The Harvard Psychedelic Club

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Hulton Archive / Getty

Timothy Leary, at his desk in 1964

An Ivy League campus seems an unlikely place for the word psychedelic and all that it implies to take root, but as journalist Don Lattin writes in his new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, the hallowed quads of Cambridge, Mass., are where the New Age movement began. In 1960, six years before he famously advised teens to "turn on, tune in, drop out," acid guru Timothy Leary met fellow Harvard professors Ram Dass and Huston Smith and an ambitious freshman named Andrew Weil (now an internationally recognized physician and health guru). Their collaborations and conflicts would forever alter Americans' views on religion, reality and drugs. TIME spoke with Lattin about Leary's contradictory legacy, the future of hallucinogens and what he learned from his own bad trip.

I had wondered how you first became interested in this topic, and then I got to the last chapter.
I lay all my cards on the table at the end there about my past struggles with drugs and alcohol. Like many people in my generation, I grew up hearing and reading about Timothy Leary, and I was fascinated. Later on, as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, I did stories on Leary and Ram Dass and Huston Smith. I covered religion for the Chronicle and the Examiner, but a lot of the time I would be writing about the so-called New Age movement and the Human Potential movement and Eastern mysticism and all that stuff. So I thought I'd do this story about Leary and Dass and what happened at Harvard. When I started doing my early research and reporting, I realized that not only did I not know the story, but the story had never really been told, especially about what happened with Andrew Weil. Nobody had ever really heard about his role in the whole thing. Plus, I wanted to reassess the impact that the psychedelic '60s has had on the culture, because there was such a backlash against all that in the '80s and '90s. Then of course, there's the personal story, which I tell at the end. I struggled about whether or not to put that in the book.

Why did you end up including it?
It explains why I was so fascinated with their story and the questioning of what is the long-term impact of these drugs. I had some of the most powerfully profound, amazing experiences of my life on LSD, and I also had a bad trip. I basically had a psychotic break — I was a freshman in college at the time — and I was worried that I had subjected myself to permanent brain damage. It was the most terrifying thing of my life. Aldous Huxley writes that these are "heaven-and-hell drugs." You can go both places with them. I've often thought about what long-term effect that did have on my life. In the end, I think it was a positive experience for me. I mean, I did get to the other side, right? I came back able to talk about it.

How do you think Leary will be viewed in 50 years?
I'm not sure. When you really study the life of Leary, you see both sides of him. He was this very complicated character. One of the ironies of this story is that the excesses of Leary and Dass in the whole LSD crusade prompted this backlash, not just against drugs as recreation, but a backlash against serious scientific research into what beneficial uses they have. And not just LSD. There are dozens of designer psychedelics that have been developed: ecstasy, MDMA, stuff most people had never heard of. Only now, 50 years later, is there research on their use for the treatment of depression, posttraumatic syndrome, alcoholism, end-of-life use for people who are facing their own mortality. Even Harvard is studying LSD again, with government money. There's been a whole renaissance of serious, reputable, legitimate research into psychedelic drugs; it's taken that long to get over Leary.

I love the line that you quoted from Leary when he was asked who he is: "You get the Timothy Leary you deserve."
That's a typical Leary line because you're never sure if he's serious or pulling your leg. I was talking with Ralph Metzner, who worked with Leary and Dass at Harvard in the early '60s, and he said, "You know he wasn't really against everything; he was really more like a trickster from American-Indian lore. He's not some compassionate, all-loving guru. He really tricks you into waking up; he fools you." Leary was like that.

What do you see as the future use of psychedelics?
It has ebbed and flowed. A lot of people are still taking LSD. Some of my friends' kids are saying, "Oooh, wow, Don's writing a book on LSD, how cool." People have never really stopped exploring this stuff. In one of the first books that Weil ever wrote, The Natural Mind, his premise is that we have an innate need to alter our consciousness, almost like our need for food or sex. We're hardwired to want to do this, and I think there's some truth to that. He says, Look at kids who spin around to get dizzy. People have been using drugs since time immemorial. The only thing that seems to change is which drugs are legal and which are illegal, or which drugs are in and which are out.