Spotlight on Psychedelic Pioneers: Timothy Leary

By Brian Lissak

Early Life: The Rebellious, Unfulfilled Psychologist

Few names are more infamous in psychedelic history than Timothy Leary. Born in 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the only son to an Irish Catholic family, a fairly normal childhood brought him to West Point. He dropped out after a long string of minor shenanigans and an unhealthy amount of infractions. Leary enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he became interested in psychology and biology. He was expelled a year later after being caught spending the night in the women’s dormitory. Losing his student deferment, Leary enlisted in the army where he managed to get himself into a specialized track for psychology.

In 1950, Leary received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Stanford. He quickly achieved professional success, accepting an assistant professorship at UCSF and co-founding Kaiser Hospital’s psychology department. In 1957, Leary published The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality, reviewed by one prominent critic as the ‘most important book on psychotherapy of the year.’

From Harvard Professor To Mystical Seeker

In 1960, Leary traveled to Mexico and had his first psychedelic experience with psilocybin mushrooms. He later said that he “learned more about … (his) brain and its possibilities … [and] more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than … in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research.”

The experiments Leary carried out at Harvard were the first of their kind in psychedelic research. Based on his experiences with psychedelics, Leary started the Harvard Psilocybin Project along with Richard Alpert (who later became Ram Dass). They believed that psychedelics were a tool to help us understand and access higher levels of consciousness. This is necessary to healing and living a healthier, more meaningful life – rising issues as the Baby Boomers blossomed into the counterculture.

The pair hypothesized that psychedelics could help as an aid to psychotherapy. The Concord Prison Experiment tested whether psilocybin sessions coupled with group therapy could reduce recidivism rates in released prisoners. Follow-up studies of the experiment question their methodology and standards, but the idea that psychedelics can assist psychotherapy is the basis of the modern-day psychedelic renaissance.

The Good Friday Experiment tested another of Leary’s hypotheses: whether psychedelics could induce religious mystical experiences. The results were immediately obvious: they could. In today’s burgeoning field of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, it is a fundamental precept that a mystical-type experience must occur. Though his rigor as a scientist was by this time coming into question, he did in fact create the conceptual framework for modern psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

Post Harvard: Millbrook, IFIF, And Senate Hearings on LSD

Leary was fired from Harvard on April 30, 1963. The official reason was for missing classes. But Leary had already become somewhat of a cultural icon, preaching about psychedelics and pissing off ‘The Establishment’. After Harvard, Leary and other members of the Psilocybin Project moved to the Millbrook Estate in New York, under the title International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). They continued to experiment with psychedelics, but also with meditation, yoga, group therapy, and other ways to access higher consciousness. As Leary later said: “We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the 21st century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s. On this space colony, we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”

Cultural Infusion

By the mid-1960s the counterculture was creating a serious disruption to mainstream society. In 1966, the US Senate convened to discuss this “drug problem,” with the ultimate aim of outlawing psychedelics. Leary was called as an expert witness. He testified that “the challenge of the psychedelic chemicals is not just how to control them, but how to use them.” He argued against criminalization, which would only serve to remove the safeguards of “set and setting.” When Senator Ted Kennedy asked about the dangers of psychedelics, Leary replied: “ “Sir, the motor car is dangerous if used improperly… Human stupidity and ignorance is the only danger human beings face in this world.”

In a prophetic moment, Leary suggested a concept ahead of his time: rather than outlawing them completely, pass legislation requiring trained and licensed individuals to guide psychedelic experiences. His words fell on deaf ears. Just months after the hearings, the State of California banned LSD, as did the federal government two years later.

“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”

On January 14, 1967, Leary spoke at the Human Be-In at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Before a crowd of 30,000 hippies, Leary coined the term “turn on, tune in, drop out.” In an attempt to keep using LSD legally, he founded his own religion called The League for Spiritual Discovery. LSD was its sacrament, and he encouraged others to found their own religions, providing a handy guide. At this point, Leary’s main goal was to shake people out of the semi-dazed state he viewed them as living in and spiritually awaken America. He went on a speaking tour and wrote a number of books. The proverbial face of the counterculture, he incurred the wrath of the American government along the way.

“The Most Dangerous Man In America”

With the war in Vietnam going poorly and civil unrest daily increasing, the government needed a scapegoat at which to direct America’s pent-up rage. Nixon dubbed Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” coupling the threat of the counterculture with his War on Drugs.

Around this time, Leary’s legal troubles really began. The government was desperate to get Leary behind bars but didn’t have any actual legal case against him. In 1968, he was arrested in California for possession of two marijuana “roaches,” and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He escaped without too much trouble and fled to the Black Panther’s “government in exile” in Algeria. This didn’t work out so well, and he roamed the world seeking refuge, going across Europe to the Middle East. Eventually extradited back to the States, he sat in prison until 1976. Upon release, he remained a public figure, but with a more toned-down emphasis on psychedelics.

A Mixed Legacy

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Leary died in January 1995 of prostate cancer. He is remembered both as a prophet who “turned on” America’s youth and as an errant scientist who unethically took psychedelics out of the lab. The truth is, both descriptions are accurate. As Michael Pollan points out in How To Change Your Mind, it’s hard not to partially credit Leary with today’s renaissance, despite the fact that it was outlawed largely due to him.

It’s important to remember that psychedelics were brand new to the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of today’s scientists were part of the generation that Leary “turned on,” even if they didn’t directly participate themselves. It’s not unreasonable to say that his widespread preaching directly or indirectly led to today’s responsible, research-based psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy field.

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