Recalling the days when Phoenix cops cracked down on the underground press

An excerpt from the new book by Sean Howe: “AGENTS OF CHAOS: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s,” about the founder of the marijuana-themed counterculture magazine and head of the Underground Press Syndicate, who grew up in Phoenix. Copyright © 2023 Sean Howe. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

At the end of February 1969, the marijuana legalization group LEMAR held a three-day “New World Drug Symposium” on the State University of Buffalo campus.

The group had formed five years earlier, after a goateed-and-leather-jacketed twenty-seven-year-old auto mechanic named Lowell Eggemeier strolled into a San Francisco police station, lit a joint, and exhaled at a detective. “I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking,” Eggemeier declared. “I wish to be arrested.”

His attorney quickly announced the foundation of LEMAR, for “Legalize Marijuana,” and picket sign protests in the city followed—first gathering ten and then a couple hundred activists. Within six months, another LEMAR chapter had formed in New York City with the involvement of such luminaries as the poet Allen Ginsberg; a LEMAR-affiliated mimeograph, the Marijuana Newsletter, began publication soon afterward. Ginsberg zeroed in on the ways in which smoking the forbidden plant, cultivated for its medicinal and psychoactive properties for thousands of years in Africa and Asia but outlawed in twentieth-century America, might lead to revolution: “When the citizens of this country see that such an old-time, taken-for-granted, flag-waving, reactionary truism of police, press, and law as the ‘reefer menace’ is in fact a creepy hoax, a scarecrow, what will they begin to think of the whole of taken for-granted public REALITY? What of other issues filled with the same threatening hysteria? The specter of Communism? Respect for the police and courts? Respect for the Treasury Department? If marijuana is a hoax, what is Money? What is the War in Vietnam? What are the Mass Media?” By 1967, there were LEMAR chapters in Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Toronto; during that year of so many Be-Ins and Love-Ins, a number of “smoke-ins” occurred, with pounds of marijuana chopped up and rolled into hundreds of joints and distributed.

Author Q&A: How the seeds for ‘High Times’ magazine were planted in Phoenix

Those events had, unsurprisingly, attracted police attention, and early publicity guaranteed that the 1969 Buffalo gathering would too. “Let’s go and get high and listen to some music, and FUCK!” raved the underground newspaper Ann Arbor Sun a month in advance.

On the symposium’s first day, agents of the US Postal Service, FBI, Customs, and Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs all descended on a university classroom to arrest a student suspected of smuggling hashish.

This made Michael Aldrich, the local LEMAR organizer, nervous. Along with the distinguished MDs and PhDs invited to attend the seminar were several high-profile icons of the counterculture, many of whom had tangled with the law: LSD evangelist Timothy Leary was already appealing a thirty-year jail sentence and a $30,000 fine for possession and transportation of marijuana. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party (YIP) had been called before the House Committee on Un American Activities. The MC5, the weekend’s musical entertainment, had recently performed a concert that was surreptitiously filmed by the FBI; their manager, John Sinclair, was awaiting sentencing on charges of assaulting a police officer at one of their shows. Nearly fifty members—five busloads—of the Hog Farm, a commune-turned-hippie-caravan, had been recently detained in a Pennsylvania narcotics raid. Allen Ginsberg had a criminal record in multiple countries. Even the eminent literary critic Leslie Fiedler, a professor at Buffalo and faculty advisor to the local LEMAR chapter, had been arrested on drug charges—along with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law—when police raided his wiretapped home.

So Aldrich, not taking any chances, kept his guests holed up and away from public view. “If you try to see any of these people in their rooms,” he told a local reporter, “I’ll take your press pass away.”

“We were all put up in these dormitories, they were like Holiday Inn rooms,” recalled Ken Kelley, a militant activist who’d traveled to Buffalo with the MC5. “And all the sudden this guy in a hat comes in, makes a point of taking off his coat, taking out a pistol, and putting it on the bed.

“Everybody fucking freaks out, and he announces, ‘I’m Tom Forcade, the head of the Underground Press Syndicate.’

