My Psychedelic Love Story: An interview with filmmaker Errol Morris

On the surface, Joanna Harcourt-Smith had the kind of life many people dream of. As a young socialite in the 1960s, she partied with some of the era's most fascinating and controversial cultural figures. "I always wanted to be with an outlaw," she told filmmaker and documentarian Errol Morris in his newest feature, My Psychedelic Love Story. And she fulfilled that dream, too, as LSD pioneer Dr. Timothy Leary's romantic partner and freedom advocate.

Together, Harcourt-Smith and Leary fled across Europe and all the way to Central Asia in 1972 to escape the long reach of US law enforcement. Alas, it did not work for long. The two were captured in Afghanistan. Leary was extradited to be sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for crossing the US-Mexican border with about one ounce of cannabis.

After a few years of heavy activism and media engagement from Harcourt-Smith, Leary was released early, in 1976. He had become an informant for the FBI, although no prosecutions arose from his role and he later said that he did not provide genuinely incriminating information.

Placed together in the witness protection program, the couple moved to New Mexico. But they lived there together only briefly, until Leary abandoned Harcourt-Smith without a word of goodbye.

My Psychedelic Love Story showcases filmmaker Errol Morris in a more tender, introverted mode than when he made his most famous film, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Rather than presenting a grand mystery like its forerunner, his newest film is about the personal truths of a life lived amid a sweeping dramatic arc beyond one's control.

Joanna Harcourt-Smith died in October—the month before the release of Morris's film. She apparently never knew whether the FBI and CIA had orchestrated some of the biggest events in her life, using her as a tool to take down Leary, whom then-President Richard Nixon called "public enemy number one." What she tells us in this film is what she did know and feel, backed up by an impressive amount of archival material stored around her home.

Errol Morris was kind enough to answer some questions about the film, and you can watch the trailer below. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rory Fleming: Given everything that is going on in the world, why Joanna Harcourt-Smith? Why now?

Errol Morris: Often, you don't choose stories, stories choose you. Joanna contacted me. Before that, I did not know her book or her story. She contacted me because she was a fan of Wormwood [Morris's miniseries about the life and suicide of Frank Olson, a CIA scientist who experimented with LSD and mind control], as well as my son Hamilton's Pharmacopeia on Viceland. She hoped we would like her story and that both of us could be involved. Then I read her book and decided I wanted to make the film.

There is an appealing quality to entering a story through something other than the front door. I was not interviewing Hamlet, as Leary is quite dead. Joanna gave unique insight into the Timothy Leary story, and her story is quite incredible in and of itself.

Despite the excitement of many parts of her life, the film shows that Harcourt-Smith also experienced great suffering as a result of childhood abuse and later governmental persecution. Yet she seems to be in such good spirits in the film. What was she like to work with?

I love Joanna. I spoke at her Zoom memorial service after her passing. As I said there, to know Joanna is to love Joanna.

As you make projects, there is this sense that if you know what you are going to get, why bother? Some people think that the documentary as an artform is about sticking someone in front of a camera and having them talk, but it's more than that on both sides. In a truly great documentary, the person interviewed is a performer. That's Joanna. She comes alive in front of the lens of the camera. It was a sheer delight.

One thing that is fascinating while watching the film is thinking about how much things have changed. Earlier this month, Oregonians decriminalized the possession of all drugs. Cities like Oakland, Denver and DC recently voted to decriminalize psilocybin. Did that come to mind while making this film?

I was amazed that this part of the story with Leary involved him crossing the US-Mexico border with an ounce of pot. A 20-year sentence for that is crazy, what with the modern US now quickly decriminalizing it. It is really crazy. It is also crazy that the entire governmental apparatus was dedicated to taking him down. Nixon called him the "most dangerous man" in America. It was a different era altogether.

That said, it seems that the US always finds a new scapegoat, some new cause undermining the fabric of our country. Many aspects of that speak to our current moment.

The film feels almost postmodern, given that Harcourt-Smith herself is not sure whether she was used by the US government as a "Mata Hari." Do you think she knew the truth and was unwilling to face it, or that there were so many layers of obfuscation around Leary turning informant that the truth could no longer be ascertained?

One of the final versions of the film had a card at the end telling the viewer that I contacted the FBI and CIA for their investigatory files on Joanna and Dr. Leary. Both agencies responded, telling me they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of such files.

