THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Questions Coming Back to Life

It is tempting to assume we know everything we need to learn about the Sixties and to leave safely submerged what cannot be re-floated (thank God, say some). But two current books remind us that questions raised then and never wholly answered are arising again, buoyed in part by legal but quiet research conducted abroad and here in the U.S.

I've been following this re-emergence neither as a devotee of the war on drugs nor as an old hippie (I am an elder, but was never a hippie); rather, as a former board member of a group organized by Robert Jesse and "dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people." One evening in winter 1967, I was just a tourist lucky enough to witness Jim Morrison of the Doors on the stage of San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, instructing his baby to set the night on fire. As a relentlessly single-minded graduate student then, I watched as Timothy Leary, dressed in a white Nehru outfit, grinning broadly, twirled a long strand of glass beads under a strobe light, his teeth flashing on and off.

What is the benefit, decades later, of revisiting the melodrama initiated by a Harvard psychologist eating bitter, stringy psilocybin mushrooms in Cuernavaca in summer 1960? Okay, the cast of characters soon included Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, and the comparative religionist Huston Smith. Set at a prestigious university, an isolated Mexican beach town, and a patrician Hudson Valley estate, the story boasted cinematic potential. However, the main benefit for us is that the Harvard group was presented with many of the questions that illegality soon froze like actors in a prolonged tableau, questions now twitching back to public life.

Like Jay Stevens' earlier book Storming Heaven, Don Lattin's recent Harvard Pychedelic Club is a wryly tumultuous history, but whereas the former covers a wider scope ("LSD and the American dream"), the latter focuses sharply on the group that began in Cambridge. In contrast to Latttin's account, Gary Bravo's Birth of a Psychedelic Culture brings us the ruminations of two of the surviving principals of the Harvard group, the scholarly Ralph Metzner and the psychologist formerly known as Richard Alpert, who transmogrified into the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Their recorded conversation has the flavor of a lively reunion as the two recall an astonishing young adulthood, generously illustrated with snapshots and brief statements from colleagues.

As Metzner acknowledged in his own The Ecstatic Adventure, the Harvard group generated "a" psychedelic culture--not the first, not the only. For example, Huxley had published a couple of books in the Fifties on thoughts occasioned by psychedelics in that capacious mind. The investment banker Gordon Wasson had written at length in Life about his discovery of a psilocybin ritual in Oaxaca. Stan Grof had done extensive research with LSD therapy in Prague and in the U.S.; and Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond, in Canada.

The main question raised by reminders of the Harvard cohort is this: what are the benefits, if any, of various psychoactive molecules? Should the group's saga be dismissed as a swirl of inflated claims and false hopes, or can it also be read as a set of questions raised and, in some cases, not yet satisfactorily answered?

Let us deal first with the charismatic Leary. According to an unforgiving obituary in Harvard's university daily, he had likened himself to Prometheus, presumably for having set minds on fire. In the same spirit of grandiosity, Leary might also be compared with Martin Luther, in the sense of challenging the establishment of his day and suggesting direct access to another reality, in Luther's case through his translation of the Bible; in Leary's, through a molecule that he wanted to help make vernacular. One difference is that despite the best efforts of activists, Leary was unable to get enough political power on his side to weather the inevitable counter-revolution.

It is a cliché of the underground psychedelic culture that Leary was advised by Huxley to continue discreet research among patients, artists, intellectuals and the like; by Ginsberg, to turn on as many people as possible. (The poet's advice came during an acid initiation when Ginsberg sought to get JFK and Khrushchev on the phone in order to settle the nuclear stand-off.)

However, by the early Sixties, whatever Leary would do, the cat was clawing its way out of the bag, and by the later Sixties the West Coast contingent led by Ken Kesey was sponsoring "acid tests," at which lysergic acid diethylamide-25 was widely distributed. This drug is famously potent, and millions of doses were available through the grace of such underground chemists as Stanley Owsley. Word of mouth would have assured its spread, even without the McLuhanesque slogan of "tune in, turn on, drop out," even without Leary's claim in a Playboy interview that LSD was the "most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man."

In any case, it is now 2010, and far from dwindling, the list of psychoactive molecules used in the U.S. has grown. Whereas the Harvard "club" relied mainly on psilocybin and LSD, many "psychonauts" have since become familiar with such drugs as ayahuasca from the Amazon basin, ibogaine from West Africa, salvia divinorum from Mexico. MDMA (Ecstasy, or as Metzner dubbed it, an "empathogen") was rediscovered in a California lab and became a staple first of psychotherapy and then of the underground rave culture. In what may serve as a portent, ayahuasca "tea" is now actually legal in the U.S., at least for adherents of a religion that started in Brazil, as is mescaline for members of the Native American Church.

Meanwhile, a magazine as hard-headed as The Economist, eager to stop the drug wars, claims that "prohibition has failed; legalization is the least bad solution." Legalization, the editorial continues, "would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated."

