Dr. Timothy Leary has been one
of America’s most provocative and flamboyant public figures since
he first flared across the national consciousness in the early
1960s. Preaching a message of chemical-induced ecstasy, Leary
openly advocated the use of LSD and other drugs, while urging
youthful listeners to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
Millions did just that, as Leary established himself as both
a catalyst and spokesman of the emerging “psychedelic movement.”
And, although jailed repeatedly over the years for relatively
minor drug offenses, Leary has continued to advocate greater
individual freedom in the exploration of chemical nirvanas.
Leary’s early years gave little
indication of the bizarre turns his life would take. Born in
1920, the only son of Irish-Catholic parents in Springfield,
Massachusetts, Leary quietly distinguished himself as an academic,
taking degrees from the University of Alabama and Washington
State University before receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology
from the University of California in 1950. After the publication
of two major papers on personality diagnosis, Leary joined the
psychology department at Harvard University, eventually collaborating
on two textbooks and participating in the Center for Research
During a trip to Cuernavaca,
Mexico in 1960, Leary ingested psilocybin mushrooms with friends
and, in his words, began “Suddenly…to feel strange. “
“It was the classic visionary
voyage and I came back a changed man,” he wrote of this
first trip several years later. “You are never the same
after you’ve had that one flash glimpse down the cellular time
tunnel. You are never the same after you’ve had the veil drawn.”
Leary quickly proved to his Harvard
superiors and to the world at large that he was no longer the
same. Upon his return to the university, he continued his psychedelic
investigations, gradually expanding the focus of his self-administered,
self-monitored explorations to include the then little-known
Applying insights gained from
his own psychedelic experiences, Leary developed structured therapeutic
LSD encounters with a population of convicts at a maximum security
state prison, but similar experiments with graduate and undergraduate
students quickly attracted the ire of the Harvard administration.
After ignoring a university ultimatum to curtail the experiments,
Leary and colleague Richard Alpert were dismissed by the university
intervening years have often seemed very much a media roller
coaster ride with Timothy Leary both creator and victim of his
the Doctor Now!
He has been prosecuted relentlessly
by state and federal authorities and, until being discharged
from parole two weeks before this interview, spent 15 years occupying
a seemingly-endless succession of roles in the U.S. criminal
justice system, either accused, convicted, imprisoned, or paroled
— ultimately even an escapee and international fugitive — for
two relatively minor marijuana charges. Ironically, each offense
involved less than an ounce of pot — misdemeanor offenses under
current California law.
Dr. Leary has remained a prolific
writer and social commentator, despite his legal problems. He
has authored 20 books and monographs, including High Priest,
Politics of Ecstasy, Principles and Practice of Hedonic Psychology,
and Confessions of a Hope Fiend. He currently lives in the hills
above Los Angeles with his wife Barbara and 7-year old son, Zachary.
Drug Survival News editor Jim
Parker conducted the interview that follows. The conversation
was taped on September 5, 1981.
DSN: Dr. Leary, It you weren’t
real, your life would read like unbelievable fiction. During
the past twenty years, you’ve been, among other things, a respected
scientific researcher, the “high priest” of the psychedelic
movement, a radical politician, a social reformer, and, more
recently, a convict, an escapee, and an international fugitive.
Which roles — or set of roles — have been most satisfying?
LEARY: I believe firmly in a philosophy of personal evolution.
I think that the goal of life is to master the reality of the
particular stage you’re in and then move on. You have to learn
to crawl and to walk and to talk and to write and to socialize
and to deal with sexual identity challenges, domestication…So
I have liked all of the stages I’ve passed through. I’ve had
a very full life and I’m continuing to develop and grow. That’s
the problem of approaching biography in a static way — intelligent
people keep growing and changing.
I’ve always been basically an
individual; I believe firmly that the intelligent individual
is the unit of human life, therefore I’ve always been somewhat
detached from the family and the state and church bureaucracies
and organizations which attempt to take over the responsibilities
and progress of the individual.
