The Beatles and drugs

Cannabis

Some members of The Beatles were first offered cannabis in 1960, following their first trip to Hamburg. However, they remained unimpressed with the effects.

We first got marijuana from an older drummer with another group in Liverpool. We didn’t actually try it until after we’d been to Hamburg. I remember we smoked it in the band room in a gig in Southport and we all learnt to do the Twist that night, which was popular at the time. We were all seeing if we could do it. Everybody was saying, ‘This stuff isn’t doing anything.’ It was like that old joke where a party is going on and two hippies are up floating on the ceiling, and one is saying to the other, ‘This stuff doesn’t work, man.’
George Harrison
Anthology

The DJ at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, Bob Wooler, claimed that The Beatles were occasional users of the drug when they started to play outside the city.

We didn’t have a strong drug scene by any means. Originally, it was just purple hearts, amphetamines, speed or whatever you want to call it. When The Beatles went down south, they sometimes brought back cannabis and gradually the drug scene developed in Liverpool.
Bob Wooler
The Cavern, Spencer Leigh

An early encounter with the drug took place on 1 January 1962, prior to their unsuccessful audition for Decca. As they travelled from Liverpool to London on New Year’s Day, The Beatles’ endured a 10-hour drive through snowstorms.

Upon arriving in London, their driver Neil Aspinall became lost, and a pair of seedy men attempted to talk their way into the group’s van as a safe haven for smoking cannabis. At the time the drug was unknown to The Beatles, and still a little-used substance in mainstream society.

It is well-known that Bob Dylan fully turned The Beatles on to cannabis. On 28 August 1964 they were introduced by a mutual friend, the writer Al Aronowitz, at New York’s Delmonico Hotel. Upon arriving at The Beatles’ suite that evening, Dylan asked for cheap wine; Mal Evans was sent to get some, and during the wait Dylan suggested they have a smoke.

Brian and the Beatles looked at each other apprehensively. “We’ve never smoked marijuana before,” Brian finally admitted. Dylan looked disbelievingly from face to face. “But what about your song?” he asked. The one about getting high?”

The Beatles were stupefied. “Which song?” John managed to ask.
Dylan said, “You know…” and then he sang, “and when I touch you I get high, I get high…”

John flushed with embarrassment. “Those aren’t the words,” he admitted. “The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…’”

The Love You Make
Peter Brown

After the room was secured, Dylan rolled the first joint and passed it to Lennon. He immediately gave it to Ringo Starr, whom he called “my royal taster”. Not realising the etiquette was to pass it on, Starr finished the joint and Dylan and Aronowitz rolled more for each of them.

The Beatles spent the next few hours in hilarity, looked upon with amusement by Dylan. Brian Epstein kept saying, “I’m so high I’m on the ceiling. I’m up on the ceiling.”

Paul McCartney, meanwhile, was struck by the profundity of the occasion, telling anyone who would listen that he was “thinking for the first time, really thinking.” He instructed Mal Evans to follow him around the hotel suite with a notebook, writing down everything he said:

I remember asking Mal, our road manager, for what seemed like years and years, ‘Have you got a pencil?’ But of course everyone was so stoned they couldn’t produce a pencil, let alone a combination of pencil and paper.

I’d been going through this thing of levels, during the evening. And at each level I’d meet all these people again. ‘Hahaha! It’s you!’ And then I’d metamorphose on to another level. Anyway, Mal gave me this little slip of paper in the morning, and written on it was, ‘There are seven levels!’ Actually it wasn’t bad. Not bad for an amateur. And we pissed ourselves laughing. I mean, ‘What the fuck’s that? What the fuck are the seven levels?’ But looking back, it’s actually a pretty succinct comment; it ties in with a lot of major religions but I didn’t know that then.

Paul McCartney

Evans kept the notebooks until his death in 1976, when they were confiscated and later lost by Los Angeles police.

By the time they came to make Help! in 1965, The Beatles’ cannabis use had reached a peak. It affected their songwriting, which became mellower and more introspective. During the filming of Help! they were often stoned on set, which caused them to forget their lines.

The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.

