Early drug scenes in Switzerland: places and practices (ca. 1965-1975)

by Peter-Paul Bänziger, 15.10.2021

This is a translation of excerpts from a book on the history of drugs in Switzerland since 1950, which will be published with Chronos (Zurich) in 2022. It was generated with computer assistance.


Places: squares, bars and (autonomous) youth centres

For the Swiss counterculture, certain places in the cities were of central importance. Here one could buy drugs and consume and philosophize together. In Basel, people sat on the wall at Barfüsserplatz. The Bernese scene met on the Münsterplattform, the people of Biel in the Stadtpark and in the AJZ (Autonomous Youth Centre), on whose wall a graffiti quoted the drug song Purple Haze (1967) by Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). In the summer of 1970, a few Geneva hippies made themselves comfortable on the Place du Molard, which had shortly before become traffic-calmed. In St. Gallen, people moved in the so-called Circle: between the youth centre on Katharinengasse on the one hand and the Goliath Bar and Africana, founded in 1965, on the other. In Winterthur they met in the Stadtpark and in Zurich at the Riviera on the banks of the Limmat.

In such places, to employ an expression often used two decades later, the first open drug scenes emerged. The squares and parks had this function especially in summer. In addition, there were the numerous campsites in Ticino, where the many guests from the Netherlands ensured direct drug supply. In winter, the scenes met in certain pubs and cafés. In Basel, these included the jazz and beat bar Atlantis, in Berne Die schwarze Tinte and the Café des Pyrénées. In Geneva, people gathered at the Café du Commerce on the Place du Molard. The relevant venues in Winterthur included the Jugendhaus (youth centre) in Steinberggasse, which opened in 1963, and the Salmen in Marktgasse. In Zurich, people moved from the Riviera to the nearby Odeon or to other relevant venues in the old town, such as the Blow Up Club on Schoffelgasse.

Some of the places where the early Swiss drug scenes met.

Self-supply and solidarity

The supply of drugs was provided by tourists who had been in Afghanistan, Morocco, but also in other European countries. Some of them were caught by the border authorities or by the police. Various cases are documented in the register of the Zurich city police under the heading "Sittlichkeitsdelikte" (offences against morality). In 1969, among others, a nineteen-year-old man was arrested for "buying 1 plate of hashish in New Delhi/India and bringing the goods to Switzerland". He had defended himself by pointing out that he had not pursued any profit motives. [1]

That was the argument of many at the time. A young man from the Jura, for example, had bought his hashish and LSD not in faraway India, but in nearby Basel and a village in the canton of Neuchâtel. "I admit that I have used and offered hashish to friends," he told the Tribunal du District de Delément in March 1974. "I didn't sell 'H' [Hashish; ppb] and I didn't try to make a profit." [2] Not only because of the small amount of drugs, it is not unlikely that these young people were telling the truth. Very few made their living, or even part of it, by importing narcotics. Some rock bands were transporting drugs, without the money being the main focus. The young man from the Jura earned his money as a factory worker, others were employees or pursued artistic professions.[3]

Quite a few also attended school or university and were financed by their parents. The interviewee Q. E., for example, lived in a suburban municipality of Zurich and attended a gymnasium in the city. In retrospect, she describes bringing drugs, which she acquired between 1969 and 1971 on her way home at the Riviera, as "a kind of service" for her friends: "I was dealing […] because everyone in the village also wanted hashish. And because I was in Zurich at the Rivi, I bought it there […] without making a profit. "In her environment at that time, most people would have handled it that way.

A second interviewee reports something similar: "In this shared flat we also did LSD trips together. And then, slowly, through people who came back from India and brought with them small amounts of opium, I had my first experience with opiates." On one occasion, he says, an acquaintance brought the stuff "in a piece of jewelry, in a bracelet. […] That was probably a form of heroin, which I snorted." Later they went to a certain place in his town and asked the people there, "Anybody got anything? - No, but X is supposed to come by train from Amsterdam today, from Adam […]. So you put money together and someone went to Amsterdam". The drug supply of the counterculture was largely based on self-supply and solidarity. This corresponded to their capitalism-critical attitude.

Sharing knowledge and helping each other

Not only did supplies have to be organized, but there were also very practical questions to be solved. In the magazines and brochures from the counterculture, one could often find relevant advice and tips. As a service for its readers, Hotcha! magazine offered medical help from a psychiatrist. The announcement promised support for "problems with pot, acid, drugs", but also with the military and the "Knüpo", the truncheon police.[4]

Once the readers were asked to let their "POT disappear" because "penetrating raids [...] were in the air". [5] Another time, the magazine asked for tips on "restaurants where long-haired, bearded, 'Verlauste' etc. are not served or are served very indecently". For the time being, the Hintere Sternen and the Oepfelchammer in Zurich as well as the Quick in Bern were to be avoided.[6] Die Verlausten – the lousy – was a self-designation of some beatniks and rockers. Many stylistic elements of these (working class) youth cultures of the 1950s and 1960s, were incorporated into the countercultural movements around 1968.

