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Here’s how underground chemist Tim Scully planned to save the world with LSD

He managed to get acid behind the Iron Curtain

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Tim Scully, subject of Cosmo Feilding Mellen’s THE SUNSHINE MAKERS, pictured here at the McNeil Island Prison.
Courtesy of FilmRise

Tim Scully was 20 when he did LSD for the first time, and the experience “was like getting struck by lightning.” It was 1965. Scully had been studying math and physics — on track to do government research — but acid changed everything. Instantly, he decided that his purpose was to make as much LSD as he could and give it away to anyone who wanted it, in order to “turn on the world.”

This quickly became illegal — and so Scully went on to become an underground LSD chemist. Along with fellow chemists Nick Sand and Owsley “Bear” Stanley, he spent years opening various labs, synthesizing raw materials to make millions of doses, and trying to avoid the Feds. He learned to produce Orange Sunshine, some of the purest LSD ever made — 99.99 percent pure. The popular substance was once considered the standard for quality LSD, and even mentioned in an SNL skit.

Two different labs were busted, and Scully ended up receiving a 20-year prison sentence, of which he served three years. Scully, who now works in electronic design, is the subject of the documentary Sunshine Makers, directed by Cosmo Feilding Mellen. Ahead of the documentary’s release this week, The Verge interviewed Scully about how he learned to make LSD, what made the work worth it, and what made him turn away from the drugs.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about the first time you took LSD. How did you go from one trip to deciding that LSD was going to save the world?

Taking LSD redirected my life within a matter of a couple of hours. I was going to go into government-supported research, that's what my father wanted for me and my brother. My brother followed the script, but after taking LSD I immediately decided that the most important thing I could do with my life, the thing that would help other people the most, would be to try to share this experience.

If I’d been successful, we would’ve been able to make approximately 200 kilos of LSD, about 750 million doses, and given them away to anyone who wanted to take it, for free. We thought that if people took LSD, they would see through hypocrisy and dishonesty. They’d be gentler with each other because they would have felt at one with each other, gentler with environment because they’d feel at one with the environment. Those beliefs were all somewhat naive. In the end it didn’t turn out quite like that, but that’s what we wanted.

What happened next? I know that you were an apprentice to Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the audio engineer who also synthesized a lot of acid. How did that happen?

For months after the first trip, I spent time in university library reading up on how to use raw material to synthesize LSD, initially from aboveground sources and then later from underground sources. So by the time I hooked up with Bear I had a rough idea from the published literature. What I learned eventually is that that’s just a drop in the bucket. Really, the information you need for making LSD is mostly lab technique and tricks of the trade. Lysergic acid compounds are very fragile, and they have to be handled with much more care than many chemists would believe. So someone who hasn’t had experience working with those compounds is likely to not have very high yields and not get very good purity.

I was interested in electronics work, and Bear originally did electronics work for the Grateful Dead while they traveled. So we had about six months of time that we spent taking LSD together at least once a week while I was doing that work. At the end of that time, when he’d completely run out of money and acid and wanted to set up a lab, he decided I’d passed the acid test and let me become his apprentice in the next lab.

What were some things they taught you, some “tricks of the trade”?

Bear was obsessed with purity and yield. The overwhelming majority of what he taught me was basically lab technique and how to handle lysergic acid. For example, you have to protect LSD from UV light because if LSD is exposed to UV light in the presence of moisture, moisture attaches and it becomes an undesirable compound, lumi-LSD, which would be a waste of the raw material.

So, the lab was lit with bug lights, incandescent lightbulbs with a coating on the inside so the light looks yellow. They’re sold because they don’t attract insects. We could easily buy those in a supermarket, so that was a good solution to protecting the LSD.

Another thing he taught me was that you can’t heat up lysergic acid compounds above room temperature unless it’s absolutely necessary, and if you do so, do it for the shortest possible time. They decompose all the time they’re heated up. So we used cold tap water as a heat source and that meant doing vacuum evaporation, which is a way of making the liquid evaporate at a lower temperature than normal. Bear designed vacuum evaporators and also designed a clever trap to catch any powder that might fly over with the vapor. He didn’t want any of the good stuff, any of the material, to get lost or wasted.

You were responsible for making Orange Sunshine. Why did this kind of LSD become so popular? Was it just the purity?