In 1970 Lennon claimed the group had smoked cannabis in the toilet of Buckingham Palace, on the day they collected their MBEs. In later years, however, George Harrison revealed it had been nothing stronger than a normal cigarette.

Cannabis had a significant effect on The Beatles’ music. It found its way into a number of songs, including Got To Get You Into My Life (described by McCartney as “an ode to pot”) and With A Little Help From My Friends, which was condemned in some quarters due to its reference to getting high. Perhaps the first reference, however, was in She’s A Woman, which featured the line “Turns me on when I get lonely”.

On 24 July 1967 The Beatles and Brian Epstein added their names to an advertisement which appeared in the Times newspaper calling for the legalisation of cannabis. Sponsored by a group called Soma, the advertisement also demanded the release of all people imprisoned due to cannabis possession, and further research into the drug’s medical uses.

On 18 October 1968 John Lennon and Yoko Ono were arrested for cannabis possession while staying at Ringo Starr’s basement flat at 34 Montagu Square, London. He pleaded guilty on 28 November, absolving Ono, who was pregnant at the time.

The following year, on 12 March 1969, George and Pattie Harrison were similarly arrested for possession. Like Lennon and Ono, the Harrisons maintained that the drugs had been planted by London’s drugs squad, led by Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a notoriously anti-drug zealot.

48 responses on “The Beatles and drugs

    1. AlfinaHawaii

      I can’t help giggling – sorry…

      I have TREMENDOUS respect for Paul moreso than the rest of the Beatles, I have to say. And yet, you are probably correct. He WAS indeed fond of the Weed, and even known to publicly defend it as he (claims that he) was able to control the effects of the weed and never really experienced withdrawal associated with its disuse.

      And to be fair, it was probably true for Paul. He might have indeed been proud of the fact that he could use Marijuana at will, and not missing it nor having any withdrawals when he didn’t.

      Pothead and Proud of it? Or should we make it Proud Pothead Paul…? ::giggles::

      That doesn’t diminish my great admiration of the man – HONEST!

      1. Charles Smith

        Nobody ever has withdrawal when they stop smoking pot man. I do it all the time, and so does everyone else who smokes. I doubt Paul was unintelligent enough to think that weed was addictive, when he clearly realized other drugs, such as heroin, are the ones that lead you down the wrong path.

        The point is, everyone knows grass is docile and harmless, including Paul, and if someone smoking pot has a chance of diminishing your image of someone, you are simply ignorant.

        1. jnehbfhbn

          Not true. I smoked weed 3 times a day for 6 months. Had constant anxiety and paranoia, and symptoms of schizophrenia emerge. I was high 24/7, I didn’t care about anything anymore, life felt meaningless, and I would get stuck in my head with these long inner monologues. I felt like every day was a fight to keep my consciousness from dissolving. And even when I quit cold turkey, I had wicked bad withdrawals. I craved it as much as it tortured me.
          I don’t think cannabis is entirely bad or good. I just think it’s really ignorant to claim that it’s great for everyone, or not great for everyone. It effects everyone differently. And it is possible to have terrible trips on weed and withdrawals. I think people with already thin boundaries of self and delicately formed egos can’t handle something that really puts your mind to the test.

          1. I, Pot Head

            Very sensible. For me, it’s penicilin; that stuff almost killed me three times, but neither I nor my doctor realized it. Marijuana I like. And I don’t think you can get addicted to it–not in the same way as alcohol, tobacco, heroin, barbituates, cocaine, speed, caffeine, sugar, television, sex, power, or chocolate. Marijuana: I can smoke it or leave it alone. I’d rather smoke it, and I did off and on–mostly on–for 32 years, but I finally got so fed up with having to be a criminal, and hassle to find it and afford it WHEN IT IS A WEED THAT CAN GROW FOR FREE!, that I just gave it up. Someday, I profoundly hope, the power-addicted people will get the hell out of the way, and leave people alone, and then I’ll smoke it legally. Hurry the day.

    2. Charles Carpenter

      Ringo said on The Beatles Talk Drugs {FROM A DOCUMENTARY OF SOME SORT} that when they took more than just a little pot there music was shit,and theyd be happy withit till they came in straight the next day

  1. robert

    My understanding is that John’s heroin addiction continued on and off into the mid seventies. Can’t site my source, just remember hearing/reading this many times.

