While the U.S. has been seized by both a pandemic and an epic undermining of its democratic processes, psychedelics are undergoing their own revolution. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that drugs associated with existential awakening should accompany movements like Black Lives Matter, which oppose systemic inequity. It’s in this moment that filmmaker Errol Morris has decided to fix his camera lens on Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the onetime girlfriend of psychedelics evangelist Timothy Leary, called “the most dangerous man in America” by President Richard Nixon.
Timothy Leary was a Harvard lecturer and psychology researcher who, alongside assistant professor Richard Albert, created the Harvard Psilocybin Project between 1960 and 1962. The project sought to understand how the human mind interacted with hallucinatory drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, which were both legal at the time. Leary was later dismissed from Harvard for proselytizing the virtues of using LSD and for his lax if not unscientific approach to experimentation. After leaving Harvard, Leary was propelled into pop culture fame. His numerous run-ins with the law and the loud condemnation from Nixon helped seal his status as an icon of the counterculture revolution.
The film, called My Psychedelic Love Story, follows the five year relationship of Harcourt-Smith and Leary as they tripped from country to country evading U.S. law enforcement and meeting new friends. Premiering on Showtime on November 29, the film is a high drama story that is rendered absurd in the light of 2020 drug legislation.
“It’s certainly ironic that this whole thing was propelled forward by drugs laws that we now see as insane,” says Morris. “But the war on drugs has always been nonsense.”
When Harcourt-Smith and Leary met, he was on the run from U.S. law enforcement. Two years prior, in 1970, he escaped from jail, where he was serving two 10-year sentences, one for smuggling cannabis into the country and the second for possession of the same at a minimum security prison. The total term would have been 20 years for a substance that is now either decriminalized or allowed for medical use in all but six states in the U.S. Though it was Leary’s promotion of LSD that ultimately earned him the ire of President Nixon, the drug wasn’t effectively illegal until 1971.
That year was the beginning of the War on Drugs: a 30 year legislative effort that sought to quell counterculture and led to the incarceration of an incredible number of Black Americans. But in the last decade, the War of Drugs has started to come to a quiet end. Cannabis is now legal in 15 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam. Some states are also expunging criminal records for people who had previously been convicted of cannabis-related crimes. This year, Oregon legalized psilocybin, while the District of Columbia moved to decriminalize it. A variety of psychedelics are being tested as therapeutics—a repudiation of Nixon’s suggestion that several of the drugs he deemed most harmful had no medical use. MDMA is currently undergoing clinical trials as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration has awarded psilocybin “breakthrough” status for its use against major depressive disorder. The designation is supposed to help nudge drugs through the approval process faster.
He was one of the foremost psychologists of our time.”
In this light, Leary’s advocacy for mind-altering drugs looks prescient. “He was one of the foremost psychologists of our time,” Harcourt-Smith says in the film. “He sensed that psychedelics could be medicines—that they could cure trauma and PTSD.” While the disgraced academic balked at randomized double-blind experiments for psychedelics, he did believe in the transformational power of certain drugs. Researchers have since found that certain drugs can help open people up to changing long ingrained behavior or feelings. Now, the research is moving beyond Leary’s initial perspective. Some researchers are exploring how drug compounds themselves—rather than the experience of the drug—may be used to treat addiction and cluster headaches.
But Morris’s My Psychedelic Love Story is only tangentially about psychedelics and the all encompassing drug war. The film is really about Harcourt-Smith’s obsession with Leary and her soul searching about what actually happened in the five years she was with him. It is told in Morris’s signature single-subject interview style, though it incorporates a rich amount of archival film, photography, and audio interview. The supporting material serves to make the documentary feel less like the audience is relying on a single unreliable narrator to lead them through a story flecked with conspiracy. Of course, Morris is not particularly concerned with the facts of the situation—and you won’t get them. This is about Harcourt-Smith’s experience.
“Instead of interviewing Hamlet who is going to endlessly equivocate, let’s enter through some unexpected door. Maybe the basement door, maybe a window,” he says. “Certainly that story—the story of psychedelic drugs, the pursuit of the U.S. government—it’s all there, but it’s through Joanna.”
The story follows Harcourt-Smith’s budding interest in Leary as a fugitive. She first hears about him through her sometimes lover, Michel Hauchard, an arms dealer who had sold Timothy Leary’s memoir on escaping from prison to Bantam Books. It is through him that she finds Leary’s contact information and calls him up to meet. The first time they hang out, they drop acid. Leary tells her he’s the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley, a 19th century occultist with a penchant for psychedelics, and reads her tarot. They bond immediately. Over the course of a year, they traipse around Switzerland, Austria, Lebanon, and finally Afghanistan, where Leary is apprehended and made to return to the U.S. to serve out a portion of his prison sentence.
These are the more fun aspects of the story. There is intrigue and friends who may be double-crossers. Harcourt-Smith even questions whether she herself is somehow a plant by the CIA. The film itself can feel like an acid trip. Timelines are distorted and stories are interrupted with other stories. But while psychedelic trips often bring with them some sort of clarity or profound resolution, the film doesn’t necessarily give the audience a revelation.
“The power of Psychedelic Love Story is ultimately [that] we may never understand who we are or why we’ve done what we’ve done,” says Morris. At the end of the story, Leary abrupty leaves Harcourt-Smith. She still does not understand why their partnership disintegrated or whether she was manipulated by the federal government. But she doesn’t seem derailed by these unknowns. Whether that’s the work of all the psychedelics she’s been taking, Morris doesn’t say.