We’ll start off with total honesty—LSD and acid are the exact same thing. So, the LSD vs acid debate? Moot. Both words refer to the same psychedelic drug, better known to the scientific community as LSD-25. Also known as mellow yellow, windowpane, and good ol’ Orange Sunshine. What you call this psychedelic likely depends more on your location and age than any other factor. It’s all acid slang.
LSD vs. Acid: What’s the Difference?
Here’s the scoop on LSD vs acid. Lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD) is the chemical name of the popular psychedelic drug, which was first synthesized in 1938. Acid is a slang term for the same drug, a term which, according to our best research, appeared in the American lexicon by 1965—a year before the drug was first criminalized in California and Nevada.
The first day of Californian criminalization was protested with a celebration—as if we could expect anything less from a community of psychonauts. “We declare the identity of flesh and consciousness,” reads the public invitation to the Love Pageant Rally, “all reason and law must respect and protect this holy identity.” The call to action was strong enough to inspire over 1,000 individuals to gather in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Although, the appearance of the Grateful Dead couldn’t have hurt the numbers, either.
The Love Pageant Rally, of course, was not successful in stopping the criminalization of LSD. Four years later, the psychedelic became federally illegal via the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which lumped the low-risk psychedelic into the same category as heroin and many narcotics. The legislation also declared that LSD had no medical value, functionally barring scientists from accessing the chemical for medical research. But, that doesn’t mean that culture didn’t push back.
Names for Acid
“Acid” is far from the only slang term for LSD; the drug has had more than its fair share of nicknames over the decades. A personal favorite is Mellow Yellow, which is a tip of the hat to a Donovan song by the same name. Incidentally, the song also debuted in 1966. “They call me Mellow Yellow,” sings soft-spoken Donovan as he strums his acoustic guitar. Exactly what the song’s “mellow yellow” is referencing, however, is ambiguous—and a very good story.
One rumor suggests that the song references baked banana peels, which at one point in time were falsely thought to be hallucinogenic—or was it a hoax? A recipe for preparing “bananadine” from the baked scrapings of banana peels circulated at festivals. The Food and Drug Administration performed scientific experiments. “A laboratory apparatus ‘smoked’ banana peels for three weeks and never did get high,” the agency wrote in a press release. The New York Times Magazine called banana scrapings a “hot drug.”
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Fact: there is no such thing as bananadine. But, this odd pop culture trend just might have been one of the best made-you-look moments of 1960s counterculture.
The vernacular surrounding LSD spans far beyond the LSD vs acid debate. Each individual term is an artifact of the time in which it was born, and each carries its own story, its own legacy. The truth behind where such language emerged is deeply embedded somewhere in the mythos of the time. Yet, there are other names for the drug that we probably shouldn’t forget, like:
- Battery Acid
- California Sunshine
- Orange Sunshine
- Electric Kool-aid
It also goes by “L” when you’re in a pinch.
Read: How LSD is Made
What is LSD Made Of?
All classic LSD is made of the same basic stuff, no matter if you call it LSD vs acid. Although, the process of making it can look quite different depending on what recipe was used to make the psychedelic. Unlike psilocybin, mescaline, and several other natural psychoactive drugs, LSD is partially synthetic. That means that while the base of the compound is natural, numerous man-induced chemical transformations need to take place before the final structure of the LSD-25 molecule takes shape.
The backbone of LSD is lysergic acid. So, to make LSD, chemists often start with a natural source of lysergic acid. One potential source is the ergot fungus, which naturally produces lysergic acid. Another source is lysergic acid amide (LSA), a similar psychedelic compound that is naturally found in the seeds of morning glory and Hawaiian baby woodrose plants. Organic chemists then use a series of chemical reactions to convert these compounds into the drug that we’ve come to call acid. Once created, acid is typically dispensed as a liquid onto an absorbent paper, a sugar tablet, or a gelatin sheet—this is how most people first encounter the psychedelic.
Back in the 1960s, underground chemists in North America were the largest global producers of LSD. Things are different today. Much of today’s illicit synthetic drug manufacturing has gone overseas, although it is difficult to find reliable information on the main international sources of high-quality LSD today. In 2019, the largest seizures of LSD came from India, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Australia, and Argentina. Yet, we also know that some which are called LSD are actually something else entirely. According to the 2020 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, new psychoactive substances may be applied to blotter and falsely sold as LSD. New psychoactive substances are novel synthetic compounds that may mimic the experiential effects of certain drugs, but are unstudied and have largely unknown effects and safety risks. This practice, according to the report, is most prevalent in Central and South America. For this reason, it’s important to test LSD with a test kit before partaking.
What Does Acid Look Like?
One word: colorful. Acid is a unique drug for many reasons. Not only is it partially synthetic, but you don’t typically swallow a pill or make tea out of this potent psychedelic. Instead, micrograms of liquid LSD are dispensed onto an absorbent paper, called blotter paper. Blotter paper historically comes in 7.5-inch sheets, with up to 900 tabs of acid on each sheet. One tab of drug is equivalent to one dose of acid—about 100 micrograms.
What Are Tabs (Drugs)?
Tabs are the most iconic way of consuming acid—and one of the most common acid slang terms you’ll come across. Well, apart from “tripping” and “dropping acid” perhaps. Acid tabs have their own unique contributions to psychedelic culture, much like the various nicknames for the psychedelic. In the 1960s, suppliers began to decorate blotter paper with artwork, which was sometimes incredibly intricate and complex. In many ways, this artwork became a common counterculture symbol. Yet, it also served a more business-oriented purpose: branding. If you recognize the artwork, then you recognize your supplier.