    Anyone else ever this?

    1. Joe Post author

      I believe Yoko has said they had four separate periods on heroin. She also said the hardest to kick was methadone, which they’d heard was like heroin but non-addictive. So they started taking it, not as a substitute to heroin, as they weren’t addicts at the time. After finally kicking that she said they never became addicted to anything again.

    2. Michael McCullough (@OxyMick)

      I too heard this – far from baking bread and being a househusband (as told to Andy Peebles Dec 1980), don’t ask me where, but at LEAST two, maybe three sources have John hanging out with Uncle Henry, and especially heavily during the period when Jack Daniels and Harry Nilsson were his other constant companions.
      Personally, when I first became acquainted with Henry, it was mid-70s and greyish-white, water soluble, very strong stuff from Thailand, with the brandname “Double Globe” on every compressed slab wrapped in clear plastic with red printing, each a little more than 250g. From 1981, all that could be had in UK was this brown, adulterated, much weaker stuff from Afghanistan, paid for by the CIA & US Govt; a result of their allies like Osama bin Laden maximising the millions given to them to aid their anti-Soviet campaign.
      I had developed a reaction to cannabis which made it unpleasant and often frightening. And just as I was thoroughly enjoying the best H made, this USA funded Afghan brown arrived, and has been with us ever since. I pray for the day I find a containerload of Double Globe (which is still, even post- Khun Sa, still available, grown and processed by the same hill tribes.
      Heroin is benign. It does no damage to the body and vital organs, unlike any other social relaxant. It clears my mind and aids my thinking; other drugs screw it up. Fraser was correct in that the only real problem is running out when you have a habit on. Great for physical and emotional pain, it is obvious to me that John would be the most likely Beatle to indulge. And “Cold Turkey” (whilst being the worst way possible to break a habit) SOUNDS LIKE IT FEELS!! That painful descending riff tells the eight-day horror story perfectly.

  2. robert

    that’s how I remember it as well. And this went into the mid-seventies.

    I often wondered if this was partly behind the 18 month separation – they had to get away from each other in order to get clean.

  3. Vonbontee

    Interesting how all four ex-Beatles had their own preferences, drugwise: Paul liked weed, booze for Ringo, heroin for John and apparently George was quite fond of coke for a time, something I only learned recently and found somewhat surprising.

    (Fun druggie nicknames/memory aids: Pothead Paul, Junkie John, Rummy Ringo, and I can’t think of one for George.)

    1. AlfinaHawaii

      ::giggles::

      I LOVE your druggie nickname! I’d make it Proud Pothead Paul – since he was known to defend the use of the substance and throughout the 80s he constantly maintained that he could use and discontinue using at will, with no effect nor withdrawals whatsoever.

      Potheaded – and Proud of it. ::giggles::

        1. Aaron

          I’m a huge advocate for legalization. In fact, I’m in favor of ending drug prohibition and The War On Drugs entirely (as there is ample evidence this does more harm to society than good.) And further, I believe that marijuana is the safest of all the recreational drugs, and I agree that it also has some wonderful properties which make it useful as medicine, as well. HOWEVER, that being said, your comment is untrue.

          You need to understand that everyone is different. Both in terms of their specific neurochemistry, and their psychology. Addiction and habituation are both physiological and psychological phenomena. In a physiological sense, if you use something daily, for a period of YEARS, your body and mind are going to become used to it. There is no way around this (that we know of, yet). This is why a new user can take a few puffs and get so stoned it’s almost psychedelic, and someone who has been smoking daily for years, can smoke a joint and then take an exam.

          When one smokes for so long that the normal effects of the substance are muted, abrupt cessation CAN cause some issues, for some people.

          And in a psychological sense, a person can become “addicted” to anything. While very different than, say, the physiological addiction that opiates cause, this psychological addiction can still have a powerful grip, making cessation challenging. And you need to understand that a person’s PROPENSITY for addiction is a very important factor, and will vary considerably from person to person.