However, I would argue it is not postmodern to not ascertain truth. It is like I've said about Rashomon [Akira Kurosawa's famous film about four people recounting different versions of the events leading to a man murdering his wife]. There is this idea that Rashomon is about how reality is all just different perceptions of truth. But it is more about the avoidance of—rather than the nonexistence of—truth. It is absolutely crucial to find the truth and pursue the underlying reality.

Do I think Joanna ultimately knew? No. I investigated and I do not know either. The center of the film became not whether the CIA used Joanna as a plant. Instead, it became about the love affair, and questions of why did Leary abandon her and "who am I?" And I was immensely moved by the quest.

My Psychedelic Love Story premieres on Showtime on Sunday, November 29.

My Psychedelic Love Story (2020) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME Documentary Film

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.

New report finds that reducing overpopulation in jails doesn't hurt public safety ​

COVID-19 has transformed the landscape of American life, from the mundane, like how people work and socialize, to the traumatic, such as how they are locked up. The airborne and contagious nature of the virus has made claustrophobic, unsanitary places like our jails petri dishes for its spread. Even in areas of the country where the political needle has not moved on mass incarceration and the drug war since the 1990s, local sheriffs, mayors and county commissions have felt enough pressure to take action to alleviate the jail overpopulation crisis that meaningful releases of pretrial detainees have sometimes occurred.

There are real questions about what many more conservative jurisdictions will do in terms of jail policy after the pandemic comes to an end. However, even before COVID-19, many other jurisdictions had already been experimenting with letting more people facing criminal charges await their trial dates from the safety of their own homes.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a national-facing nonprofit based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, just released a groundbreaking new report studying the impacts of these pretrial justice reforms on four states, as well as nine populous counties and cities. Analyzing public safety data from before and after the implementation of local reforms, the report comes to the conclusion that releasing people from confinement pretrial does not harm public safety.

In 2017, the New Jersey legislature virtually eliminated cash bail in favor of a risk-assessment approach to pretrial release. By 2019, the statewide jail population statewide had decreased by 45 percent. Contrary to law enforcement messaging that both crime and victimization would increase, crime data showed a 16 percent drop from 2016 to 2018, as well as negligible change in the number of people arrested while on pretrial release.

The stories are similar for the other states studied. Kentucky saw a decline in new arrests for people released pending trial, while New Mexico saw declines in both crime rates and rearrest rates. In New York, there was a sharp decrease in the number of people incarcerated pretrial after reforms were enacted, but, thanks to the state's district attorneys stoking fears of a hypothetical crime wave and particularly heinous crimes, it only took a few months for the legislature to reverse course.

On the local level, Washington, DC has represented a success story on pretrial justice changes for years. The city largely eschewed cash bail in the 1990s, and today, less than 10 percent of people released following arrest are released contingent on a financial bond. In San Francisco, where progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin took office at the beginning of the year, prosecutors are no longer seeking cash bail; just like in DC, only about 10 percent of people awaiting trial at home are arrested again during that period. In neighboring Santa Clara County, California, which includes San Jose, the results of a similar policy were even more impressive, with 99 percent of impacted people not getting rearrested.

If these data points seem to some to contradict common sense, it is because television shows about crime and justice, together wth other media depictions, focus on dramatic, terrible crimes like rape and murder. In fact, the lion's share of any local or state prosecutor office's caseload consists of minor, even petty, crimes.

Laura Conover, the newly-elected reformist county attorney in Pima County (Tucson), Arizona, importantly made crucial but little-known statistics about the county and state justice system front and center in her campaign. Linking to data from Pima County Superior Court and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Conover explained how "more people were charged with a felony drug offense as the most serious charge than with any other kind of felony offense, which has been true for fourteen of the last seventeen years." In addition, she noted how Pima County "sends more people to prison and jail and places more people on probation for drug possession as the most serious charge than for any other type of crime." This holds true for Arizona as a whole, as well as many other places across the nation.

None of this stops the fear-mongering about pretrial reform, especially from law-and-order conservatives and last generation's law enforcement officials. What motivates these reactions?

Aside from the desire to appear "tough on crime," some of these figures may be looking out for their personal lives. For prosecutors, making the case to a judge that someone is an imminent menace to the community takes more effort than simply asking to hold someone on a routine bail amount on the basis of the underlying crime charged.

