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Timothy Leary was Right

a philosophical review of 'Start Your Own Religion: New York State's Acid Churches' by Devin R. Lander

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

January 13, 2024

s someone who is convinced that the Drug War is a war on religious liberty, I was attracted at once to the paper on entitled "Start Your Own Religion" by Devin R. Lander1. It tells the story of Timothy Leary's attempts to justify the use of psychoactive medicines on religious grounds along with what he took to be our obvious right to internal freedom. Of course, any time I read anything about "drugs" today, I am on the qui vive for prejudices (subtle and otherwise) on the part of the author since every American - and I dare say most westerners - have been raised in a censored world in which they have been carefully and indeed strategically shielded from talk of positive use of drugs, down to the very TV shows they've watched whose plots have been tweaked by various White Houses to conform with the party line that drugs are bad. The good news is, the article seems free of most of the usual anti-drug assumptions, but I do have a few comments to make, not so much to criticize the paper as to expand upon it.

First, a general statement. It is commonplace these days to speak of Leary's excesses and to suggest that he was his own worst enemy when it came to proselytizing on behalf of his beliefs, but we should remember that he had nothing less than the entire establishment against him, including the news media and politicians, and that his enemy's goal was to portray him as a crackpot. If Madison Avenue can make us buy $40,000 cars and drink unnecessarily expensive coffee on a daily basis - meanwhile selling us drugs like Rinvoq whose side effects include cancer and death -- surely it can make us laugh at guys like Leary and consider them to be "beyond the pale." So it's no coincidence that what most Americans feel about Timothy Leary these days just happens to be exactly what Richard Nixon and co. wanted us to feel about him: namely, that he was nuts.

Leary's real problem, however, was that he was way ahead of his time. Imagine loudly and defiantly claiming a right to freedom of thought at a time when drugs were considered evil incarnate and it was de facto illegal to even mention them by name in pop music. In fact, Leary is way ahead of OUR time, for despite some glacial progress, Americans still hold the superstitious belief that drugs can be voted up or down and that such substances, once criminalized, can have no positive uses for anyone, anywhere, ever. Moreover, he recognized over 50 years ago what only a handful of Americans are beginning to dimly realize today, that the war on drugs is truly a war against religion, insofar as its practical result is to keep the individual from having transcendent experiences that many believe to be both holy and informative of a deep but normally unseen reality, what Wordsworth called "a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused."

Not only was Leary right on this topic, but he did not go far enough, for the outlawing of psychoactive substances is not merely the outlawing of a form of religion - it is also the outlawing of academic freedom. William James himself urged his students to study altered states of consciousness in order to better understand ultimate reality. "No account of the universe in its totality," wrote James," can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded." Yet disregard them we must in the name of the anti-scientific war on drugs2. In fact, even as I write, both the UK and US are making a hypocritical and anti-scientific fuss about outlawing laughing gas, William James's go-to-drug - at a time when they should be making it readily available for potential suicides, just as we make epi pens available for those with severe allergies3.

Now to a slightly more specific issue: The author criticizes Leary crony Art Kelps for drawing exaggerated and "highly dubious" comparisons between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of members of the psychedelic churches of the sixties. Now, I agree that this is ground upon which one must tread carefully as an author and as an activist, lest one unintentionally be seen to downplay the evils of the past, and I'll take Levin's word for it that Kelps overstepped the bounds of good taste and plausive analysis in this regard. I would point out, however, that we should not be so fearful of drawing analogies that we fail to recognize an evil when it exists, an evil which, left unchecked, could lead at least in the general direction of Nazism4.

Consider the situation from a drug user's point of view: the drug user is actually not allowed to work in the USA, at least if the Drug Warriors have anything to say about it. For users can be removed from the workforce without trial and without charge, merely because their digestive systems contain a substance of which politicians disapprove. In fact, the Fourth Amendment has been suspended in America for the purpose of "outing" such users. Meanwhile, minority drug users can be removed from public housing. They can lose benefits for their child care, their social security, they can even lose their children. Entire estates may be confiscated by police if even a small amount of "drugs" are found on the premises, even if said drugs do not belong to the property owner. Consider, moreover, that American public officials like Police Chief Daryl Gates and Drug Czar William Bennett are on record as saying that drug users should be shot and beheaded respectively. Bennett also wanted the names of users to be listed in local newspapers, though it's not clear whether this would happen before or after they had been beheaded. Should we wait for guys like Bennett to start calling for drug users to be "rounded up" before we begin raising the alarm?