          Have you never known “that person” who could smoke a cigarette, or take a drink, once in a blue moon… then stop and not touch it again for many weeks, or months? I’ve known a small handful of these people over the decades. They exist, and they annoy the bejeezus out of easily-addicted types such as myself. (I say that playfully, of course. I wouldn’t wish addiction on anyone.) Then of course there are the people who seem, if they touch it once, will want to keep going forever. Far too many of us fall into this category.

          I have seen some of the worst that addiction can bring. And even for someone with a propensity for addiction, stopping long term marijuana use is a walk in the park compared to quitting an opiate addiction. But it is still challenging. And if it’s not for you, then you are one of the LUCKY ones. Some people have a hard time quitting POTATO CHIPS, or SODA, let alone a powerful mind-altering substance which calms our nerves and helps us relax.

          And I understand that people like yourself just get upset to see something you enjoy slandered, made to look bad. And there has been so much ridiculous anti-drug propaganda for so long, that there seems to be a tendency among advocates to swing toward the other extreme– as if the stuff is the Salve Of The Gods and could “do you no harm.” I think the truth, as with most things, lies somewhere in between. Most adults can use cannabis safely. Used once in a while, its effects seem to be mostly positive and pleasant. More frequent use increases likelihood of negative effects, or possibly habituation in some individuals.

          Just try to understand that everyone is different, and not everyone is like you. Hopefully you understand where I’m coming from.

        2. Jess

          There most certainly are withdrawals from Marijuana. My boyfriend’s sister was addicted for nine years, smoking everyday all day and she had one hell of a time getting off it. Rehab didn’t even work. But my boyfriend was also on it for a few years and if he went a few hours without any, he would get awful cramps and have uncontrollable mood swings, sometimes he would throw up. He was cold one minute and hot the next, if I touched him it hurt. Not to mention the paranoia, anxiety, dulling of the mind.

    2. Selt anczak

      Er hash man Harrison obviously and to the ” no I freaked out on canabis and got paranoid ” we’ll on sorry to sound harsh but you argument holds no water only 1.5 people on 10 have that sever of a traction the rest of us don’t hide in a closet and stab everything that comes. Near you we just feel calm and relaxed and we can stop and start at will with no adverse affects

  4. A fool on a mountain

    Absolutely awesome article. A few spelling mistakes, but still very good. Some great quotes in it. I think that one of George’s saying that its all about your acceptance of the world really struck me. Like really struck me.

    But bloody good article.

  5. Taryn Andrew MUS103

    This is a fascinating intro into their experiences with drug abuse. I was suprised to hear how a doctor actually helped Paul use Benzedrine. Its interesting to see the parallel’s with today’s society since parents also get caught providing their kids with drugs and alcohol.

  6. RedLennon

    Is there any information out their regarding Paul’s first LSD trip with Tara Browne? I can’t imagine it to have been good if he never really got back into it.

  7. Mickey Michaels

    Interesting article though maybe it has too few sources albiet impeccible ones. People can get addicted to water let alone pot. That said pot is one of the least harmful things you can take including cigarettes and booze. While I do think people can abuse it, it in itself is a farily docile drug.

  8. Mikey of Mason Summers

    As someone who prefers their early albums and believes that they peaked at A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack this is very interesting information. I knew a good deal of this history but now I feel much better educated. I love many types of music but the genres I know best and hold dearest are 70′s British punk and 50′s rock n roll. That being said, it’s easy to picture why I would prefer a band on uppers as opposed to a band on psychedelics or downers. Best option of course is to avoid the lot of em altogether.

  9. Bryan

    I have LONG suspected it was John’s heroin addiction that actually did in the Beatles- brought on by Ono’s introduction of heroin to Lennon. I think the lyrics to the song “Too Many People” on McCartney’s Ram album spells it out in a not so cryptic fashion.

    “Too many people going underground…

    Too Many People Sharing Party Lines
    Too Many People Never Sleeping Late
    Too Many People Paying Parking Fines
    Too Many Hungry People Losing Weight

    That Was Your First Mistake
    You Took Your Lucky Break And Broke It In Two
    Now What Can Be Done For You
    You Broke It In Two”

    I have been listening to the Beatles for years and suspected John Lennon of heroin abuse, but until the Internet came around with great articles like this, I never really had any sources to confirm my suspicions.

