In Philly, Keeping Tabs on LSD

Originally appearing here. IT TOOK A POLICE battering ram to bust down the door of the West Philadelphia apartment. Once inside, police discovered a colorful cache of psychedelic drugs — enough LSD to open thousands of “doors of perception” for six to eight hours at a time. The Jan. 31 raid appeared to be a true flashback to a bygone era, with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration calling the 9,500 hits of LSD on tie-dyed images of Homer Simpson and Jerry Garcia an “anomaly” in Philadelphia. And since two of the five suspects arrested were Drexel students, the raid became known as the “Drexel LSD bust” in the media, with reporters interviewing students and getting statements from university officials. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams cautioned the public from equating Drexel with Haight-Ashbury. “It is sad that this was taking place on a campus of higher learning, but I hope that the actions of a few do not tarnish the image of educational excellence that we associate with Drexel University,” Williams said in a statement the day after the raid. That small apartment on Florence Avenue was much closer to the University of Pennsylvania than Drexel, though. And Williams likely didn’t know that institutions of higher learning across the country are delving into psychedelics. Meanwhile, Penn professors, students and curious residents are trying to wipe away psychedelics’ tarnished images. “People who 10 years ago would never be caught dead talking about psychedelics in a serious way are having conversations about it,” said Nese Lisa Senol, a Penn doctoral student studying “visionary and mystical poetry.” They’re talking about a “psychedelic renaissance” in Philly reading groups and yoga shops, in classrooms, and at gatherings “for the expansion of your horizon” throughout the city. Come September, researchers, authors and artists will gather at Penn to discuss psychedelics en masse at Psychedemia, an academic conference on “visionary art and psychedelic culture.” “It seems irresponsible not to … have an academic discussion of it,” said Rebecca Lee, a 22-year-old writer/poet who attends the Theorizing Psychedelics reading group with Senol at the Chapterhouse Cafe, in Washington Square West. News of research studies — successful research studies — involving psychedelics at major universities have trickled up through mainstream media. Last month, the New York Times Magazine wrote about a study at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, where researchers are using psilocybin, a component that makes some mushrooms magic, to help alleviate the fear of death in cancer patients. Similar studies are being conducted at New York University and Johns Hopkins. “It was a shame that for so many years there was a halt in scientific study in substances that might have a great benefit,” said Steve Beyer Ph.D, a scheduled presenter at Psychdemia who’s written about ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic brew used by some indigenous people in the upper Amazon. One Harvard researcher found that LSD has helped alleviate cluster headaches in some groups. The most promising research, one psychotherapist said, is the use of both LSD and MDMA (Ecstasy) in conjunction with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. [Correction: MDMA, but not LSD, has been tested in conjunction with psychotherapy for PTSD] “That’s the poster child,” said Neal Goldsmith, a Psychedemia presenter who’s hosted similar conferences in New York. “People have been cured from PTSD they’ve had for 25 years. ‘Cured’ is a word I don’t use casually. The data are coming in, and it’s really difficult to put the cat back in the bag.” Professor Jonathan Moreno, who teaches medical ethics and health policy at Penn, said there was promising psychedelic research being done in the 1950s and ’60s before the government began poking around. When Harvard researcher Timothy Leary morphed into the Technicolor Johnny Appleseed of LSD, Richard Nixon called him the “most dangerous man in America.” And the doors to psychedelic research, Moreno said, were locked for decades. “It was extremely destructive. It created a major stigma,” Moreno, a Psychedemia presenter, said of Leary’s legacy. Though Philadelphia is now treating possession of small amounts of marijuana as a lesser summary offense, and New Jersey is thinking about decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, too, there’s been no such discussion nationwide about psychedelics such as LSD. Psychedemia, Senol emphasized, isn’t about activism and had no connection to the West Philly LSD ring. “We’re not trying to legalize anything,” she said. The three alleged “masterminds” in the West Philly LSD ring have a preliminary hearing next week and are looking at a maximum of 10 years in prison. They’re also likely getting a great amount of pressure to give up the source of the difficult-to-make LSD. Police uncovered the ring after two Drexel students became informants. “Historically, cases involving LSD in this area have involved sources of supply in California; however, that has yet to be determined definitively in this case,” said Laura Hendrick, field intelligence manager of the DEA’s Philadelphia division. One of the defendants, Joshua Dassay, is originally from Washington, where he had a lengthy criminal record. The D.A.’s office said he was wanted in nine states when they found him inside the Florence Avenue apartment with his young child, girlfriend and $10,000 in cash. Neighbors on Florence Avenue had no idea that Dassay, who also goes by the name Barrett Turkington, was allegedly selling LSD. They found it hard to believe that he could have been making big money. “He just seemed like a dirtbag,” said a neighbor who asked not to be identified. “He was a terrible neighbor.” Dassay’s girlfriend declined to comment, and his attorney did not return phone calls for comment. He remains in jail. West Philly native Raphael Zappala, 33, was not a dirtbag, though he’s also one of the alleged ringleaders, authorities said. Zappala worked at Philadelphia’s Coalition Against Hunger, and both he and his mother, Celeste Zappala, became strong antiwar activists after his brother, Sherwood Baker, was killed in Baghdad while serving with the National Guard in 2004. Zappala, who is out on bail, appeared in court in March in a suit with his long hair trimmed and beard shaved off. He declined to comment after. The third alleged mastermind was Wesley Crawford, 34, an Ardmore man with a Rastafarian bent who was well known by Philly skateboarders for being one of the founders of FDR skate park, under Interstate 95 in South Philly. Crawford, who was arrested last year at a Phish concert in Virginia, remains in prison. The D.A.’s office said that the LSD ring was making $5,000 to $15,000 a week selling single doses for up to $30, prices that made some in online-drug and jam-band forums chuckle. Many believe that the West Philly acid was being circulated far and wide, not just among college students at Drexel or Penn, or among the music scene here. The availability of acid in Philly, one source familiar with the scene said, is about the same as it’s always been — if you want it, you can find it. “This isn’t something like LSD is raining down on Philly,” said Kyle McKay, who helps create “visual electronic dream-scapes” at shows and events with the Philly-based Psy-Fi Productions. “It’s not something the average person is looking for.” But Daniel Shankin, a Psychedemia organizer and yoga instructor from Manayunk, wonders if it can turn an average person into something more. No one debates the legacy of Steve Jobs, he said, and the Apple founder said that taking acid was one of the most important things he’d ever done. “Culture and society clearly benefit,” Shankin said, “from
people exploring themselves and growing.” The Philadelphia Daily News juxtaposes current policies that criminalize psychedelics with the resurgence of academic and scientific interest in their therapeutic and spiritual uses. The upcoming Psychedemia conference at the University of Pennsylvania will explore the implications of recent research into the careful, beneficial uses of psychedelics for health and well-being.