The VA's bad trip over Psychedelic Futurist Terrence McKenna

A speech by psychedelic explorer and back-to-the-past futurist Terence McKenna scheduled for Friday, May 10, at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater was almost canceled because the Department of Veterans Affairs found McKenna's promotion of certain illegal hallucinogens to be "contrary to their mission."

McKenna finally made his appearance, but not before a bureaucratic melee that tested free-speech credentials of the city's leading public university. The Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU weighed in, and in the end, it took a federal judge to restore constitutional order.

The saga of yet another struggle between the old and new ages began on May 3 with an anonymous complaint to the VA. McKenna had been profiled in that day's L.A. Times under the headline, "Talking With the Tim Leary of the '90s," and quoted in his belief that controlled experimentation with psilocybin mushrooms and other naturally occurring drugs can lead to transcendent consciousness. McKenna was also quoted supporting the legalization of most drugs and, in his trademark wiseass delivery, added, "...though Philip Morris marketing marijuana is a scary concept."

The Wadsworth, where McKenna was scheduled to speak, is located on land owned by the VA and leased to UCLA for events. Responding to the complaint, Richard Pasquale, chair of the Asset Management Committee of the VA, contacted UCLA and expressed his agency's displeasure over McKenna's ideas being disseminated not only on government land, but so close to the VA hospital which provides drug and alcohol rehab to vets. The VA offers>these vets freebies to Wadsworth events.

It's doubtful the rehab unit contains any psilocybin junkies (it's non-addictive). Furthermore, hallucinogens were administered as a cure for alcoholism in the early "60s with promising results before hysterical authorities kiboshed the experiments (even AA founder Bill Wilson tripped on LSD). Nevertheless, Pasquale cited a lease provision that prohibited any "event that is deemed adverse to the interests of the United States or to the mission and program responsibilities of the Department of Veteran Affairs." One source at UCLA says that this is the third incident in which the VA has objected to the content of programming at Wadsworth.

Winnie Glas, associate director of Conference and Event Management for UCLA, contacted Robin Haines-Johnson of Axiom Productions, the producers of McKenna's four-city road show, and informed her that the VA had nixed the engagement because of the aforementioned potential for verbal subversion. Glas offered Haines-Johnson the use of Griffin Commons on the UCLA campus, which has 700 seats, or Pauley Pavilion, which holds 12,500. McKenna drew a crowd of more than a thousand in his last L.A. appearance, so Axiom felt the 1,388-seat capacity Wadsworth was the most appropriate. Glas further offered to reimburse Axiom for the difference in box office receipts up to 1,100 if they chose Griffin Commons, but she refused to promote the change of venue in the media. She instructed Axiom to notify them which venue they wanted or forfeit the show, and Axiom faxed Glas that they would>accept Griffin Commons. However Glas said she never received a fax and for most of Tuesday the 7th, people inquiring about tickets were told that McKenna was canceled. By late Tuesday the fax was located and by Wednesday the event was back on the calendar.

Meanwhile, McKenna's supporters contacted Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, and the legal machinery jumped into gear, claiming First Amendment encroachment, ACLU lawyer Carol Sobel filed a suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Regents of the University of California on behalf of McKenna, claiming "violation of plaintiff's core constitutional rights to engage in protected expression in a public forum." On the morning of the event, the Justice Department filed a statement of non-opposition to the suit, "which is unusual, to say the least," says Sobel. U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall then issued a temporary restraining order against the VA and UCLA, and McKenna was moved back to Wadsworth. Last Monday, the District Court filed a stipulation to take the preliminary injunction hearing off calendar.

McKenna finally took the stage as scheduled and spoke to an audience of 600. How many no-showed due to the lost fax/canceled lecture is unknown. Hallucinogens were mentioned only in passing; the rest of the time he covered perennial McKennaian terrain ranging from mathematics to shamanism.

McKenna is a peripatetic, cross-disciplinary mystic, dismissed by some as an eccentric but, at the same time, author of novel and fertile topics such as time-wave theory, the archaic revival and the superficiality of modern culture.

Speaking later about the incident, McKenna described the Times piece as, "Shall we gently say, [his voice rises in sarcasm] HASTILY DONE. It caused somebody in the VA to hit the ceiling without checking the Internet or reading what The New York Times has said about me or looking at my five books. That person in the VA ordered that event pulled...Winnie Glas was just the willing hatchet person. And then there's the fact that nobody in the VA would come forward and own up to giving the orders. I asked Carol Sobel, 'Is it true to say that a conspiracy against the First Amendment was hatched in the bowels of a federal agency and carried out by an employee of a public university for purposes of suppressing free speech?' And she said, 'Well, that may be your interpretation.' [laughs] I just think it was breathtaking stupidity!

"I think UCLA should write into policy that these people who run these offices of public affairs should have to take a First Amendment course. You just don't cancel people's events based on the content of what you think they might say. Not in this country. Not yet."

An official at the VA who requested anonymity told the Weekly, "The lecture as was presented in the Times article led us to believe that having the lecture here was comparable to having happy hour at the Betty Ford Clinic." Harriett Bordenave, public affairs officer of the West L.A. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, released a statement saying that the patients at the rehab need a "safe" uncompromised environment for their successful rehabilitation. We do not deny that Mr. McKenna has rights as protected by the First Amendment. However, the men and women who have served our nation, preserving those rights, have an equal right - the right to be drug-free, the right to comply with the law, the right to rehabilitation without interference or negative influence, the right to life without addicting drugs and the right to regain dignity and personal freedom. We will defend 'our right' to protect our nation's military veterans."

UCLA released a statement from Linda Steiner Lee of the Public Information Office saying that they were, "respecting the VA's concerns as well as McKenna's First Amendment rights" and that they had "worked out an alternative the university believed was agreeable to all parties involved, moving the lecture onto the UCLA campus. UCLA regrets the misunderstanding and the concerns caused for all involved."

"The end result of this," says McKenna, "is good for UCLA. They never again will so cravenly carry out the thought-police agenda of the VA. This was a totally unnecessary spasm by a dying regime."

In an ironic footnote, Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist and researcher with the Department of Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, is conducting FDA-approved experiments with MDMA, an illegal drug commonly known as Ecstasy. Grob is studying the physiological effects and safety parameters of MDMA on normal volunteer subjects.

Much earlier, in 1960, a young graduate student at Stanford University's creative writing program by the name of Ken Kesey volunteered for drug experiments being carried out at another veteran's hospital, one in Menlo Park. The first drug Kesey was given was psilocybin. Kesey went on to found the Merry Pranksters and helped create a counterculture that almost brought the United States government to its knees.

Perhaps the government has a memory.
Thanks to the L.A. Weekly for this article