Throughout its long history, Laguna Beach has been known for many things. It’s stunning coastline and wonderful Mediterranean climate have consistently made the city a popular place to live, work and vacation. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the home of Southern California plein air painting. In the decades that followed, it was a playground for the rich and famous, including many Hollywood stars. And in the 1960s, it became the coolest place south of San Francisco for America’s burgeoning psychedelic culture. Hippies, artists and bohemians flocked to the city by the thousands. And for a brief time in 1967-68, it was home to Timothy Leary, whom Richard Nixon called “the most dangerous man in America.”
The 1960s were a time of civil unrest, student protests against the Vietnam War, and an unraveling of the cultural fabric of America. There was the psychedelic music of popular bands such as the Beatles, the Byrds and Pink Floyd. Even the Beach Boys were experimenting with music influenced by hallucinogens.
The psychedelic experience included partaking in marijuana and drugs such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. These were seen by some as tools to expand their consciousness and discover cosmic truths. Others saw drugs as harmful and illegal substances that could cause mental illnesses, or even lead to death.
In the search for enlightenment, Timothy Leary was the high priest and LSD the sacrament. Leary, a former Harvard lecturer who held a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, became an evangelist for the use of LSD. In late 1967, he moved to Laguna Beach to spend time with The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of counterculture hippies who lived together in the Woodland Drive area (known by the police as “Dodge City”) and manufactured LSD nicknamed Orange Sunshine.
At this time, the Laguna Beach police were largely unaware of the scope of the Brotherhood’s massive manufacturing and distribution operation. Police officer Neil Purcell recalled: "The BEL [Brotherhood of Eternal Love] still appeared to be just an unorthodox, goofy location operation, a pain ... but no hippie mafia."
When Leary arrived in Laguna Beach and moved into a home on Gaviota Drive, he’d already been arrested on drug charges. A lightning rod for controversy, he brought the unwanted attention of police to the Brotherhood’s illegal LSD production. On December 26, 1968, the same day Leary announced he was running for governor of California against incumbent Ronald Reagan, Officer Purcell noticed a car parked illegally in the middle of Woodland Drive, blocking traffic. He was incredulous when he realized that one of the vehicle’s occupants was none other than Timothy Leary.
After noticing the car smelled of marijuana, Purcell called for backup and searched the vehicle. The search yielded two roaches found in the ashtray, a pound of marijuana, two ounces of hashish and some tabs of LSD. Leary claimed the drugs were planted by the police.
Leary was sentenced on January 21, 1970. He received a 10-year sentence for the Laguna Beach offense, and another 10 years was later added for his 1965 arrest. When he arrived in prison, he was given a battery of psychological tests designed to determine the appropriate work detail. Since Leary designed some of the tests himself, during his time as a clinical psychologist, he answered them in a way that resulted in his being assigned to a low-security prison, where he worked as a gardener.
Leary escaped by climbing over the prison wall. He was met by a pickup truck that had been arranged by the Weathermen, who had received a $250,000 payment from the Brotherhood. Leary became a fugitive from the law. After traveling to Algeria, Switzerland and Vienna, he was apprehended at the airport in Beirut. After spending time in Folsom Prison, he was eventually released from prison on April 21, 1976 by California Governor Jerry Brown. Leary died from prostate cancer on May 31, 1996, at age 75.
Leary may have attracted some people to Laguna Beach, but it was already home to a large number of artists, idealists, hippies and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Laguna Beach was still a sleepy little town, but it had an active arts scene. And it was still an affordable place to live for artists and other creative people, who earned a living by selling their wares from their front yards, the Pottery Shack, local art galleries or the Sawdust Art Festival.
Since the hippy heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s, each generation of Laguna Beach residents has contributed to and nurtured the arts that are so valued in the city. It’s home to the Laguna College of Art and Design as well as more than 100 art studios and galleries, some of which are featured in the monthly First Thursdays Art Walk. You can see it alive in public art installations and annual events such as the Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Fair, Festival of the Arts and Pageant of the Masters.
Even if you don’t live in Laguna Beach, a visit of any length may inspire your creativity. In addition to festivals and galleries, there are many art classes and workshops to enjoy, offered by professional artists through the Sawdust Festival organization, LOCA Arts Education and others. Or you can purchase an original piece of art to remember your visit to Laguna.
Today, Timothy Leary is a footnote in the history of Laguna Beach, but every once in a while, you may find yourself wondering if that was the really the scent of sandalwood incense you just smelled.