Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary, Psychedelic Advocate

Timothy Leary was an admired American psychologist who is better known for his work with psychedelic substances. Leary was an outspoken and controversial figure in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was employed at Harvard University and was involved in a number of highly controversial experiments with LSD and psilocybin and the treatment of alcoholism and criminal reform.

Timothy Leary first experienced psilocybin in 1960 in Mexico. He felt that this experience opened his eyes to the potential benefits of psychedelic drugs and it changed his life path. He began to work heavily in the filed of psychedelic substances after this time. Leary was a staunch advocate of the benefits of psychedelic substances that he believed could provide unparalleled benefits to people in their personal development.

Harvard Psilocybin Project

One of the significant projects that Leary headed was the Harvard Psilocybin Project which occurred between 1960 and 1962. The project included an array of experiments which included the Concord Prison Experiment and personal use of psychedelic drugs.

The Marsh Chapel Experiment is one example of the projects that Leary was undertaking at the time of his employment at Harvard. This experiment was designed to evaluate whether psilocybin could facilitate a profound spiritual experience. The most famous experiment of hallucinogenic drugs was conducted under the guidance of Leary. This large scale experiment was the first, and only of its kind. The experiment was to study the ability of psychedelic drugs to produce spiritual and mystical states. The drug was administered to graduate divinity students.

Concord Prison Experiment

One controversial experiment that Leary was involved in under the Harvard Psilocybin Project was the Concord Prison Experiement. This experiment involved the dosing of prisoners at a maximum-security prison with the psychedelic drug, psilocybin. The aim of the experiment was to assess whether the effects of the drug on young offenders could rehabilitate or at least reduce their potential re-offense rates. The experiments were conducted under the direction of Leary and involved both the use of the drug and also psychotherapy.

Thirty-five prisoners took part in the experiment, and each volunteer was given two psilocybin experiences during 6 weeks of bi-weekly meetings. The prisoners were guided through the psychedelic experience by psychotherapists who helped them recognize the behaviors, influences, destructive behaviors and anger that all contributed to their incarceration. It was hoped that the use of the psychedelic drug would also give the prisoners a better understanding of their place in the world, see the beauty in their friends, family and have a more focused and positive life ahead.

Typically, more than half prisoners will be convicted of other offenses and return to jail. However, after being dosed with psilocybin and undergoing intensive psychotherapy, only 25 percent of those in the experiment were back in prison after 6 months. Individuals who were in the experiment also achieved positive changes in personality test scores.

Scientific and Social Integrity

The work Leary and his associates, especially Dr. Richard Alpert, were undertaking was no doubt interesting and exciting. However questions soon began to be raised by those in the Department and the wider scientific community. Some people raised concerns about the scientific legitimacy and safety of the experiments that were being conducted at the time. Evidence suggested that Leary and his colleagues had dubious data collection methods due to their own personal consumption of the psychedelic substances. Additionally, the recreational interest in the psychedelic drugs being used in the experiments began to increase. Soon the Food and Drug Administration became involved in the controversial work going on at Harvard and launched an investigation into the practices going on in the experiments. They were concerned about the safety of those involved and the validity of the results.

Leary and Alpert began to campaign about the hope that they believed psychedelic drugs offered to the wider community. It was at this time that his most famous saying was founded—Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out which was in reference to the effects of LSD and other psychedelics. They believed that the FDA investigation and concerns about the experiments were unfounded and was simply a way to restrict and control the expansion of consciousness.

As a result of the FDA investigation and concerns by the Department and Harvard University Administration, Leary along with his colleague, Richard Alpert, were dismissed from the University in 1963.


Leary and Alpert believed that the Government was involved in his dismissal from Harvard and fought against the apparent restrictions on citizens. They believed that people had the right to explore their own consciousness and dubbed the term, internal freedom to show the importance of being able to explore their own mind.

The organization that Leary and Alpert had set up prior to their dismissal, the International Federation for Internal Freedom, became the focus of their work. The organization was established to encourage, support and protect research on psychedelic substances. This organization came under intense criticism due to the unorthodox and illegal work they were often involved in and as a result of intense pressure by law enforcement, Leary was arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for possession of marijuana in 1968. He was released from prison in 1976.

Leary continued to be an advocate of the benefits that psychedelics offered. He believed that the drug was safe and offered an unparalleled experience where a person could explore their own consciousness, spirituality, concepts and ego and be a better developed person. Psychedelics offered a key to the mind that was otherwise unavailable.

Leary passed away on May 31 1996 at the age of 77 from prostate cancer. After his death, seven grams of his ashes were sent into space on a Pegasus rocket which was launched on April 21, 1997.