Okay, we're not yet at the level of Nazi injustice, but anyone who truly believes in the doctrine of "never again" should be sitting up and taking notice of these trends, especially since Donald Trump, should he "take over" in 2024, has told us he will be executing the poor minorities that prohibitionists have thus far been content merely to imprison for life. But few national groups are standing up and saying that this is wrong: certainly not the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to which I wrote three years ago on this topic and never even received a response. And let's not forget how the Drug War has Nazified the English language, encouraging us to dehumanize dealers and users as "scumbags" and "wastes of space." Surely the doctrine "never again" should mean nipping trends like this in the bud rather than remaining hands-off on the grounds that Nazi Germany was worse. Why was Nazi Germany worse, after all? In part because folks sat back, secure in the thought that it could surely never become as bad as it actually did.

Finally, whenever we criticize the seemingly lovey-dovey and carefree lifestyle advocated by Leary and other "drug" enthusiasts, we should be honest about the nature of the lifestyle against which they were rebelling. It's fine to say that Leary was a lunatic, but how sane were his critics at this time? It turns out that such a comparison makes Leary look very good indeed: for in 1960's America, the powers-that-be (i.e. the military industrial complex against which Eisenhower had so futilely warned us in the 1950s) was pressing forward with the wholesale production of thermonuclear weapons on the insane advice of Edmund Teller, who insisted that we had to be one step ahead of our enemies, apparently never considering that our enemies would one day be able to hoist us by our own atomic petard.

Rather than spending their time prosecuting a peace-loving Timothy, state officials should have been down on their knees praising God that New York state still existed in the sixties (and was radiation free into the bargain), for that decade nearly began with the nuclear annihilation of America's East Coast, not once but twice, first thanks to a ginormous Air Force blunder and then to the Cuban Missile Crisis, from which we were saved only by the brave dissenting vote of one of three Soviet submarine captains5.

Author's Follow-up: January 14, 2024

picture of clock metaphorically suggesting a follow-up
The War on Drugs is itself a religion: it is the religion of the drug-hating Christian Science of Mary Baker-Eddy. Prohibition is thus the unlawful enforcement of a state religion.


1 Lander, Devin R., Start Your Own Religion: New York's Acid Churches, Academia.Edu, 2011 (up)
2 Quass, Brian, William James rolls over in his grave as England bans Laughing Gas, 2023 (up)
3 Quass, Brian, Suicide and the Drug War, 2022 (up)
4 Miller, Richard Lawrence, Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 1966 (up)
5 Atomic Age Declassified, 2019 (up)

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Some Tweets against the hateful war on drugs

That's why I created the satirical Partnership for a Death Free America. It demonstrates clearly that drug warriors aren't worried about our health, otherwise they'd outlaw shopping carts, etc. The question then becomes: what are they REALLY afraid of? Answer: Free thinkers.
John Halpern wrote a book about opium, subtitled "the ancient flower that poisoned our world." What nonsense! Bad laws and ignorance poison our world, NOT FLOWERS!
The 1932 movie "Scarface" starts with on-screen text calling for a crackdown on armed gangs in America. There is no mention of the fact that a decade's worth of Prohibition had created those gangs in the first place.
What are drug dealers doing, after all? Only selling substances that people want and have always had a right to, until racist politicians came along and decided government had the right to ration out pain relief and mystical experience.
How else will they scare us enough to convince us to give up all our freedoms for the purpose of fighting horrible awful evil DRUGS? DRUGS is the sledgehammer with which they are destroying American democracy.
Even the worst forms of "abuse" can be combatted with a wise use of a wide range of psychoactive drugs, to combat both physical and psychological cravings. But drug warriors NEED addiction to be a HUGE problem. That's their golden goose.
Alcohol is a drug in liquid form. If drug warriors want to punish people who use drugs, they should start punishing themselves.
Until we get rid of all these obstacles to safe and informed use, it's presumptuous to explain problematic drug use with theories about addiction. Drug warriors are rigging the deck in favor of problematic use. They refuse to even TEACH non-problematic use.
I'd like to become a guinea pig for researchers to test the ability of psychoactive drugs to make aging as psychologically healthy as possible. If such drugs cannot completely ward off decrepitude, they can surely make it more palatable. The catch? Researchers have to be free.
Laughing gas is the substance that gave William James his philosophy of reality. He concluded from its use that what we perceive is just a fraction of reality writ large. Yet his alma mater (Harvard) does not even MENTION laughing gas in their bio of the man.
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You have been reading an article entitled, Timothy Leary was Right: a philosophical review of 'Start Your Own Religion: New York State's Acid Churches' by Devin R. Lander, published on January 13, 2024 on For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)