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5 Drug Highs That Define the Grateful Dead’s Legacy

From a birthday cake laced with 800 hits of LSD to writing "Touch of Grey" after a night of railing lines, here are some of the Grateful Dead's most iconic drug moments.

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This is likely an unpopular opinion, but the psychedelic renaissance is snobby and sterile. It’s become a culture of white lab coats and trauma and wellness coaches and investment capital vultures—all of which are approved by the NPR dads of America, who believe Michael Pollan started this whole thing.

The psychedelic therapy industry actively overlooks the role the Grateful Dead played in getting us here. I hypothesize that it’s because the Dead used psychedelics for fun, which has somehow become taboo in the mainstream psychedelic narrative. But judging people for wanting to use psychedelics for reasons other than facing trauma is another instance of “drug exceptionalism.” Who cares if someone wants to use ketamine or MDMA for fun and to feel good, and doesn’t want to journey inside a spa-like atmosphere while sipping on mocktails and being treated like a patient in a celebrity rehab? That format is not for everyone, and yet, it’s thrust on us as if it’s the only “acceptable” way to trip.

I have a shitload of trauma, but I don’t want to sift through it every time I trip my nips off. And the last place I want to consume any drug is inside a soulless therapy office with a blindfold on. I just don’t. Sometimes having fun and being weird and laughing uncontrollably while on psychedelics is the best way for me to find the trailhead into my pain. Laughing brings me back into my body. It makes me feel human. (Novel concept, right?)

The Grateful Dead embodies the type of cathartic enjoyment I’m talking about. Of course, it’s undeniable that frontman Jerry Garcia struggled with substance use issues. I wish—we all wish—he was still here to tell the tale of how he beat death. But the iconic stories and catalog of music that comprise his legacy are the stuff of myth. And yet, much of the sterilized psychedelic culture treats Garcia and the Dead’s history like skeletons in the closet. It’s a weird, stigmatic erasure that points to psychedelic exceptionalism’s insidious and layered nature. And it lives in a cultural blind spot.

In celebration of Jerry Garcia and the Dead’s rich psychedelic legacy, here are some of their wildest, drug-fueled adventures that highlight why the current psychedelic culture should always embrace the poetic chaos of the Grateful Dead.

Cake Gate

Jerry Garcia was known for loving three things: music, food, and drugs. (Who doesn’t love this sensuous trifecta?) Seizing upon these three loves, a “famous freak” well-known in the psychedelic scene of the mid to late ‘60s, baked him a cake and delivered it to him backstage at the Filmore in San Francisco before a show. 

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“The cake looked good,” Jerry said. “I just kept staring at it and staring at it and staring at it…I thought, ‘I’ll just have a little bit of the frosting here.’”

He scooped some frosting off the edge of the cake and licked it off his finger. A friend who helped with the cake came up to him and said, “Yeah, so we put about 800 hits of LSD in the frosting.”

“Ohhhh, Jesus fucking Christ, I’m going to be completely wiped out by this,” Jerry said, who still had to perform that night.

“By this time I didn’t really enjoy playing under the influence of psychedelics because I didn’t have the freedom to quit if I wanted to,” said Jerry in an interview recounting the story many years later. “It wasn’t really that much fun to play [on psychedelics] when you don’t have options. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to.”

READ: The Best Psychedelic Albums Through the Ages

Jerry was waiting to get on stage and started going down a psychedelic path of paranoia. He makes it toward the stage, and the crowd is crawling. He thinks the mafia is there and they’re going to kill him when he gets out on stage. Someone offered him a glass of water because he probably looked like he was tripping his nips off. He declined. He thought it was for sure poison being handed to him by a “monster who was all teeth and arms.”

“I’m going to go out there and they’re all going to fucking kill he,” he recalled. “The only thing I could think of to do was play for my life. So I did. I played for my life and they let me live.”

He said paying for his life became his thing after that whenever he gets lost or confused or forgets why he was pursuing music. 

He said that, from then on, whenever he felt lost, confused, or questioned his path, he remembered he was playing for his life, which became his anchor.

That Time 11 Members of the Band Were Busted for Drugs on the Haight

The Dead was a band long before the Drug War hard launched in the ‘80s, but they dealt with anti-drug discrimination from all of mainstream society, including government agencies. The San Francisco PD knew exactly who the Dead were. Of course, they hated the Dead and looked for ways to target them. They were successful (a few times), and one time it was for possessing and selling weed. Eight narcotics agents, followed by a dozen reporters and television crews, raided the Dead’s house on October 2, 1967, confiscating cannabis, money, and band members’ phone books. (They had to have been looking for Owlsey’s info.)

