February 21, 2015

Mellow Yellow, the hoax

The East Village Other "Sixties survivors often snicker when reminded of the Great Banana-Peel Smoking Hoax. They remember the hours spent laboriously scraping the inside of banana peels, boiling the unappetizing residue obtained, then drying the remains in their ovens before finally rolling a joint in search of the promised high from the fictional psychoactive substance dubbed Bananadine. Nearly a half-century later, conflicting accounts still circulate as to how the craze got started and which underground paper was first to report it. One version, often repeated by Paul Krassner, the iconic publisher of The Realist, puts the launch in the offices of The East Village Other on Avenue A. In other accounts, it starts on the West Coast." By BROOKE KROEGER and CARY ABRAMS

'The Food and Drug Administration announced an investigation into “the possible hallucinogenic effects of banana peels” by having scientists in their labs duplicate the process described in the underground press. They closely followed the recipe in processing thirty pounds of bananas in a series of tests to determine the effects of the chemical.

'“We really don’t know what agent, if there is any, in the smoke produces the reported effect but we are investigating to see if it might be the methylated form of serotonin,” the FDA’s commissioner, Dr. James Goddard, said in announcing the investigation. In a telephone interview with The Times, Fred Garfield, the FDA’s deputy director, called the tests that began in mid-March “very complex.”

'“Personally,” Mr. Garfield said at the time, “I’m not so sure that there is anything in bananas that would cause an hallucinogenic effect, as the kids claim.” Yet even if a euphoria-producing substance were found in banana peels, to forbid it would require an act of Congress “and I’m confident that such a law would never pass,” he told The Times.

'This did not stop the craze. An April 7, 1967 piece in Time magazine noted the “dizzying speed” at which discoveries of the psychedelic revolution were being passed around through the underground press. A “Cosmic Love-In” in New York on May 2 attracted a Times reporter and one Harold Chizman, who offered a three-cent rebate on the bananas he was selling for 15 cents apiece if the buyer returned the peel. “Help a beatnik in his humble attempt at an honest living,” the sign he carried read, “Buy a banana.”

'For three weeks the FDA monitored the apparatus it deployed to smoke the dried residue of banana peels. Its conclusions were reported in the Wall Street Journal of May 29, 1967: its analysis of the smoke derived from several recipes for dried banana peel and concentrated banana juice showed “no detectable quantities of known hallucinogens.”

'On June 11, the Los Angeles Times devoted a long takeout to the phenomenon, titled, “The Great Banana Peel Experiment.” The piece describes a parallel investigation undertaken by United Fruit and led by the leading LSD researcher of the day, Dr. Sidney Cohen. In his pink house in Mandeville Canyon, Dr. Cohen’s wife and son spent three days and nights scraping and cooking some 150 pounds of bananas to produce 40 ounces of the substance needed for the study.

'Dr. Cohen explained to the reporter that bananas not only contain serotonin but also norepinephrine, both chemicals found in human metabolisms. Neither is hallucinogenic, but hallucinogenic compounds can be produced with the addition of methyl groups, such as bufotenin. “Cohen theorized that possibly something strange does after all go up in banana smoke,” the reporter, Art Seidenbaum, wrote.

'Yet in the end, Dr. Cohen’s trials on human subjects supported the government’s no-joy findings.  As one of his test subject’s said, “If I had smoked this much pot, I’d be out of my mind. This isn’t anything.”

'By April 19, Rep. Frank Thompson, a New Jersey Democrat, brought some levity to the House of Representatives by urging Congress “to move quickly to stop the spread of banana smoking,” with his facetious but impassioned introduction of a “Banana Labeling Act” that would require a sticker on banana skins warning of their danger, much in the way that cigarettes by then were being labeled.'

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