Such offers of advice and useful tips were supplemented by instructions and recipes. "Magia sexualis" was produced by a "sable excitant" (exciting sand) containing hashish, belladonna and garlic, which was to be rubbed into the solar plexus, the base of the neck and the armpits, among other places.[7] Lust an der Wirklichkeit. Texte, Dokumente, Bilder ueber Pot, Haschisch, Marihuana, Trance, Love… Mikro- und Makrokosmische Erfahrungen, Elemente einer neuen Religion (Lust for Reality. Texts, documents, pictures about pot, hashish, marijuana, trance, love... Micro- and macrocosmic experiences, elements of a new religion) is the name of a relevant collection of texts from 1969, which was advertised and reviewed in movement-related magazines. It contains not only an interview with John Lennon (1940-1980) and Yoko Ono (*1933) about a drug raid in their apartment, a poem by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) about hashish and a text by the Bernese mythologist Sergius Golowin (1930-2006) about medieval witches and contemporary hippies. Printed are also recipes with hashish as well as for an antidote for "unpleasant side effects such as severe paranoia". Hot drinks, the reader could learn here, "increase the effect of hashish and accelerate the shifting into the high or trance state. Heavy food slows down the whole process."[8]

On the Riviera, you could find everything "that is somehow mind-expanding," Q. E. recalls: from cannabis products to LSD, mushrooms and mescaline to heroin and solvents. In the case of the latter, it was already known at the time that they would "break you". But consuming the other substances was not without problems either. Since many of them were newly developed or had only recently been (re)discovered, one could not relate to established knowledge about how to deal with them. Much had to be tried out and the results of this experience had to be shared.

She herself had never used LSD, Q. E. says, "but there was an extreme exchange of ideas. They would discuss things like: 'Horror trip, what are you doing?' And before use, they discussed whether everyone should join in or whether one person should stay sober for safety's sake." In the counterculture, drug experiences were often enjoyed in groups. "It is striking how much there is a tendency to smoke hashish in company," the National-Zeitung stated in March 1969, not without a certain astonishment.[9]

"Speed kills" warned the special issue highlife hotcha of early summer 1970 in wavy lettering, probably meant to symbolize the state of the body after amphetamine use. "Adding amphetamines or barbiturates to your body is just as bad as the oil industry poisoning our oceans."[10] Q. E. too stresses how exhausting she had found the widespread use of speed. Sometimes it was only with the help of Valium that one was able to end a state of intoxication. At the time however, doctors prescribed benzodiazepines all too generously, without informing about the risk of dependency.

Tales, songs and images as experience templates

Tips on preparation, dosage and nutrition as well as on antidotes were of great importance. The same applies to images and songs made during or after states of intoxication, and to tales about typical courses of drug experiences, such as those penned by the Islamic scholar Rudolf Gelpke (1928-1972). In the early 1960s he was a visiting professor in California, the centre of hippie culture, and at the same time he conducted and documented extensive self-experiments with LSD and psylocybin.

"I knew: everything was good – the reason and origin of everything was good," he describes the experiences after his first psilocybin use. "But at the same moment I also understood the suffering and disgust, the grievances and misunderstandings of 'ordinary life': there one is never 'whole', but divided, chopped up and split". One searches in vain for "the complete and absolute, the simultaneity of all things" and, he adds, alluding to ideas of the timeless primordial state in ancient mythology, "the Eternal Nu of the Golden Age, this absolute foundation of being".[11]

Cottonwoodhill (1971), the first album by the Basel-based band Brainticket, is considered the setting of an LSD trip and a milestone of psychedelic music. The cover picture picks this up very nicely. Source: https://brainticket.bandcamp.com

Such accounts not only helped to classify the individual experiences, but were also always a kind of experience template: they guided the users to treat their bodies in a certain way and to perceive the right feelings and impressions or to classify them correctly. "[T]he central body temperature rises to the fever range, while the hands, feet and tip of the nose become cooler. […] Under certain circumstances, the mast defecation reflex is triggered," explained an article in the scene magazine Focus.[12]

In addition to this knowledge about the various drugs in general, however, they also had to know about the quality of the goods on offer. They had smoked "extremely much hash" at that time, Q. E. recalls. "We were all experts," and had "a knowledge of how what kind of hashish worked." With the black Afghan one had suspected that it partly contained opium. "So once I had a real horror trip." Despite all the knowledge about the subject, one was not immune to the unexpected and accidents. To a certain extent, however, they were also part of it, since one wanted to venture into previously unknown worlds.



[1] StadtAZH, V.E.c.70: Sittlichkeitsdelikte, 492 "Rauschgiftangelegenheiten", C 286/69, 1969.

[2] StaBE, BB 2.1.745: Tribunal du district de Delément, minutes of the hearing of 20.3.1974.

[3] Hell Daniel: Der Gebrauch von Cannabis unter den Jugendlichen Zürichs, Zurich 1971, pp. 5 and 12f.

[4] N. N.: Medical Aid, in: Hotcha! 2: 20, 1969, p. 3.

[5] N. N.: Häschnahasch..., in: Hotcha! 1: 6, 1968, p. 3.

[6] N. N.: All the news thats fun to print, in: Hotcha! 1: 15, 1968, p. 7.

[7] Randolph P. B.: Le sable excitant. Magia sexualis, in: Hotcha! 2: 19, 1969, p. 4.

[8] Lust an der Wirklichkeit. Texte, Dokumente, Bilder ueber Pot, Haschisch, Marihuana, Trance, Love… Mikro- und Makrokosmische Erfahrungen, Elemente einer neuen Religion. Zusammengestellt von Jean Paul Vroom und Simon Vinkenoog. Aus dem Englischen von Brigitte Oehrli, Rudolf Jäggli und Ernst Schütz, Zürich: Walter Zürcher Verlag [1969], [p. 29].

[9] Schenck Ernst von: Haschisch-Parties mit Schwedenmädchen, in: National-Zeitung, 10.3.1969.

[10] N. N.: Speed Kills!, in: Hotcha! 3: 41A, 1970, p. 2.

[11] Gelpke Rudolf: Von Fahrten in den Weltraum der Seele. Berichte über Selbstversuche mit Delysid (LSD) und Psilocybin (CY), in: Antaios 3: 5, 1962, pp. 393-411, here p. 393.

[12] Steckel Ronald: Better life through chemistry? Part 3, in: Focus. Das zeitkritische Magazin 16, February 1971, pp. 32-37, here p. 32.