Cannabis Kingpins: Masters of Marijuana – Part 4: Timothy Leary


For most marijuana enthusiasts, Timothy Leary’s name doesn’t ‘fit’ with the pantheon of greats. The likes of Herer, Peron, and Rathbun dedicated their lives to the legalization of weed. Leary, on the other hand, was an advocate of psychedelic drugs such as LSD. He was a firm believer that LSD could expand the mind and lead people on a quest for personal truth.

Leary was a hyper-intelligent individual who led a complete car-crash of a life! During the 1960s and 1970s, he spent time in dozens of prisons around the world. President Nixon described him as “the most dangerous man in America.” Opinions on Leary are polarized. Actor Tim Robbins called him a “brave neuronaut.” Critic and professor, Louis Menaud, suggested that “The only things Leary was serious about were pleasure and renown.”

Throughout his life, Leary was all about spreading the message about LSD. He became a notorious figure in American counterculture in the 1960s. Do you remember the catchphrase: “turn on, tune in, drop out’? That came from Leary. He was a man who lived on his terms and seemed uninterested or unperturbed by collateral damage. It is no surprise that the pleasure-seeking womanizer was divorced four times! His first wife died in 1955, yet he married again the following year.

So, why is Timothy Leary, an LSD advocate, included in a list of cannabis kingpins? The answer is simple: He very briefly changed the course of marijuana history in the United States. Sadly, the government reacted quickly and found another way to prohibit the herb. Leary’s actions were a case of making the best of a bad situation, as you’ll find out by reading his fascinating story.

Surrounded by Chaos – The Early Years

Timothy Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1920, to an Irish Catholic family. He was an only child and quickly experienced the loneliness of a single-parent family. His father, also called Timothy, was an alcoholic dentist who left his wife, Abigail, when the junior Leary was 14. Young Timothy had no shortage of ambition or intellect but seemed incapable of focusing. His education history was a mess as he went from location to location:

  • Almost flunked out from the College of the Holy Cross (1938-1940).
  • Followed by a brief stint as a cadet at West Point. He withdrew after being charged with an honor code violation. His failure to admit going on a drinking binge led to a punishment of ‘silencing’ from his fellow cadets.
  • The University of Alabama. Leary was expelled for spending a night in the women’s dormitory. Despite his shenanigans, he earned top grades and developed what became a lifelong interest in psychology.
  • The University of Illinois. From there, he was drafted into the United States Army in 1943 during World War II.
  • Leary also studied at Georgetown University and Ohio State University.

Leary was assigned as a private first class in the 2d Combat Cargo Group in the Pacific Ocean Theater of the war. Later, he described the group as a ‘suicide command.’ Leary received a promotion to the rank of corporal near the end of the war. He left the army in January 1946 with a variety of honors and the status of sergeant. Given his later life, it is ironic that he earned a ‘Good Conduct’ Medal!

Professional Success & Downward Spiral

Remarkably, the University of Alabama reinstated Leary AND ensured he received credit for his Ohio coursework! He graduated from Alabama in August 1945 and earned an M.S. in psychology at the State College of Washington in 1946. By now, he had married Marianne Busch. By 1950, the couple had a son and a daughter together, and Leary had earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

It was a boom period for psychologists. The National Institute of Mental Health (formed in 1949) quickly became the fastest growing of the seven Institutes. At this time, the assumption was that people were crazy to feel unhappy in the world’s most prosperous nation. An estimated 50% of hospital beds in the United States contained patients classified as mentally ill.

Leary enjoyed immense professional success in this period. Aside from his academic achievement, he taught at Harvard and co-founded the Kaiser Hospital’s psychology department in Oakland. However, nothing could prevent him from going down a path of self-destruction. Both Leary and Marianne were alcoholics, and she committed suicide in 1955. His father died penniless in New York the following year.

Incredibly, despite continuing to drink liberally, Leary raised his two children alone. He also directed psychiatric research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. There were rumors that he had an affair with a married man in the mid-1950s. When this individual was arrested for soliciting in a men’s bathroom, Leary had a nervous breakdown and fled to Europe with his kids.

He got married in 1956 to Mary Della Cioppa, and divorced a year later! After returning to the U.S., he became a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard. In true Leary fashion, he ultimately messed things up by failing to attend lectures, and his contract was not renewed in 1963.

Down the Psychedelic Road

Leary loved his drugs, especially psychedelics. Psilocybin is the hallucinogen derived from Mexican mushrooms and wasn’t illegal in 1960. Neither was LSD, and Leary first tried it in 1961. Drug addicts, patients with emotional issues, and alcoholics were all prescribed LSD. Cary Grant claimed it gave him ‘peace of mind’ like nothing else.

In conjunction with Aldous Huxley, Leary effectively planned the future of the psychedelic movement. He began giving the drug to students at Harvard, the most likely reason for his dismissal. The nation’s media picked up on the story, and the furor caused the FDA to begin regulating psychedelic use.

Advocates for marijuana and other drugs tried to spread their message, and Leary was no different. For the rest of his public life, he was effectively a ‘counterculture salesman.’ Indeed, he unveiled his famous ‘drop-out’ slogan at Berkeley in 1966. Along with Richard Alpert, his sidekick from the failed Psychedelic Project at Harvard, Leary tried to spread the LSD word in Acapulco. The outcome was eminently predictable, with both men deported!

Billy Hitchcock, a wealthy stockbroker, offered them sanctuary at his family’s 2,500-acre estate in New York City called Millbrook. It became an essential location for American counterculture, where guests readily consumed psychedelics. Even children were not spared from the ‘great experiment.’

