Joel Fort dies at 86; iconoclastic psychiatrist testified in Patty Hearst case

Joel Fort, an iconoclastic psychiatrist who was an early advocate for decriminalizing marijuana and who gave expert testimony on drugs and brainwashing in the Patty Hearst case and more than 300 other criminal trials, has died. He was 86.

His death Sunday at his home in El Cerrito, outside San Francisco, was caused by cancer, his daughter Parcae Lockman said.

A skeptic about standard mental health treatment, Fort liked to call himself a "sociatrist" — an activist who tried to help troubled individuals by effecting social change.

In the 1960s, he started treating addicts, alcoholics, and the flower children surging into San Francisco at a public clinic he called the Center for Solving Special Social and Health Problems. It later became the nonprofit Fort Help, where clients were called "guests" and counselors were "helper/problem-solvers." Examination rooms had names like "Happiness" and "Tranquillity."

At Fort Help, on the edge of the city's skid row, there were no titles, no departments, no waiting rooms, and no distinction between staff and volunteers. Traditional ideas of disease were subjected to Fort's skeptical eye. He was outraged at the then-popular notion that homosexuality required a "cure." And he saw addiction not as a character failing but as a symptom of deep societal malaise.

"However soft, Fort's voice is one that has been widely heard in the past decade or so as America has wrestled with its drug abuse problems," a writer for Human Behavior magazine said in 1973. "Back in the heyday of the hippies and the Haight-Ashbury, he was the first to advance the heretical thesis that youthful drug-takers could not be viewed apart from an entire society conditioned to seek a chemical solution for every problem.

"He pointed out that young people who saw the law being violated by both individuals and government every day were not likely to get deterred by arguments that drug use was illegal."

In 1972, Fort helped lead a California campaign to decriminalize pot. It failed.

He frequently challenged authority, and sometimes prevailed.

As head of a state-funded alcohol program in Alameda County, he was fired when he ran for Congress in 1962, ignoring a state prohibition against political activity by public employees. Fort appealed his dismissal and, in 1964, the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

"It was one of my great achievements," he said in a 1993 oral history for UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. "Every law student in California probably studies the case because it was the first of its kind, although most who have benefited from it are probably unaware of the way things used to be or who changed them."

Fort taught university courses in criminology, social welfare, ethics and sociology at Berkeley, UC Davis, Sacramento State and other schools. He wrote nine books, including "The Pleasure Seekers: The Drug Crisis, Youth and Society" (1969) and "Alcohol: Our Biggest Drug Problem and Drug Industry" (1973).

He was hired as an expert witness by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

In 1971, he told a jury that Tex Watson, a member of Charles Manson's "family," acted voluntarily during the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders, despite Manson's allegedly hypnotic personality. Watson was convicted.

At Patricia Hearst's 1976 bank robbery trial, he challenged defense claims that the media heiress had been brainwashed after her kidnapping by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Hearst was a bored young woman whose life, Fort said, had lacked a sense of purpose before her abduction.

"She brought them international attention," he said. "It was an exciting thing. She enjoyed the status and recognition it brought her."

Hearst received a seven-year prison sentence, which was commuted by President Carter in 1979. President Clinton gave her a full pardon in 2001.

A year after his testimony, Fort was accused by state officials of filing nearly $160,000 in false Medi-Cal claims through Fort Help. He denied the charges and later contended they had been engineered by the Hearst family and their lawyers in retaliation over his negative testimony.

After hearings that spanned five years — a testament, Fort said, to the "insolence, inefficiency and callousness of the legal system" — Fort's medical license was placed on probation for one year. The initial accusation of fraud had been whittled down, he said, to one of allowing counselors without medical degrees to bill Medi-Cal under his name.

"The state, in order to attack me, changed the rules without ever notifying us," he said in his oral history. He called the judgment one of many burdens he bore over the years "for being an independent thinker and crusader."

Born Sept. 30, 1929, in Steubenville, Ohio, Fort was the son of a podiatrist. He graduated from Ohio State University when he was 18, took graduate psychology courses at the University of Chicago, and received his medical degree from Ohio State in 1954.

consultant for Playboy on reader questions involving drugs and sexuality.

Fort's survivors include Maria, his wife of 64 years; sister Elodee Portigal; son Titan; daughters Parcae Lockman and Gita Paquette; and three grandchildren.

In his later years, he took classes at the Graduate Theological Union and helped run salon-style discussion groups in Berkeley. He was a lover of chess, opera and Marx Brothers movies.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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