“Everybody goes, Uh oh! A-gent!”

* * *

Three months later, and two thousand miles to the southwest, the Arizona Republic informed its readers that revolution was afoot in Phoenix.

“Although local evidence to the fact is scarce, the fourth largest underground publication in the country is edited right here in Phoenix,” wrote columnist Paul Schatt. “Orpheus Magazine, the digest of the undergrounds, is produced here or on the road in a 1946 Chevrolet school bus that has been converted into an office on wheels.”

A mysterious group, Schatt reported, was behind not just Orpheus but also the entire Underground Press Syndicate, “the international association of all underground papers,” which included the Los Angeles Free Times, Chicago Seed, East Village Other, and Berkeley Barb. An anonymous source at Orpheus told Schatt that the group—at the behest of its leader, one Tom K. Forcade—had purposely kept its local circulation to a minimum even as it sold heavily in other parts of the country and overseas.

“We, however, think this is a mistake,” the source told Schatt, “and detrimental both to the staff and to Phoenix, for us to have to operate quasi-secretly and for Phoenix not to accept that an operation of this scope is taking place in Phoenix. We are nonviolent, don’t bother anyone, and feel that Phoenix should know the good we’re doing—or bad, if they feel that way.”

In truth, it was highly unlikely that the underground press would receive a warm reception in conservative Arizona. “You shouldn’t talk so freely about sexuality,” an Arizona Republic reporter had recently sneered to a visiting Allen Ginsberg; when Ginsberg responded with a curse, the newsman punched the poet in the mouth. The week that the Republic’s column on Orpheus ran, one of the shops that sold the magazine was evicted. “You are dirty people,” the owners of the Hip Pocket Emporium were told, “and your clientele are an undesirable element.”

The Orpheus manifesto from which Schatt quoted indicated that the group was already braced for any hostilities that might arise:

Orpheus herewith announces its intention of moving its offices to a free zone, located on a delta of the Colorado River. Since the status of these deltas is ambiguous, we will declare it a free liberated zone, and inhabitants will not be obliged to follow any of the irrational laws now in force in the unliberated zone.

Schatt closed his column with a promise that the Republic would “report from time to time on the progress made in establishing this beachhead.” Within days, the paper made good on that promise and sent a journalist to visit Orpheus headquarters: a rundown, single-story, twelve-room house on the west side of downtown Phoenix, in the shadow of the State Capitol Building.

A hippie greeted the reporter at the front steps, quickly barred shut the heavy door behind them, and ushered him into the living room to meet the mysterious Tom Forcade, who pronounced his name like “façade.”*

The diminutive Forcade was sitting in the corner, wearing a black suit, moccasins, and a wide brim brown hat with bunting that appeared to be fashioned from an American flag. When the hat tilted up, his piercing blue eyes were revealed. “Did you notice the charred marks on the house when you came in?” he asked, sipping milk from a carton. “Two weeks ago, someone threw a bomb on the porch. We found another bomb that didn’t go off.”

The reporter noted that Forcade was himself clean-shaven, with short hair. “Occasionally,” Forcade explained, “I have to go out when they want someone to play straight.” But he declined to answer other questions about himself, and spoke slowly, as if searching for exaction with every word.

“We don’t break any laws or confront the establishment,” he insisted, and explained that the Underground Press Syndicate was simply a kind of Associated Press for a movement with “its own music, art, theater, vocabulary, fads, religions, entrepreneurs and, of course, its own politics and mass media.”

And yet, Forcade said, they were faced with constant hostilities. “We have a hard time staying alive, and have to fight back the people who have a negative attitude against us.” Other underground newspaper offices, he said, had been “ripped up with axes” or otherwise sabotaged. “Usually, it’s the action of some yo-yo politician out to make a name for himself. But no underground paper which has been suppressed has lost when its case has been taken to a higher court.”