    Honestly, the more I read about the darker side of the Beatles, the more my adoration and respect for McCartney and his talent has grown. While I really like a lot of Lennon’s solo music, it REALLY becomes apparent McCartney was the driving force behind the Beatles and their best music from a little before the mid-point of their collaboration. His control just kicked into high gear at the Pepper album.

    I’ve read in several places Lennon started to withdraw from the partnership and resent Paul and his talent when it became apparent to him that he could no longer keep up with him creatively.

    I, personally, think Ono was a rock around Lennon’s neck, but he did himself and the Beatles in all by himself.

    1. robert

      I agree Bryan – and I have stated so on different spots on this site – the single greatest issue leading to The Beatles’ breakup was John’s heroin addiction. As Paul has said and others have intimated – it made John impossible to deal with – they couldn’t communicate with him (FYI – I’m more a Lennon fan than McCartney fan).

      Remove the heroin and I assert that they would have stayed together a few more years, amicably have wound down, and remained friends with probable reunions from time to time.

      Yes it’s conjecture but it’s my conjecture. But it’s heroin that did them in – and yes that was Yoko’s doing.

      1. Joseph Brush

        John Lennon contributed to the last 3 albums the Beatles made while on heroin. He did quit the habit in July 1969 (at least for awhile) and wrote Cold Turkey as a result while continuing to work on Abbey Road until the sessions ended.
        The biggest reason for the break up IMO was the revelation that Paul had been buying shares of Northern Songs behind John’s back. At the same time Paul was trying to get his in-laws to become the Beatles’ manager. John was outraged at this betrayal and walked out of the meeting.
        Therefore their Northern Songs negotiations fell apart. Paul to this day has never commented on his actions.
        After their last tour, there still would have been Beatles music, including the overrated Pepper, whether Paul was the leader or not. But Paul’s great” ideas” such as the Magical Mystery Tour movie fiasco and the Get Back sessions (while being filmed) were also big nails in the Beatle coffin.

        1. Bryan

          The entire concept and most of the songs on Pepper and the albums which followed were from Paul. It’s well documented. To say there would have been a Pepper without Paul is flat out wrong. There would have been no Beatles without Paul holding them together the last few years.

          1. Joseph Brush

            Most of the songs which followed Sgt. Pepper were from Paul?
            On Abbey Road half of the songs were written by the combination of the other three Beatles.
            More than half of the songs on the White Album and Let It Be Naked were written by the same combination.
            Paul was the main person behind Pepper but without the contributions of the other three the album would not be the same.
            Please quote the documentation which you say proves that Paul wrote most of the songs which followed Pepper.

  10. Mickey Fischer

    My name is Mickey Fischer. I traveled with led zep at 18 yrs. old. Royston Ellis was on the tour and got me on it too. All he would say is” These guys are always high on something”. And the last thing I would have ever thought is that he first gave the beatles benzedrene!! He actually stopped taking me to Jimmy Pages house In plumpton England because he said I idolized them too much and he was worried I would consume drugs like them.

  11. Great Moaning

    Cynthia: “Within weeks of his first trip, John was taking LSD daily and I became more and more worried. I couldn’t reach him when he was tripping, but when the effects wore off he would be normal until he took it again.”

    What is that woman talking about? Apparently not LSD. If LSD is taken daily, the effects wear out very quickly, after one week, at the latest, you feel precisely nothing. I’d presume that’s but a made-up declaration during their divorce proceeding.

    1. Experienced

      I agree. In my experiences, you have to drop more and more LSD each subsequent day you take it to feel the effects. For me, a hit or two one night can blow my mind – the next night, anything I take is pretty much a waste of good acid. Furthermore, i typically have to wait a week between doses for my natural brain chemical levels to restore to really feel the effects to their maximum potential. So I also find it hard to believe John was dosing every day for that long. Although, I do remember hearing or reading somewhere that he admitted to it as well. So who knows…

Leave a reply