I do think part of what made Orange Sunshine very popular was that the Brotherhood of Eternal Love distributed it, and they were very sweet people who did a good job. They were nonviolent spiritual people. [Brotherhood founder] John Griggs had gone to [psychedelics advocate] Tim Leary and gotten advice that he should set [themselves] up as a religion to protect themselves legally.

He formed Brotherhood of Eternal Love as a religious organization and their purpose was to spread psychedelics. The Brotherhood guys started out in their youth as motorcycle gangsters, but they had held up a movie producer who had some LSD at gunpoint. They held him up, took his LSD, threw away their guns, and decided that they were going to be nonviolent LSD dealers. But they were having trouble getting as much as they wanted to distribute, so when I came and said, “I’d like you to distribute the LSD I make,” they were very happy.

When I was working with Bear, he and I took an acid trip with Richard Alpert one day in 1967 where we were planning the strategy of turning on the world, modest as we were, and one of the things we agreed on was that if we just turned on the United States it would be like unilateral disarmament. We really had to make sure that every country in the world got turned on, particularly those behind the Iron Curtain, or else it would be a very bad thing geopolitically. And so we talked to the Brotherhood and they made an effort to spread it around the world. And they did get our LSD into Vietnam and behind the Iron Curtain and all over.

You worked in four labs total, two of them in Denver. The second Denver lab was busted. What happened there?

The second Denver lab was busted when I was out of town getting equipment and materials. It was a comedy of errors. I lost all my lab equipment, though fortunately I had my raw material because it wasn’t in the lab. I had all this raw material and no money because I had spent it bailing assistants out of jail and getting money to pay their legal fees. I needed to get lab equipment and a place to cook. That’s where I ended up hooking up with Nick [Sand] because he had the money and agreed to fund the final lab, the Windsor lab in California.

Despite being busted, you went on to set up the Windsor lab. What made you so devoted?

We always knew it wasn’t going to end well and we knew that the Feds usually get their men in the end. From the beginning, lysergic acid — the raw material to make LSD — was already hard to get, and we believed that governments would be opposed to this. One of the things that taking LSD made both of us feel very strongly — and made a lot of people feel strongly [about] — is a deep skepticism of large corporations and governments. And from December 1966 on, every time I went home I was followed by federal agents and I had to lose them before I went anywhere important.

We thought saving the world was worth the risk, and if we ended up spending a bunch of time in prison, it’d be the price we’d have to pay for having done this community service. We knew they were closing in on us when we were setting up that Windsor lab, it wasn’t like we didn’t know that bad things were likely to happen.

Unlike Nick and Bear, you eventually turned away from LSD. Why?

On a lot of levels, things happened that made me realize that just scattering more LSD to the four winds was not real likely to save the world. It was becoming a party drug — and I’m not saying that parties should be illegal or that it’s a bad thing, but I wouldn’t have chosen to go to prison for a long time so more people could have a party.

Fast forward to 1968, and more and more bad drugs were in [San Francisco’s] Haight. The scene looked darker and darker. Even though the Brotherhood wasn’t selling bad drugs, plenty of other dealers were. The government had chosen to put out propaganda saying that, “all drugs were equally bad, all equally awful, don’t ever touch any of them, they’ll all ruin your life.” People who took LSD or smoked pot, generally with opinion that these weren’t bad drugs, thought the government lied about one thing, so maybe they lied about everything. So they decided to try other drugs. And a lot of people who should have known better got into taking cocaine, opiates, amphetamines.

I had hoped that people who had this experience of oneness and empathy with everyone and everything would treat each other better afterwards, as a result of having felt that closeness. But it was becoming more and more clear that people in the scene who’d taken a lot of acid — even the people I was working with and making acid with — were not being honest with each other. There was still dishonesty and hypocrisy and double-dealing. My faith had decreased dramatically. It was time to stop.

What do you think of the recent resurgence in research around LSD and other psychedelics? What about microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of a psychedelic to manage mood?

I’m thrilled that research is starting up again. Eventually I would really like to see not only medical uses of LSD legalized, but also some mechanism by which people could use LSD for self-improvement with some kind of supervision.

Microdosing is even safer. Working in a lab you tend to get exposed to LSD all the time, so you build up a tolerance. The experience you have from just being exposed to fairly large doses is analogous to what you get from microdosing: an altered state, but a very benign altered state, no hallucinations. So yes, I’m glad to see all of those things.