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In the 60s we used to ask, “Hey, what if we put LSD in the water supply?” In 1934 it was laughing gas into the atmosphere.

Now that magic mushrooms have been added to the legalized drugs poo-poo platter in Denver, it is perhaps time to look back at some of the street-legal drugs that existed back in the day when you used to go down to the all-night pharmacy or balsa-model hobby shop to see what over the counter nostrums could be counted on to give you a buzz.

Betty Boop Cartoon Banned For Drug Use 1934.

Laughing Gas, or nitrous oxide, has been used as an intoxicant since about ten seconds after it was first synthesized by Joseph Priestly in 1772. That, however, does not mean that by the 1960s laughing gas was regarded as passé. Au contraire mon frère. You have to remember that in those days people were trying to dry, roll, and smoke the inside of bananas. In those days, nitrous was just another established “fun” recreational drug. In those days you could buy a tank of nitrous just by saying you needed it for underwater welding. Yes, underwater welding. In Iowa. (“Hey, dude, there’s like water, like everywhere, man. Like in.. well. my bathtub, man.”)

A friend I knew in those days discovered that taking a hit of nitrous “helped” him with his creative writing. In a way he was right. He did create very clever and interesting short stories when he’d had a few whiffs from the tank. Indeed, in the spirit of the 60s drug counter culture in Berkeley an San Francisco, he became convinced that if any drug was worth doing, it was worth overdoing. (A common American attitude that persists to this day.)

He was 24 years old and impatient for fame.

In pursuit of more and more “creative push” from his tank of nitrous he designed a mask that would fit over his nose and mouth and be held there by some complicated elastics so he could type with both hands while whiffing from the tank.

It worked pretty well and I recall noticing that his writing did indeed get better and more interesting. Right up to the morning when they found him slumped dead over his typewriter with the mask fixed firmly over his nose and mouth, and the tank still hissing away. Yes, Virginia, there is a death claus in solid nitrous breathing after all.

He was 24 years old and impatient for fame.

He left behind two binders with his writings in them. The stories were good and full of promise as we editors like to say when something is still five years short of publishable. Decades later his short-life’s work was part of the sodden ashes of Paradise.

He “lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse.” And two forgotten binders of “promising” work.

Too much heavy, heavy fuel…

I don’t care if my liver is hanging by a thread
Don’t care if my doctor says I ought to be dead
When my ugly big car won’t climb this hill
I’ll write a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill

‘Cause if you wanna run cool
If you wanna run cool
Yes if you wanna run cool
You got to run on heavy, heavy fuel
Heavy, heavy fuel
Heavy, heavy fuel

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Skorpion May 17, 2019, 2:24 PM

    After a few deaths like that, word got out that taking N2O directly from the tank was risky. So trippers filled balloons with the gas, and huffed on them — a practice that continues today, as any attendee at a rave or Grateful Dead concert can attest.

  • Anon May 17, 2019, 3:04 PM

    I don’t understand taking drugs. I suppose when I was young I might have tried it and I suppose if I did I might have got hooked or addicted to them. But I’m 76 and never taken any drugs that were not given to me by a doctor and I simply do not understand the attraction. Almost without exception everyone I have talked to about taking drugs would tell me it is about sex. Women will give it for the drugs and once they have taken drugs freely give it. I get that, but I have never been a fan of casual sex so if anything that would be a negative side effect of taking drugs.

  • PA Cat May 17, 2019, 3:17 PM

    Well, there is at least one inhalant that started out as a recreational drug and turned out to be a useful anesthetic, namely ether. In the 1830s and 1840s, medical and pharmacy students used to hold what they called “ether frolics,” in which the students would get up on stage, take a few whiffs of ether, and (usually) do some very silly things, including falling off the stage. Crawford Long, a doctor from Georgia, remembered that he had suffered some falls or blows during the recreational use of ether without feeling pain, and decided in 1842 to see whether the stuff would relieve the pain of surgery. The rest is history, and thousands of Civil War soldiers on both sides benefited from Long’s discovery of an effective and (for the time) safe anesthetic. Many Civil War surgeons preferred chloroform to ether, but the (Union) Army Medical Department provided detailed instructions in 1863 for the correct use of both. Stephen Smith, M.D., the author of the Army’s Handbook of Surgical Operations, noted that ether should be “poured lavishly on the towel or sponge,” as overly timid administration would produce “simply intoxication and its accompanying excitement”; that is, the sought-after “high” of an ether frolic.

