It’s hard to believe that the idyllic Laguna Canyon enclave of Woodland Drive, not too far from the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach, was once known as Dodge City because of the gunfire that tended to erupt there in the 1960s.
That was a long time ago, but it seems memories are still fresh about the days when Laguna Beach — and Woodland Drive — was the center of a sophisticated and highly entrepreneurial international drug ring that imported and sold marijuana, hashish and the “new” drug, LSD, with a zeal and business-savvy that could have impressed a Donald Trump.
That’s also when psychologist- turned-drug guru Timothy Leary — who had been kicked out of Harvard University for sanctioned LSD experimentation and later arrested after LSD became illegal — was given shelter in the canyon by the secretive and still-mysterious Brotherhood of Eternal Love. People are still trying to figure out if the Brotherhood was a group of Orange County street thugs, a drug cartel, a hippie mafia or a cult of mystics determined to spread peace and love throughout the world. Or all of the above.
OC Weekly investigative reporter Nick Schou has been on the case for years, and has just published a fascinating book called “Orange Sunshine — The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World.”
Schou’s book reads like a movie treatment, complete with hair-raising scenes of international smuggling in Afghanistan, near-arrests and miraculous escapes, surfing on acid, psychic visions, UFOs, and, of course, Leary and his bizarre escapades.
Another, more scholarly work focusing on Leary and his Harvard cohorts has also just come out: “The Harvard Psychedelic Club — How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Houston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age For America.” This book is by Don Lattin, a veteran religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a national commentator on religious topics. Lattin says in an afterward to his book that he had wanted to write about LSD ever since experiencing “good” and “bad” acid trips in his early 20s.
Both books are at Latitude 33 bookshop, and both authors will be making appearances there soon.
Just like Leary and his team of researchers, people are still trying to figure out what LSD and the other psychedelic drugs actually do and how they do it, and whether the effects are “good” or “bad.”
As Lattin recounts in his book, LSD goes back to the 1950s and the Cold War, when the CIA began experimenting with it (at Harvard no less) as a possible “truth serum” or covert weapon.
The agency finally decided that LSD wasn’t reliable enough for military use, and about 10 years later the drug was the centerpiece of a major psychological experiment at the prestigious university.
That’s when Leary as drug guru explodes on the scene, with his mantra to “Tune in, turn on and drop out.”
Really, it was more like “Drop in and turn on,” since he apparently made it his business to hand out LSD to anyone and everyone within his reach.
Leary actually “discovered” psychedelics while in Mexico, according to Lattin’s research. He and his friends were enamored of futuristic writer Alduous Huxley, author of “Brave New World” and “The Doors of Perception,” who had used psilocybin mushrooms and other natural hallucinogens to “expand” his mind. Leary embraced the magic mushroom, used traditionally by indigenous Mexicans for spiritual purposes, and his Harvard colleagues decided to give it a try as a psychiatric drug. Thus the Harvard Psilocybin Project was born in 1960.
Leary began giving synthetic psilocybin and then LSD to prisoners, graduate students and even allegedly some undergrads, which proved fatal for his career. But that didn’t matter because by then Leary’s charisma and genius at promoting himself — and the seductive quality of the hallucinogens — attracted wealthy backers who set him up and helped him attain national stature as the guru of psychedelics and, according to President Nixon, “the most dangerous man in America.”
Eventually, Leary made his way to the West Coast, where the Brotherhood gave him a place of honor in their group, which, according to Schou’s account, was led by a charismatic Anaheim wild child named John Griggs, who had turned from car-racing and street brawling to mysticism through LSD. As they say, “Better living through chemistry.”
Griggs and his followers migrated to bucolic Modjeska Canyon, where they formed a pastoral church centered around hallucinogens, and then, being of an entrepreneurial spirit, began developing their illicit drug business. Needing a low-key hideout, they hit upon Woodland Drive, an out-of-the-way collection of small cottages and shacks which were cheap to rent. They also opened an art gallery and head shop called Mystic Arts World on South Coast Highway.
As the enterprises grew, and the ’60s wore on, more and more “flower children” began converging on Laguna Beach for its easy access to street drugs and free lifestyle, and this attracted the attention of the local police, whereupon a dicey cat-and-mouse game began to be played out on the streets.
And so Dodge City was born.
It all came crashing down with the death of 25-year-old Griggs in August 1969, who ironically succumbed after ingesting a massive dose of synthetic psilocybin — virtually the same stuff that had launched Leary on his wild and crazy adventure nine years before.
The Brotherhood’s last stand was an ill-fated Christmas Day, 1970 rock concert at Sycamore Flats where some 25,000 hippies gathered a la Woodstock, fueled by free LSD that was literally dropped from the sky by the Brotherhood. After that blowout, the iron hand of the law came down hard on most of the members.
Schou’s book may yet be followed by an account of the era written by former Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil Purcell, who made his bones in the department in December 1968 by arresting Leary, his wife and son on drug charges, which landed Leary in jail — and which led to Leary’s escape to Algeria with the help of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. And so the stories go, a long, strange trip indeed.
Does this all sound unbelievable to you? Ah, the ’60s. If you remember it, you couldn’t have been there.
Lattin will sign his book at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and Schou will make an appearance at 5 p.m. April 10, at Latitude 33 Bookshop, 311 Ocean Ave. The bookstore’s number is (949) 494-5403.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.