[Trenchant Edges] Terence McKenna the Criminal
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes, 8 seconds. Contains 3427 words
One of the enduring sources of speculation about Terence Mckenna is his career as a criminal.
Now, all of us who have tried psychedelic drugs are criminals by definition. You have to have possessed a scheduled substance (or one of its not-technically illegal yet analogs) to ingest it, even unknowingly.
But there are two periods of his life which suggest a more active role in what we usually call the drug trade.
First, the period from 1969 to 1972 where according to his own account he was a hashish smuggler in India who’s package was stopped by US customs on its way to Aspen. Second, the period roughly following it through at least 1976 when Terence and Dennis published the Magic Mushrooms Growers Guide under pseudonym, when they were growing substantial amounts of mushrooms.
Tracing the Crimes
Some quotes from True Hallucinations and Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss may be useful here.
Our first hint of this mystery comes in chapter 2 of True Hallucinations, as Terence filled in the backstory of the expedition to La Chorrera:
"I understand. And I am committed to this hash thing in Asia in a few months, for who knows how long? No, this Amazon trip, if it happens at all, is off in the future. But you should think about it, and something else...."
Later that page we got more information:
" It was nearly two years before we could begin to put our plans into effect. Late in August of 1969 fate turned me from hash smuggler to fugitive when one of my Bombay-toAspen shipments fell into the hands of U. S. Customs. I went underground and wandered throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia, viewing ruins in the former and collecting butterflies in the latter. Then came my time in Japan.
Whether this gave me an edge on the others in experience seemed unlikely. Yet even my new status as desperado did not deter my passion for the Amazon. I still dreamed of visiting the green places of the vine people."
We don’t get more until near the end of the book in Chapter 17, where Terence recounts an improbable encounter with a possibly former-Nazi German mining executive named Dr Karl Heintz in Kupang, Indonesia.
"In February of 1970, a year before I arrived at La Chorrera, my fugitive wanderings had taken me to the island of Timor in Eastern Indonesia. Under indictment in the States for the heinous crime of importing hashish, I traveled and lived under the dramatic assumption that international police agencies were combing the globe looking for me.
My cover, that of a graduate student in entomology doing field work for a degree—a butterfly collector—had worked well over the previous six months as I had made my way slowly through Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, and a host of other less familiar but equally exotic insular backwaters."
And when recounting how he had to consider what exactly to tell this mining exec:
" I swallowed hard. He didn't look like the sort of person who would appreciate my stories of fighting the police at the Berkeley barricades shoulder-to-shoulder with affinity groups like the Persian Fuckers and the Acid Anarchists. Nor did my participation in the Human Be-In or the rolling orgies of the Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury seem appropriate to mention. And my recent stint as a hashish smuggler in India and my subsequent move undercover to avoid capture by Interpol also seemed out of place in this particular interview."
And last, when Herr Heintz offered to hire him for one of his company’s expeditions to the Amazon which never happened.
“I was caught completely off-guard. He was right about the Amazon being difficult for one person. Wallace himself had said as much. He had thrown in with the botanist Richard Spruce and the discoverer of animal mimicry, Walter Henry Bates, in order to do his Amazon exploring.
But I was not whom I must seem to Heintz. I was no academic. I was an international fugitive with a price on my head. And also, I thought, what about my hippie girlfriend studying dance back on Bali, who was assuming we would travel on to Japan together?"
Heintz ghosted Terence and before recounting their apparent meeting again at a Max Planck Institute conference in Denver, Terence mentions:
“A year after the events at La Chorrera and two years after my visit to Timor, in the spring of 1972, I was in Boulder, Colorado. I had returned from South America to settle my legal status and try to put life on the road behind me. Dennis and I were working together on the manuscript of The Invisible Landscape and spending a lot of time at the university library, studying the various disciplines that had to be mastered if our ideas were to stand a chance of being taken seriously.”
And these little tidbits are about all we get from Terence in his books. The invisible Landscape nor Food of the gods nor The archaic revival don’t give us more information to work with. And while he mentions some things in bits and pieces in his talks, I’ve never come across a comprehensive account from Terence.
