Ecce Bromo; or, Some Thoughts on Public Mismemory

“You heard about that, right? Back in the ’60s, a Reedie invented bromo-mescaline right over there in the Chem building.”

If you know any older alumni, especially from before the Internet era, you might’ve had that sentence thrown at you in casual conversation. They’re trying to pass on a legend that hasn’t had currency around these parts for a long time. Don’t believe them — but listen anyway. Legends are lessons, and the story of “bromo-mescaline” is a perfect primer in Reedies’ self-image through the ages.

“Bromo-mescaline” is an archaic slang term for the drug 2C-B, a psychedelic phenethylamine. First synthesized in 1974, it was initially sold over the counter as an aphrodisiac before becoming popular among ravers in the 1980s and eventually being scheduled by the federal government in 1995. And as your drug-nerd friend can tell you, it was invented by the pioneering pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin, not by an undergrad killing time in between Hum conferences. So how did the myth come to be? Are we really that self-aggrandizing?

Although it’s difficult to find out exactly what happened — this is definitely going to be my most speculative Grail article so far — the myth seems to have been generated by a combination of several crystals of truth and a lack of reliable drug information, and was kept alive by the way it confirmed Reedies’ preconceived notions of the past.

The myth has largely disappeared from campus in recent years. The word “bromo” now appears only in the famed Immorality Quotient, where you’ll get points for even knowing what it means. It seems that increased knowledge through the Internet and harm-reduction campaigns, and a shifting sense of what “Olde Reed” means to us today, have put the legend to rest.

The Legend (or 2C-BS)

I was first told the tale of bromo by a friend of mine who graduated in the early 1990s, whom we’ll call M. (Although 2C-B was not illegal in the United States at the time, it’s still probably best to keep everyone involved anonymous.) During his first few years at Reed, his suspicious parents tested his urine every time he returned home for the holidays, and so the only recreational substances he felt able to use without parental wrath were alcohol and LSD. Nevertheless, he wanted to explore other options, and he found one when a friend (who we’ll call F) offered him “a kind of synthetic mescaline.” F had synthesized this batch. It was a Reed-original drug, which M could get away with using because nobody else knew about it.

His recollection of the experience maps perfectly on to the effects of insufflated, or snorted, 2C-B. There was a sharp, overwhelming come-up after painful insufflation — he felt as if he were being “lit up on fire” — followed by waving, warping visuals and euphoria. Since he had never heard the term 2C-B and thus his memories couldn’t have been influenced by reading descriptions of it at a later date, it’s safe to assume that bromo and 2C-B are indeed the same thing.

M wasn’t the only one being told the dubious story of the drug’s origin. The tale was a firm part of campus lore in those years. The 1993 Student Body Handbook’s drug article lists bromo under its section on mescaline, as “a synthetic mescaline analog developed, at Reed, during the late sixties.” Its description also matches 2C-B. References to bromo can be spotted in Quests of the period, too. Even a quick trip (no pun intended) into the archives makes it clear that during the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was a widespread sense on campus that bromo was our unique local flavor, part of Reed’s psychedelic reputation.

Granules of Truth

M is unsure whether F actually told him that the drug was invented on campus, but he assumed at the time that it had been: “Was I told it was invented [at Reed], maybe. Was I told it was made there, yes.” F declined to speak to The Grail about any manufacture that may have gone on, but according to Logan Tibbetts ’18 of Reed’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the idea that students were making the drug themselves is not out of the question: “It doesn't seem implausible — at the very least, it definitely isn't as implausible as many other pharmacological escapades I've heard about back in Olde Reed.”

In addition to cooking it up, it’s also plausible that Reed students were among the first to use the term “bromo mescaline” to describe the stuff. The “bromo” part derives from its full chemical name, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine. The only 2C-B experience story on the drug information site erowid.com that calls the drug “bromo” was written by a Reedie in 2001 and includes a great recollection of our narrator puking on the SU porch outside a dance: “I saw my spout of vomit as a luminescent stream of gorgeous rich colors and rapidly spinning, rapidly ever-changing geometric shapes. I was humbled and awed by my vomit’s beauty.”

More recently, the 2004 Student Body Handbook’s drug article refers to the term “bromo” as a “nickname only really used at Reed.” The DEA does list the term as a slang name for 2C-B, but it does not seem widely popular. Other online sources seem skeptical of “bromo” being a real piece of drug slang. The overall impression is that someone who knew the full chemical name started calling it “bromo” at Reed when it first arrived on campus in the ’80s, and the term stuck around among Reedies and their friends. This was Reed’s only historical contribution to the creation of 2C-B — a short-lived, little-used nickname.

