In the early 1970s, England was awash in LSD and much of it was produced by one clandestine organization: the Microdot Gang. Microdot LSD was known for its purity and for its potency. In fact, many users from the 1970s still remember it by name some fifty years later. At its apex in 1978, the Microdot Gangs’s autonomous distribution networks extended to Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States. By the mid-1970s, British law enforcement made LSD distribution a top priority and launched Operation Julie, a massive investigation and sting operation that included hundreds of detectives and police officers. Operation Julie eventually led to 87 household raids and over 120 arrests in March of 1977. Alston Hughes, aka “Smiles,” a crucial LSD dealer for the Microdot gang, was arrested at his home in Llanddewi-Brefi, a remote and tranquil Welsh village. When the villagers heard of his arrest, they were shocked because Smiles was widely known for his affability and his fondness for buying free drinks at the local pub.
British law enforcement has typically regarded “Operation Julie” as an enormously successful sting operation that effectively curtailed the production of Microdot LSD. There have been nine books written about Operation Julie and many of them were written by detectives who participated in the historic investigation. Although the story of Operation Julie has often been dominated by law enforcement’s narrative of moral self-congratulation (“we took acid off the streets”), alternative histories of the Microdot era are now beginning to emerge.
Andy Roberts, noted historian of British psychedelic culture, has penned an engaging and thought provoking biography, In Search of Smiles, LSD, Operation Julie and Beyond (2023), that provides a lively portrait of the British counterculture in the 1970s. Recreating Hughes’s colorful life as a cannabis and LSD dealer in the halcyon days of the 1970s, In Search of Smiles succeeds because it mirrors the life experiences of many people who came of age in the golden era of British psychedelia (1960s and the early 1970s). In literary terms, Roberts’s narrative of Smiles’s topsy turvy life also succeeds as a Dickensian tale of deferred redemption: its protagonist endures horrific abuse from his sadistic Mancunian stepfather, yet he somehow manages to retain his good nature and humanity. While serving in the army, the abuse continues when Hughes is beaten by his superior officer, Lance Corporal Lunn: “[Hughes] bore the beatings stoically, I smiled at him and he called me “smiler,” a nickname he would carry for several years until his first wife shortened it to “Smiles.” After leaving the army, Smiles travels to free festivals (Bath Free Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in 1970, Phun City, and the iconic Isle of Wight festival) where he discovers community—like minded hippies and free spirits—as well as LSD and free love. By narrating the story of Hughes’s transformation, Roberts manages to also provide a vivid portrait of British alternative culture in the era before Thatcher comes to power.
Roberts’s portrait of Smiles is also effective because the author manages to challenge society’s notion of the stereotypical “drug dealer.” If “drug dealers” are thought to be callous and sinister figures who exploit their clientele for short term gain, Roberts depicts Smiles as the opposite: gregarious, kind, charitable, and, in some cases, a contemporary version of “Robin Hood” who freely gives away his money to people who are in need. Although Smiles is a savvy dealer who immediately spots police informants who pose as hippies, he is eventually betrayed by a wiretap, arrested in a police raid and given a prison sentence of eight years. Roberts’s narrative covers the Microdot Gang’s trial, Smiles’s prison years, his eventual release from incarceration, and his post-prison career as a purveyor of high grade hashish. To avoid incriminating Smiles, the narrative ends in the 1990s with Smiles narrowly evading capture from the Dutch and British police.
For me, the most engaging aspect of Roberts’s work is how his biography of Smiles is diametrically opposed to his previous work, Divine Rascal. The latter followed the exploits of Michael Hollingshead (née Michael Shinkfield ) an enormously talented “con” artist who often used LSD to facilitate mind control and manipulation. While Hollingshead was a sinister figure who preyed on new age enthusiasts and unsuspecting victims, Smiles was the opposite: a charismatic figure who exudes benevolence and saintliness.
After I finished reading In Search of Smiles, I was keen to interview the author because I had many questions about his experience of writing biographies about antithetical subjects. Roberts lives in Wales—a three-hour drive from Llanddewi-Brefi — and his first psychedelic experience involved two green microdots.
What initially attracted you to the figure of Smiles? How did you know that the story of his life was worthy of a biography?
Of all the Microdot Gang members who were pictured in the newspapers, TV etc., at the time of the arrests in 1977 and the trials in 1978, Smiles was the most visual: long black hair and beard, always smiling and flashing the V sign to the cameras etc. And in the newspaper reports he was often described as flamboyant, a big spender, gave lots of money away to people who needed it etc. In short, he was much more of a character than any of the others on trial, and characters make for interesting books!
Once I’d met him a few times I realized he had a trove of stories about himself and others and the scene generally and, more importantly, he loved to tell them. I also realized that Smiles’ experiences and stories represented, in macrocosm, the lives and experiences of many people in the drug culture of the Sixties and Seventies and that readers would closely identify with his experiences and adventures.
What do you say to critics who argue that you are romanticizing a “drug dealer” ?
I’d agree with them! Because Smiles was and still is a huge character who oozes warmth and charisma and wanted everyone to have cheap access to the psychedelic experience and deserves romanticizing.
