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CHAPTER THREE HISTORY The First Wave WHEN THE FEDERAL AUTHORITIES CAME down hard on Timothy Leary in the mid-1960s, hitting him with a thirty-year sentence for attempting to bring a small amount of marijuana over the border at Laredo, Texas, in 1966,* the embattled former psychology professor turned to Marshall McLuhan for some advice. The country was in the throes of a moral panic about LSD, inspired in no small part by Leary’s own promotion of psychedelic drugs as a means of personal and cultural transformation and by his recommendation to America’s youth that they “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Dated and goofy as those words sound to our ears, there was a moment when they were treated as a credible threat to the social order, an invitation to America’s children not only to take mind-altering drugs but to reject the path laid out for them by their parents and their government—including the path taking young men to Vietnam. Also in 1966, Leary was called before a committee of the U.S. Senate to defend his notorious slogan, which he gamely if not very persuasively attempted to do. In the midst of the national storm raging around him—a storm, it should be said, he quite enjoyed—Leary met with Marshall McLuhan over lunch at the Plaza hotel in New York, the LSD guru betting that the media guru might have some tips on how best to handle the public and the press.

“Dreary Senate hearing and courtrooms are not the platforms for your message, Tim,” McLuhan advised, in a conversation that Leary recounts in Flashbacks, one of his many autobiographies. (Leary would write another one every time legal fees and alimony payments threatened to empty his bank account.) “To dispel fear you must use your public image. You are the basic product endorser.” The product by this point was of course LSD. “Whenever you are photographed, smile. Wave reassuringly. Radiate courage. Never complain or appear angry. It’s okay if you come off as flamboyant and eccentric. You’re a professor after all. But a confident attitude is the best advertisement. You must be known for your smile.”

Leary took McLuhan’s advice to heart. In virtually all of the many thousands of photographs taken of him from that lunch date forward, Leary made sure to present the gift of his most winning grin to the camera. It didn’t matter if he was coming into or out of a courthouse, addressing a throng of youthful admirers in his love beads and white robes, being jostled into a squad car freshly handcuffed, or perched on the edge of John and Yoko’s bed in a Montreal hotel room, Timothy Leary always managed to summon a bright smile and a cheerful wave for the camera.

So, ever smiling, the charismatic figure of Timothy Leary looms large over the history of psychedelics in America. Yet it doesn’t take many hours in the library before you begin to wonder if maybe Timothy Leary looms a little too large in that history, or at least in our popular understanding of it. I was hardly alone in assuming that the Harvard Psilocybin Project—launched by Leary in the fall of 1960, immediately after his first life-changing experience with psilocybin in Mexico—represented the beginning of serious academic research into these substances or that Leary’s dismissal from Harvard in 1963 marked the end of that research. But in fact neither proposition is even remotely true.

Leary played an important role in the modern history of psychedelics, but it’s not at all the pioneering role he wrote for himself. His success in shaping the popular narrative of psychedelics in the 1960s obscures as much as it reveals, creating a kind of reality distortion field that makes it difficult to see everything that came either before or after his big moment onstage.

In a truer telling of the history, the Harvard Psilocybin Project would appear more like the beginning of the end of what had been a remarkably fertile and promising period of research that unfolded during the previous decade far from Cambridge, in places as far flung as Saskatchewan, Vancouver, California, and England, and, everywhere, with a lot less sound and fury or countercultural baggage. The larger-than-life figure of Leary has also obscured from view the role of a dedicated but little-known group of scientists, therapists, and passionate amateurs who, long before Leary had ever tried psilocybin or LSD, developed the theoretical framework to make sense of these unusual chemicals and devised the therapeutic protocols to put them to use healing people. Many of these researchers eventually watched in dismay as Leary (and his “antics,” as they inevitably referred to his various stunts and pronouncements) ignited what would become a public bonfire of all their hard-won knowledge and experience.

In telling the modern history of psychedelics, I want to put aside the Leary saga, at least until the crack-up where it properly belongs, to see if we can’t recover some of that knowledge and the experience that produced it without passing it through the light-bending prism of the “Psychedelic Sixties.” In doing so, I’m following in the steps of several of the current generation of psychedelic researchers, who, beginning in the late 1990s, set out to excavate the intellectual ruins of this first flowering of research into LSD and psilocybin and were astounded by what they found.

Stephen Ross is one such researcher. A psychiatrist specializing in addiction at Bellevue, he directed an NYU trial using psilocybin to treat the existential distress of cancer patients, to which I will return later; since then, he has turned to the treatment of alcoholics with psychedelics, what had been perhaps the single most promising area of clinical research in the 1950s. When several years ago an NYU colleague mentioned to Ross that LSD had once been used to treat thousands of alcoholics in Canada and the United States (and that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had sought to introduce LSD therapy into AA in the 1950s), Ross, who was in his thirties at the time, did some research and was “flabbergasted” by all that he—as an expert on the treatment of alcoholism—did not know and hadn’t been told. His own field had a secret history.

“I felt a little like an archaeologist, unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge. Beginning in the early fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a whole host of conditions,” including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and end-of-life anxiety. “There had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers! The American Psychiatric Association had whole meetings centered around LSD, this new wonder drug.” In fact, there were six international scientific meetings devoted to psychedelics between 1950 and 1965. “Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding.” But after the culture and the psychiatric establishment turned against psychedelics in the mid-1960s, an entire body of knowledge was effectively erased from the field, as if all that research and clinical experience had never happened. “By the time I got to medical school in the 1990s, no one even talked about it.”

• • • WHEN LSD BURST onto the psychiatric scene in 1950, the drug’s effects on patients (and researchers, who routinely tried the drug on themselves) were so novel and strange that scientists struggled for the better part of a decade to figure out what these extraordinary experiences were or meant. How, exactly, did this new mind-altering drug fit into the existing paradigms for understanding the mind and the prevailing modes of psychiatry and psychotherapy? A lively debate over these questions went on for more than a decade. What wasn’t known at the time is that beginning in 1953, the CIA was conducting its own (classified) research into psychedelics and was struggling with similar issues of interpretation and application: Was LSD best regarded as a potential truth serum, or a mind-control agent, or a chemical weapon?

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