Leary married again in 1964, to Nena von Schiebrugge, and divorced a year later. His third wife is famous for being Uma Thurman’s mother! In 1967, Leary married his fourth wife, Rosemary Woodruff, and didn’t get divorced for nine years.

LSD Is Banned Throughout the United States

It was during the 1960s that Leary leaped from counterculture rebel to notorious criminal. He was gaining national fame, and usually for the wrong reasons. His September 1966 interview with Playboy revealed that he wasn’t as enlightened as one might think at that time. Leary preposterously claimed that LSD could ‘cure’ homosexuality. He claimed a lesbian ‘became’ heterosexual after using the hallucinogenic. At least he later acknowledged that homosexuality wasn’t an illness, so it didn’t need a cure.

By this stage, youths in America were using so many psychedelics that the government finally sat up and took notice. There were Senate subcommittee meetings designed to try and gain an understanding of why so many people were using drugs. Leary was called as an expert witness and begged the subcommittee not to classify psychedelics as an illegal drug.

Senator Ted Kennedy famously asked Leary if he felt LSD was ‘extremely dangerous.’ He replied: “Sir, the motor car is dangerous if used improperly… Human stupidity and ignorance is the only danger human beings face in this world.” He also suggested introducing legislation to ensure that only trained and licensed adults could use LSD. Leary’s testimony didn’t have the requisite impact. California banned the drug in October 1966, and the Staggers-Dodd Bill of 1968 outlawed it across the country.

Breaking the Law – Again & Again!

Though Leary often got himself into trouble, his usage of LSD wasn’t illegal until 1968. As a result, he didn’t get into trouble with the law until December 1965, for the possession of marijuana. It was the beginning of decades of arrests and a spell as a fugitive. Another arrest for cannabis possession followed in 1968. Two years later, he received a 10-year prison sentence for the offense.

Upon his entry to prison, he took psychological tests, some of which he had designed! Leary cleverly answered the questions in a manner that made him appear to be a ‘regular’ person with interest in gardening! This tactic ensured he was a gardener in a low-security prison. Leary used this opportunity to flee the prison in September 1970 and went on the run. His travels took him to Switzerland, Austria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan by 1972.

However, American agents arrested him before he could get off the plane in Kabul. Leary’s attempt at devising his own defense strategy was a mistake. The court found him guilty, and he received an additional five years on top of his original sentence. He ended up in Folsom Prison in California in 1973. Remarkably, he was in a cell next to the killer, Charles Manson, and had many discussions on LSD and mind control. Leary got out of prison after agreeing to become an FBI informant. However, none of his snitching ever resulted in a prosecution.

Briefly Changing Marijuana History

All the above occurred after Timothy Leary entered the cannabis Hall of Fame. We would like to say it was a love of weed that led him to his actions. However, Leary was only trying to save his skin. His 1965 arrest for marijuana possession was nothing more than a routine bust. However, that night in Laredo, on the Texas border, had huge ramifications.

On his return from Mexico, a couple of U.S. Customs Service officials found cannabis in his daughter Susan’s underwear. Leary took responsibility and walked into a tornado of trouble. In many ways, the incident suited Leary because he had long since wanted a national drug debate. He was convicted of breaking the law under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In March 1966, he received a staggering 30-year prison sentence and a $30,000 fine.

Leary appealed because the Act was unconstitutional. He argued that it required a degree of self-incrimination, which contradicts the Fifth Amendment. In Leary v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Leary’s favor on May 19, 1969. It officially declared that the 1937 Act WAS unconstitutional, and overturned Leary’s conviction from 1965.

For a brief period, it seemed as if cannabis would once again become legal. Alas, the only precedent he set, was winning through the use of logic previously absent from the process of writing law. Unfortunately, the government merely replaced the 1937 legislation with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. in 1970.

As far as weed is concerned, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the most relevant aspect. It listed cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance. According to Congress, the plant had “no currently accepted medical use.” It also had a high risk of abuse and addiction. Half a century later, and the CSA remains.

Leary’s Later Years

Governor Jerry Brown signed for Leary’s release from prison in April 1976. He returned to work writing books and talking about philosophy on stage. Leary went ‘on tour’ with G. Gordon Liddy, the infamous Watergate burglar, in 1982. The ex-cons discussed all manner of issues, including the environment, abortion, welfare, and gay rights. Both men earned a handsome sum and a degree of respect.

While Leary continued to use psychedelic drugs and likely cannabis, he refrained from championing them publicly. Instead, he turned his attention to the human lifespan and space colonization. One of his most ambitious plans was to place 5,000 of the world’s most virile people on a vessel launched into space!

Sadly, Leary’s last years were beset by tragedy and personal loss. His daughter shot her boyfriend dead in 1990 but was ruled mentally unable to stand trial twice. Susan hung herself two years later. In the same year, Leary divorced his fifth wife. He retreated by entering a circle of cultural icons such as Dan Aykroyd and Johnny Depp. Leary died from prostate cancer in May 1996.

There is little doubt that Timothy Leary left his mark on the world in a variety of fields. He influenced the application of game theory to psychology. He was also an influence on transactional analysis and became a central figure in the counterculture of the 1960s. Leary is mentioned in numerous musical and literary works and remains a memorable figure.

While Leary is best known for his love of psychedelic drugs, he made an impact on the history of cannabis. Though it was motivated by self-interest, his Supreme Court victory in 1969 briefly threatened to bring cannabis legalization into the public sphere. However, the government had other ideas, and continue to prohibit marijuana according to the 1970 CSA.