Left: Timothy Leary in the custody of Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs agents in 1972. Right: Leary’s 1970 California mugshot. (photos courtesy of the Berkeley Historical Society.)
A 1992 interview with the LSD guru, first published in the Riverfront Times.
by C.D. Stelzer
After your dismissal from Harvard in 1963, both a local television station and Washington University here in St. Louis canceled programs that were to have featured you and colleague Richard Alpert. Which do you believe the establishment feared more at that time, your actual experimentation with LSD or the ideas you espoused?
Timothy Leary: The basic theme I’ve ever done in public is to encourage and empower individuals — think for yourself and question authority. I’m a dissident philosopher based on the Socratic method. My trade union has been practicing this dangerous and risky profession for several thousand years. We have to have every establishment angry. If I’m not in trouble with the establishment, then I’m in trouble with my union card as a socratic philosopher.
It’s not the drugs they were concerned about. It’s much more subversive telling people `just say know — K-N-O-W — just think for yourself.’
When you think that the establishment was angry and upset back then about gentle little vegetables like marijuana and LSD and mushrooms, look what they’ve got now — tons of cocaine on every street corner and every city in the United States.
It was not just the drugs. Deeper than that, it was our defense of humanism as opposed to religion and government. Individualism, dissidents, we were against the war. Stand up for yourself that was the message, it’s always been controversial with Big Brother.
In 1969, you stated that drug dealing was “the noblest of all human professions.” With that in mind, and in light of government and corporate opposition over the last decade, what is your attitude toward drug use today?
That was pulled out of context. What I was saying was throughout history, the chalice, which holds the sacraments, which illuminate and enlighten and allow people to face their own inner divinity. Dealing dope should be the most sacred, precious and conscientious profession. … In that particular interview I was denouncing the drug dealers that were doing it for profit or that were dealing drugs in a dishonest way.
What do you believe is the greatest achievement of the psychedelic revolution that you pioneered? Do you have any reservations about your involvement in disseminating LSD to the American culture?
Put it into historical context. The use of sacramental vegetables has gone back, back, back in history to shamans and the Hindu religion and Buddhist religion. They were using Soma. It’s an ancient human ritual that has usually been practiced in the context of religion or of worship or of tribal coming together.
I didn’t pioneer anything. The use of psychedelics for spiritual purposes was started in the 50s by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
What we did in the 60s, we just surfed a wave. In the 1960s, there was this sudden, new, enormous generation of young Americans brought up on television. Their parents had been told by Dr. Spock, `treat your children as individuals and let them become themselves.’ When they hit college, here was this new movement.
The pioneering, the real work in spreading the word about psychedelic vegetables, (was done by) the rock n’ rollers. Electronic amplification messages going around the world at the speed of light. Bob Dylan and John Lennon and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They spread the word around.
I’m not a leader, I’m a cheerleader, urging people to be careful and think for yourself.
You’ve met or tripped with Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and Jack Keroac among others. Who was the highest individual you have ever encountered?
I’m not talking about that, you can’t count …
You can’t put it on a scale.
Yeah, everyone of those people are a human being and they had their flaws. They were dedicated humanists that’s the key thing. Divinity is found not in the churches or the palaces of the powerful, divinity is found inside. That’s the oldest message, and we all agreed on that, and we expressed it and sang it and chanted it in many different dialects.
Do you still experiment with drugs now?
I don’t experiment. Yes, I use any vegetable or chemical that I feel is necessary at the time to further my life plan. Anytime I want to turn on my right brain, I use chemicals to do that. But I do it carefully, I do it cautiously. I know what I’m doing.
I’ve have been told that your appearance in St. Louis will include a hyper-video display. Could you describe what hyper-video is and how it differs from past multi-media productions?
I don’t know what you mean by past. Yes, it’s true that in the 60s we went down to Broadway and put on what we called the `Psychedelic Salvation.’ We had 19 or 20 slide projectors, overloaded sound — to produce a trance state, to produce a right brain experience, where you’re open and vulnerable to learning new stuff.
Now we have a computer-generated stuff, an enormous empowerment of individuals, who have access now to computer programs CD-Rom programs and special effects. I can’t do a real immersive trance state because its a bright room. But I will have videos to show how it works, and I’m going to try to get the lights to go on and off a little bit so we get some little flavor, to get a group of people who are sharing the same visionary or trance situation.
