Letter to Crimson by Leary, Alpert

the Harvard Crimson
December 13, 1962
http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=248388 Letter to Crimson by Leary, Alpert

by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert

Read a brief commentary and meditation on these letters by Ilsa Jerome.

[MAPS’ Note: Alpert later known as Ram Dass.]

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

In three recent CRIMSON articles (widely reprinted in the national press) Harvard administrators have stated, that consciousness-expanding drugs (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin) are “a serious hazard to the mental health and stability even of apparently normal people.” While these statements are conservative from the administrative point of view, they are reckless and inaccurate from the scientific. The published facts and the philosophical-political implications deserve thoughtful review. To understand the importance of this issue, it is necessary to realize that more is involved than the more handlings of drugs. What is in question is the freedom or control of consciousness, the limiting or expanding of man’s awareness. Let us consider some of the facts.

These drugs are powerful nonverbal mind-altering substances–probably the most powerful ever known to man. Now any stimulus, verbal or nonverbal, which presents itself to the nervous system changes the bio-chemistry of your nervous system. If you want to play the labelling game you can call some of these changes dangerous and others beneficial. You can label some artificial and others natural. Compare this to the written word. Can the written word be dangerous? Is the written word natural? Are nonverbal stimuli such as the sacred mushroom of Mexico artificial? Is the chemical essence of the mushroom dangerous?

First, it is necessary to remember that the effect of any stimulus–verbal or nonverbal, artificial or natural–depends upon the set and the setting; your expectations and your environmental situation. Consider such words as “drug” or “doctor” or “dean.” Your reaction to such words depends on your set and the situation. Nonverbal stimuli such as consciousness-expanding drugs intensify experience many fold–but their effect similarly depends on the set and setting. Historically, expansive words and expansive drugs often been seen as dangerous and “mind-distorting” and administrators have been pressed to impose controls. But history also teaches us that you can’t proscribe experience and that the way to approach any new evolutionary development–verbal or nonverbal–is with courage, faith, and an open mind.

There is, however, no factual evidence that consciousness-expanding drugs are uniquely dangerous and considerable evidence that they are safe and beneficial. Any action or any stimulus may involve risk. But in law and science the concept “danger” must be proven clear and present. When we cut through rumor and hysteria, what are the published facts about consciousness-expanding drugs? The classic volume in this field (The Use of LSD in Psychotherapy, Josiah Macy Foundation, 1960) presents a table of “problems encountered” in 8,640 treatment doses and 3427 experimental doses, thirteen investigators reporting. Three problems were reported–“one disrobing,” “one suicide in a drug addict,” and one three-day paranoia. This represents a danger ratio of .0003. Compare these data with danger expectancies of alcohol, tobacco, or automobile driving.

The most systematic survey of consciousness-expanding drug hazards was published by Sidney Cohen, M.D., “LSD Side Effects and Complications,” (Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 1960). Dr. Cohen’s data from 44 researches on over 5,000 cases in which drugs were administered on 25,000 occasions reveals the following:


attempted suicide*–1.2

completed suicide*–0.4

psychotic reactions lasting longer than

48 hours *–1.8

POPULATION: Experimental Subjects

attempted suicide *–0

completed suicide *–0

psychotic reactions lasting longer than

48 hours *–0.8

* percentage per 1000.

These studies were executed in psychiatric situations where set and setting were purposely psychotogenetic. At the time of these investigations consciousness-expanding drugs were thought to produce “model psychoses.”

These studies concern hazards. Now let’s look at some facts about the beneficial aspects of consciousness-expanding drugs. There are four papers summarizing questionnaire data from subjects after consciousness-expanding experiences. Ditman et al, McGlothlin, Leary et al and Savage. In each study the percentage of subjects reporting positive life change and dramatic insight runs around 66. These data are the more astonishing when we realize that they are reported by persons who were not in formal therapy but, for the most part, experimental subjects.

The results just summarized report factual evidence–subject’s test reports or behavioral events, suicide or hospitalization. There are, of course, many papers describing lurid symptoms inferred by psychiatrists observing consciousness-expanding drug experiences. The psychiatric vocabulary is limited, ominous, and pathological. Gloomy diagnostic pronouncements by psychiatrists are such a routine symptom of our culture that we are prepared for that utopian mental health survey finding that one-third of us are psychotic, one-third neurotic and one-third cured or in treatment. But, when we ask subjects to describe their own reaction or when we count the objective behavioral events there is no reason to believe that consciousness-expanding drug experiences are any more dangerous than psychoanalysis or a four year enrollment in Harvard College.

