For a couple of freewheeling years, two young Harvard psychologists have carried on wide-ranging experiments with mind-altering drugs. At the university's Center for Research in Personality, they sent their graduate-student subjects floating off into other-worldly visions of new and fantastic forms of "reality" and a new meaning of life. Now the cosmic ball is over. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, both Ph.D.s, are being dropped from the Harvard faculty because university authorities agree with the medical profession that the drugs they used are too dangerous for campus experiments. But the two psychologists are acting blithely unconcerned.
In Boston's newest medical building on Emerson Place last week, they were settling into plush offices with the ostentatious title "International Federation for Internal Freedom'' on the door. They sounded as euphoric as any of their experimental subjects still under the influence of psilocybin, their favorite "consciousness-expanding" drug. Said Alpert, who has taken the drug himself 50 times: "Two years ago, dismissal from Harvard would have frightened me very much. But now, with deeper, intuitive understanding of myself, I'm perfectly comfortable." Said Leary: "This is much more important than Harvard."
Potential Hazards. "Our research has almost limitless possibilities for the expansion of the human mind." say Leary and Alpert, and they plan to pursue that expansion through their federation as long as their supplies of psilocybin hold out. Before Harvard cracked down, they had already given 3,500 doses of the drug to 400 subjects, mostly graduate students in psychology and theology, plus a smattering of M.D.s, artists, and inmates of a state prison.
The controversy that has flared over the Leary-Alpert work and similar studies at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, Calif., is largely a result of the extraordinary potency of the drugs. Psychiatrists, who have been using them for a dozen years and are fully aware of their hazards, call them hallucinogens (giving rise to hallucinations) or psychotomimetic drugs (mimicking the psychoses, the most crippling of mental illnesses). There are three in wide use.
∙ MESCALINE, the oldest, is extracted from the tops, or buttons, of peyote, a cactus common in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The buttons are used as a communion host by the Native American
Church, which claims 200,000 Indian adherents. They are taken for kicks by beatniks and hipsters, from San Diego to Greenwich Village, whenever they are available. The effect on the user is a widescreen, three-dimensional vision, usually in Technicolor, with the dimensions of time and space distorted.
∙ LSD-25 (short for D-lysergic acid diethylamide), by far the most potent, is a chemical relative of the ergot drugs, synthesized in 1943 by Swiss Chemist Albert Hofmann. As Discoverer Hofmann found, and countless psychiatrists have since confirmed, a dose of LSD-25 can be so small as to be almost invisible and still destroy a man's mental equilibrium, at least temporarily. As little as four-millionths of an ounce is sometimes enough to throw an emotionally wobbly individual into a mental hospital. One victim, ill for months, was a psychologist who was trying out LSD himself.