Gateway Drugs

Don Lattin's new book charts the start of the psychedelic revolution.

Timothy Leary refused to get Andrew Weil high. It was 1960, and Leary — then a pioneering psychology professor at Harvard — had an agreement with the university allowing him to test psilocybin on grad students. Weil was a freshman.

Leary’s experiments were the talk of the campus. After sampling magic mushrooms extensively in Mexico that summer, “he’d come back on fire, saying that this would revolutionize society,” said longtime San Francisco Chronicle religion reporter Don Lattin, whose new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, takes a lucid look at four founding fathers of a movement that changed the world. In other words, Leary was right.

The word “psychedelic” hadn’t yet been coined when Leary met MIT philosophy professor Huston Smith in a Boston restaurant on the night JFK was elected. A scholar of mystical experiences who had never had a mystical experience, Smith wanted to try these mind-altering substances that so enraptured Leary and his Harvard colleague Richard Alpert, aka Baba Ram Dass. The Harvard men sought Smith’s expertise.

When they tripped, “Leary and Alpert felt that they were having a religious experience, but they didn’t understand it. They wondered: Is this what the saints and the mystics were talking about? They brought Smith in to get some theological context,” said Lattin, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Thursday, January 21.

Turned away by Leary, “Weil would not take no for an answer. He ended up forging a letter on Harvard stationery and getting his own supply” — from a chemical company that sold such drugs legally — “not of psilocybin but of mescaline,” said Lattin, who based his book on extensive interviews with Weil and other members of the “club.” These include Alpert, who “was a gay man living in the closet” when he met Weil’s roommate, Ronnie Winston, at a party in 1960. The pair “became very good friends, and Alpert ended up turning Ronnie on, guiding him in a psilocybin session. Nothing really happened sexually, but there was that intimacy that comes when you share psychedelics.” Left out, “Weil got very, very jealous and decided he was going to bring this whole project down.”

He did this by writing a tell-all for the Harvard Crimson “about how things were way out of control and that now they were giving these drugs to undergraduates. … Talk about playing hardball.” Leary and Alpert promptly lost their jobs. The rest, of course, is history, “but people are still very angry with Weil.” Alpert, whom Lattin interviewed for three days in Maui, “is still mad. Weil is really ashamed of what he did, and he’s tried to apologize.”

Before “mainstreaming himself” as America’s holistic-health guru, Weil did his part for the drug scene. “He was the hip doctor giving advice on getting stoned. His first three books were about drugs,” and his undergrad thesis, Lattin laughed, “was on the use of nutmeg as a psychotropic agent.” 7 p.m., free.

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