Still the hysteria continues to mount. The alarm of policymakers on the one hand is matched by the enthusiasm and almost religious dedication of the “experienced”. The latter group tones down its beliefs partly because of the present inadequacy of our vocabulary for describing such experiences and partly because of social fear.

Most psychiatric investigators of these drugs have not, themselves, had the experience, or else they experiment with ill prepared subjects and poor settings. They find little in the way of positive results because they don’t know what to observe. But those scientists who have taken the drug themselves and listened to their subjects’ descriptions end up with the awesome conclusion that they are dealing with an indescribably powerful tool. But then, what to do about it? If you announce your discovery you’re in trouble. If you discuss it quietly with friends you have a cult. If you try to apply these potentials within the conventional institutional format you are sidetracked, silenced, blocked or fired. Distribution of these powerful mind-expanding substances to researchers has now been stopped in Canada and the United States. Competent and recognized scientists have been prevented from investigating these experiences, not only at Harvard but in the top Universities and medical schools of the country, and in the U.S. Institute of Mental Health. For the first time in America history and for the first time in the western world since the inquisition there now exists a scientific underground in the United States. In these days of giant research grants and foundation largesse over a hundred responsible professional researchers are volunteering their time, their own money, risking their reputations and their legal freedom to research consciousness without institutional support.

These drugs are socially dangerous not only for researchers but for those who use them for spiritual aims. For example last week in California three Navajo Indians were sentenced to from 2-12 years in jail for using peyote in a religious ceremony in their hogan. A major civil liberties issue of the next decade will be the control and expansion of consciousness. The old values are at stake–academic freedom, freedom of consciousness, the freedom of the nervous system. Who controls your cortex? Who decides on the range and limits of your awareness? If you want to research your own nervous system, expand your consciousness, who is to decide that you can’t and why?

Now what do these questions have to do with Harvard College? In the practical sense, very little. Our research group has never had the need or interest to work with undergraduate subjects. In the broad sense, however, it is fitting and natural that the Harvard intellectual community be the first to grapple with this new philosophic and practical issue and that the University of William James be given the first chance to accept or reject the educational potentialities of consciousness-expanding drugs.

The Harvard psilocybin research group, like other psychiatric and social science groups has accepted the task of communicating research findings and their possible implications to our fellow Americans. We have been doing this in scientific articles, lectures, and informal discussions, as well as attempting to demonstrate the unusual potential of the nervous system to a small fraction of the people who have volunteered as subjects (excluding Harvard undergraduates).

The issue of consciousness-expanding drugs has not been ended by Dean Monro’s warning or this letter. In the coming years we shall hear this question debated in many a forum. Remember, the drug hysteria masks the deeper issue of consciousness control. Our advise is similar to that presented in a recent CRIMSON editorial on this issue–keep an open mind. Place your trust not in Dean Monro’s “grown-up responsibility of faculty members” (including the authors of this letter) but in the scientific data and in your own experienced judgment. Timothy Leary, Ph.D. Richard Alpert, Ph.D.

(Following is the statement issued to the CRIMSON Monday by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.)

“Dean Monro is apparently the focus of pressure exerted by persons alarmed by rumors about drug usage at Harvard. We understand Dean Monro’s desire to pacify worries about undergraduate activity, but we believe he is ill-informed about the effects of these drugs.

“Unfounded rumors about consciousness-expanding drugs have been at fever pitch for the last two years. One cause of the hysteria is the rarity of these poweful substances. They are not sold. Physicians cannot obtain them for therapeutic use. They are released only to qualified researchers. Locally and nationally there seems to be intense interest in consciousness-expansion, but little access to the drugs. One dose seems to create a thonsand rumors.

“The rumors of the past two years, culminating in the publicity of last spring, have made it clear that these materials are too powerful and too controversial to be researched in a university setting. Like other researchers in the field, we have found it necessary to form our own independent research association. Our project has been in continuous operation under medical supervision, and within the framework of the state and federal laws.

[Brief comment by Ilsa Jerome upon receipt of these letters
The Crimson editors presented readers of the story on the study of MDMA in people with advanced-stage cancer with a link that led directly to these letters. Rick Doblin described these letters as representing a “cautionary tale.” I noted that these seems both oddly prescient yet at the same time written while apparently unaware of how their own behavior fostered the prohibition of their research. The letters are a caution for accepting inflated assessments of drug “dangers” while at the same time being a caution not to dismiss all reports of danger just because some are inflated. Also, the letter serves both as an example of good and bad response to crisis relating to the research (good in trying to respond with relevant data when possible, bad in painting anyone who is concerned about the research as repressive and ignorant.

Read about current world-wide research with psychedelic substances.