Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Monday, July 31, 2006

UK government advisors say alcohol is more harmful than LSD

I'm sure much will be made of today's report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - which recommends replacing the current system of classifying drugs based on the penalty for possession (Class A, B, or C) with a classification based on the harm that drugs do. As a result, current Class 'A' drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy suddenly become near the bottom of the scale, way behind legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco - and even behind cannabis. There's more about this here, including a link to the report itself. Saying that LSD is less harmful than alcohol is bound to cause a stink in certain circles, but ultimately if you look at the science, rather than the politics or media, it should be a fairly uncontroversial statement.

But what is interesting is the way the report doesn't hold back when attacking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). For example, see the following excerpt that looks at the recent law regarding magic mushrooms (p26 on), which I thought worthy of putting online for all to see. There's much more like this in the report - it's very interesting, well worth a read (see report for footnotes).

Magic mushrooms

54. Magic mushrooms contain psilocin and psilocybin, naturally-occurring compounds with hallucinogenic properties. Psilocin and psilocybin were designated Class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, apparently on account of their hallucinogenic properties. Psilocin is also listed under Schedule I, the highest level of prohibition, under the UN’s Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971.94 Sir Michael Rawlins, Chairman of the ACMD, told us: “I have no idea what was going through the minds of the group who put it in Class A in 1970 and 1971 […]It is there because it is there”.95 The Home Office has admitted that it has never conducted any research into psilocin use and that there is “no clear evidence of a link between psilocin use and acquisitive or other crime”.96

55. In the past a legal loophole meant that fresh magic mushrooms were not treated as controlled drugs, providing that they had not been ‘prepared’ (i.e. dried, packaged, cooked etc.). Section 21 of the Drugs Act 2005, which came into force on 18 July 2005, makes it an offence to import, export, produce, supply and possess with intent to supply magic mushrooms in any form.97 Because the decision to place magic mushrooms in Class A was a clarification of the law rather than a reclassification decision, the Government was not obliged to seek the advice of the ACMD in the usual manner. Nevertheless, the Government told us that it “did write to the ACMD, and ask for its views on [its] proposals before the Drugs Bill was introduced”. 98 The ACMD endorsed the move, telling us: “in March 2004 the Technical Committee heard that, over recent years, there had been a substantial increase in the number of retail outlets selling ‘fresh’ magic mushrooms. In fact HM Customs and Excise estimated the importation of 8,000–16,000 kgs during 2004”.99 However, the ACMD did not conduct a full review of the evidence in arriving at its decision. The Government’s use of a clarification of the law to put fresh magic mushrooms in Class A contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and meant that the ACMD was not given the chance to consider the evidence properly before responding. We also note the admission by the Home Office Minister Paul Goggins that “the Home Office received no submissions in favour of the clarification of the law in respect of magic mushrooms prior to the Drugs Act 2005 being granted Royal Assent on seven April and four submissions against”.100

56. In fact, we encountered a widespread view that the Class A status of magic mushrooms does not reflect the harms associated with their misuse. The RAND report concluded that the Government’s decision “was not based on scientific evidence”, noting that “the positioning of them in Class A does not seem to reflect any scientific evidence that they are of equivalent harm to other Class A drugs”.101 The RAND report pointed out that “National Statistics show that for deaths in which drug poisoning (listed on the death certificate) was the underlying cause of death, between 1993 and 2000 there was one death from magic mushrooms and 5,737 from heroin” and that “The lethal dose for humans is about one’s own body weight in mushrooms”.102 Professor Blakemore was also of the view that “if one could look at all the evidence for harm available now, including social harms, one would say [the classification of magic mushrooms] is wrong”.103 The Government’s own ‘Talk to Frank’ drug information website states that “Magic Mushrooms are not addictive in any way”.104 The drugs charity Release told us that “There was little transparency as to the reasoning behind this policy”, describing it as “an unacceptable situation”.105 Paul Flynn MP was also of the view that “The policy appears to have been driven by something other than evidence” and warned that “other more dangerous mushrooms, not covered by the current law, could be substituted for those that are prohibited”.106 Recent press reports, and data from the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), suggest that substitution with legal hallucinogens – including potentially lethal mushrooms of the Amanita family – is already happening.107,108

57. We were, therefore, surprised and disappointed to hear Sir Michael Rawlins, Chairman of the ACMD, tell us that “it was not a big issue” whether magic mushrooms were in the right Class. In Sir Michael’s view: “there are bigger, more important issues to worry about than whether fresh mushrooms join the rest of the other things in Class A”.109 The Chairman of the ACMD’s attitude towards the decision to place magic mushrooms in Class A indicates a degree of complacency that can only serve to damage the reputation of the Council. Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope and a member of the ACMD, did not share Sir Michael’s nonchalance. He told us that he was “not aware that the full council were asked to deliberate on this” and that “it was wrong for the Home Secretary to seek to enact [the change] in primary legislation without properly consulting the ACMD and giving it time to deliberate on it”.110 Mr Barnes was also of the view that “the evidence has indicated that [magic mushrooms are] in the wrong classification”.111 The ACMD should have spoken out against the Government’s proposal to place magic mushrooms in Class A. Its failure to do so has undermined its credibility and made it look as though it fully endorsed the Home Office’s decision, despite the striking lack of evidence to suggest that the Class A status of magic mushrooms was merited on the basis of the harm associated with their misuse.