Before we get into Dennis’ side, I wanna take a moment to ask some hard questions.
Some Hard Questions
How much of this account should we really trust? Well, that’s hard to say. Terence, for all his erudition and the scope of his knowledge, certainly is willing to play fast and loose with facts if it makes a better story. As anyone who’s looked at the footnotes to Food of the gods can tell you.
Was all this business about hash smuggling and nazi scientists real or some kind of literary flourish? How exactly does one go from being indicted on drug smuggling charges to a free man?
Does any of this matter? Well, kinda. See, there’s a school of thought promoted by people like Jan Irvin who think Terence was a sleeper agent for the CIA or FBI and that he traded his freedom to spread weird ideas to keep people who might organize against the government busy running in little harmless circles.
Aside from paranoia and badly interpreting a few remarks Terence said about The Mushroom putting him in public relations, the stories Terence half-told about his smuggling days are the only real evidence for this view.
So it’s important to look on that from two perspectives: 1. They may be right. 2. They may be wrong. Either way, there’s probably some documentation in some filing box somewhere that would show some new light on the situation.
Fortunately, Terence isn’t our only source. His brother Dennis adds quite a bit of detail on the subject.
Cartel of the Screaming Abyss
OK, so that’s probably too melodramatic. Dennis’ book adds a lot of context to the flashes of story we get from Terence.
Let’s start with the first mention of this stuff in Chapter 7: The Collector
"At age eleven or twelve, Terence began collecting insects and built up a fine butterfly and moth collection, including a few exotic specimens he purchased. His tarantulas, blue morpho butterflies, and gigantic horned stag beetles arrived via the mail-order catalogs he found listed in the back of Science News, a thin weekly bulletin we subscribed to for years. Terence’s entomological interests proved more lasting than his other collection-related pursuits, and as a young adult he continued to seek out butterflies on his global ramblings. Though his passion was very real, he found the persona of the collector to be a good cover when traveling in tropical countries. As he noted, “When you show up in a village with a butterfly net, it’s immediately obvious to even the youngest child why you are there; and it’s non-threatening, it’s friendly. You are immediately tagged as a harmless eccentric.”
Terence would know, having spent months exploring the outer islands of Indonesia under that guise in 1970, on the run from Interpol for smuggling hashish. Later, the same cover worked pretty well on our travels in Colombia when our real quest was for exotic hallucinogens.”
Our next hint comes from Chapter 23: Escape from Mordor, where Terence has a close call at the post office.
" Terence’s stopover in Snowmass was brief but rich. He had arrived back from Asia on the West Coast and was on his way to New York to sell the book and perhaps to pursue a new love interest. I know nothing about her beyond that she lived out East and was one of the magnets drawing him to New York. During his travels in Asia, Terence had done a bit of hash smuggling, which in those days was relatively easy. Before the War on Drugs started, a lot of itinerants were able to finance their nomadic lifestyles by sending a few ounces, or a few kilos, of Nepali temple balls or Afghani Red to he hash-starved folks back home. Since he’d be passing through Colorado, he’d decided to direct one of his shipments to Paonia, addressing it to himself at our post office box so he could pick it up
Needing a respite from Snowmass, we decided to spend a few days in Paonia. Dad flew over in his plane and brought us home. Terence was agitated and insisted on checking the mail every day. He said this was his biggest shipment yet. When it finally arrived, we knew it immediately, because the entire post office was redolent with the aroma of fine Nepali hash. Terence had had the bright idea to conceal the hash in the swollen stomach of one of those “happy Buddha” statuettes. The only problem was, the shippers had done a shoddy job of gluing the thing together, and it had broken open in transit, scattering large balls of hash throughout the packing material.
Terence handled this with aplomb. When he stepped to the window to pick up the package, the postmaster asked if it contained perfume or something. Without missing a beat, Terence replied, “Incense.” Our friendly local postmaster might have been a little skeptical at this explanation, but if so he didn’t let on. We accepted the package, which was elaborately sewn with a muslin covering, and hightailed it out of there. The good news was that we now had an abundance of hash, including a small personal stash that made my remaining year of high school quite tolerable.
