Fifty Years After Timothy Leary’s Historic Laguna Beach Drug Bust, California Reconsiders Pyschedelics

Rosemary and Timothy Leary with John Griggs, founder of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, 1968.

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.


18 Replies to “Fifty Years After Timothy Leary’s Historic Laguna Beach Drug Bust, California Reconsiders Pyschedelics”

  1. This article is total bullshit, like much of the press about Leary. They didn’t give him a 6-10 year prison sentence. They tried to lock him up for over 36 years a and make a psychedelic martyr out of him.

    1. nixon had no room to express himself…
      he was the first worst president of the USA. in my estimation…

      many were the times i visited/purchased in leary’s shop on pch in laguna.
      there were always nice vibes there.

      i also went to parties in palo alto (next door to menlo park), home of stanford U.
      where bowls of many hued troche were placed inviting all to try and trip.

      yes, those were the days…

  2. David Olson says: “We should temper our enthusiasm because we do not yet know all of the risks associated with using these drugs (i.e. psychedelics)…”

    Let’s remember that the above statement is true about modern anti-depressants as well. We still don’t know all the risks involved with their long-term use, precisely because they were never MEANT for long-term use.

    When I was started on SSRIs decades ago, the treatment was meant to be temporary and nothing was said of any addictive potential. But over the years, I began to find these drugs to be mind-numbing and creativity-blocking. I wanted to experience more of my world and relate to it in the way that psychedelics seemed to make possible. But when I recently asked my psychiatrist about weaning off of Effexor (a powerful SSRI), he basically told me that it’s impossible. He said that 93% of those who quit are back on the drug within three years.

    If any other drug had this result (such as heroin), we would call it a drug from hell. But using perverse logic, modern psychiatry actually claims that this addictive nature of SSRIs shows that they WORK for treating depression: after all, depressed patients can’t do without it! But this is crazy logic. For if I were treating my depression with the daily use of opium, we could say the same thing about opium: it works for my depression and I can’t do without it. (By the way, if closed-minded and puritanical bigots like Richard Nixon would give me the choice, I would gladly choose opium addiction over SSRI addiction any day, since the former can expand the mind while the latter, in my experience, dims it. Besides, the withdrawal process for opium, as difficult as it can be, takes mere days, while psychiatrists themselves are now saying that it is not even possible to withdraw from their “miracle cure” SSRIs.)

    So let’s not be hypocritically careful when investigating psychedelics. If we’re really interested in patient safety, we should be in a hurry to find a replacement for the mind-numbing anti-depressants that are now the cash cow of Big Pharma. For, whatever the potential risks of psychedelics, SSRIs are working even as we speak to ruin my life by making me decidedly LESS than I could otherwise be.

    PS If researchers are really interested in patient safety, they would work night and day to abolish the drug scheduling system in this country whereby the DEA pronounces on the dangers of drugs without regard to science. That kind of push-back would not only help patients, but it would help restore democracy as well and stop despotic government from using drug laws as a truncheon against its perceived enemies. After all, the DEA exists to punish drug use: what interest could they possibly have in acknowledging the benign aspects of demonized substances such as psychedelics? It’s time to insist that the DEA stops interfering with and otherwise ignoring impartial scientific research.

    If drugs need to be “scheduled,” let them be scheduled by scientists on the basis of truly impartial research.

    1. Let’s face it ,Government doesn’t want us with healthy minds capable of independent thinking and limitless imagination, we’d be impossible to minipulate by any means..let alone the mainstream media ramblings that puppeteer our society today more than ever..4 way sandoz on a little black card brother…Clean that slate and clap the erasers..PEACE .LOVE .TOGETHERNESS…(don’t think they want that either) Peace to you and all just the same Brother!!! Wonderful Read….

  3. Hi there,

    I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1971–I’m now 74. I continue to be outraged that I cannot access pharmaceutical psychedelics such as psilocybin to enjoy the advantages and wonders of psychedelics. I took LSD and mescaline in the 60’s (I haven’t had psychedelics in over 45 years) and it irritates the hell out of me to think that I may never again in my lifetime be able to enjoy them. I had marvelous experiences, and no government should be able to tell me that I can’t enjoy them in the privacy of my own home. If anyone can tell me how I might access and experience these drugs legally, I would deeply appreciate it. Thanks so much.

    1. Same school – same age. i concur. 1st trip in 65 laying on the beach with 11 others holding hands in a circle. The League For Spiritual Discovery. Set and setting. i too was frustrated with the lack of pharmaceutical psychedelics, namely Sandoz. After moving to Mexico 8 years ago i was fortunate enough to be invited to a Huichol wedding party, two weeks later attended a peyote ritual in a sweat lodge. Probably legal but certainly not pharmaceutical. Similar set and setting. Let the button pick you.

  4. The writer of this article certainly created a work of fiction around the story of Leary and how he ruined drug research. His account of what happened at the arrest wasn’t even accurate. Please don’t rewrite history and pass it off as journalism.

  5. On December 20, 1965, Timothy Leary was arrested for the first time after his daughter was found with 3 unlit marijuana joints in her pocket on a family vacation coming back from Mexico. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and a $30,000 fine under the Marijuana Tax Act. While he was fighting this in trial, in 1968 he was arrested again. In 1969 SCOTUS ruled in Leary’s favor and overturned the 1965 conviction but not the 1968 conviction. It was in 1970 was he was prosecuted 10 years for the 68 conviction in which he escaped. In 1972 he was captured by Richard Nixon and sent back to United States facing 95 years in prison and $5 million bail. He spent 4 years in prison until Jerry Brown pardoned him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *