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Whether such work continued at Esalen after LSD was made illegal is uncertain, but it wouldn’t be surprising: the place is perched so far out over the edge of the continent as to feel beyond the reach of federal law enforcement. But at least officially, such workshops ended when LSD became illegal. Grof began teaching instead something called holotropic breathwork, a technique for inducing a psychedelic state of consciousness without drugs, by means of deep, rapid, and rhythmic breathing, usually accompanied by loud drumming. Yet Esalen’s role in the history of psychedelics did not end with their prohibition. It became the place where people hoping to bring these molecules back into the culture, whether as an adjunct to therapy or a means of spiritual development, met to plot their campaigns.

In January 1994, Bob Jesse managed to get himself invited to one such meeting at Esalen. While helping out with the dishes after a Friday night dinner at the Shulgins’, Jesse learned that a group of therapists and scientists would be gathering in Big Sur to discuss the prospects for reviving psychedelic research. There were signs that the door Washington, D.C., had slammed shut on research in the late 1960s might be opening, if only a crack: Curtis Wright, a new administrator at the FDA (and, as it happens, a former student of Roland Griffiths’s at Hopkins), had signaled that research protocols for psychedelics would be treated like any other—judged on their merits. Testing this new receptivity, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico named Rick Strassman had sought and received approval to study the physiological effects of DMT, a powerful psychedelic compound found in many plants. This small trial marked the first federally sanctioned experiment with a psychedelic compound since the 1970s—in retrospect, a watershed event.

Around the same time, Rick Doblin and Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at UCLA, had succeeded in persuading the government to approve the first human trial of MDMA. (Grob is one of the first psychiatrists to advocate for the return of psychedelics to psychotherapy; he later conducted the first modern trial of psilocybin for cancer patients.) The year before the Esalen gathering (which Grob and Doblin both attended), David Nichols, a Purdue University chemist and pharmacologist, launched the Heffter Research Institute (named for the German chemist who first identified the mescaline compound in 1897) with the then improbable ambition of funding serious psychedelic science. (Heffter has since helped fund many of the modern trials of psilocybin.) So there were scattered hopeful signs in the early 1990s that conditions were ripening for a revival of psychedelic research. The tiny community that had sustained such a dream through the dark ages began, tentatively, quietly, to organize.

Even though Jesse was new to this community, and neither a scientist nor a therapist, he asked if he could attend the Esalen meeting and offered to make himself useful, refilling water glasses if that’s what it took. Most of the gathering was taken up with discussions of the potential medical applications of psychedelics, as well as the need for basic research on the neuroscience. Jesse was struck by the fact that so little attention was paid to the spiritual potential of these compounds. He left the meeting convinced that “okay, there is room to maneuver here. I was hoping one of these people would pick up the ball and run with it, but they were busy with the other ball. So I made a decision to seek a leave of absence from Oracle.” Within a year, Jesse would launch the Council on Spiritual Practices, and within two the council would convene its own meeting at Esalen, in January 1996, with the aim of opening a second front in the campaign to resurrect psychedelics.

Fittingly, the gathering took place in the Maslow Room at Esalen, named for the psychologist whose writings on the hierarchy of human needs underscored the importance of “peak experiences” in self-actualization. Most of the fifteen in attendance were “psychedelic elders,” therapists and researchers like James Fadiman and Willis Harman, Mark Kleiman, then a drug-policy expert at the Kennedy School (and Rick Doblin’s thesis tutor there), and religious figures like Huston Smith, Brother David Steindl-Rast, and Jeffrey Bronfman, the head of the UDV church in America (and heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune). But Jesse wisely decided to invite an outsider as well: Charles “Bob” Schuster, who had served both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jesse didn’t know Schuster well at all; they had once spoken briefly at a conference. But Jesse came away from the encounter thinking Schuster just might be receptive to an invitation.

Exactly why Bob Schuster—a leading figure in the academic establishment undergirding the drug war—would be open to the idea of coming to Esalen to discuss the spiritual potential of psychedelics was a mystery, at least until I had the opportunity to speak to his widow, Chris-Ellyn Johanson. Johanson, who is also a drug researcher, painted a picture of a man of exceptionally broad interests and deep curiosity.

“Bob was open-minded to a fault,” she told me, with a laugh. “He would talk to anyone.” Like many people in the NIDA community, Schuster well understood that psychedelics fit awkwardly into the profile of a drug of abuse; animals, given the choice, will not self-administer a psychedelic more than once, and the classical psychedelics exhibit remarkably little toxicity. I asked Johanson if Schuster had ever taken a psychedelic himself; Roland Griffiths had told me he thought it was possible. (“Bob was a jazz musician,” Griffiths told me, “so I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”) But Johanson said no. “He was definitely curious about them,” she told me, “but I think he was too afraid. We were martini people.” I asked if he was a spiritual man. “Not really, though I think he would have liked to have been.”

Jesse, not quite sure what Schuster would make of the meeting, arranged to have Jim Fadiman bunk with him, instructing Fadiman, a psychologist, to check him out. “Early the next morning Jim found me and said, ‘Bob, mission accomplished. You have found a gem of a human being.’”

Schuster thoroughly enjoyed his time at Esalen, according to his wife. He took part in a drumming circle Jesse had arranged—you don’t leave Esalen without doing some such thing—and was amazed to discover how easily he could slip into a trance. But Schuster also made some key contributions to the group’s deliberations. He warned Jesse off working with MDMA, which he believed was toxic to the brain and had by then acquired an unsavory reputation as a club drug. He also suggested that psilocybin was a much better candidate for research than LSD, largely for political reasons: because so many fewer people had heard of it, psilocybin carried none of the political and cultural baggage of LSD.

By the end of the meeting, the Esalen group had settled on a short list of objectives, some of them modest—to draft a code of ethics for spiritual guides—and others more ambitious: “to get aboveboard, unimpeachable research done, at an institution with investigators beyond reproach,” and, ideally, “do this without any pretext of clinical treatment.”

“We weren’t sure that was possible,” Jesse told me, but he and his colleagues believed “it would be a big mistake if medicalization is all that happens.” Why a mistake? Because Bob Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental problems than with their spiritual well-being—in using entheogens for the betterment of well people.

Shortly after the Esalen meeting, Schuster made what would turn out to be his most important contribution: telling Bob Jesse about his old friend Roland Griffiths, whom he described as exactly “the investigator beyond reproach” Jesse was looking for and “a scientist of the first order.”

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