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It is easier to accumulate facts about Al Hubbard’s life than it is to get a steady sense of the character of the man, it was so rife with contradiction. The pistol-packing tough guy was also an ardent mystic who talked about love and the heavenly beatitudes. And the well-connected businessman and government agent proved to be a remarkably sensitive and gifted therapist. Though he never used those terms, Hubbard was the first researcher to grasp the critical importance of set and setting in shaping the psychedelic experience. He instinctively understood that the white walls and fluorescent lighting of the sanitized hospital room were all wrong. So he brought pictures and music, flowers and diamonds, into the treatment room, where he would use them to prime patients for a mystical revelation or divert a journey when it took a terrifying turn. He liked to show people paintings by Salvador Dalí and pictures of Jesus or to ask them to study the facets of a diamond he carried. One patient he treated in Vancouver, an alcoholic paralyzed by social anxiety, recalled Hubbard handing him a bouquet of roses during an LSD session: “He said, ‘Now hate them.’ They withered and the petals fell off, and I started to cry. Then he said, ‘Love them,’ and they came back brighter and even more spectacular than before. That meant a lot to me. I realized that you can make your relationships anything you want. The trouble I was having with people was coming from me.”

What Hubbard was bringing into the treatment room was something well known to any traditional healer. Shamans have understood for millennia that a person in the depths of a trance or under the influence of a powerful plant medicine can be readily manipulated with the help of certain words, special objects, or the right kind of music. Hubbard understood intuitively how the suggestibility of the human mind during an altered state of consciousness could be harnessed as an important resource for healing—for breaking destructive patterns of thought and proposing new perspectives in their place. Researchers might prefer to call this a manipulation of set and setting, which is accurate enough, but Hubbard’s greatest contribution to modern psychedelic therapy was to introduce the tried-and-true tools of shamanism, or at least a Westernized version of it.

• • • WITHIN A FEW YEARS, Hubbard had made the acquaintance of just about everybody in the psychedelic research community in North America, leaving an indelible impression on everyone he met, along with a trail of therapeutic tips and ampules of Sandoz LSD. By the late 1950s, he had become a kind of psychedelic circuit rider. One week he might be in Weyburn, assisting Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer in their work with alcoholics, which was earning them international attention. From there to Manhattan, to meet with R. Gordon Wasson, and then a stop on his way back west to administer LSD to a VIP or check in on a research group working in Chicago. The next week might find him in Los Angeles, conducting LSD sessions with Betty Eisner, Sidney Cohen, or Oscar Janiger, freely sharing his treatment techniques and supplies of LSD. (“We waited for him like the little old lady on the prairie waiting for a copy of the Sears Roebuck catalog,” Oscar Janiger recalled years later.) And then it was back to Vancouver, where he had persuaded Hollywood Hospital to dedicate an entire wing to treating alcoholics with LSD.* Hubbard would often fly his plane down to Los Angeles to discreetly ferry Hollywood celebrities up to Vancouver for treatment. It was this sideline that earned him the nickname Captain Trips. Hubbard also established two other alcoholism treatment facilities in Canada, where he regularly conducted LSD sessions and reported impressive rates of success. LSD treatment for alcoholism using the Hubbard method became a business in Canada. But Hubbard believed it was unethical to profit from LSD, which led to tensions between him and some of the institutions he worked with, because they were charging patients upwards of five hundred dollars for an LSD session. For Hubbard, psychedelic therapy was a form of philanthropy, and he drained his fortune advancing the cause.

Al Hubbard moved between these far-flung centers of research like a kind of psychedelic honeybee, disseminating information, chemicals, and clinical expertise while building what became an extensive network across North America. In time, he would add Menlo Park and Cambridge to his circuit. But was Hubbard just spreading information, or was he also collecting it and passing it on to the CIA? Was the pollinator also a spy? It’s impossible to say for certain; some people who knew Hubbard (like James Fadiman) think it’s entirely plausible, while others aren’t so sure, pointing to the fact the Captain often criticized the CIA for using LSD as a weapon. “The CIA work stinks,” he told Oscar Janiger in the late 1970s.

Hubbard was referring to the agency’s MK-Ultra research program, which since 1953 had been trying to figure out whether LSD could be used as a nonlethal weapon of war (by, say, dumping it in an adversary’s water supply), a truth serum in interrogations, a means of mind control,* or a dirty trick to play on unfriendly foreign leaders, causing them to act or speak in embarrassing ways. None of these schemes panned out, at least as far as we know, and all reflected a research agenda that remained stuck on the psychotomimetic model long after other researchers had abandoned it. Along the way, the CIA dosed its own employees and unwitting civilians with LSD; in one notorious case that didn’t come to light until the 1970s, the CIA admitted to secretly giving LSD to an army biological weapons specialist named Frank Olson in 1953; a few days later, Olson supposedly jumped to his death from the thirteenth floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. (Others believe Olson was pushed and that the CIA’s admission, embarrassing as it was, was actually a cover-up for a crime far more heinous.) It could be Olson whom Al Hubbard was referring to when he said, “I tried to tell them how to use it, but even when they were killing people, you couldn’t tell them a goddamned thing.”

A regular stop on Hubbard’s visits to Los Angeles was the home of Aldous and Laura Huxley. Huxley and Hubbard had formed the most unlikely of friendships after Hubbard introduced the author to LSD—and the Hubbard method—in 1955. The experience put the author’s 1953 mescaline trip in the shade. As Huxley wrote to Osmond in its aftermath, “What came through the closed door was the realization . . . the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.” The force of this insight seemed almost to embarrass the writer in its baldness: “The words, of course, have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains.”

Huxley immediately recognized the value of an ally as skilled in the ways of the world as the man he liked to call “the good Captain.” As so often seems to happen, the Man of Letters became smitten with the Man of Action.

“What Babes in the Woods we literary gents and professional men are!” Huxley wrote to Osmond about Hubbard. “The great World occasionally requires your services, is mildly amused by mine, but its full attention and deference are paid to Uranium and Big Business. So what extraordinary luck that this representative of both these Higher Powers should (a) have become so passionately interested in mescaline and (b) be such a very nice man.”

Neither Huxley nor Hubbard was particularly dedicated to medicine or science, so it’s not surprising that over time their primary interest would drift from the treatment of individuals with psychological problems to a desire to treat the whole of society. (This aspiration seems eventually to infect everyone who works with psychedelics, touching scientists, too, including ones as different in temperament as Timothy Leary and Roland Griffiths.) But psychological research proceeds person by person and experiment by experiment; there is no real-world model for using a drug to change all of society as Hubbard and Huxley determined to do, with the result that the scientific method began to feel to them, as it later would to Leary, like a straitjacket.

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