Misuse is certainly a problem, as are addictive drugs such as the widespread methamphetamine. But to what extent are certain molecules, properly used, a problem at all? The Harvard club clearly treated the psychedelics as an opportunity. With the wisdom of hindsight, various questions arise:

In what ways are psychoactive drugs useful for dealing with alcoholism and other addictions, terminal cancer, and what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

In what situations do psychedelics involve danger, including the opportunity cost of trivialization? How do these compare with other dangers that we accept, such as driving or consuming alcohol, and how can the dangers in using psychedelics be avoided or minimized?
Under what conditions, if any, are psychedelics beneficial not only for medical purposes, but also for "expanding consciousness" and for occasioning "spiritual" experiences?

What are good models for a search that might be occasioned by psychedelics? (Leary and Metzner devised a manual for psychedelic sessions based loosely on a Tibetan classic and wrote a paper praising Hermann Hesse as a pioneer, especially in the novels Steppenwolf and Journey to the East.)

If guides are necessary or helpful, how should they be chosen? who trains them, and what do they do and avoid doing? Should psychedelics be used to reinforce commitments already made, as to a specific religious belief?

Should powerful drugs be legalized, decriminalized, or what? Who controls access?

Over the long term, how can the effect of psychedelics be channeled to positive ends? To what extent does this require a continuing practice that's not dependent on drugs?

If people undertake a "spiritual" journey, how can they best deal with the vicissitudes of a relationship with a guru or "spiritual friend" or counselor?

For those who believe that a major cultural or "spiritual" change is necessary, can any of these molecules help? (Huxley believed a psychoactive drug had a place in his utopia, Island.) If so, under what conditions?

I gather that psychedelic enthusiasts long ago got past the fantasy of dumping LSD in reservoirs and hoping for world peace. In its place, researchers are starting legally to study the effects of the drugs, both as medicines and, as Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins writes, occasions for "mystical-type experiences."

For example, with help from the Council on Spiritual Practices, the Hopkins research team reported that 33% of the volunteers "rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be "among the top five most spiritually significant experiences."

With support from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), legal research on several psychoactive drugs is now being or has recently been conducted in such countries as Canada, Germany, Israel, Russia, Switzerland, and at several universities in the U.S. (For more details, go to www.maps.org), click on "R&D medicines," then on "Psychedelic research around the world.") MAPS itself is now focusing on medical uses of marijuana and on MDMA, especially as it may help with post traumatic stress disorder, widespread among rape and accident victims and among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, most of this global research falls within the medical model. But the brooding omnipresence hovering above the field remains the experiment at Marsh Chapel, the last effort of the Harvard group before they decamped from the Boston area. A graduate student named Walter Pahnke conducted a study on a Good Friday, based on an elaborate set of criteria, finding that 30-40% of volunteers had a "complete" mystical experience with the help of psilocybin.

In Cleansing the Doors of Perception, Huston Smith, a participant at Marsh Chapel, went so far as to write "until the Good Friday Experiment, I had no direct personal encounter with God of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe." The son of missionaries in China and a believer belonging to a mainline Protestant church, Smith wrote a best-selling book about the principal religions of the world. A "mystical-type" experience might be experienced as "Christian," as "Hindu," or whatever; it can also be received without the hypothesis of any god.

Five decades after the "Harvard psychedelic club," that university is again somewhat involved with psychedelics, not only as the alma mater of the persistent and ingenious Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS, but as the base for research, for example, on peyote as a sacrament in the Native American Church.

If a main benefit of the psychedelics is a glimpse beyond consensus reality--the personal discovery that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy"--then we deserve careful research on what they can in fact make possible. In science it's true that Kary Mullis credits LSD with helping to spark his Nobel Prize-winning discovery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), but despite rumors about Francis Crick, most Nobels have been awarded for work which, to the best of our knowledge, was done on no drugs more psychedelic than coffee, beer, and tobacco.

Meanwhile, a column in Fortune magazine makes a case for the use of psychedelics to generate creative thought among business people. Michael Schrage imagines a retreat center for "creative business visualization," at which visiting executive teams would be given "small, precise dosages" of psychoactive materials to "push themselves beyond the boundaries of conventional business perception" and thus gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

In considering whether psychedelics, optimally used, can reveal other ways of thinking and experiencing the world, the Hopkins research and the Fortune column go far beyond a medical model which asks mainly whether a drug can do more good than harm in curing a disease. In contrast, the basic question raised by the Harvard group is this: under what circumstances can the psychedelics liberate humans from restrictions normal in the everyday thinking that is necessary for such challenges as designing bridges, driving cars, and completing tax returns? In what ways, to what extent, under what conditions, can some of these molecules help to enrich our lives?

The Harvard "club" began proposing and exploring models. Whatever the aftermath in the Sixties (or as a physician would say, the "sequelae"), it was in the best tradition of a university to raise the questions. Now we are gradually finding other opportunities to propose answers, and on that basis, to improve public policy.

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