The Weird Wide Web

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the story of bromo has vanished from campus between the 1990s and now. Even if some students were to start manufacturing it again today, or the name “bromo” was to come back into fashion, it’s unlikely the myth would come back too — because should you try to pass it on, your skeptical buddy will take out her phone, pull up Erowid, and call you out as a sucker. The internet is home to plenty of rumors as well, but it has so widened the availability of information on once-taboo topics such as drugs that rumor has lost much of its potency.

Tibbetts, although admitting that this is just his “extraordinarily unscientific perception,” agrees: “On the whole, I would say the internet, internet literacy, and widespread dissemination of that information have had a positive effect on spreading truth and dispelling rumors like this,” he explained to The Grail. “People still gossip and talk and share obviously fake information which is taken as gospel, but the ability to fact check is made substantially easier by the internet and the communities that exist on it. Even with drug information, which has traditionally been a subject with a tremendous amount of gatekeeping, I've personally seen highly increased accessibility even just in the last few years.”

Bromo and Our Nostalgias

Yet the story of the bromo myth’s rise and fall can be read as more than just a corrected miscommunication. Think of how Herodotus portrays non-Greeks as naturally tumbling into tyranny again and again even when they try to elect a leader. Think of the way conservatives redact Martin Luther King’s political goals, ignoring his fight for economic justice. The ways we misremember history reflect our worldview. Perhaps the same is true here.

Nostalgia has been a constant at Reed, yet what students are nostalgic for has changed over the years. Supposedly, the very first cries of “Olde Reed is dead” began when classes moved from an office building downtown onto campus — because the Woodstock neighborhood had not yet been paved and students now had to slog through the mud from the trolley stop to Eliot.

Today, laments for Olde Reed have become more specific as the student body has grown to recognize and discuss the ways the college has improved and still needs to improve: in faculty and student body diversity, in the availability of health and childcare services, and in curricular offerings. Nostalgia still exists, but only with regards to certain facets of campus life — all of which are outside the classroom.

That was not always the case. As you might remember from my Beer Nation article, the late ’80s and early ’90s — the time period from which the bromo myth dates — was also the era when Policy and Liability came to campus. The first drug and alcohol policies, the first smoking policy, the tightening of rules on dogs, and so on, accompanied by an increase in administrative staff, were highly resented as intrusions on student autonomy and self-reliance. That attitude wasn’t wrong per se, but it was coupled with an erroneous sense that those developments were stifling the intellectual character of the college to some degree. You can see the legacy of that fear in some of the remarks about trigger warnings and so on that alumni have made online. When pressed, it’s often not specifically trigger warnings that bother them, but a more amorphous sense that liability and “coddling” have gotten in the way of a rigorous education by not letting students sink or swim for themselves.

In a sense, the story of bromo could be seen as an expression of the narrative of decline of Reed academics in the 1990s. Back in the old days, any student would be able to whip up an amazing new drug in the organic chemistry lab, but that was in the 1960s when real geniuses went to this school. For the record, M’s not one of the pessimists from that era — he’s told me that from what he can see, the student body is the same as it ever was. He likes us a whole lot.

Today, the bromo story would never be taken to suggest that Reedies of the 1960s were better students. It could potentially be used to lament the AOD policy — you can imagine someone saying that back in the good old days, any student would be allowed to make drugs in the lab — but that’s it. Our own historiography of Olde Reed has changed too much.

Many students, myself included, wish we could resurrect parts of the past: a less restrictive drug policy, more tolerance for nudity, less of an emphasis on corporate branding and PR, more money being spent on tuition and less on designer furniture. But nobody wishes that there was no Chinese department, or an “Old Guard” stranglehold over faculty hiring and curricula, or single-digit numbers of black students. Nobody thinks students were any smarter or harder-working in the old days — in fact, since we’ve got a broader range of perspectives among the faculty and student body, we’ll probably get a broader education than they did.

As I admitted in my disclaimer at the start of the article, this is mostly my own speculation and perception. But as far as I can tell, students today at Reed acknowledge that the most important things have either stayed the same or improved, and we don’t worry that we are dumber than the class of 1969. We could totally invent 2C-B right now, if we put our minds to it.