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Hubbard was born poor in the hills of Kentucky in either 1901 or 1902 (his FBI file gives both dates); he liked to tell people he was twelve before he owned a pair of shoes. He never got past the third grade, but the boy evidently had a flair for electronics. As a teenager, he invented something called the Hubbard Energy Transformer, a new type of battery powered by radioactivity that “could not be explained by the technology of the day”—this according to the best account we have of his life, a well-researched 1991 High Times article by Todd Brendan Fahey. Hubbard sold a half interest in the patent for seventy-five thousand dollars, though nothing ever came of the invention and Popular Science magazine once included it in a survey of technological hoaxes. During Prohibition, Hubbard drove a taxi in Seattle, but that appears to have been a cover: in the trunk of his cab he kept a sophisticated ship-to-shore communications system he used to guide bootleggers seeking to evade the Coast Guard. Hubbard was eventually busted by the FBI and spent eighteen months in prison on a smuggling charge.

After his release from prison the trail of Hubbard’s life becomes even more difficult to follow, muddied by vague and contradictory accounts. In one of them, Hubbard became involved in an undercover operation to ship heavy armaments from San Diego to Canada and from there on to Britain, in the years before the U.S. entered World War II, when the nation was still officially neutral. (Scouts for the future OSS officer Allen Dulles, impressed by Hubbard’s expertise in electronics, may or may not have recruited him for the mission.) But when Congress began investigating the operation, Hubbard fled to Vancouver to avoid prosecution. There he became a Canadian citizen, founded a charter boat business (earning him the title of Captain) and became the science director of a uranium mining company. (According to one account, Hubbard had something to do with supplying uranium to the Manhattan Project.) By the age of fifty, the “barefoot boy from Kentucky” had become a millionaire, owner of a fleet of aircraft, a one-hundred-foot yacht, a Rolls-Royce, and a private island off Vancouver. At some point during the war Hubbard apparently returned to the United States, and he joined the OSS shortly before the wartime intelligence agency became the CIA.

A few other curious facts about the prepsychedelic Al Hubbard: He was an ardent Catholic, with a pronounced mystical bent. And he was unusually flexible in his professional loyalties, working at various times as a rum- and gunrunner as well as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Was he a double agent of some kind? Possibly. At one time or another, he also worked for the Canadian Special Services, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Food and Drug Administration. His FBI file suggests he had links to the CIA during the 1950s, but the redactions are too heavy for it to reveal much about his role, if any. We know the government kept close tabs on the psychedelic research community all through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (funding university research on LSD and scientific conferences in some cases), and it wouldn’t be surprising if, in exchange for information, the government would allow Hubbard to operate with as much freedom as he did. But this remains speculation.

Al Hubbard’s life made a right-angled change of course in 1951. At the time, he was hugely successful but unhappy, “desperately searching for meaning in his life”—this according to Willis Harman, one of a group of Silicon Valley engineers to whom Hubbard would introduce LSD later in the decade. As Hubbard told the story to Harman (and Harman told it to Todd Brendan Fahey), he was hiking in Washington State when an angel appeared to him in a clearing. “She told Al that something tremendously important to the future of mankind would be coming soon, and that he could play a role in it if he wanted to. But he hadn’t the faintest clue what he was supposed to be looking for.”

The clue arrived a year later, in the form of an article in a scientific journal describing the behavior of rats given a newly discovered compound called LSD. Hubbard tracked down the researcher, obtained some LSD, and had a literally life-changing experience. He witnessed the beginning of life on earth as well as his own conception. “It was the deepest mystical thing I’ve ever seen,” he told friends later. “I saw myself as a tiny mite in a big swamp with a spark of intelligence. I saw my mother and father having intercourse.” Clearly this was what the angel had foretold—“something tremendously important to the future of mankind.” Hubbard realized it was up to him to bring the new gospel of LSD, and the chemical itself, to as many people as he possibly could. He had been given what he called a “special chosen role.”

Thus began Al Hubbard’s career as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. Through his extensive connections in both government and business, he persuaded Sandoz Laboratories to give him a mind-boggling quantity of LSD—a liter bottle of it, in one account, forty-three cases in another, six thousand vials in a third. (He reportedly told Albert Hofmann he planned to use it “to liberate human consciousness.”) Depending on whom you believe, he kept his supply hidden in a safe-deposit box in Zurich or buried somewhere in Death Valley, but a substantial part of it he carried with him in a leather satchel. Eventually, Hubbard became the exclusive distributor of Sandoz LSD in Canada and, later, somehow secured an Investigational New Drug permit from the FDA allowing him to conduct clinical research on LSD in the United States—this even though he had a third-grade education, a criminal record, and a single, arguably fraudulent scientific credential. (His PhD had been purchased from a diploma mill.) Seeing himself as “a catalytic agent,” Hubbard would introduce an estimated six thousand people to LSD between 1951 and 1966, in an avowed effort to shift the course of human history.

Curiously, the barefoot boy from Kentucky was something of a mandarin, choosing as his subjects leading figures in business, government, the arts, religion, and technology. He believed in working from the top down and disdained other psychedelic evangelists, like Timothy Leary, who took a more democratic approach. Members of Parliament, officials of the Roman Catholic Church,* Hollywood actors, government officials, prominent writers and philosophers, university officials, computer engineers, and prominent businessmen were all introduced to LSD as part of Hubbard’s mission to shift the course of history from above. (Not everyone Hubbard approached would play: J. Edgar Hoover, whom Hubbard claimed as a close friend, declined.) Hubbard believed that “if he could give the psychedelic experience to the major executives of the Fortune 500 companies,” Abram Hoffer recalled, “he would change the whole of society.” One of the executives Hubbard turned on in the late 1950s—Myron Stolaroff, assistant to the president for long-term planning at Ampex, at the time a leading electronics firm in Silicon Valley—became “convinced that [Al Hubbard] was the man to bring LSD to planet Earth.”

• • • IN 1953, not long after his psychedelic epiphany, Hubbard invited Humphry Osmond to lunch at the Vancouver Yacht Club. Like so many others, Osmond was deeply impressed by Hubbard’s worldliness, wealth, connections, and access to seemingly endless supplies of LSD. The lunch led to a collaboration that changed the course of psychedelic research and, in important ways, laid the groundwork for the research taking place today.

Under the influence of both Hubbard and Huxley, whose primary interest was in the revelatory import of psychedelics, Osmond abandoned the psychotomimetic model. It was Hubbard who first proposed to him that the mystical experience many subjects had on a single high dose of mescaline or LSD might itself be harnessed as a mode of therapy—and that the experience was more important than the chemical. The psychedelic journey could, like the conversion experience, forcibly show people a new, more encompassing perspective on their lives that would help them to change. But perhaps Hubbard’s most enduring contribution to psychedelic therapy emerged in, of all places, the treatment room.

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