A Psychedelic Trickster: A Steve Abrams Obituary (1938-2012)
This obituary is available as part of Out of the Shadows: A Cornucopia from the Psychedelic Press (2015).
I got to know Steve in 2006 after having seen his name down to speak at the LSD conference in Basel, Switzerland, to celebrate Albert Hofmann’s 100th birthday. Steve was billed in the programme to give a talk on ‘synchronicity and the problem of coincidence in the psychedelic experience.’ I was just finishing up my PhD on parapsychology and luck at the time, and was doing survey research on psychedelics and extrasensory perception (ESP) on the side, so I had a yearning to hear what he had to say.
Steve‘s blurb on the conference website said that he intended to draw upon Jung and Whitehead, “to resolve the contradiction between the ubiquity of meaningful coincidence and the paucity of experimental evidence for so-called psychic phenomena.” It also said he was based in the UK. This was a stroke of luck, as it happened, because I had been lamenting the lack of any serious academic interest in both psychedelics and ESP existing this far from California, circa 1967. Anyone who juggled Jung, LSD and “ESP research at Oxford secretly funded by the CIA” in their bio had my attention. Unfortunately, I never made it to Basel for that conference, but then neither did Steve, but we finally met up at his place in Notting Hill, London, and he told me his story.
In 1957, while just starting out in academia as an undergraduate, aged 18, Stephen Abrams wrote a letter to C.G. Jung about his desire to use parapsychology to test the great psychologist’s idea of synchronicity. Surprisingly, Abrams received an in-depth reply, initiating a communication that continued until Jung’s death just a few years later (Adler 1976).
Abrams completed his psychology degree at the University of Chicago, his hometown, where he was president of the Parapsychology Laboratory between 1957 and 1960 (Melton 2001). He began to work as a visiting research fellow during his summer breaks with the patriarch of parapsychology at that time, J.B. Rhine, at his famous laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina (Black 2001). Upon completing his degree, Abrams moved to the UK and became an advanced student at St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University from 1960 to 1967. He headed a parapsychological laboratory at the university’s Department of Biometry and, having some skill in hypnosis, he investigated extrasensory stimulation of conditioned reflexes in hypnotized subjects (Melton 2001). He was also responsible for organising the first conference outside of the US of the American-based Parapsychological Association, at Oxford University in 1964 (Luke 2011).
His PhD studies at Oxford were part-funded by the CIA via the Human Ecology Fund, a secret front organization for the CIA’s classified MK-ULTRA mind control project. It was under the auspices of MK-ULTRA that the CIA funded numerous academic projects investigating LSD and other methods of altering consciousness, with the aim of finding truth serums and techniques for interrogation and brainwashing.
Abrams didn’t know it at the time but, while embarking on his PhD, he was about to depart on a whirlwind ride to Kansas, via Alice’s rabbit hole. Dr James Monroe, the executive secretary at the Human Ecology Fund (HEF), based in New York, had sent Abrams a letter in April 1961 saying that they were interested in assisting his ESP research at Oxford. Abrams, having no idea who HEF were, arranged to travel back to the US to meet with Monroe to discuss funding. Prior to leaving, he met with Arthur Koestler, the writer who would later leave almost his entire estate to establish a parapsychology research unit and chair at the University of Edinburgh. Koestler had given a talk in London for the Society for Psychical Research and invited Abrams along afterwards for dinner, along with the anthropologist Francis Huxley – (son of Sir Julian Huxley, and nephew of Aldous Huxley). Koestler was heading to America to attend a conference on mind control organized by another secret CIA front organization, called the Joshua Macy Foundation – although he probably didn’t know it at the time because the CIA were operating at a very underground level. Abrams suggested that Koestler go to Duke University to visit his old mentor J.B. Rhine at his parapsychology lab, and Huxley suggested that Koestler should also go and see Timothy Leary at Harvard.
Taking the slow route home, Abrams sailed to New York and met with James Monroe and Preston Abbot, the programme director of HEF. Following a seemingly successful meeting with his new potential funders, he caught a flight to Duke University to see Rhine, and changed planes in Washington. ‘Just for a laugh’ (Black 2001, 50) he tried calling the CIA via the operator and asked to speak to the director regarding recent communications he had had with the Russian parapsychologist, Leonid Vassiliev – the first cold war Russian to communicate across the iron curtain about ESP research. He was told that someone would come to meet him at the airport within the hour. Abrams was met by the MK-ULTRA second-in-command, Robert Lashbrook, and discussed his Soviet link up.
