I meet Dr. Halpern — considered the most important above-ground scientist in America willing to investigate hallucinogenic drugs — at McLean Hospital, a teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, where he is assistant professor of psychiatry. Halpern, 39, has been at McLean since 1998 and made a name for himself in 2005 with a groundbreaking research project studying peyote use within the Native American Church. Prior to that, Halpern worked on projects related to drug addiction, and the use of hallucinogens to treat it.
Before we head into his office at McLean, Halpern wants to take a walk in the woods that surround the hospital’s Belmont grounds. It is a crisp spring morning, and I half expect Halpern to pick and ingest some lichen, or start scraping some bark off a tree that he would brew into a psychedelic tea. Eventually we find our way to his office, where I imagined would be cushions on the floor, or maybe a giant statue of Shiva or Vishnu. What I see instead is the office of a typical Harvard professor: wall-to-ceiling papers, books, and journals. And while the screen-saver on his computer monitor is decidedly psychedelic, there is nothing here to suggest I am in the den of a mad Harvard scientist, hell-bent on dosing the collective American consciousness with LSD. In fact, when I mention the ghost of Leary and his legacy, Halpern smiles and says, “Well, we have seen how not to do it, haven’t we?”
Leery of Leary
In 1959, Leary had just begun a lecturer position in psychology at Harvard. After an acquaintance told him about the religious history of psychedelic mushrooms, Leary decided to try it for himself. He wrote later that it completely transformed his understanding of consciousness, and sent him on a path from which, except for a few stints in prison, he would never stray. Along with his colleague at Harvard, and fellow psychology professor Alpert (today known as Baba Ram Dass), Leary was able to begin a legitimate study of psilocybin and other drugs, sanctioned by the university with the promise by Leary and Alpert that they would keep it aboveboard.
Eventually it was discovered by university officials that Leary and Alpert were indeed giving LSD and psilocybin to undergraduates, as well as to other professors. By then the rumor mill was at full tilt; 1963 saw an explosion of talk on campus about all-night drug parties at Leary’s house.
A few days before Leary and Alpert were officially expelled in May of 1963, the New York Times reported that the decision to oust the duo had already come down from the college president, Nathan Pusey. The paper described a growing fear among officials at Harvard and other colleges of students holding “private psilocybin parties.”
Leary and Alpert acquired a huge and shambling mansion in Milbrook, New York, where they continued their experiments. They were regularly visited by artists, musicians, and freaks of every kind. LSD became illegal in 1966 (psilocybin in 1971) and many of the original researchers, including Hofmann, were unhappy with where Leary had taken the public’s understanding of the drug. Leary, they complained, took them out of the purview of science and put them into the hands of, well, dirty hippies everywhere.