Shortly after that, Terence took off for New York, where he hoped to sell some Tibetan thangkas he’d purchased in Kathmandu—“smelly, moth-eaten things,” our father called them—each worth several thousand dollars. Terence got a good price for them in New York among the Asian art dealers. His love interest apparently hadn’t panned out, and he only stayed there a few weeks. But his pockets were stuffed again. Everyone who could, it seemed, was hitting the hippie trail in India, Thailand, and Nepal. Terence wasted no time getting back on the road. Having discovered a taste for the nomadic lifestyle, and a way to fund it, he was prepared to travel for the rest of his life. I wouldn’t see him again for almost two years, just months before our mother’s death and our subsequent trip to Colombia. We corresponded, though at a leisurely pace that those who have grown up with email can scarcely imagine. The richness and depth of our exchanges more than made up for their infrequency.
Though we didn’t really think of it in such terms at the time, we were hatching our plans to actualize the eschaton"
Now, with Chapter 25: Busted Again 1969 we get a TON more information:
"During that summer, Terence, then rambling through India, had been sending back hashish shipments from Mumbai, still known then as Bombay. Aspen, he thought, was the perfect out-of-theway spot for these shipments to arrive, and a friend of his, Brett, was there to receive them. For Terence, this was a ramped-up version of what he’d been doing the previous summer when we picked up the smashed Buddha statue at the post office. At least then he’d made an effort to conceal the goods, however inadequately. At some point, however, he seemed to have thrown caution to the wind and started sending his shipments barely concealed in locked tin boxes. That seemed rather reckless to me, and my misgivings proved correct.
Several packages arrived without incident, picked up at any number of rented P.O. boxes up and down the valley. Most of the product was then taken to Denver and turned over to Tom, who had plenty of hash-starved customers ready to purchase whatever he had for sale. Brett, impatient and a little greedy, was quite happy to sell ounces locally, and in fact out the door of his cottage. I knew because he was living in the same cluster of cottages as Lisa and I. I thought he should show some restraint, but he didn’t listen; soon, half the hippies in town were beating a path to his door. His place quickly became widely known as the go-to source for the best hash to hit Aspen in months, maybe ever. As it turned out, his actions didn’t make much difference. When the end arrived, it came from a completely unexpected direction."
Later that chapter, Dennis goes into a long explanation of how Terence discovered his shipments had been picked up. Surprisingly, it involves Dennis and his friends being arrested.
I don't want to copy this whole chapter, so here's a bit of a taste:
"Well, I was fucked. I don’t recall any recitation of my rights, or anyone advising me that I didn’t have to talk to these guys. But I resisted. I insisted that I wasn’t part of the conspiracy, that I was just a friend of the others, and that I had no part in the smuggling operation. I had not received shipments nor had I sold any hash or facilitated any sales.
In fact, this was true; but circumstantially it didn’t look good. After all, I had been hanging out with the others all summer. Brett was even staying in our apartment, and Lord knows I was quite happy to smoke the abundant hash. But was there direct evidence linking me to the conspiracy? Not really, and association with criminals does not necessarily make one a criminal. But I didn’t know that at the time"
Dennis then admits that Terence, who's Bombay address the police found in his wallet, was the source. He ends up released because the cops didn't have any real evidence of wrongdoing from him, unlike his few friends.
He then mentions his parents reasonable reaction, including his father trying to protect Terence despite his hatred of drugs:
"In doing so, he probably committed a felony himself. He sent two cables to Terence’s last known address: “Interpol is looking for you, get out now!” A pretty unambiguous message."
He then traces quite a bit of Terence's travels over the next few years and finishes it up with a somewhat cryptic ending:
" The legal consequences from this episode have long since been settled, and Terence’s involvement in it has been public knowledge for decades. He discussed the bust in True Hallucinations and elsewhere; it is even mentioned in his obituary in The New York Times. I haven’t told the story here to depict Terence and myself as romantic outlaw renegades but rather as a cautionary tale. Like many eighteen-year-olds, I made some foolish choices, especially under pressure. Whatever my beliefs about one’s right to experience certain altered states, the bust was a searing reminder that the law is the law. And to break the law is to invite anguish not only into one’s own life but into other lives as well."