How is the youth movement of today different from the 1960s?
A lot has happened since the 1960s. In 1980, the American government was taken over by a military police-state or coup. In the last 12 years, you’ve seen an erosion of personal rights, personal freedom, and more power to the police and the military. … The main thing that the Reagan-Bush administration does is they send guns all around the world and they ship out all of our jobs.
So the kids that have grown up today have grown up in a very different world than the 60s, when there was a tremendous feeling of innocence. … And the different races were encouraged to express themselves, and women’s liberation. It was a glorious moment of renaissance, but it was cracked, which often does happen, in 1980.
So the kids today, to answer your question, have to deal with a much more grim economic situation, a grim lifestyle situation. Young women of today are afraid today that they could be arrested if they control their own reproductive rights. The abortion police, these right-wing Republicans, sticking their noses into women’s reproductive organs. Urinating in a bottle.
Kids growing up today are harassed and their is a sense of violence and conflict. So therefore, kids today are much tougher.
There is a youth movement developing now somewhat connected to raves, where young people get together to have celebratory dances. It’s different, and I have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for young people growing up today.
In a recent interview, you said one of the greatest pranks you enjoyed was escaping from prison in 1970. You were convicted of marijuana possession, but why were you really in jail? Was your imprisonment analogous to society at large; are we all prisoners and guards in one big prison yard as Dylan says?
Well, that’s a very philosophic statement. You’re only in prison, if your mind tells you are. When I was in prison, behind bars, I was freer than most people who came to visit me.
Richard Nixon called me `the most dangerous man alive.’ That’s not because I was found in a car where someone else had five dollars worth of marijuana. (It’s) probably because I was the most eloquent and most influential voice encouraging young people to think for yourself and question authority, and don’t follow leaders and watch your parking meters.
It was my ideas that were very dangerous. I found myself in 1970 facing between 20 and 30 years imprisonment for less than $10 of marijuana (found) in cars that were not my own.
I did four-and-a-half years in prison for less than $10 worth of marijuana at the same time cocaine gangsters from Peru were doing four or five years for a ton of cocaine. Everyone I think would agree that I was in prison for my ideas, and that’s why I escaped from there.
Are computer hackers of the 1990s akin to the 60s outlaw drug dealers?
The thing about the computer situation is it changes so quickly. The concept of hacker — the programmer who spends all night eating bad food and drinking Pepsi-Cola and getting pimples and cracking codes — that’s kind of over now. They were wonderful heroes.
There is a strong growing counterculture in the computer culture, people who don’t think that computers and electronic devices should be used just for Big Brother, the CIA and American Airlines, but to use these wonderful electronic powers to enrich yourself as an individual and to help you communicate.
The hot thing that is going on in electronic computer culture today is networking, communicating with one another on electronic bulletin boards. That’s where the notion `cyberpunk’ came as invented by William Gibson in the book Nueromancer.
The cyberpunk is someone who is very skillful and understands how to use technology, and can mix film, and edit their own audio-visual stuff, do your own MTV at home on your Macintosh, or do it in school on your McIntosh. Cyberpunks are these individuals who use this intelligence not to make a lot of money for a big corporation, but to enrich human life and enrich human communication.
Instead of just talking on bulletin boards or typing in letters, within two or three years, we’ll be sending incredible multi-media graphics. So instead of just talking, within two or three years, I’ll be able to send you an MTV-type audio-visual stuff with some words.
Almost 20 years ago you foresaw that “language thought and custom were becoming electrically energized” through technology. At the time, you predicted “science … cannot be controlled by a national leader or restrained by national boundaries. You stated that: “Those born into the electronic culture will soon learn how to govern themselves according to the laws of energy. Do you believe this to be the case today? If so, how has it manifested itself in the world of 1992?
I think you can learn a lot about America by seeing what happened in the Soviet Union. The Republicans are saying Reagan had the Soviet Union in his gun sights and it was Bush who pulled the trigger to kill communism. Now that’s a truck load of you know what.
The Soviet Union collapsed because million and millions of citizens, particularly young people, particularly college people and scientists, intellectuals — and there were many of them there totally silent during Brezhnev — began communicating electronically.
