What would you do if Nixon called your father the “the most dangerous man in America”? Tough question – but it’s one of many that stalked Zach Leary, now 49, as he grew up in the shadow of his dad, Timothy Leary (AKA the “Pied Piper of the psychedelic 60s”).
Over the years, he tried to get away from his father’s towering legacy and forge his own path. He had big shoes to fill: Leary Sr. inspired the Beatles, got fired from Harvard for giving students LSD and psilocybin, founded an experimental psychedelic commune and later scaled a wall to escape from prison after being jailed for possession of weed, then living as a fugitive.
So, despite getting turned onto acid aged 14, Zach pursued a career in advertising and became a successful digital marketing executive, working with big brands like Apple and rock bands including U2, Depeche Mode and Coldplay. But it didn’t bring him the nourishment he sought and he fell into drug dependency. After several chaotic years, he went sober and didn’t touch psychedelics for years. Under the spiritual guidance of Ram Dass, one of the West’s most famous yogis and a personal friend of his father, Zach began training as a psychedelic facilitator.
Today, alongside a morning routine that includes chanting about Hanuman, the Hindu monkey God, for nine minutes every day, he runs the MAPS Podcast on psychedelics following the success of his own, It’s All Happening, and convenes an online educational course about, obviously, psychedelics. His first book, Your Extraordinary Mind – Psychedelics in the 21st Century and How to Use Them will be published by SoundsTrue later this year.
We met in Jamaica where he is facilitating magic mushroom journeys for Evolution Retreats at a resort that, coincidentally, he frequented as a child with his family for trips of the non-psychedelic kind. His dad would approve.
VICE: So Zach, level with me. Will psychedelics save humanity from greed, gluttony and sloth?
Zach Leary: Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it. When I’m asked whether Donald Trump should do MDMA or psilocybin: “Would it change him?”
No, I don’t think it would. Someone like that is too far gone and it would probably just make him fall in love with his own bullshit even more. But for most other folks, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
One of the greatest benefits about the modern psychedelic movement is that people who never thought [they] would trip are, well, tripping. Even five years ago it was still very much people who were in the bubble. But we’re approaching a tipping point – with people from many different socioeconomic and political backgrounds having positive experiences with psychedelics. They have the potential to save the world from its own greed cycle. Now it feels like the chaos before the calm.
So did your dad really ignite a million trips and change history with his mantra “turn on, tune in and drop out”?
He was a once-in-a-generation character. He was on the front lines. Most people could not withstand being persecuted; [he] literally [spent] four years in prison for his ideas. It seems stranger than fiction really. But he did it all: I'm incredibly proud.
How did you turn on and drop in?
I had a previous incarnation, working in digital marketing and advertising, for 13 years. The whole purpose was to try to get as far away from my father's legacy as possible. I needed my own identity, I needed to find out who I was, and I thought that was the answer: I was wrong. I hit an emotional, spiritual burnout. My heart just wasn’t in it. Then, sat in Ram Dass’s living room one day, I had a vision of myself at 80 years old and feared [that I was going] to wake up wondering where my life has gone. I had a yearning for more sincerity and authenticity. So I got back on the spiritual path: practising yoga and meditation and experimenting with psychedelics.
And now you’re a master of ceremonies for people tripping. How did you become a psychedelic facilitator?
People invited me to help them guide journeys in LA. They recognised I might be good at it. And soon I got serious, found a lot of mentors, and really got myself dialled in. It’s incredibly rewarding now to help people wake up in their own way – from grief, loss, midlife stagnancy and spiritual bankruptcy – and find that spark that guides them towards more fulfilling lives. I’ve personally witnessed countless such transformations, even after just one or two sessions of psychedelic-assisted therapy. They just have a new passion for life.
What would your father say if he saw you now?
I think my dad would be stoked, man. I've worked with enough people now who really feel like I've been a conduit to get them help, through psychedelic medicine, over the last seven years.
And when did you start journeying with psychedelics ?
It's funny when people ask me because I don't remember the first one. But it had something to do with the Grateful Dead and I was around 14. I was a Deadhead from 1987 through to ‘95. At one great point, it was said that the Grateful Dead controlled 50 percent of America's LSD supply. We hung out at the shows and took acid.
Much to people's shock, my father was not in favour of me using it so young. He sat me down and was like, “You need to wait, trust me.” I didn't wait. Then by the time I was 16 or 17, he became a great mentor and advised me how to use them wisely, carefully. Soon enough I had a few hundred trips under my belt.
But then what happened?
Through sadness, trauma and not being willing to look at my own shadow, I developed a bad opiate addiction: streets of Los Angeles, jails. I was a low-bottom addict in the late 90s, early 2000s. I just went full tilt: I didn’t want to live but I didn't want to die. When I hear those stories about ibogaine, I wish I knew about that 20 years ago, when I was kicking dope. But somehow I got clean and then I spent a lot of time in India and got really into Eastern traditions like yoga and meditation.
So what can aspiring psychonauts learn from your trials and tribulations?
Well, when I reintroduced psychedelics after nine years without them, I looked at it as incorporating them into my spiritual practice. It's about having a system that can sustain you once the medicine wears off so you don’t end up in a constant search for ascension; needing to trip every two weeks.
If people are really changing their minds about psychedelics, what’s the future for the big pharma psychiatric healthcare model?
I like to think their days are numbered. There's national outrage over the ongoing opioid crisis and prescription drug prices, while the mainstream mental health support system fails our population. The mental health revolution has become inextricably linked with psychedelics.
But we have to be wary of not replacing one system with a similar one. If the future of psychedelics is going into a therapist's office and talking about your mental health issues and laying on the couch and doing the medicine – well, that’s fine but something gets a little bit lost.
The medicalisation which is happening [to] psychedelics and the creation of a corp-oradelic clinical culture, takes the mysticism out of it. There’s a certain sterility. The heart is looking for something a little more esoteric: to address the mind, body, soul and spirit.