Who Exactly is Timothy Leary?

An explorer of American consciousness, Timothy Leary was a psychology lecturer at Harvard before the 60s, shrooms and LSD took over his behavioural psychology research.

Whether or not you know who Dr Timothy Francis Leary is, the man is synonymous with the counterculture movement of the 1960s and the rise of psychedelic drug use. Dubbed the "most dangerous man in America" by President Richard Nixon, Mr Leary was so much more than a psychologist turned icon.

A self-described renaissance man, Leary believed strongly in humanism and individualism. As a professor in psychology, Leary regularly promoted the phrase, "turn on, tune in, drop out," to advertise the wonders of psychedelics, before his death in 1996 at age 75.

His long and extravagant career saw Leary become both a fugitive and convict, a comedian, actor, writer, and software designer, in addition to his time as an accomplished clinical psychologist at Harvard University.

LSD is a psychedelic drug which occasionally causes psychotic behavior in people who have NOT taken it. Timothy Leary

Harvard Psychedelic Project

Post World War Two, mid-century psychologists were eager to use psychoanalysis to answer why so many were reporting feelings of depression. Around this period, Psychology was about normalization, with fundamental theories aimed at 'fixing' people to allow them to return to society.

After receiving his PhD in psychology from Berkeley University, Timothy Leary came to lecture at Harvard in 1959, focusing his early research on the interaction of dimensions of personality and social relationships. Alongside Richard Alpert – later known as Ram Dass – they started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, to document the effects of psychedelics on human consciousness; learning how to operate your brain.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Mushrooms (psilocybin) – both legal at the time – were administered to volunteer subjects who recorded their real-time descriptions of the experience.

Between 1953 and 1973, a reported 1700 participants were involved in the studies, with the US government spending ~US$4 million (roughly $US35million today) to fund 116 studies.

Included in those studies was the infamous Concord Prison Experiment, which evaluated the application of psilocybin and psychotherapy in the rehabilitation of released prisoners.

According to the study, thirty-six prisoners were reported to have repented and sworn off criminality, resulting in a 20% recidivism rate, compared to the national rate of 60%.

"The evidence suggests that the drug is safe, that the experience temporarily provides personal and spiritual insight, and has some effect in keeping inmates out of prison."

Leary also reported that their subjects had "profound mystical and spiritual experiences, which…permanently altered their lives in a very positive manner."

Though one participant did describe the project as a bunch of guys doing their best impression of Owen Wilson, "wow."

However, by 1962, many faculty members and administrators at Harvard concerned themselves with the safety of Leary and Alpert's research subjects, in addition to criticizing the "unorthodox methodology" of conducting the experiments while also under the influence of psychedelics.

In a last-ditch effort to continue the experiments, Leary and Alpert founded the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, as a result of increased pressure and opposition, Alpert was fired from Harvard in 1963 after the university learned he had administered psilocybin to an undergraduate student off-campus. Leary, on the other hand, was let go for skipping scheduled lectures to conduct his psychedelic experiments.

Welcome To The LSD Mansion

Spiritual ecstasy, religious revelation and union with God are now directly accessible.Timothy Leary

Free from the shackles of research and regulation, Leary was able to indulge further into the world of psychedelics with the help of the Mellon family fortune. In 1963, siblings Peggy, Billy, and Tommy Hitchcock gave Leary a 64-room Mansion estate in Millbrook New York, where the psychedelic sessions continued.

Reconstituted under the Castalia Foundation, the former IFIF sought to cultivate the divinity within each person and regularly joined LSD sessions facilitated by Leary.

"The elusive aim of these group sessions was to break through to the other side without losing the love and radiance of the acid high during the crucial reentry period. Various methods were devised to facilitate a permanent spiritual transformation."

In a now-famous 1966 Playboy interview, Leary was described as "not only the messiah but the martyr of the psychedelic movement."Although, even Leary in that same interview stated, "none of us yet knows exactly how LSD can be used for the growth and benefit of the human being."

