, he ingested a variety of hallucinogens including LSD.

Writing of his experiences for researchers, Kesey found he had unlocked a creativity that he could never recapture without the aid of drugs, and he went on to experiment widely with psychedelic drugs whilst completing his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.

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Kesey and his group ‘The Merry Pranksters’ went on a bus journey across the USA, dressed bizarrely and performing extraordinary and often incomprehensible pieces of street theatre.

They handed out LSD in bottles of Kool-Aid, a popular drink of the time.

As the authorities became aware of their activities, the Pranksters incorporated peaceful confrontation and passive protest into their repertoire. Sometimes they were just moved on. But in some cities and towns, they were thrown in jail.

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.

Kesey’s stated aim was to break through conformist thought and forge a reconfiguration of American society; in his words “what we hoped was that we could stop the coming end of the world”.

He recorded these experiences in another best-seller and continued to invest heavily in an alternative lifestyle for himself and his followers, living on a ranch where lots of the trees were painted in Day-Glo colours and where they were courted by the famous and infamous.

At this time LSD was still legal in the United States. When it was banned in 1966 Kesey became a fugitive. He fought the law and – inevitably – the law won.

Arrested later that year he denounced the curative powers of LSD as temporary and even delusional, but by then nothing could have stopped the spread of psychedelia in San Francisco – and soon across the Atlantic to Britain.