    Civil War or history-of-medicine buffs can read a longer extract from Smith here: http://www.medicalantiques.com/civilwar/Civil_War_Articles/Anesthetics_use_Civil_War.htm

  • Rob De Witt May 17, 2019, 3:18 PM

    And everybody knew a dentist….

  • jwm May 17, 2019, 6:04 PM

    In my current project, cataloguing the life’s work of a deceased artist friend, I just ran across recollections of an acquaintance from back in the day. Tommy M was your quintessential capital “H” hippie. He was a happy-go-lucky psychedelic gypsy, and likeable as hell. Unfortunately, his tripping took a detour into skag alley, and he never saw his 30th birthday. It’s been decades. Still made me sad.


  • jwm May 17, 2019, 7:05 PM

    And as far as legalizing mushrooms-
    Everything I’ve read indicates that psilocybin is pretty harmless stuff. But I’ve eaten mushrooms enough times to know that it can be an absolutely terrifying three or four hours whether you’re ready for the experience or not. It’s very common for people to find themselves curled up in a ball on the floor just begging, “Please make this stop!” Of course, it does stop. Then you sleep it off and you’re fine the next day. But I can easily imagine someone unfamiliar with psychedelics thinking, “No big deal”, eating a quarter ounce, and quickly finding out that it is a VERY big deal.
    With the proper setting and intention the plant medicines, whether it be mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, achuma, or salvia can produce some profound and wonderful experiences. But they aren’t recreational, or party drugs, nor should they be treated as such.


  • Gordon Scott May 17, 2019, 8:03 PM

    Oh, well, it’s not just mushrooms. Folks, apparently including Maureen Dowd of the NY Times, have had a little too much of the pot edibles. Because the high comes on slowly, folks eat a little more, then a little more. Whoops! Now it’s hang on to the bed time, for hours.

    I was in such an establishment in Pueblo a couple of weeks ago. The clientelle was not long-haired stoner kids. It was middle-aged, and 20-something women. I was the only male non-employee in the place, and I was there at least 30 minutes on Saturday evening. I saw the same demographics in Seattle. If the real power behind legalization is middle-aged women fighting anxiety, then it is a sure thing.

  • Chris May 18, 2019, 5:19 AM

    I grew up in the small town of Sunbury Pa just across the river from Northumberland, home of the Joseph Priestly House. As a young lad spent many a day there. Fascinating man. We also had the worlds largest inflatable dam, still is to this day, on the Susquehanna river, which is also the Country’s largest non-navagatible waterway. Lucky enough to see the whole lower 48, Still live less than 30 miles away 52 yrs later. As Judy Garland used to say…..

  • Snakepit Kansas May 18, 2019, 5:39 AM

    When diving at depth, you can get a nitrogen high also. I’ve gone on several dives below 150′ and usually I will catch a short moment of mild euphoria.

  • SgtBob May 18, 2019, 3:55 PM

    How a college friend spent many a Saturday afternoon: Get a can of nitrous oxide, a bag of dope and a six-pack of Ballentine ale. Get in the car. Roll a couple. Punch a hole in the nitrous can, fire up a number, open a can of ale. Drive around the back roads of NE Arkansas. He was an artist, so I guess it was all OK.

  • twolaneflash May 19, 2019, 8:28 AM

    My childhood dentist committed suicide in his office this way, driven to it by his witch of a wife. His wife remarried a candidate for Congress who died in a plane crash. She stepped into his place & became congresswoman from TN for twenty years, Democrat. Even as a child I loathed that woman.

  • JiminAlaska May 19, 2019, 9:39 AM

    I’ve always been against prohibition, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, whatever.
    Unrestricted access, if nothing else, cleans up the gene pool.

  • Tom Hyland May 19, 2019, 12:10 PM

    It is normal human behavior to desire a dramatic change of reality….a change of mind and perception. Children age four will spin around and around and around until they tumble onto the lawn laughing while the stars spin wildly through the sky. Must children be arrested and beaten early by authorities so they should never experiment? Later on when kids find their developing personalities loathsome they smoke weed or take psychedelics to explore further possibities. The ones who experience a terrifying nightmare for several hours were incapable of leaving the control board of the mind. Liberty and free perception was close by and available but they couldn’t stop deferring to the boxed-in mindset. The mind is threatened by having its control wrestled away… thus panic and bewilderment. Take more psychedelics and learn something entirely new. I did.