"It is a powerful release of energy as yet not fully understood."

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.

In response to concerns of increased psychedelic use amongst the American youth by 1966, Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut convened several Senate subcommittee hearings to better understand the phenomenon. As one of the expert witnesses called to testify, Leary implored that the challenges were not how to control them but how to use them.

Leary suggested legislation to require LSD users to be trained and licensed to use the drug "for serious purposes, such as spiritual growth, the pursuit of knowledge, or their own personal development."

Unfortunately following the subcommittee hearing, LSD was banned in California in 1968, with the drug banned in all states following the passage of the Staggers-Dodd Bill.

Sir, the motor car is dangerous if used improperly…Human stupidity and ignorance is the only danger human beings face in this world.Timothy Leary

In the wake of psychedelic prohibition, Leary reorganized the IFIF/Castalia Foundation under the nomenclature of the League for Spiritual Discovery, an unsuccessful religious attempt at maintaining the legal status of LSD as its holy sacrament.

However, it was not until January 1967 where at the Human Be-In fathering of 30,000 hippies in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, where Leary coined his most famous phrase, "turn on, tune in, drop out".

According to Leary, the definition of this phrase is "Drop Out – detach yourself from the external social drama, which is as dehydrated and ersatz as TV. Turn On – find a sacrament which returns you to the temple of God, your own body. Go out of your mind. Get high. Tune In – be reborn. Drop back in to express it. Start a new sequence of behaviour that reflects your vision."

The Psilocybin Redemption

Dealing with mind-altering drugs made Timoty Leary no stranger to the law, with his first arrest coming in December 1965 when he was arrested for cannabis possession. Despite successfully appealing the charge in 1966, Leary was again arrested in 1968, resulting in a total 20-year sentence.

However, not even prison could hold him back, with the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers helping Leary to become an international fugitive for a US$25,000 fee. On 13 September 1970, Timothy Leary escaped from a low-security California prison, before taking political asylum in Algeria.

Spending close to three years in exile, Leary was eventually arrested in Afghanistan in 1972 by an agent of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. With five years added to his original 10-year sentence, Leary was placed in solitary confinement at Folsom Prison in California.

In an effort to shorten his sentence, Leary entered into the witness protection program upon his release in 1976 with the FBI. While he is no advocate for being in prison, Leary was able to use the 4.5 years behind bars to see "society from the bottom".

"I love being in prison because I didn't have to pay the rent".

A Dissident Philosopher

20-years after his release, Timothy Leary passed away on 31 May 1996 from an inoperable prostate cancer diagnosis he received the year before. In a rare TV interview with Skip E Lowe, just four years earlier, Leary revealed his life's inspiration – Socrates.

"He's the guy that caused all the trouble for me. His motto was 'the aim of human life was to know thyself.'"

Telling Skippy that he does not pretend to be a wise person, Leary shines a light on his purpose – "I raise questions".

Fast forward two and a half decades and Socrates' credo still exists at the heart of the push to answer those questions raise by Leary regarding the benefits of psychedelics. While LSD and Mushrooms are yet to be rescheduled federally, in the US, Denver, Colorado and Oakland, plus Santa Cruz in California have all decriminalised magic mushrooms.

Even the government is getting back in on the experiments with a $26.9 million agreement to fund a study by the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, on the potential use of psychedelics—including ketamine and psilocybin—for mental health medications.

Confirmed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the four-year study is aimed at developing drugs that will take effect, "quickly and deliver lasting remedies for conditions such as chronic depression and post-traumatic stress."

"It is research we need to undertake given the scale of the mental health crisis our veterans face," said Focused Pharma program manager Dr Tristan McClure-Begley.

"And if it works, the payoff is a completely new, safe, and effective therapeutic option that transforms complex and previously intractable mental conditions into something more acutely treatable."

Despite the controversy that still surrounds him, Timothy Leary described the last 70-years in his profession as "a wonderful time for a dissident philosopher because so much change has happened."

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Elliot Nash
Elliot Nash

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