In New Mexico, Albuquerque DA Raul Torrez's prosecutors often refused to give this extra information, even after voters said yes to a 2016 ballot initiative that required just this. Across the nation in Brooklyn, assistant prosecutors quit in droves after a set of criminal justice reforms (including bail reform) allegedly increased the amount of hours they had to spend at work.

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.

Inside the world of a dark-web drug seller


In today's bifurcated illicit drug trade, it's increasingly common for transactions to occur anonymously, online—on the 0.01 percent of the deep web known as the dark web, which is inaccessible on most browsers.

For buyers and sellers with Tor, cryptocurrency and PGP, dark-web markets offer an intuitive, Amazon-esque user interface, with escrow and review features to keep everyone honest. Such markets are a logical first stop for newbies with technical know-how. But the added protection of the markets comes at an extra cost—one that many customers are happy to do without once they've established trust and a one-to-one connection with a seller.

In the fentanyl era, it remains easy and common to demonize drug sellers. But the one I interviewed—a 30-something, soft-spoken white man in the eastern United States, whose identifying details are omitted for obvious reasons—couldn't be less like the bloodthirsty predator stereotype we hear about in elementary school drug prevention assemblies and mainstream media. Over the course of our conversation, I was struck by his meticulousness, insight and palpable concern for customer health and safety. Though he is unquestionably and unapologetically working illegally, his answers illustrate why he is ethically ok with his work.

Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

David Poses: How long have you been doing this and how did you get started?
A friend got into some low-level dealing when Silk Road was coming up [in the early 2010s]. I went along and grew it from there.

Do you sell drugs in person or only online?
Strictly online.

Is this your only occupation, or do you do something else?
I have another (legitimate) business.

Great. What and where is it?

What kinds of drugs do you sell?
Heroin and a little coke; meth, occasionally.

What's your most popular item?
Two-gram bags of heroin.

Do you add fentanyl or other synthetic analogues to your heroin?
Never. Most of my customers are trying to steer clear of fentanyl.

How do you know it's not fentanyl or laced with fentanyl?
I run a few different kinds of tests on it [including methods "more sophisticated" than fentanyl test strips]. If the shit is cut, I let customers know.

Actual heroin and genuine pharmaceutical opioids seem to be increasingly hard to find. Is that your experience as well?
Right now, yeah. For one thing, synthetics are cheaper. COVID isn't helping.

Do you work with more than one supplier?
I got a few contacts for dope and one for coke and meth. I got somebody who's got a hand in everything—dope, coke, acid, ecstasy, pills, you name it—but it's pretty inconsistent and the pills are all pressed. Plus, I end up paying more for the "one-stop shopping," and that means so do you.

Do you have to specify "no fentanyl" when you order from a supplier?
It's understood.

But you still end up with fentanyl sometimes?
Uh huh.

What happens then?
Well, you can't return the shit, if that's what you're asking. If a test shows synthetics, I'll make it clear to customers and, if I can, I'll move it at a lower price.

How does it work when you buy drugs? Are you meeting guys like Felix Gallardo or Pablo Escobar in fancy hotel rooms?
Nothing like that. I'm not moving that level of product where guys like that would even know who I am.

Do you think any sellers are getting pure heroin (ie, heroin of any purity without synthetics) and cutting it with fentanyl or carfentanil? Or is everyone in the same boat as you?

Somebody is obviously doing that, but I think it's happening higher up the totem pole. I don't know that for sure. It's just common sense. If you're dealing with customers, you'd have to be pretty fucking stupid to be doing that—especially if you're selling online, sending it in the mail.

What do you mean by that?
You send somebody something that powerful and they don't know it is, you're gonna kill somebody sooner or later. They open the pack and do what's in it, and then they drop dead and they're right next to the package.

Is that your biggest concern? Someone dies and the mailer is found?
No question. Not just because I don't want anybody handing my packs to John Q. Law. I always tell my customers to do a test shot first and be careful, because I don't want anybody dying.

Is buying online safer than on the street?
There's added protection on both ends online because you're not doing business face-to-face, but you still got risks. I don't think people get ripped off as much online as they do on the street. But I hear stories all the time from people who fell for one of those "too good to be true" deals. They send money and get nothing.

Are they getting ripped off by actual sellers? Or is it the online equivalent of me on the street at two in the morning in the 1990s: desperate, no one I know is out, so I give my money to someone who says they have dope and I end up with nothing?
That. If a dealer did that, it'd be all over the forums in two seconds flat.

