In 1970, a cargo plane flew over 25,000 people at a rock concert and dropped thousands of acid tabs to the cheering crowd below. The packets contained a strain of LSD nicknamed “Orange Sunshine,” considered today the most iconic and purest form of acid.

With the help of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an organization that dubbed themselves as “the Johnny Appleseeds of hallucinogenics,” Orange Sunshine spread throughout the world.

Orange Sunshine became ubiquitous thanks primarily to psychedelic evangelist Tim Scully, who spent hours in the lab creating the drug at the heart of the 1960s counter-culture movement. His story is told in the new documentary The Sunshine Makers, which is set for wide release on January 27. Inverse recently spoke with Scully about his experience, the future of LSD, and how he no longer thinks acid can turn on the entire world.

How did you get introduced to LSD?

The reason I took LSD in the first place is because a childhood friend of mine (who was studying oriental philosophy while I was studying math-physics) turned me onto Aldous Huxley’s writing. That got me really interested in mystical experiences and particularly chemically induced transcendental experiences. That got me interested enough to find someone selling LSD and buy a couple of doses so that my friend Don and I could take it together. Up until that point I had been studying math and physics and was on the narrow path to becoming a government researcher in physics.

In what ways did LSD affect the way you saw the world?

Taking LSD for the first time was like getting struck by lightning, it completely redirected my life. I wasn’t raised with a strong religious background — my parents were English Protestant and Irish Catholic — and that basically averaged out to nothing. The experience I had for the first time I took acid was transcendental and it was a feeling of oneness with everything and everyone. The thought that came to me was, “If everyone could experience this we will be in a much better place.” At the time, the Vietnam War was roaring along, environmental degradation was an issue, there were a lot of inequality issues, and it was obvious that there was all kinds of inequality — racial, sexual, you name it. I believed very easily that if everybody took LSD a lot of that would go away: People would feel open and connected with each other, and feel compassion for each other and for the planet.

Tim Scully at McNeil Island Prison.
Tim Scully at McNeil Island Prison.

And this led to you making acid?

That’s why I started doing it. In April 1965, Don and I set out to make a lot of acid. I eventually hooked up with Owsley Stanley, became his apprentice, learned how to make LSD, and we went on to make a lot of it. For the five years that I was doing it, I was really convinced that we were doing something that might save the world. But as the years went by, it became slowly — little by little — harder to believe that LSD could save the world.

Why did you change your opinion that acid could change the world?

At first, it seemed really cool. In 1966 and 1967, things were going very well. But by 1968 to 1970, the scene got darker and darker. There were more people taking bad drugs, more people behaving badly. People like Charles Manson who were taking acid, going out, and murdering people. We couldn’t control who took it. It became really clear that I had a pretty naive view of what scattering LSD to the four winds would do.

I still believed then, and I still believe now, that it has a lot of potential for doing a lot of good. But I was no longer convinced that just making a lot of LSD available was suddenly going to cause everybody to have the same kind of experience I did. And even if they did, after a number of years I realized that a lot of my friends who had the similar experiences were still behaving badly in a lot of ways. I thought taking acid was going to end hypocrisy and dishonesty. But I started being more and more aware of funky behavior. So the benefits of making LSD in my mind had decreased significantly.

Could you describe the feeling in the lab in the early days when you started making acid?

It was really exciting. It was 1966 and we thought we were doing something that was going to change the world in a really positive way. We were watching what was going on in the scene and the stuff that was happening seemed really cool — there was beautiful art and music and people were smiling. They had a happy gleam in their eyes.

My second lab in Denver was the one that got busted [by federal agents] while I was off getting materials and equipment. That felt really scary and they eventually caught up with me and had to go to court proceedings for that, looking at possibly 56 years in jail. Fortunately, that turned out to be an illegal search.

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So that takes us to Windsor [in California], where we made Orange Sunshine. That was exciting; it was the largest scale lab I ever worked in. We made over a kilo of LSD — that’s more than 4 million doses. We thought that it would produce really good social changes and had a lot of hope about that and went to distribute it. We talked with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love about the idea that we needed to turn the whole world on. With them we got it all over the world. In 1970, I bailed out — i.e. quit. The Brotherhood kept going, [but] I quit because the risk-benefit ratio was out of whack.

In regard to how I felt physiologically — I got high in the lab, but because you get high all the time you build up a tolerance very rapidly. You’re still altered but it’s a very different kind of high. You don’t even realize that you’re altered unless you talk with someone who isn’t stoned, then you realize that you really are stoned. But it’s more like micro-dosing. Which we didn’t know about in those days. We were mega-dosing.

If you’re going to take a psychedelic I believe it’s better to do it in a calm, quiet setting. I like to do it in nature or sitting in front of a fireplace with one or two friends and a guide. I don’t recommend at a partying and rock and roll dance. I think that’s fun for some people, but not for me.

A scene from the film "The Sunshine Makers."
A scene from the film "The Sunshine Makers."

What happened when you realized that LSD wasn’t creating the change you wanted to see?

Well, at the same time over the years, I’d gotten hotter and hotter. I set up a lab on my own and got followed by Feds. I knew that they knew. But I had a reason, I was doing something important. And at first it was pretty easy to lose the Feds. However, by 1970, they got better than I was and there came a time when I wasn’t able to lose them and I had to abandon what I was doing at the time. Right after that I had a lab accident where I got really stoned and I had a very bad trip and thought the Feds were in the trees outside. And I thought, “I’m done.” I hoped that somebody would keep doing it — but I couldn’t keep doing it.

I turned to making biofeedback instruments because I was very interested in altering consciousness, biofeedback, and self-control. I did that for a number of years but then my karma caught up with me. The statute of limitations was close to running out when I finally got indicted. My friend Nick, who I taught how to make acid, didn’t stop when I did; he kept doing it and he became a part of a really big investigation.

I got convicted and sent to prison for a 20-year sentence; Nick got 15 years. I got 20 years because I testified for the defense and that really made the judge mad — he really didn’t like my attitude. I understand, he was trying to protect society. We went to prison. The judge set our appeal bond and it was really high: half a million dollars cash. We got that reduced on appeal and I got out on bail. I went back and made more biofeedback instruments. Nick eventually jumped bail, set up a lab, and made more acid in labs all over the world. He had a lab in Canada where the RCMP made a film that was included in the movie.

There’s an increasing amount of research that suggests that LSD could be developed as a clinical drug to alleviate anxiety and addiction. How does it feel for you to see this transition of LSD from vilified substance to something that is now being taken more seriously in the medical community?

I’m really glad to see that legitimate research is coming back. One of my many regrets is that the work we did shut down research for so many years. I’m thrilled to see that the research is moving ahead and I hope it accelerates. I think that there are many legitimate medical uses for psychedelics and I hope there is something developed for healthy people to be able to use psychedelics under whatever supervision might be required for it to be done legitimately. Under the supervision of a licensed therapist or whatever the government might require.

There is a lot that healthy people could do with psychedelics if done responsibly. But looking at what could be done with people who have medical issues is really big. Death and dying is important, all other applications are very valuable. There is a lot of evidence that it had powerful medical applications back in the 1950s and early 1960s but it unfortunately got derailed.

How does it feel to see your life history play out in the film?

I’m glad that the film makes our story accessible to everyone, so they can have some sense of what we were up to. We were trying to do something good — it may not have worked out, but we had good intentions.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photos via Tim Scully/FilmRise, FilmRise, Giphy