Having called the CIA so soon after his meeting with HEF executives, the CIA did a security check on Abrams at Duke University. Abrams later reasoned that they must have thought that he was either ‘telepathic or taking the piss’ (Black 2001, 51) because the link between HEF and the CIA was a very deep national secret at that time. Abrams later discovered, through freedom of information access years later, that he had been given security clearance concerning his knowledge of the link, which seemed to be better than what must have been a fairly grisly alternative. Their security check would also have discovered that Abrams was about to take psilocybin with Rhine any day, and must have put them in mind of the CIA’s earlier project, codenamed ARTICHOKE, a forerunner of MK-ULTRA that aimed, as part of its mind control remit, to discover drugs which could be used to develop telepathy and clairvoyance (Lee 1985). ARTICHOKE had sent agents to Mexico with R.G. Wasson in 1952 while on one of his seminal trips to discover the Psilocybe mushroom cult among the Mazatecs (Stevens 1988). Many years later, in an interview with David Black, Abrams looked back upon his unwitting intuitive manoeuvres and declared that, ‘I was rather in a position where I could write my own ticket. I was asking the spooks to give me money to study spooks. And to overcome their reserve I had to spook them’ (Black 2001, 51).
Arriving at Rhine’s lab, Abrams was invited to take part in a drug experiment the following day and signed a consent form. Koestler had taken up Huxley’s suggestion and had been to see Leary at Harvard a week earlier, and the pair were flown down to Duke by Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) in his private plane. Leary had brought a bottle of psilocybin pills with him and along with Rhine and his research team everyone had got high, and even attempted some ESP experiments, although there was apparently way too much laughter for the tests to have been taken seriously (S. Abrams, personal communication, August 14, 2006; S. Krippner, personal communication, January 19, 2006). Koestler had a bad trip and had ‘lived through world war three’ (S. Abrams, personal communication, April 25, 2009). Rhine, on the other hand, was quite inspired and kept Leary’s bottle of pills for further research, although he had terminated the nascent psychedelic ESP project by the end of the year, despite an improvement in test scores (Horn 2009) and not before Steve had his first trip.
Curiouser and curiouser, upon returning to the UK, Abrams found in his letterbox a funding cheque from HEF as well as a letter from Vasiliev offering copyright on a manuscript in Russian on his telepathy research, hoping that Abrams could get it published in English. Abrams wrote to Lashbrook at the CIA asking for help to get the book translated, but Lashbrook, seeing that Abrams had security clearance, wrote back in January 1962 telling him not to write to the CIA because HEF would deal with it, by which point the penny must have truly dropped for Steve.
Later that year, the Human Ecology Fund programme director Preston Abbott arrived in the UK to meet with Steve and ask him how his ESP research was going. Abrams asked him about getting Vasiliev’s manuscript translated but Abbott replied that it would cost too much. Surprised at this, Steve surmised that Abbott was not aware of the secret CIA relationship with HEF and so, deciding to have some fun, said, ‘But, the agency said you’d be glad to do it’ (Black 2001, 53). Abbott initially turned white, and then fumed, having previously turned down an invitation to work for the CIA he was not best pleased to find the agency were his paymasters after all. According to Abrams, ‘He phoned long distance to Harold Wolff, the chair of the Human Ecology Foundation [Fund], and insisted that James Monroe – his superior – be fired on the spot, as he was’ (Black 2001, 53). A massive reshuffle began at the Human Ecology Fund and most of the board of directors were replaced in a short time. In the late 1970s, Abrams met Abbott again in London and the former HEF director informed him that half of the organization’s staff had had no idea that they were being run by the CIA.
After shooting himself spectacularly in the foot with the CIA funding, Abrams patched up his finances with grants from more legitimate funders to continue his PhD research, such as the Perrott Scholarship, a bequest administered by Trinity College Cambridge, set up to fund psychical research (i.e. ESP). But Abrams was never awarded the qualification, even though he submitted a worthy thesis and sat his viva voce in 1967, largely because he had by then become one of UK’s leading drug law reform activists and had organised a number of demonstrations and other actions with Oxford students during the sixties, which had embarrassed the university.
Having just formed SOMA, the Society of Mental Awareness, Abrams wrote an essay on ‘The Oxford scene and the law’ that was covered by the student newspaper and which claimed that cannabis users were treated more harshly than heroin users by the law, because heroin addiction was still considered a medical problem at that time. In January 1967, The People newspaper got hold of the story and emphasized the claim that 500 Oxford students were using cannabis. The Senior Proctor at Oxford had claimed that about 30 people were using dope and that they were all nervous wrecks. In response, and on behalf of the one Oxford student being prosecuted for weed, a lively ensemble of about 500 students marched through Oxford in protest of the cannabis laws. The story escalated and in February the University Student Health Committee heard evidence from Abrams who argued that the Home Secretary should be pressed to set up an investigation, and the committee did just that. The Government responded positively in April by setting up the Wootton Committee to investigate hallucinogens, but not cannabis (Black 2001).