Forcade gave the reporter a tour of the house, showing off a darkroom, an offset printing press, and the largest underground-newspaper library in the world. Stacks of papers filled shelves and spilled onto the floor. “Although newspaper offices are destroyed,” Forcade said, “they know at least one copy of their paper will exist.” He pointed out the old school bus that had been mentioned in Paul Schatt’s column, the one that served as an “office on wheels.” Sometimes they loaded the printing press onto the bus, Forcade said, when they deemed it necessary to “go to centers of awareness and have contact with people with their advanced minds and followers.”

At the end of the visit, he walked the reporter to the door. “Today you can’t be concerned with what is constitutional but what is right,” Forcade mused. “If all the laws in the United States were strictly enforced everyone would be in jail.”

HOUSE NEAR STATE CAPITOL LINKS UNDERGROUND PRESS ran the headline in the Republic; the story noted that Forcade had refused to be photographed (instead there appeared a picture of Benny Alvarez, a longhaired Chicano youth who volunteered for Orpheus, operating the magazine’s printing press).

If that didn’t sow suspicion in the minds of the Phoenix readership, surely the story that shared the page—alarmed expert ranks phoenix among widest open drug towns—would drive home the idea that the city was under threat. That article quoted a local psychologist warning that proximity to the Mexican border and a lack of public funding for narcotics control put Phoenicians at risk. The local marijuana, he contended, was in fact hashish, which caused such powerful hallucinations and disturbances that users turned to morphine or barbiturates to calm down. Worse, he said, much of the LSD was cut with amphetamines, strychnine, and mescaline. And the valley was flooding with heroin.

In Phoenix, where narcotics arrests had risen by 500 percent in two years, the drug scare had flared into hysteria, and authorities linked the threat to political insurgencies. Charles Tignor, the director of Arizona’s State Narcotics Enforcement Division, told a Rotary Club luncheon crowd that campus unrest and hallucinogens were two prongs of a Communist strategy to “morally corrupt the youth of this country,” and he traced the problem back to 1965, “when the New Left became active on campuses” and pro-LSD “propaganda” bombarded the youth.

“It’s hard to believe that this could happen in our community and in all other communities across the nation by accident,” the assistant police chief of Phoenix told one PTA meeting. Surely the rise of drug use was the result of “small groups working to destroy our way of life without offering anything better to replace it. They are small groups, but they are influencing very large numbers of young people. I have to wonder, is this accidental?”

* * *

On June 17, a few weeks after the Arizona Republic profile of Orpheus was published, the Special Investigations unit of the Phoenix police paid its own visit to the house on the west side of the city. They removed seven tablets of LSD from the refrigerator and arrested an Orpheus volunteer who lived in a trailer parked in the backyard. They also put out a warrant for Forcade, who wasn’t there.

According to Forcade’s account, when he returned to the house it was so utterly destroyed that he suspected a prankster had let loose wild javelinas. Boxes and drawers had been dumped on the floor; water was poured over files. Every piece of furniture was overturned, the stereo was destroyed, and the mail was ripped open. Worst of all was the damage to the UPS library, the largest collection of underground periodicals in the world.

“The only LSD in our office was the LSD the police put there,” Forcade responded, after turning himself in to police. “It would have been much more imaginative and equally realistic to charge that the entire building was constructed of marijuana bricks and then haul it away with house-moving equipment, as evidence.”

Forcade asserted that the police had found it necessary to create an excuse to destroy the UPS office because they would never actually catch him breaking the law. “I don’t smoke, drink, or use medication or drugs of any kind, legal or illegal,” he claimed. “I learned that out of the Bible.”

The raid, he said, was a political attempt to silence a free press, and the area newspapers, which had not asked UPS for its side of the story, were complicit.

“The local media continually rant on law and order and upholding the Constitution. Talk is cheap.”

