This evening marks the 50th anniversary of Timothy Leary’s famous marijuana arrest in Laguna Beach. Leary, who died in Beverly Hills in 1996, is today immortalized as a torchbearer for psychedelic drugs. Looking back a half century after his Southern California bust, he casts a duller shadow, however. Instead of boosting one of the era’s most daring projects, the former Harvard professor may have derailed it.
That’s what some holdouts from the psychedelic sixties say. After decades underground, scientists and mental health experts are taking new looks at LSD and psilocybin – the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. This week’s anniversary is a good time to reevaluate Leary’s legacy vis-à-vis psychedelics – and the depression, substance abuse and other stubborn conditions they can ameliorate.
First, to recap. On the night of Dec. 26, 1968, Laguna Beach cop Neil Purcell pulled onto a side street off Laguna Canyon Road and noted something odd – a few hundred yards from today’s Sawdust Art Festival. (The story is treated at length in Nick Schou’s “Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World,” (2010).
On Woodland Drive, a car was stopped in the middle of the street. Inside was Leary, his wife Rosemary (who died in 2002), and 19-year-old son Jack.
Purcell discovered four pounds of marijuana and hashish – in Rosemary’s fur bag and sewn into Jack’s clothing. It was a far cry from the “two marijuana roaches” of subsequent hippie oral tradition – repeated by Wikipedia today. According to the L.A. Times two days later, Leary, “a proponent of LSD and legalized marijuana,” was nabbed with “a large quantity” of pot.
Furthermore, “young (Jack) Leary was kept in jail for a time ‘because of his condition’ – on which officers wouldn’t elaborate.”
Reached in Bend, Ore., where he’s a retired union worker, Jack declined comment on that night – or on anything involving his famous dad.
“I’m sorry but I don’t discuss or have anything to do with Timothy,” Jack said via email.
While we don’t know the role the Laguna arrest played in the feud – it certainly didn’t help things.
The arrest had severe results for Leary- a six-to-10-year prison sentence. With help from the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who gave escape plot cash to the Black Panthers, who passed it to the Weathermen, Leary escaped from a minimum-security prison near San Luis Obispo in 1970 – racing from Switzerland to Algeria to Afghanistan before U.S. drug agents returned him to custody. President Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
Leary’s fame grew from reckless moves. While others methodically documented psychedelics’ efficacy against depression, alcoholism, tobacco addiction – he shared the drugs with Harvard undergraduates.
By the latter half of 1966 – with a nudge from Marshall McLuhan – Leary coined the indelible “Tune in, turn on, drop out” slogan. By the following “summer of love,” LSD had entered the vernacular. The new scene was a free-for-all – with bad trips and tragedies along with transcendence.
On Oct. 6, 1966, California became the first state to make LSD illegal. It was ironic. The state had supported the most intense period of psychedelic research – ever – over the prior decade.
Los Angeles native James Fadiman recalls the day in 1966 when a U.S. Food and Drug Administration letter arrived during a Menlo Park LSD experiment. As a Beethoven string quartet played, the psychologist guided four scientists in a trial of the drug’s problem-solving potential.
To the 21st-century ear, the so-called Stanford creativity experiments might sound like New Age flimflam. But the gleam in Fadiman’s eye remains – for the days before Leary brought his work to a halt.
“Today it is no trick to find a psychedelic drug, take it, have a wild ride, and wonder about it all,” Fadiman wrote in 2011. “(But) to give it to people in a setting so supportive that 80 percent… reported that it was the single most important event of their lives – ah, that was a different time!”
In April’s Journal of Palliative Medicine, Torrance-based physician Ira Byock summarizes “remarkable improvements” seen with depression, PTSD and anxiety treated with these unique molecules. The founder of Providence St. Joseph Health’s Institute for Human Caring, Byock sees a bright outlook for psychedelics’ ability to inform the existential distress of terminal illness.
“We must not allow preconceptions, politics, or puritanism to prevent suffering people… from receiving promising… treatments,” Byock urges.
To some then and now, the promise of LSD shines even brighter. A UC Davis team led by chemist and neuroscientist David Olson last summer found that LSD and sister chemicals effect dramatic growth in the dendrites, branches and spines that connect brain cells – a far cry from killing them – as official warnings have long put it.
Possible applications include depression, anxiety, substance abuse – even Alzheimer’s disease, some researchers believe.
However, “we should temper our enthusiasm because we do not yet know all of the risks associated with using these drugs,” Olson cautioned last summer.
The power of just one or two trips to bring people something enduring and profound extends beyond illness, any enthusiast will tell you. Now 88, Eric Clough practices landscape architecture in British Columbia – where he helped found an alternative community after taking part in the Stanford creativity trials more than half a century ago.
Grander dreams might have come together if the negative press generated by Leary and others had not sidelined the project, he said in a phone interview.
“It was a terrible blow to have the funding cut off – mainly due to the antics of Leary,” Clough said.
In early 1966, the architect had just completed drawings for a retreat and “integration center” – to be built by Fadiman’s International Foundation for Advanced Study near Lone Pine (Inyo County). There, artists, scientists and others would experience psychedelics and then move to merge the journeys into their professional lives.
Just like Clough has done.
“I could write a book about my six hours on LSD,” he said, his voice still twinkling five decades after the vision. “It underlined the oneness of all things. I took that forward for the rest of my life – and have worked to integrate it into my humanity.”
Erik Skindrud is a writer and editor in Long Beach.