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“You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.” Second, that, whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion. (Partly for this reason Richards believes that psychedelics should be part of a divinity student’s education.) And third, that consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains. On this question, he holds with Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who conceived of the human mind as a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to frequencies of energy and information that exist outside it. “If you wanted to find the blonde who delivered the news last night,” Richards offered by way of an analogy, “you wouldn’t look for her in the TV set.” The television set is, like the human brain, necessary but not sufficient.

After Richards finished with his graduate studies in the late 1960s, he found work as a research fellow at the Spring Grove State Hospital outside Baltimore, where a most improbable counterfactual history of psychedelic research was quietly unfolding, far from the noise and glare surrounding Timothy Leary. Indeed, this is a case where the force of the Leary narrative has bent the received history out of shape, such that many of us assume there was no serious psychedelic research before Leary arrived at Harvard and no serious research after he was fired. But until Bill Richards administered psilocybin to his last volunteer in 1977, Spring Grove was actively (and without much controversy) conducting an ambitious program of psychedelic research—much of it under grants from the National Institute of Mental Health—with schizophrenics, alcoholics and other addicts, cancer patients struggling with anxiety, religious and mental health professionals, and patients with severe personality disorders. Several hundred patients and volunteers received psychedelic therapy at Spring Grove between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s. In many cases, the researchers were getting very good results in well-designed studies that were being regularly published in peer-reviewed journals such as JAMA and the Archives of General Psychiatry. (Roland Griffiths is of the opinion that much of this research is “suspect,” but Richards told me, “These studies weren’t as bad as people like Roland might imply.”) It is remarkable just how much of the work being done today, at Hopkins and NYU and other places, was prefigured at Spring Grove; indeed, it is hard to find a contemporary experiment with psychedelics that wasn’t already done in Maryland in the 1960s or 1970s.

At least at the beginning, the Spring Grove psychedelic work enjoyed lots of public support. In 1965, CBS News broadcast an admiring hour-long “special report” on the hospital’s work with alcoholics, called LSD: The Spring Grove Experiment. The response to the program was so positive that the Maryland state legislature established a multimillion-dollar research facility on the campus of the Spring Grove State Hospital, called the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Stan Grof, Walter Pahnke, and Bill Richards were hired to help run it, along with several dozen other therapists, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, and support staff. Equally hard to believe today is the fact that, as Richards told me, “whenever we hired someone, they would receive a couple of LSD sessions as part of their training to do the work. We had authorization! How else could you be sensitive to what was going on in the mind of the patient? I wish we could do that at Hopkins.”

The fact that such an ambitious research program continued at Spring Grove well into the 1970s suggests the story of the suppression of psychedelic research is a little more complicated than the conventional narrative would indicate. While it is true that some research projects—such as Jim Fadiman’s creativity trials in Palo Alto—received orders from Washington to stop, other projects on long-term grants were allowed to continue until the money ran out, as it eventually did. Rather than shut down all research, as many in the psychedelic community believe happened, the government simply made it more difficult to get approvals, and funding gradually dried up. As time went on, researchers found that on top of all the bureaucratic and financial hurdles they also had to deal with “the snicker test”: How would your colleagues react when you told them you were running experiments with LSD? By the mid-1970s, psychedelics had become something of a scientific embarrassment—not because they were a failure, but because they had become identified with the counterculture and with disgraced scientists such as Timothy Leary.

But there was nothing embarrassing about psychedelic research at Spring Grove in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, and there, it looked like the future. “We thought this was the most incredible frontier in psychiatry,” Richards recalls. “We would all sit around the conference table talking about how we were going to train the hundreds if not thousands of therapists that would be needed to do this work. (And look, we’re having the same conversation again today!) There were international conferences on psychedelic research, and we had colleagues throughout Europe doing similar work. The field was taking off. But in the end the societal forces were stronger than we were.”

In 1971, Richard Nixon declared Timothy Leary, a washed-up psychology professor, “the most dangerous man in America.” Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture, and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.

Was the suppression of psychedelic research inevitable? Many of the researchers I interviewed feel that it might have been avoided had the drugs not leaped the laboratory walls—a contingency that, fairly or not, most of them blame squarely on the “antics,” “misbehavior,” and “evangelism” of Timothy Leary.

Stanislav Grof believes that psychedelics loosed “the Dionysian element” on 1960s America, posing a threat to the country’s puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He told me he also thinks the same thing could happen again.) Roland Griffiths points out that ours is not the first culture to feel threatened by psychedelics: the reason R. Gordon Wasson had to rediscover magic mushrooms in Mexico was that the Spanish had suppressed them so effectively, deeming them dangerous instruments of paganism.

“That says something important about how reluctant cultures are to expose themselves to the changes these kinds of compounds can occasion,” he told me the first time we met. “There is so much authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures.”

• • • BY THE MID-1970S, the LSD work at Spring Grove, much of which was state funded, had become a political hot potato in Annapolis. In 1975, the Rockefeller Commission investigating the CIA disclosed that the agency had also been running LSD experiments in Maryland, at Fort Detrick, as part of a mind-control project called MK-Ultra. (An internal memo the commission released concisely set forth the agency’s objective: “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”) It was revealed that the CIA was dosing both government employees and civilians without their knowledge; at least one person had died. The news that Maryland taxpayers were also supporting research with LSD promptly blew up into a scandal, and pressure to close down psychedelic research at Spring Grove became irresistible.

“Pretty soon it was just me and two secretaries,” Richards recalls. “And then it was over.”

Today Roland Griffiths, who would pick up the thread of research that was dropped when the work at Spring Grove ended, marvels at the fact that the first wave of psychedelic research, promising as it was, would end for reasons having nothing to do with science. “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science thought to be so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.” So too, perhaps, is the sheer amount of scientific knowledge that was simply erased.

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