Later, in chapter 33: The Bell tower and a UFO and after the first trip to La Chorrera, Dennis mentions that Terence was still probably wanted but decidedly not a priority.
" So Terence, still presumably a wanted man, took a risk and returned to Berkeley with Ev, entering the country on the false passport he’d gotten in Japan. He had no problems clearing the border; apparently Interpol and the U.S. government had better things to do than to track a minor hash smuggler for a crime committed two years earlier."
And in chapter 35, Invisible Landscapes:
" That’s not to say his only doubters at the time were mainstream academics. During that spring and early summer, Terence’s efforts continued to baffle most of his friends; despite his inborn persuasiveness, he had yet to win them over. In addition, rumor had it that the FBI had gotten wind of his illegal return to the country, arousing his fear that the net cast after the 1969 hash bust might be closing. Both factors played into a decision by Terence and Ev to embark on what struck me, at least, as unthinkable: a return to La Chorrera."
And finally, a bit later, we have a specific hint as to how the matter was resolved:
"Word had reached him via our father that a plea deal for his prior smuggling activities might be in the offing. The time seemed right for heading home. The trip was full of delays, weeks spent in mosquito-infested, riverine outposts that wore them down."
And, finally, some goddamn details:
" After a few months clipping roses, Terence and Ev began talking about a return to Berkeley. Before then, however, Terence had to deal with his legal issues. I’m not sure what inquiries were made or how the matter proceeded to be so easily resolved; I do remember that Terence and our father went to the Federal Building in Denver accompanied by a lawyer. As Terence later told it, he announced at the courthouse that he was there to turn himself in, but nobody seemed to know what he was talking about. After a search, someone found the paperwork and had him fill out a few forms and schedule a court appearance. It was all politely bureaucratic—hardly the reception an international fugitive might have expected after eluding capture for nearly three years.
Once the case was settled, I believe he got three years unsupervised probation in return for telling them “everything he knew” about his hashish suppliers. Terence’s response was a long, rambling account with references to an auto body shop in a back alley in Bombay, as I recall. When I read the statement months later, I assumed he’d made it all up, but it apparently satisfied the authorities. To the best of my knowledge, the whole mess ended there; he never heard another word about it."
OK, so we have a timeline here. Terence became a person of interest in an drug smuggling investigation in 1969, spent 3 years politely avoiding contact with American law enforcement, and eventually ended up with what seems an absurdly short amount of probation after the era of mandatory minimums.
Emotionally, all this makes sense. Is it the whole story? Well, that’ll require some FOIA requests and a lot of luck. What are the odds any of the documents (like Terence’s original indictment, if such a thing existed) survive?
No idea, but it doesn’t seem super likely.
There are some interesting threads to tug on, but we’re probably 20-30 years late to get the whole story, as many of the people who were involved. I definitely plan on sending out the FOIA requests once I’ve got my own place again, and we’ll see if there’s anything else to tug on.
So, was Terence an agent?
Offhand, no idea. But I find it unlikely.
The timeline doesn’t really make sense. Federal drug smuggling charges have a statutes of limitations of 5 years. Which means by the time Terence published The Invisible Landscape in 1975 he was already a year clear of prosecution, even if there wasn’t a probation deal. And few enough people read that edition.
Terence’s speaking career didn’t really take off until the mid-late 80s, and it’s kind of absurd to claim anyone would sit some nobody kid down in 1972 and say, “We’ll let you off but only if you wait 15 years and promote the weird ideas we tell you to.”
There’s a common misunderstanding in US law where people assume talking about drugs is some kind of crime. It’s not. What’s criminalized is possession of drugs and distribution of drugs.
Speaking publicly just brings attention. And Terence wasn’t selling the kind of radical line late 60s Tim Leary was.
Was there any criminal investigation into Terence in the 90s? I haven’t seen or heard any evidence for it, but it’s something to look into. More FOIA requests, I guess.
In the end, Terence was a quiet armchair radical who happened to get enough traction to make a living singing for his supper. Nothing suspicious there, just the early attention economy at work.
How many of you would be interested in recordings of me reading these emails?