Perhaps looking to establish his credibility as a man of God, Forcade submitted an article about the dangers of drugs to a small local newspaper called the North Mountain News and signed it “The Reverend Thomas King Forcade.” But it was largely plagiarized from an article that had been written by the army and circulated on various military bases. In an editorial, the publisher of the North Mountain News vouched for him as well, noting that Forcade “has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and at 23 is undoubtedly one of the most talented advertising men and publishers in the United States. He has worked for the past two years under the handicap of having his phone tapped, his mail opened, and his business establishment raided by narcotics agents. [Forcade] is a Mormon and neither drinks, smokes, nor uses narcotics. If there really was LSD found in his establishment, it was put there without his knowledge—or, very simply, he is being framed.”

Some of this was true.

* * *

The Underground Press Syndicate was founded in 1966, a consortium of the largest and most influential independent newspapers—the Los Angeles Free Press, the East Village Other in New York City, the Berkeley Barb, the Paper in East Lansing, and the Fifth Estate in Detroit—that had sprung up in just a couple of years alongside the rise of New Left politics, anti-war sentiment, and the burgeoning psychedelic counterculture. Part of the goal of the UPS was simply for appearances’ sake: to present a united front of freaks, and stave off feelings of alienation throughout the sprawling underground community. But it was also practical: a way for budget-crunched papers to freely share editorial content with one another, and to set up national advertising deals.

In August 1967, Forcade, a twenty-one-year-old Arizona resident with a degree in business, read that UPS was in search of volunteers, and he offered to assist long distance, from Phoenix. In a letter to UPS cofounder John Wilcock, Forcade warned of the creeping capitalism that threatened to corrupt the fast-growing underground industry. “The vultures are already circling and swooping, even feeding,” he wrote, before yielding to a hopeful prediction of karmic righteousness. “The obvious and natural solution is that those publications which demonstrate their primary concern with commercialism will patently be unable to cooperate among themselves and will find no one among the hardcore junkie-freelancers Movement who will supply them with material or cooperate with them.” He sent dummy pages from his not-yet-published magazine Orpheus—a kind of Reader’s Digest anthology of articles from the underground press—and waited for a response. After some voting and vetting, the UPS committee accepted him into the fold.

Forcade had thrown himself into the job with the help of a revolving door of local longhairs. The Orpheus crew assembled booklets advising fellow publishers on how to use printing presses, founded a distributing agency, solicited national advertising, offered a clipping service for record companies, and—recognizing that authorities often used obscenity charges to repress political newspapers—drafted and circulated an amicus curiae brief to help member papers defend themselves against overzealous police departments.

Forcade’s fellow UPS editors soon voted to move the bulk of the organization’s administrative work to him in Arizona. For the next two years, Forcade and the Orpheus staff ran UPS operations from downtown Phoenix, in a five-bedroom white-brick house fortified with deadlocked doors and barbed wire across every window. And they continued to distribute Orpheus—along with various illicit and profit-yielding substances—via Forcade’s roving 1946 Chevrolet school bus. If police pulled the bus over, Forcade, wearing a priest’s collar, would produce a copy of Orpheus, a peace-sign-flashing Jesus on its cover, and lead the other passengers in singing a hymn, a ruse that was usually convincing enough to get off with a warning. (Any authority figure who actually looked at the pages inside might have been alarmed, or maybe confused, because the writings embraced a variety of political philosophies in rapid succession, from anarchist to libertarian to pacifist to Marxist.)

The Orpheus announcement of plans for the lawless Colorado River “liberated zone” was just one of many signs of increasing radicalism. The credo became: Don’t compromise, don’t be complicit, opt out. “If you want to be part of the solution, I say start acting and thinking pure love, right now,” Forcade exhorted readers. “Turn in your draft card. Turn in all your cards. Turn in your clothes. Turn in your degree. Turn in your W-2 forms. Turn in your driver’s license. Turn in your car, unless it was made in Sweden or a similar sane society. Turn it all in, and turn it all off.”

By 1969, Forcade was warning against conservatives and liberals alike. “Don’t trust anybody but a radical, because only a radical has got the guts to stand up on his hind legs and say where he’s at. Turn off the supply of evil crap to your head—the media. Read only the underground press. The underground press does not attempt to ‘give the other side.’ That’s crap. The underground press is to put forth good.”