I’m an all-out believer in selfhood.
I think the great evolutionary advance in the last 20 years in
this country is the sociology and neuropathy of self — the so-called
me generation — the first mass generation in human history (as
far as I can find out) that defines the unit of civilization
and life as the responsible and intelligent self-reliant individual.
That is, of course, the basic American visionary point of view
— the Emersonian, self-reliant, look within point of view. It’s
really happened in the last 20 or 30 years and I’m glad to have
contributed to it.
Everything I did as a scientist
and as a reformer and as an occasional political activist was
to challenge the state and other bureaucracies in their attempts
to take over the human body and the human brain — the first
and last frontiers of selfhood, your own body, and who and what
you put in your own body and your own brain. No one can limit,
restrict, or try to control how you access, activate, manipulate
your own brain through the use of drugs.
DSN: Years ago, you suggested
that we have a constitutional right to modify consciousness with
chemicals. Do you still believe that we have an absolute right
to use chemicals to alter awareness?
LEARY: (laughs) Absolutely. It’s ludicrous and ominous
to think that the government will try to limit, restrain, control
where you’re going to put your head, and how you’re going to
manage and direct your own neurology. That’s the basis of your
own freedom. Now, as far as behavior is concerned, if what you
do in your head leads you to violate any behavioral law — a
traffic law or imposing on the rights of other people — then
you should be busted. But in the privacy of your own home, your
own body and your own brain, that’s your business. It’s everyone’s
business to keep busybodies out of our homes and minds.
DSN: Several years ago, your
former colleague and collaborator in LSD research, Ralph Metzner,
published a paper In which he discussed some of his feelings
about the psychedelic movement. Metzner described his main feelings
as gratitude and disappointment — gratitude for the experience
and the opportunity to experience psychedelics and the way they
transform consciousness, disappointment that the behavioral health
establishment had not seen fit to develop structures for incorporating
these drugs into meaningful activity related to growth and development.
How do you feel about your Involvement In the psychedelic movement
— a movement which you, more so than any other, catalyzed and
LEARY: The concept that you can access your own brain
and learn how to activate different circuits of your own brain
and run it intelligently in a disciplined fashion is probably
the most important concept of the 20th Century. I’m not the first
person to say that. Aldous Huxley, actually, said that the 20th
Century will probably be remembered as the century in which humanity
learned to understand and use our own brain.
The fall-out from that is incredible.
We’re now in the age of information — which is obviously a sequela
of this concept of learning how to live as a neurological rather
than a neuromuscular, industrial person. The age of computers
is a tremendous breakthrough in communication — home video,
satellite dishes — it’s all neurological, that we’re learning
how to hook up our brains, not necessarily our muscles or our
bodies, to the incredibly-expanding society that we’re developing.
So I feel I’m the luckiest person who ever lived to be part of
an event that’s changing our species — taking us from industrial/muscular,
to a neurological, intelligent race.
I’m not disappointed at the fact
that the government has done nothing to help support research
in brain-activating drugs. It’s the function of government to
slow things down. and no one’s ever accused any government in
world history of trying to make their citizens smarter or more
independent-minded. There’s plenty that’s wrong with drug use
in this country.
I would say that 99 percent of
people misuse, abuse drugs right now. But that’s not the problem
of the brain, the brain is perfect, nor the drugs because the
drugs are pretty good — if you know how to use them. It’s simply
a fault of poor education.
Is there anything wrong with
any drug like LSD or euphoriants that are addictive? Let the
pharmaceutical companies or let’s have research grants that will
give us drugs that will allow any adult American to put their
brain exactly where they want it to be. That is happening, of
course, outside the sphere of government control and government
Laboratories throughout the country
are filled with organic chemists and psychopharmacologists who
are developing better forms of drugs. The first Wright Brothers’
planes were somewhat dangerous and rather inefficient, but you
don’t ban flying. The first cars, similarly, broke down and were
risky operations, but you don’t ban cars. The same is true with
drugs which accelerate and elevate consciousness and intelligence.