I find it fascinating that, in a lawless environment, the forums and markets, with their reviews and escrow systems, are able to do what can't be done in real life.
It wouldn't work otherwise.

Would you sell on the street if the internet didn't exist?
No fucking way.

Walk me through an order.
On a market or direct?

Tell me about both. And what's your ratio of direct versus online orders?
It's almost all direct since Empire Market exit scammed [in August], and that's better all around. I don't need to drop any more percentages than I have to, and neither do my customers.

If it's on a market, I see the order. If it's direct, you send proof of payment (bitcoin and Monero) and say what you want on [several secure, anonymous communicating platforms]. No matter how it comes in, if it happens before 9 am, it ships that day.

Note: The subject further explained that the shipping process is no different than a legal business but safeguards make each step exponentially more complex. Everything from buying packing/shipping supplies and postage to actual shipping is "extremely fucking complicated for good reason." He referred to instances of online drug businesses being "taken down by John Q Law" and, for reasons that may be obvious, didn't want me to share what he learned from these episodes, or the "military-grade stealth" he employs to avoid detection. Orders are shipped five days a week, with expedited shipping available for an added fee. The subject has tracking info for all shipments. However, it is not given to customers, and he only tracks packages when a problem arises—even doing that is "complicated."

How would you describe the state of affairs in dark-web markets since Empire Market's exit scam? Do you think there'll be consolidation, or more splintering like the direction you seem to have taken?
I've been around the block long enough to see Empire's exit scam coming a mile away, so I didn't get my clock cleaned the way a lot of other people did. I don't think there'll ever not be markets because if you're new to online, you're gonna look for that until you establish trust [with a seller].

Which markets do you currently sell on?
Less than I used to but I'd rather not say.

How do you feel about the sex and violence known to be trafficked on certain markets?
I won't do business anywhere that has any of that.

Is violence part of your job?
No, and I hope it stays that way.

Do you own a gun?
I'm not stupid.

So, yes?

Are people in your life aware of your profession?
A few.

How do they feel about it?
They worry.

Do you worry?
What do you think?

What's the closest you've come to getting caught?
Lets just say it involved a customer getting kicked out of a place after a pack shipped.

Do you use drugs?
I'll have a drink every now and then but nothing crazy. I quit partying when I started doing this on a full-time basis.

Did you ever have a problem with drugs?

Why don't you sell methadone or buprenorphine?
You can't get any kind of quantity for it to make sense. Sometimes a customer will try to sell bottles or films but it's not worth the hassle and, to tell you the truth, if they're taking that stuff so they won't do heroin, I don't want to be a part of them fucking their shit up.

What about your other customers? What if your products fuck their shit up?
I try not to think of it that way.

How do you think of it?
People are going to do drugs and that can be dangerous. I'm here to make it less dangerous.

So, this is a public service. If someone uses drugs, they should buy them from a reputable person like you who isn't going to rip them off or kill them.

What if a customer has to rip someone off to pay you for their drugs—does that bother you?
Honestly, it does but it's really not my business.

I guess it could also be said that guys on Wall Street rob people all the time and when they buy cars and houses, Porsche dealers and real estate agents probably don't lose sleep over it.
Thank you.

How do you feel about the War On Drugs?
Bad for you. Good for me.

Do you think the drug war will ever end?

There's too much money in keeping drugs illegal. You have any idea how many people are on that payroll?

The DEA?

Do you give money to any pro-drug war organizations?

Is that a "no"?
Put it to you this way: I protect my interests.

How do you feel about advocacy organizations that are obviously trying to end the drug war and also doing great things for the harm reduction movement.
Look, I'm all for harm reduction. I'm just saying: If drugs were suddenly legal, guys like me would be out of business in two seconds flat.

Because drugs would be commoditized and corporations would take over?

That doesn't seem to be entirely happening with weed.
Maybe not yet. It will.

Do you have an exit strategy—a goal or a plan for if the shit hits the fan?

What do you most want readers to know about you?
People forget that this is a business. I want my customers to be happy and I don't want any problems. You don't have to ask, When's my pack coming? 200 times a day, but you should do a test shot. And please, for the love of God: Destroy. The. Pack. Before. You. Do. Anything. Else.

This article was originally published by Filter, a magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter.

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