And if you're wondering, these are the top 20 harmful drugs, as decided by a team of independent researches looking at physical harm, dependency and social harm.

In reverse order...

20 Khat
19 Alky Nitrates
18 Ecstasy
17 GHB
16 Anabolic Steroids
15 Methylphenidate
14 LSD
13 4-MTA
12 Solvents
11 Cannabis
10 Buprenorphine
9 Tobacco
8 Amphetamine
7 Benzodiazephine
6 Ketamine
5 Alcohol
4 Street Methadone
3 Barbiturates
2 Cocaine
1 Heroin

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Anti-Leary Sentiment Discussed in a Nice Italian Restaurant

Timothy Leary is scum, a worthless despicable arsehole, and that must be true for it says so in the papers. You don’t even need to read the bodies of the reviews of Robert Greenfield’s recent book about Tim to find this out, even their titles hate him – see for example ‘Timothy Liar’ (LA Weekly), ‘The Nutty Professor’ (New York Times) or ‘Timothy Bleary’ (LA Times).

Now, it’s not really my place to comment on Greenfield’s book, but I don’t think it’s unprofessional of me to mention that it somewhat on the negative side, and that it has made a lot of people who knew Leary extremely upset. Many have decided that it is best not to detail their complaints publicly, hoping this will help starve the book of the oxygen of publicity (although there have been some exceptions, such as Zach Leary’s eloquent letter in the New York Times). Nevertheless, I thought the following recent conversation was interesting enough to report.

I recently had a meal in London’s Soho with Joanna Harcourt-Smith and Brian Barritt, two people who had lived with Leary long enough to really know him and be under no illusions about what he was like. Both have good reason to be 'anti-Leary' - particularly Joanna. But both recognize that he was responsible for connecting people to a much larger world, and that such an ability is so rare and precious that all the complaints about him don’t even begin to eclipse it. It was not long before the conversation turned to the subject of just why is it that some people hate Tim so much. And it was the ‘hate’ that was interesting, for anti-Leary sentiment is rarely a simple mocking dismissal, it is usually much a stronger emotion than that.

Joanna thought it was significant that bulk of the vitriol seems to come from men of a certain age. Was it the case, she wondered, that these were men who’s lives had gone very differently to how they wanted, and that the sheer strength of their hatred for Tim reflected an awareness that he symbolizes something that they have lost and need to deny that they had ever even glimpsed? This possibility reminded me of the Jungian interpretation of the type of story classed as ‘tragedy’, in which the people that the doomed protagonist destroys are personifications of the very elements of his own psyche that he is failing to integrate into his life, and in doing so is prevented from ‘becoming whole’ by integrating his ego into the Self.

To which Brian replied that this was all very well, and could well be true for all he knew, but it doesn’t change the fact that some people are basically fucking idiots.

Brian Barritt has a way with words, it must be said. I wonder if I can persuade him to start a blog?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't mention Leary!

Poor Doctor Leary! A team of academics were finally brave enough to replicate - and validate - some of his early work. But not only does he not get any credit, he gets dismissed by a researcher with a few sarky comments!

The worldwide press have reacted positively to the work of a team from John Hopkins University - examples are here, here and here. Their research showed that under certain circumstances psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms - can be used to create a spiritual epiphany, which will have a long lasting and positive effect on the lives of those who experience it. It's not hard to see why the press took such an interest in this - it's pretty amazing stuff. Genuine religious epiphanies are pretty rare in our Western culture and the ideas of scientists being able to create them at will has epic implications.

For the psychedelic research community, this is a major achievement - but not because of what the research demonstrated. That information was already widely known. What is significant is that a team was able, after 40 years, to legally and officially return to Leary's work. The experiment itself replicated the work he did at Harvard with his colleague Walter Pahkne from the Harvard Divinity School, and it showed that Leary's and Pahkne's results were both correct and replicable. Their experiment, which was also done under the same 'double-blind' parameters, became known as the 'Good Friday experiment' or the 'March Chapel experiment' because of the date and place it was carried out. It showed - for the first time - that religious experience could be triggered by psilocybin if it was administered in the correct environment.

Leary is mentioned in a many press reports, but only in the context that his name is always dropped whenever the press mention psychedelics. Neither he nor Pahkne are given any credit for their original work. The nearest I could find in the press coverage was a quote from Rick Doblin at MAPS, reported by ABC news, where he links the research to the 1962 Good Friday experiment and says it was carried out "by a minister and doctor." Doblin is a well-respected figure who knows full well who this minister and doctor were, for he carried out a follow up study on the participants of the Good Friday experiment in the 1990s. It seems likely that Doblin fears that mentioning Leary's name would damage the reputation of the team or their work. But why is this? If the work is scientifically solid, then why is it so damaging to note where the original ideas came from? Is it that the name 'Leary' has come to symbolise how a respected scientist can somehow go 'off the rails', and end up with a reputation that is academically worthless - the ultimate fear for those trying to make a living doing scientific research? Is this why many in this field shudder with horror at his name - despite their frequent use his ideas?