You got to make them better.
DSN: In your book High
Priest you described the youth culture of the sixties in
this way. You wrote: “For the first time In history teenagers
(our advanced mutant species) have written their own songs, beat
their own rhythms, created their own religion.” What happened
to that religion?
LEARY: As you ask that question, the most popular band
in the country today is Jim Morrison and the Doors, as you know.
And also Led Zeppelin’s early material and there are probably
more Beatles records selling now than there were…
That particular signal is still
viable. It’s true that the college kids today are not idealistic,
or romantic, courageous, visionary, utopian as they were in the
sixties — and there’s good reason for that because the adult
society has really come down with a heavy program of fear and
terror and cynicism. Who knows, but I can read what’s going on
in the high schools and colleges today. The kids are afraid of
poverty and afraid of the future.
I feel, though, that this is
deceptive and there’s no question that college kids today are
much more concerned with developing their own careers than they
are in saving the world or starting a utopian society. But I
think this is a reasonable and realistic position, and I endorse
young people today developing their own competencies and excellences
and sort of get self-confidence that they can support themselves
and their families.
But they haven’t given up utopianism
and there’s a tremendous latent asset in America today — the
younger generation. They’re extremely sophisticated and they’re
extremely intelligent and they’ve benefited from what their parents
in the sixties generation have learned and when the time comes,
as it will, because everything goes in cycles, don’t ignore high
school and college kids today. They’re basically bored with politics
because politics is so boring and partisan politics is over.
The older generation doesn’t realize that, but the kids realize
DSN: In what sense do you
mean that partisan politics is over?
LEARY: The last two presidential elections, more eligible
voters didn’t vote than voted for both presidential candidates
combined, so the basic vote was no president. This is a mark
of an extremely intelligent civilization, when people intelligently
and freely refuse to get involved in the low-level past politics
that in fact drives our country today.
But, although confidence in government
and all bureaucracies is plummeting, and has been plummeting
regularly since the sixties, self confidence — confidence is
one’s own ability with one’s friends to create a mini-reality
that is livable and growthful — has never been higher. So we’re
getting to be a country of increasingly intelligent individuals,
which I think is great.
DSN: So you see the future
of humankind then as basically positive? I hear you being hopeful.
Do you see the future of human consciousness as being one of
greater diversity in thought and expression or one of greater
LEARY: Yes, I am a scientific optimist. And I can, anyone
can, show you charts on every measure of energy available to
the individual — information available to the individual, freedom
of mobility of individuals — that the front edge of our species
is zooming ahead at a higher rate than ever before. Now you can’t
generalize about the whole species because everything is determined
Where you are determines who
you are. Geography determines destiny — the ecological niche
you inhabit defines your species. And you have what’s known as
“Leary’s Law of Longitude.” The further east you go,
the less individuality, the less freedom, the more tradition,
the more violence, the more authoritarian and the more worship
of the past. And the further west you go, the more sense of intelligence,
virtuous access to the future.
So everything I’ve said about
an optimistic future and about young people growing intelligently
holds for North America only, and particularly the western part
of America. These geographical zones define different species,
really. So everyone gets what they want defined by where they
DSN: That might explain why
you’re In California. But do you feel that other geographical
factors are Involved In shaping attitudes, say a North vs. South
world view, or do you feel that It Is primarily East/West?
LEARY: I feel it’s East/West. The West, throughout human
history — from Athens fighting Persia to today, which is basically
L.A. vs. the east coast — the West has always been the frontier
— where individuals, where visionaries, where freedom-loving
people have always assembled — because that’s as far away as
you can get from the man who controls things, and that’s certainly
true today — attitudes towards drugs, attitudes towards space.