When I give talks about any aspect of psychedelics, I invariably get questions such as this and I never shy away from them. Unlike many people who play down the potential negative effects of acid, I acknowledge and try to embrace them. Because it’s a fact which I know only too well from my own first trip, which was a descent into a hell in which I encountered the “ultimate force of evil,” etc. But I try to deal with such questions by pointing out that the negative effects of acid are often caused by factors such as lack of knowledge of what to expect and how to deal with it, the broad principles of set and setting, lack of intention, and the looming threat of arrest and so on.
And, of course, Smiles wasn’t responsible for anyone’s acid experience, he was just providing the drug.
I was shocked by Smiles’s horrific childhood and all the abuse that his stepfather inflicted. Many people who have endured this type of treatment end up bitter, angry, and sadistic. Smiles appears to be exactly the opposite—kind, benevolent, merciful. Why is that?
Indeed. That was one of the things that struck me from our first interview and I’ve tried to get it across in the book, without making a big deal of it. It’s one of those classic nature/nurture situations and as you say, Smiles’ life could have gone downhill quickly as his early days mirrored Hollingshead’s in many ways. I think that fundamentally Smiles has a “good” character and he promised himself from an early age he wouldn’t treat others how he had been treated. He didn’t always manage that initially, but as he became more involved in psychedelic culture and took lots of acid — his consumption boggles my mind, he certainly has a “hard head” for acid! — his true character emerged and is evidenced throughout the book.
Did his positive experiences with LSD enable him to transcend his horrible upbringing ?
Would he have been a different person had he not become a keen and prolific acid user? We’ll never know. Smiles thinks that acid helped wash away the bad experiences and conditioning of his childhood and I think that is definitely the case.
Smiles goes back to dealing hashish after he gets out of prison in the 1980s. How concerned was he about the risk of getting caught and going back to prison? Why was he willing to take the risk?
Smiles had lived under the threat of arrest and imprisonment for so long in the Seventies and for very serious drug dealing offenses that I think he just accepted those risks as being part and parcel of a dealer’s life. And when he was dealing in London in the Eighties, it was relatively small amounts of hash, being dealt in the heart of London’s drug dealing area where it was “normal” and the police largely ignored it. Smiles only dealt hash then, at a time when London was awash with cheap heroin and coke. So I think the police had far bigger fish to fry than an aging hippie selling hash. Because Smiles never saw drug use or dealing as “wrong” he didn’t have the built-in shame/guilt that some criminals have and which can increase their sense of risk.
Why does your narrative end in the 1990s? Were you concerned about incriminating Smiles? Or was Smiles concerned about incriminating himself? Is there a statute of limitations for drug crimes in Britain ?
We don’t have a statute of limitations over here, sadly, and so I made the decision to draw Smiles’ story to a close, with that cliff-hanger ending, in about 1990. It’s highly unlikely the UK police would have been bothered or would take any action, as it’s effectively all anecdote with no real evidence. But I just wanted to be certain. And, I suppose, by ending it in 1990 it preserves and adds to the mystique that surrounds Smiles.
In some respects, this biography seems the opposite of your last project. In Divine Rascal, Hollingshead is a con-artist who keeps “conning” and becomes quite desperate and lonely at the end of his life. In contrast, Smiles seems to be a saintly figure who seems to grow and become even more wise and compassionate as he ages. Have you been struck by the stark contrast (dystopian vs utopian, darkness vs lightness, etc.) of your two biographies?
Yes, all the time. It also struck me as quite amusing that I’d spent years mired in the mind of Hollingshead the sociopath and then found myself in the mind of someone who was the complete opposite! I never met Hollingshead, but from what I know about him and Smiles, Smiles is a genuine, authentic human being, with no pretension to fame, power, status, money, etc. — although many of those came almost by default. Whereas Hollingshead was, as you say, the complete opposite and strove, often pathetically, for those things and tried to give people what he thought they wanted, according to who they were and what he thought he could get from them.
From reading In Search of Smiles, it is clear that you revere Smiles and his story. Were you worried about writing a hagiography ?
Yes, very much so. More or less everything I’d read or heard about Smiles prior to meeting him was positive, which worried me from the start. I’m fairly cynical and it didn’t seem possible there were no “negative” stories about him. And as the interviews developed and I began to really get into his life, it became apparent he really was liked/loved by everyone. I tried to discover, from Smiles, his wives, partner and daughter anything that was negative, but nothing really came to light.
As I finished reading your biography, I was wondering if you felt a sense of gratitude to Smiles. Not only because he let you tell his story, but also because he was part of an organization/movement that helped introduce you to LSD in the 1970s ?
Very definitely. I am extremely grateful to Smiles for him being willing to share his experiences and, for him allowing me to interview him at length on numerous occasions with no questions being off limits.
I’m also grateful to all the other Microdot Gang members for their efforts and the risks they took to give people a full on psychedelic experience and to have provided the driving force behind 1970s British acid culture. My life – and that of hundreds of thousands of others across the world – was irrevocably changed by MG acid. And whilst the two green microdots I took in late 1971 completely shattered my worldview of everything I took to be “real,” I wouldn’t have had it any other way, as it has informed almost every aspect of my life since.
Had someone told me, the day after that experience that fifty years later I would be writing Smiles’ biography, etc. I would have laughed in disbelief. I consider myself very lucky to have had the privilege of telling Smiles’ story and in being able to ensure the legacy of the Microdot Gang isn’t forgotten.