While Jerry didn’t go to jail that day, 11 members of his band did. Once they were bailed out, they had a press conference in the Dead’s living room. Danny Rifkin opened it with a statement:

“The arrests were made under a law that classifies smoking marijuana along with murder, rape, and armed robbery as a felony. Yet almost anyone who has ever studied marijuana seriously and objectively has agreed that marijuana is the least harmful chemical used for pleasure and life enhancement.

“The law contains an even greater evil. It encourages the most outrageously discriminatory type of law enforcement. If the lawyers, doctors, advertising men, teachers, and political officeholders who use marijuana were arrested today, the law might well be off the books before Thanksgiving. The law creates a mythical danger and calls it a felony. The people who enforce the law use it almost exclusively against individuals who threaten their ideas of how people should look and act.

“Behind all the myths is the reality. The Grateful Dead are people engaged in constructive, creative effort in the musical field, and this house is where we work as well as our residence. Because the police fear and misinterpret us, our effort is now interrupted as we deal with the consequences of a harassing arrests.”

Questions and answers from the press followed. In response to “How long did it take you to grow your hair that long, Danny?” Rifkin said, “We’ve always figured that if we ever held a press conference, the first reporter who asked a stupid question would get a cream pie in his face, and you’re him.”

A huge bowl of whipped cream was brought out to everyone’s obvious delight, RollingStone reported. The reporter cringed, but Danny spared him. After the conference was finished, cookies, coffee, and cake were served.

A $50,000 LSD Crystal Led to the Creation of “Black Peter”

Although the Grateful Dead are celebrated for their live performances, their studio records are still lined with auditory gems. Among their most cherished songs, “Black Peter” emerged after lyricist and collaborator Robert Hunter drank an apple juice dosed with “probably a full gram of crystal LSD … worth perhaps $50,000,” so the story goes, according to LitHub.

Bassist Phil Lesh instantly knew he had ingested LSD the moment he tasted the juice. As they prepared to take the stage, Lesh said to drummer Mickey Hart, “I wish you could be where I am right now—it’s so beautiful; but I couldn’t possibly play music now. I don’t even know what music is.” But, the show went on. With his mind in a whirl of vivid hallucinations, Hunter hallucinated seeing bloodstream from Janis Joplin’s mouth and “lived through every assassination he was aware of, enduring the deaths of JFK and Lincoln, among numerous others.” That evening, Hunter was haunted by a recurring sense of mortality, feeling as if he were dying repeatedly, as often as day turns to night and back again. 

It inspired the lyrics he ended up writing. “Black Peter” opens with the narrator announcing, “All of my friends come to see me last night / I was laying in my bed and dying.” The human element is ever present in this song, but the force and cycles of nature dominate: “The weather down here so fine” and the wind comes “squalling through the door”; “Sun goin’ up / and then the / sun it goin’ down.”

The Song “Touch of Grey” Was Birthed From a Night of Railing Lines

It’s hard to say whether drugs actually make people more creative, especially while on them. Most people just think they’re brilliant while high, but are actually the opposite. The Grateful Dead, however, always seemed to defy the laws of musical physics in regard to this, however. The song “Touch of Grey” proves that.

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In an interview with RollingStone, Robert Hunter broke down how the song “Touch of Grey” came to be. “You know, I’ll give you the blistering truth about it,” he said. “A friend brought over a hunk of very good cocaine. I stayed up all night. And at dawn, I wrote that song. That was the last time I ever used cocaine. Nor had I used it for many years before that. Now I listen to it, and it’s that attitude you get when you’ve been up all night speeding, and you’re absolutely the dregs. I think I got it down in that song.” Sounds like a high well spent.

The Time the Band Got High at Al Gore’s House with Woody Harrelson

After a significant performance, many musicians often express sentiments akin to, “I never imagined this would happen to me.” Similarly, the Grateful Dead experienced a similarly surreal moment when they ended up smoking weed in Al Gore’s house, Far Out Magazine writes. As it happens, Tipper Gore was a fan fo the dead, so they received an invitation, and while the Gores stepped away to attend an event, the band lingered in the basement and hotboxed the place. Oh, and Woody Harrelson happened to be there, too, of course.

According to road manager Cameron Sears, “Al and Tipper were upstairs taking a shower while [the band and entourage] were down there hanging out in their house. Woody Harrelson had come with us, and he and Jerry had gone into the powder room and enjoyed a puff or two. There was a Secret Service guy standing outside the door. They’d open the door, and it’s like a Cheech and Chong movie!”

Don’t worry, though. Neither of the Gores inhaled.

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