Over 50 percent of people in
the West would like to go into space, personally, whereas on
the east coast only 33 percent would like to go into space because
they think the money should be spent on urban renewal (laughs).
You can cite that as an example of geography defining character
And that’s the solution, of course,
to your drug laws. To have national drug policies is ridiculous.
It should be a local option. People who want to use drugs intelligently,
who don’t want to impose them on people that don’t should be
able to. And there should be places where people who want to
access their brains and develop their lifestyles based on neurological
growth should be able to do it.
DSN: Any comments on the Reagan
administration’s avowed intention to bring about a major escalation
in the “War on Drugs?”
LEARY: I don’t know anything about the inner workings
of Washington, DC, and I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure that
it’s relevant to anything anyway. What they decide in Washington
has nothing to do with what you and I are going to do out here.
We’re about as far away as we can get from it.
But from my reading of the Reagan
administration, Reagan is quite intelligent. He says that drug
enforcement should not be up to the states — as a good libertarian
right-winger he’s got to say that, “get the state out of
our business” — it should be the family, the neighborhood,
the local school. Nancy Reagan said the same thing, that cops
can’t educate or enforce drugs — it’s got to be intelligent
parents. I would find it very ironic if Reagan, who promised
to get government off our back, would increase this army of narcotics
agents prowling around poking into our business.
DSN: It’s Interesting that
you said army because part of the legislation that’s before Congress
now would bring the Army, Navy, and Air Force into drug interdiction.
LEARY: One thing about drugs, they certainly cause psychosis
in bureaucrats who haven’t taken them. At a time when Reagan
is promising less government, for the first time in American
history they’re proposing to use the Army against American citizens
— which would make Jefferson and Franklin spin in their graves.
The number one priority of American government is to keep the
feds and to keep the military out.
That’s banana republic stuff.
If the Army can come down on dope smokers, what’s next? They
can come down on the next group that offers a vulnerable target.
DSN: You said that you feel
that drug control Is properly a function of the neighborhood
and the family. Maybe not drug control per se, but creating the
attitudes and values that would amount to drug control In the
final analysts. Do you feel that drug control Is a legitimate
function of government?
LEARY: I think that intelligent government could serve
a purpose. I believe in pure food and drug legislation. The government’s
responsibility should be minimal, should be to insure quality
— that if you buy LSD, you’re getting pure LSD and you’re getting
approved LSD that is not going to give you bad trips. And it’s
going to come in a package with all sorts of warnings, with dosage
control, and it should have all of the warnings against abuse
and it probably should be licensed or prescribed.
I don’t object to government
intelligently helping people to avoid drug abuse. All drug abuse
is due to ignorance. A person doesn’t realize what they’re doing
to their brain with this chemical they’re popping in there. And
the ignorance is caused by government and police policies of
fright, scare, intimidation and outright Iying.
Drug education in this country
simply doesn’t exist with all these fancy organizations and bureaucracies
claiming to educate people on drugs. Drug education today is
just like sex education was 50 years ago. The only education
was saying “No — don’t.”
Fifty years ago, the psychiatrists
and the ministers and the politicians were saying “If you
masturbate you’re going to get hair on your hands and premarital
sex will cause you to go insane and hospitals are filled with
young people today who have been making out with each other.”
Today, we have more sex education than we need. Everyone is publishing
books on their theories but this is healthy, because we realize
that it’s not “yes” or “no” on sex — that
sex is an incredibly complex personal and interpersonal experience
that changes as you grow and mature and presume to get better
and smarter and wiser at performing sexually.
I feel that the responsibility
of any intelligent American should be to encourage accurate drug
education. There is a checklist of the 15 things that you absolutely
don’t do if you’re going to take LSD — or the 10 things that
you avoid doing if you want to take a euphoriant-erotic drug
like marijuana. Drugs are going to be used and they’re being
used more and more by more and more people, and research, intelligence,
scientific facts, accurate transmission of the truth is the only
way you’re going to eliminate abuse.