This is hinted in the only quote about Leary from the researchers themselves, that I'm aware of, at Medpagetoday.com. Here Dr Griffiths remarks that "We are conducting rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions, a route which Dr. Leary abandoned in the early 1960s". Now, Leary also prided himself on the 'rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions' which he was undertaking at the time. But Leary was not unique in being changed by studying these things. Many psychedelic researchers cling on to the belief that they are pillars of respectability, even as the gulf between them and their straight colleagues begins to widen, and despite their willingness to label others who have pursued identical work as irresponsible crazies. But the fact is, research in psychedelics does take people to some very strange places. Time and time again, researchers have moved away from the detached, objective viewpoint and stated that a subjective, experience-led approach is the only way to get a grip on things. And from that point on, their relationships with their scientific credibility will almost certainly hit a rocky patch. You get a sense that it is the subject itself which is the problem, and not the baggage of the name 'Leary', in the statement that NIDA put out. Here they distance themselves from this work, despite the fact that they co-funded it, and despite that (as far as I know) there hasn't even been any adverse publicity or criticism yet.

So you have to wonder, if this team keep replicating Leary's work and keep finding that it is still valid, just how long their respectability will last. It may well be that with a combination of hindsight and some major new idea they will be able to come up with a whole new avenue of respectable research. But if not, they should be careful - if they keep following Leary's ideas, they will shortly be in some very strange territory indeed. And if things get so out of hand that any of these researchers find themselves escaping from jail, then I just might write a book about them!

Wal-Mart and the Acid Smiley

In the wake of all the fuss about Wal-Mart trying to copyright the yellow smiley face symbol, I was reminded of the reaction of some Americans who had seen the British cover of my book. A few were unsure about the inclusion of a smiley badge symbol. This is because the symbol has taken on different meanings in the UK and the USA.

In the USA - correct me if I'm wrong - the symbol is seen as a bit vapid or brainless, a vaguely moronic symbol of empty-brained happiness, regardless of whether or not the link to acid house music is known. One difference between the UK and the USA, of course, was that the UK was not inundated by a tsunami of branded tat featuring the face in the early seventies, like the USA was. But the biggest difference was that the Acid House movement became a political issue in the UK, following the Conservative governments efforts to crack down on alternative lifestyles. This led, ultimately, to the mass protests against the Criminal Justice Bill, which effectively outlawed free festivals. It also led to those in the travelling/festivals/rave scene become politically active.

As a result, the acid smiley symbol became a symbol of defiance, an image of the unbroken spirit in the face of oppression from dark forces who no longer got the joke. You can see this is in the work of an artist such as Banksy, for example, such as:

For this reason, when the US issued this stamp in the late 1990s, there were many in the UK who found it extremely funny.

Anyway, Wal-Mart are now going to court to claim ownership of the symbol in the US. To be fair to Wal-Mart, they claim they have been forced into this by the actions of the Frenchman Franklin Loufrani, who is seeking US copyright of the symbol on the grounds that he used it in a newspaper in 1968 to denote a positive story. To be less fair to Wal-Mart, this is a pretty poor excuse. It is widely accepted that the symbol was invented by a guy called Harvey Bell in 1963, who used it to promote an insurance firm, and that they symbol then fell into the public domain before he could copyright it. It must take a certain shamelessness to come along afterwards and try to seek legal ownership of what is, essentially, an archetypal image that all children draw at the age of 3 or 4. It is like someone claiming, with their hand on their heart, that they own all the stickmen ever drawn. But you know what lawyers are like.

But where this gets interesting is how the symbol came to be associated with acid house. Like the coining of the name acid house itself, there are many conflicting stories, but a common strand of these is the involvement of acid house pioneer Genesis P-Orridge and his band Psychic-TV. Genesis was a friend of Leary and Learys influence is obvious on tracks such as Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out, which samples Tim, or the Tablet of Acid series of albums. This is interesting because in the mid-Sixties, following advice from Marshall McLuhan, Leary made the conscious decision to use his own smile - a classic shit-eating grin if ever there was one - as the marketing brand for LSD. This is why he always smiled when cameras were around, and that smile, especially when seen against the dead faces of law enforcement officers taking him away in handcuffs, was a wickedly clever and hugely successful method of promoting his beliefs and lifestyles. So this is why whenever I see the acid smiley face, I see Tim.

And this is why I have to laugh when I read about Wal-Mart's court case. It looks to me like they are spending a fortune on lawyers in order to legally be allowed to dress every member of staff with a large portrait of Timothy Leary on their back.