Things then continued to hot up in the press with Paul McCartney saying he had seen God on LSD, and with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in court on cannabis and speed charges. Following the heavy sentencing of the two Stones at the end of June a number of angry protests, backed by SOMA, began in London, and the musicians were released immediately on bail. A massive legalize pot rally in Hyde Park was organized and presided over by Abrams, who had devised a plan to draw flack away from the Beatles’ acid image and take the pressure off the Stones by placing a one-page advert in The Times stating that, ‘The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.’ The text of the advert was prepared by Abrams and was paid for secretly by the Beatles, who also signed it, as did Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, and a number of MPs, leading medical experts and other notable public figures. The advert did its job and sparked a national debate, ultimately influencing the Wootton Committee to go beyond their initial remit and report on cannabis, stating that, ‘The long asserted dangers of cannabis were exaggerated, and that the related law was socially damaging, if not unworkable’ (Black 2001, 73).
By July 1968, the News of the World were regarding Steve as the UK’s equivalent of Timothy Leary and ran a front page story with a maniacal image of Abrams stating that, ‘This dangerous man must be stopped.’ This had come about because Abrams had discovered a loophole in the law that enabled cannabis tincture to be prescribed freely even though cannabis in its ordinary state was illegal. Abrams had met with Bing Spear, the head of the Drug Inspectorate at the Home Office, who had thereafter made arrangements with the UN to increase the UK’s meagre legal cannabis importation quota some 17-fold to 254 kilos. As a result, the organisation Abrams had founded, SOMA (which had Francis Crick, Francis Huxley and psychiatrist R.D. Laing as directors), was able to manufacture cannabis tincture for prescription by medical doctors that were SOMA members, such as the medic Sam Hutt (better known as the country musician Hank Wangford). SOMA were also researching alkaloids derived from cannabis, and investigated the use of pure THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. After some initial problems with the formula, which was corrected by Crick, SOMA’s chief chemist Dick Pountain manufactured an experimental batch of seven grams of relatively pure THC at the cost of £1,600 – a considerable amount of money at the time. Abrams, as he delighted in telling me, smoked the whole thing over a weekend with his acquaintances and remarked that, ‘It was like the very finest Moroccan kief with a hint of cocaine. It was very, very good dope’ (Black 2001, 75).
Listening to Steve’s stories – all well evidenced – over the years I came to admire his association with what Jung identified as the trickster archetype. He was an exceptional and humorous intellect who could run rings around people, never suffered fools, and yet seemingly always remained honest and compassionate – no matter whom he was dealing with. He was also an exceptional raconteur and named the good and the great among his friends, be they leading musicians, politicians, scientists, psychiatrists, parapsychologists, activists or LSD-ring mastermind criminals on the run.
Perhaps my favourite story of Steve’s concerned the occasion he and R.D. Laing were visited by detective inspector Richard Lee, the lead officer of Operation Julie – the UK’s largest LSD bust that ended in the arrest of 130 people and put an end to a conspiracy that had produced over 100 million doses of acid in Britain over a six-year period. Because of their association with one of the ring leaders of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love – the world’s biggest LSD manufacturers, busted in 1972 – the police had been interested in Abrams and the psychiatrist Laing, a leading figure in the anti-psychiatry movement who had pioneered the use of LSD therapy for schizophrenia. Through Bing Spear at the Home Office, Lee made arrangements to visit Laing and Abrams in 1977, shortly after the bust, for a ‘social’, and arrived at Laing’s place with his driver. Informing them both that they were in the clear over Operation Julie, the four of them had a frank discussion, over copious whiskies, concerning psychiatry and the politics of LSD and cannabis. Lubricated by the scotch, Laing and Abrams were able to convince both officers of the folly of the drug laws and urged them both to quit the force, which, upon staggering back into work later that day, they both did, as did several other members of the Operation Julie team (Black 2001).
Fast-forwarding to 2006, Steve never gave this talk at the Basel conference as he was unable to leave his house in Notting Hill, London, to make the trip, because he had emphysema. To my knowledge Steve never left the house from that point on as he had difficulty breathing, and was ultimately unable to breathe at all without a near continuous supplement of oxygen throughout the day. That is until he re-discovered cannabis tincture, and had it supplied by an underground dispensary in London, which, after only one dose, allowed him to come off oxygen for several hours a day. He continued with his own treatment against his doctor’s wishes, and it afforded him a lot of relief. He had hoped to further investigate the benefits of cannabis tincture and aerosol as a vasodilator in the treatment of emphysema. Unfortunately, before he was able to take his research any further than mere personal assay, Steve died at his home in Notting Hill on 21 November, 2012, aged 74 (b. 15 July, 1938).
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