WE'D LOVE TO TURN YOU OFF
BY BY MICHAEL SIMMONS
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
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
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
"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