Rory Fleming

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.

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