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Ginsberg was convinced that Leary, the Harvard professor, was the perfect man to lead the new psychedelic crusade. To Ginsberg, the fact that the new prophet “should emerge from Harvard University,” the alma mater of the newly elected president, was a case of “historic comedy,” for here was “the one and only Dr. Leary, a respectable human being, a worldly man faced with the task of a Messiah.” Coming from the great poet, the words landed like seeds on the fertile, well-watered soil of Timothy Leary’s ego. (It is one of the many paradoxes of psychedelics that these drugs can sponsor an ego-dissolving experience that in some people quickly leads to massive ego inflation. Having been let in on a great secret of the universe, the recipient of this knowledge is bound to feel special, chosen for great things.)

Huxley and Hubbard and Osmond shared Leary’s sense of historical mission, but they had a very different idea of how best to fulfill it. The three were inclined to a more supply-side kind of spiritualism—first you must turn on the elite, and then let the new consciousness filter down to the masses, who might not be ready to absorb such a shattering experience all at once. Their unspoken model was the Eleusinian mysteries, in which the Greek elite gathered in secret to ingest the sacred kykeon and share a night of revelation. But Leary and Ginsberg, both firmly in the American grain, were determined to democratize the visionary experience, make transcendence available to everyone now. Surely that was the great blessing of psychedelics: for the first time, there was a technology that made this possible. Years later Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, captured the ethos nicely in a book he wrote with James Bakalar, Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered: “Psychedelic drugs opened to mass tourism mental territories previously explored only by small parties of particularly intrepid adventurers, mainly religious mystics.” As well as visionary artists like William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg. Now, with a pill or square of blotter paper, anyone could experience firsthand exactly what in the world Blake and Whitman were talking about.

But this new form of spiritual mass tourism had not yet received much advertising or promotion before the spring of 1962. That’s when news of controversy surrounding the Harvard Psilocybin Project first hit the newspapers, beginning with Harvard’s own student paper, the Crimson. Harvard being Harvard, and Leary Leary, the story quickly spread to the national press, turning the psychology professor into a celebrity and hastening his, and Alpert’s, departure from Harvard, in a scandal that both prefigured and helped fuel the backlash against psychedelics that would soon close down most research.

Leary and Alpert’s colleagues had been uncomfortable about the Harvard Psilocybin Project almost from the start. A 1961 memo from David McClelland had raised questions about the absence of controls in Leary and Alpert’s “naturalistic” studies as well as the lack of medical supervision and the fact that the investigators insisted on taking the drugs with their subjects, of whom there were hundreds. (“How often should a person take psilocybin?” he asked, referring to Leary and Alpert.) McClelland also called the two researchers out on their “philosophical naivete.”

“Many reports are given of deep mystical experiences,” he wrote, “but their chief characteristic is the wonder at one’s own profundity.” The following year, in a detailed critique of Ralph Metzner’s Concord Prison Experiment, McClelland accused the graduate student of failing to “analyz[e] your data objectively and carefully. You know what the conclusions are to be . . . and the data are simply used to support what you already know to be true.” No doubt the popularity of the Psilocybin Project among the department’s students, as well as its cliquishness, rankled the rest of the faculty, who had to compete with Leary and Alpert and their drugs for a precious academic resource: talented graduate students.

But these grievances didn’t leave the premises of 5 Divinity Avenue—not until March 1962. That’s when McClelland, responding to a request by Herb Kelman, called a meeting of the faculty and students to air concerns about the Psilocybin Project. Kelman asked for the meeting because he had heard from his graduate students that a kind of cult had formed around Alpert and Leary, and some students felt pressure to participate in the drug taking. Early in the meeting Kelman took the floor: “I wish I could treat this as scholarly disagreement, but this work violates the values of the academic community. The whole program has an anti-intellectual atmosphere. Its emphasis is on pure experience, not on verbalizing findings.

“I’m also sorry to say that Dr. Leary and Dr. Alpert have taken a very nonchalant attitude toward these experiments—especially considering the effects these drugs might have on the subjects.

“What most concerns me,” Kelman concluded, “and others who have come to me, is how the hallucinogenic and mental effects of these drugs have been used to form a kind of ‘insider’ sect within the department. Those who choose not to participate are labeled as ‘squares.’ I just don’t think that kind of thing should be encouraged in this department.” Psychedelic drugs had divided a Harvard department just as they would soon divide the culture.

Alpert responded forcefully, claiming the work was “right in the tradition of William James,” the department’s presiding deity, and that Kelman’s critique amounted to an attack on academic freedom. But Leary took a more conciliatory approach, consenting to a few reasonable restrictions on the research. Everyone went home thinking the matter had been closed.

Until the following morning.

The room had been so completely jammed with faculty and students that no one noticed the presence of an undergraduate reporter from the Crimson named Robert Ellis Smith, furiously taking notes. The next day’s Crimson put the controversy on page 1: “Psychologists Disagree on Psilocybin Research.” The day after that, the story was picked up by the Boston Herald, a Hearst paper, and given a much punchier if not quite as accurate headline: “Hallucination Drug Fought at Harvard—350 Students Take Pills.” Now the story was out, and very soon Timothy Leary, always happy to supply a reporter with a delectably outrageous quote, was famous. He delivered a particularly choice one after the university forced him to put his supply of Sandoz psilocybin pills under the control of Health Services: “Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them.”

By the end of the year, Leary and Alpert had concluded that “these materials are too powerful and too controversial to be researched in a university setting.” They announced in a letter to the Crimson they were forming something called the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) and henceforth would be conducting research under its umbrella rather than Harvard’s. They decried the new restrictions placed on psychedelic research, not only at Harvard, but by the federal government: in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy, in which a new sedative given to pregnant women for morning sickness had caused terrible birth defects in their children, Congress had given the FDA authority to regulate experimental drugs. “For the first time in American history,” the IFIF announced, “and for the first time in the Western world since the Inquisition there now exists a scientific underground.” They predicted that “a major civil liberties issue of the next decade will be the control and expansion of consciousness.”

“Who controls your cortex?” they wrote in their letter to the Crimson—which is to say, to students. “Who decides on the range and limits of your awareness? If you want to research your own nervous system, expand your consciousness, who is to decide that you can’t and why?”

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