I could give you a policy that
would eliminate 98 percent of drug abuse in this country within
DSN: Okay, shoot. How would
you do it?
LEARY: I’m writing a book, actually, on how to use drugs
intelligently, or how to avoid drug abuse. I think how you do
it is implied in many of the things I’ve said in the last three
or four paragraphs. The application of intelligent, accurate
education and also the use of humor — we should make fun of
drug abusers, should ridicule them.
That’s one thing about Cheech
and Chong. Cheech and Chong make “doper” movies in
the sense that their constituency is that 60 million Americans
who are out there that enjoy laughing at themselves. And although
Cheech and Chong appear to be dopers, almost everything that
they do is to make fun of drug abuse — they show you the spaced-out
hippie and they show you the sloppy grass smoker and they show
you the jittery, paranoid cocaine user. And I think they’re performing
an incredibly wonderful social function — and they’re making
billions of dollars doing it. They’re not pro-drug, pro dope
movies. They’re movies which encourage an intelligent appraisal
of people that misuse drugs. They’re putting down drug abuse.
And there should be more of it.
DSN: Dr. Leary, how would
you respond to the conservative parents groups that have developed
around the country who would disagree with that assessment, who
have said that Cheech and Chong encourage drug use by portraying
It in an unreal light, that they make it funny and cute and completely
overlook the human misery and suffering and problems that attend
drug abuse? Also, how would you characterize these groups? Do
you see them as some sort of evolutionary throwback in the era
of chemical consciousness engineering?
LEARY: America is going through a staggering mutation
right now. We’re moving from a family oriented, church-oriented,
state-oriented society to an individual-oriented society with
the sovereign individual as the basic unit. And this causes tremendous
anguish and understandably so.
I think we should be very kind
to the conservatives who are understandably confused and irritated
and panicked because everything they thought was secure and solid
is suddenly becoming Einsteinian. There’s not just one macho
male dominant sex — there’s suddenly fifty different types of
sexual identities. And people are trying and changing them, so
that the plurality, the variety, the individual differences that
are emerging are very offensive to people who want one monolithic
But, no, they’re not the future.
Those who believe in intelligence and evolution and variety and
tolerance and education — we’re the future. No question of that.
Or there’ll be no future.
I feel that the most ominous
thing about the Moral Majority, the anti-drug fanatics, is that
they’re traitors to the American Dream.
I see America as an incredible,
free collaborative team enterprise. And we should take tremendous
pride in our team. Americans shouldn’t fight with each other.
The lowest level of metaphor is to think of America as a pro
football team. You have an offense, where you have to move things
ahead, and you have a defense to keep things back.
So you have future people and
past people. And we can’t all play offense because we can’t all
be rushing into the future trying new things because there has
to be at least half of our team that are slowing things down
and keeping the score down. But on a good football team.the offense
doesn’t fight against the defense. American conservatives shouldn’t
be tackling American future people. It’s not left/right. It’s
not racial. The issue is future versus past.
I have great sympathy for the
fear that many conservatives feel about their children and drugs
because my wife and I feel it, too. We have a seven-year-old,
beautiful, intelligent youngster and we don’t want him to go
off to school in the next two or three years and be exposed to
PCP or be exposed to the dumb, lousy, terrible abused drugs that
are being foisted onto the kids today.
And I’m going to, now that I’m
off parole, I’m going to speak freely and I’m going to go around
the country lecturing on drug education to raise the level of
intelligence about drugs, because I don’t want my kid growing
into a society in which the Moral Majority claims to run things
with the DEA but really it’s the sleazy dealers who are controlling
I want government supervision
and government help in making sure that when my kid is exposed
to drugs — and he’s going to be — that it’s in a context of
intelligent choice, that he knows what’s happening and he’s not
going to be seduced into it by the underground or a naughty teenage