In East Berlin, for example, they had guards that would go around and make sure that satellite disks at apartment houses in communist Germany were not turned to the west. And you would get busted, if were picking up electronic signals from the West.
But you can’t stop electrons. Electrons are not like tanks. You can’t build a wall of bricks to keep out videotapes and MTV tapes and rock n’ roll records.
After moving west to California in the late 60s, you became connected with a group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. In 1973, Nicholas Sand, a chemist for the Brotherhood, was arrested in St. Louis for operating two LSD laboratories. Indictments in California around the same time also named Ronald H. Stark, who allegedly operated a LSD lab in Belgium, In the book Acid Dreams, the authors name Stark as being a CIA informant. In retrospect do believe the CIA was involved in putting acid out on the street to preempt a possible political revolution?
I don’t know about that. But it’s a matter of fact that most of the LSD in America in the late 50s and early 60s was brought in by the CIA and given around to hospitals to find out these drugs could be used for brainwashing or for military purposes.
You talked about Nicholas Sand. The whole concept of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love is like a bogeyman invented by the narcs. The brotherhood was about eight surfer kids from Southern California, Laguna Beach, who took the LSD, and they practiced the religion of the worship of nature, and they’d go into the mountains. But they were not bigshots at all. None of them ever drove anything better than a VW bus. They were just kind of in it for the spiritual thrill.
Nick Sand was a very skillful chemist. He may have made LSD that the Brotherhood used. He was just a very talented chemist, who was out to make a lot of money for himself.
The guy Stark. I was accused of heading this ring. I never met Stark. Never knew he existed. I heard he’s a European money launderer. But that was not relevant to what was going on out here.
What is relevant to your question is … yes, the CIA did distribute LSD. As a matter of fact, the DEA (the Drug Enforcement Agency) is out there right now setting up phony busts, setting up people, selling dope. And it’s well known that during the Reagan administration Ollie North was shipping up tons of cocaine to buy money to give to the Contras and the Iranians.
The CIA has always used drugs very cynically. They [control] opium poppy plantations in the golden triangle of Thailand and Burma because it helps the anti communist group there.
The CIA doesn’t care about drugs, they’re just interested in playing there game of power and control, and in the old days, anti-communist provocation.
Wasn’t the Human Ecology Fund, which financed LSD research at Harvard, also connected to the CIA?
Yeah, these are minor little details. The professor who led to Richard Albert and I getting fired from Harvard, it turned out later was getting money from the CIA.
When you ran for governor of California in 1970 against Ronald Reagan, how many votes did you receive?
I never ran, Reagan threw me in prison. They wouldn’t give me bail for $5 worth of marijuana. Murderers, rapists were walking out with $100,000 bail. They did that to keep me from registering to keep me from running for governor.
What do you think of the presidential campaign thus far this year?
I think it’s obvious the United Soviet States of America — the federal government in Washington — is finished. No one likes it, and its just like the Communist Party bureaucracy in Moscow. Now the strategy is learn from the Soviet Union. When Brezhnev was in charge, we were for Gorbachev. As soon as Gorbechev got in charge and tried to keep it going, we were for Yeltsin.
You always have got to vote for the person who is going to loosen up the central power. So obviously you’ve got to vote for Clinton and Gore because they’re going to loosen things up and bring [down] the incredible police state, totalitarian situation that Reagan and Bush got.
Yeah, I’m enthusiastically, passionately cheering for Gore and Clinton. (But) I really don’t think anybody should be the president of the United States. You’ve got to break the central government down just as they did in the Soviet Union. Go back to the original states. That’s the original American dream. We don;t want a federal monopolistic bureaucracy in Washington.
As a new millennium approaches, how do you perceive the future of post industrial America?
... I’m not really that interested in the politics, I’m interested in the psychology, the power of individuals to communicate with each other. So I have high hopes there will be a new breed in the 21st century.
There is a new breed popping up in Japan, popping up in London, popping up in Germany. These are a new generation of kids who don’t want to go back to the old Cold War. They’re not going to work on Mitsubishi and Toyotas farm no more.
They believe in individual freedom. They don’t want to work, work, work for the company. They enjoy above all a global international movement. We’re going to get what Marshall McCluhan predicted thirty-forty ago — a global village — which will be hooked up by electronic networks. … Globalization will be the big thing of the future.