Read: A Trip Through the Universe: How Psychedelic Art Overlaps with Space Art
It’s worth noting, however, that tabs are not the only way to consume acid. LSD is most often prepared in a solution, which means that you can drop acid on just about anything that will absorb liquid. This includes sugar cubes and tablets. Although, these preparations are not as colorful as blotter.
There’s no doubt that acid culture has its own vernacular. Much of the language used by acid culture remains largely unchanged since the words were first popularized in the 1960s, which is arguably the decade that birthed acid slang. There are some differences, however. For example, while Orange Sunshine was a popular type of acid through the late 60s and early 70s, you won’t find the real deal at your next Burning Man or Electric Daisy Festival. Today’s illicit drug market is more opaque; the average consumer who picks up a tab at a music festival likely has no idea which region or country their acid came from, let alone who might have made it. Still, in case you’re wondering about the Windowpane someone is peddling, it’s worth getting familiar with a few key terms—beyond the standard LSD vs. acid.
Orange Sunshine Acid
There are few tabs as recognizable as Orange Sunshine, the most famous acid in the world. Orange Sunshine, sometimes called California Sunshine, is the creation of Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, who just might be the most well-known LSD chemists in history. (Well, with the exception of the drug’s original creator, Albert Hofmann, of course.)
Orange Sunshine made its debut in San Francisco in 1967 and eventually made its way around the world. It often came in two distinct forms: an orange LSD-soaked pill or an iconic pale-orange square was adorned with a bright, smiling sun. Sand and Scully reportedly produced four million doses in a single month. The scale of production made Orange Sunshine a household name, of sorts, amongst the hippie community. Yet, Sand and Scully’s mission also inspired a group of LSD evangelists—dubbed the Brotherhood of Eternal Love—to distribute the drug and make it accessible to as many people as possible.
Sand describes his inspiration for starting an underground LSD lab in the documentary film The Sunshine Makers. Sitting nude in front of a fire, Sand tripped on acid for the first time. “…A voice came through my body,” he shares. “It said, ‘Your job on this planet is to make psychedelics and turn on the world.’” And that’s exactly what they did—made millions of tabs of acid to share with the psychonauts around the globe. Unfortunately, however, the heyday of the Orange Sunshine lab was relatively short-lived. Scully was arrested in 1969 and Sand in 1973.
Tabs are the most common way to take acid. Yet, they’re certainly not the only way—especially if you remember the 80s. Windowpane acid is an alternative to blotter tabs that uses gelatin as a base. They earned the name “windowpane” because, as rumor has it, underground chemists or distributors used fluorescent light diffusers as molds for gel tabs. Windowpane acid can come in flat sheets, like the colored gels that fit over theatre stage lights to change the tone of the scene, pyramid-shaped squares. It all depends on the mold used by the supplier. This particular LSD preparation was perhaps more popular in the 1980s and 90s than it is now. Unlike blotter paper, which is either swallowed or spit out, the gelatin-based windowpane acid can dissolve like a semi-hard candy. Nowadays, windowpane tabs are often referred to as gel tabs or jellies.
“Dropping Acid” or “Drop Acid”
You don’t simply eat acid or take acid—you drop acid. As with all acid slang, the exact reason why the phrase “dropping acid” came into existence is difficult to pinpoint. However, there are two influences that perhaps inspired its adoption into the psychonaut lexicon. First, as mentioned above, acid is typically prepared as a liquid. So, you quite actually drop acid onto blotter paper or your tongue using a drop applicator.
Second, we can’t ignore the possible influence of Timothy Leary’s legendary book Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out, titled after the phrase he popularized in 1966—apparently a very big year for LSD. The phrase “drop out,” Leary reportedly insisted, meant to “drop out of conformity.” Drop out, he explains “means change.”
We’ve talked about blotter, tabs, and windowpane acid, but what about acid caps? Liquid acid is one of the most common preparations of the psychedelic. But, before LSD is made into a solution, its isolated chemical structure forms a crystal. An acid cap can refer to either a capsule of crystal LSD or a tablet soaked with liquid LSD. The latter is perhaps the most common; it’s far easier to dose LSD as a liquid than it is to dose it as a crystal. It takes mere millionths of a gram to produce a psychoactive experience from LSD. So, diluting crystal into a solution is the easiest way to create doses small enough to consume with any degree of comfort.
Don’t let the name fool you—an acid microdot has nothing to do with microdosing. A microdot is a tiny, pressed pill made with either crystal or liquid LSD and filler. Most people hold microdots in their mouths or under the tongue before swallowing these tiny pills. The overall effect of microdots can be quite strong. According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, microdots appeared on the scene by 1972.
Like Orange Sunshine, Clearlight Acid refers to a particular brand of acid, so to speak. It debuted in the Bay Area scene in 1970, made in an underground lab operated by Waldron Vorhees and company. Clearlight’s big claim to fame? It was a potent windowpane acid. The Vorhees operation reportedly produced over 250 million hits, dosed at hefty 250 micrograms per jelly. The name Clearlight keeps its original meaning today; there will only be one Clearlight in the history of acid slang.
LSD vs Acid: A Conclusion
So, there you have it: a very brief introduction to acid slang and its counterculture context. The psychedelic is always going to be something you drop, no matter if you prefer blotter or windowpane or if you call it LSD vs acid. It’s here to help you “turn on, tune in” and make peace with your “identity of flesh and consciousness.”