[This article is being published in collaboration with Narcotica, a podcast about drugs and the people who use them, hosted by journalists Troy Farah, Zachary Siegel and Christopher Moraff. You can listen to their interview with Casey Hardison here.]
When I first spoke to Casey William Hardison last October, he was calling from a Wyoming jail cell. Now he’s running for president in 2024. It’s yet another weird turn in the life of a legendary chemist and advocate for the freedom to expand one’s consciousness with drugs. But his current legal troubles could have a much bigger impact than a statistically unlikely chance at the White House.
Dedicated psychonauts may have heard of Hardison. The entheogenic activist has his own “Character Vault” on Erowid, he’s rubbed shoulders with many legends in obscure psychoactive chemistry—Sasha Shulgin and Darrell Lemaire, for example—and he traveled with Hamilton Morris to Burning Man for the Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia episode “The Lazy Lizard School of Hedonism.”
Hardison, 49, has earned this reputation, of course, because he’s a talented chemist who once spent years cooking up everything from LSD to DMT to 2C-B, with plenty of MDMA in between. When he was eventually arrested and convicted in the United Kingdom for his unsanctioned psychedelic laboratory, the local press branded him a “drugs wizard.”
But Hardison defended himself in court, arguing he had the fundamental right to alter his consciousness using drugs. Essentially, Hardison was arguing for cognitive liberty, a concept he adopted from legal theorist Richard Glen Boire, who wrote in 2001, “the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is not a war on pills, powder, plants, and potions, it is war on mental states—a war on consciousness itself—how much, what sort we are permitted to experience, and who gets to control it.”
“I believe firmly that the Controlled Substances Act is an attempt at mind control.”
There’s little doubt drugs can change the way you think and feel—whether it’s caffeine or heroin, that’s kind of the whole point of taking these chemicals. Czech psychiatrist and LSD researcher Stanislav Grof described psychedelics as “nonspecific catalysts and amplifiers of the psyche.” And Hardison valiantly defended his right to “amplify” his mind. Why are some chemical tweaks allowed while others are verboten?
“I believe firmly that the Controlled Substances Act is an attempt by the state, by the government, by the federal government at mind control of the American population,” Hardison said. “It’s pretty obvious if the state doesn’t want you to engage in the multiple modes of thought that are available with these forbidden thought catalysts.”
Despite his best efforts, the UK courts disagreed with Hardison—a judge labeled him a “dangerous individual”—and he served nine years of a 20-year sentence, before being deported back to the US in 2013.
“I went into that original argument with just a single book in my hand and not really knowing at all what I was doing,” Hardison told me in a phone call that cost him $4 every 15 minutes. “By the time I had crafted the argument, five years had already gone by and it was too late for appeals and everything. So I’ve been working on this argument for years and when I showed up in jail here, I now have standing in the courts with a real case of controversy.”
Unfortunately, Hardison now has a chance to try this defense again, this time in a US courtroom. In 2018, he traveled to Jackson, Wyoming and attempted to sell three pounds of marijuana to undercover cops. They tried to arrest him, but he sped off in his car. “I thought I was being robbed, really,” Hardison said.
He eluded police until August 2020, when he was arrested in Yorkville, California and shipped back to Wyoming, where he’s now facing two felony counts of delivery of marijuana. With the help of his lawyers, he’s filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act discriminates against him in an “arbitrary and unequal manner.”
“When I went to look at the face of the legislation, I noticed that they have a little get-out clause,” Hardison explained. “It says this act doesn’t apply to alcohol and tobacco, which is a no-no in the world of equal protection and due process, to exclude classes of individuals or persons from the operations of what would otherwise be a neutral law of general applicability.”
“I don’t want to be a pharmaco-chauvinist and say, ‘Oh, my drugs are special, yours aren’t.”
He’s arguing six counts, citing a flurry of legal precedent dating as far back as 1891, including Brown v. Board of Education and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. They are summed up as follows:
1) the right to be free from arbitrary imprisonment;
2) the right to property;
3) the right to privacy;
4) the right to freedom of thought;
5) the right to pursue happiness; and
6) the right to be free from discrimination.
While it isn’t his main defense, the cognitive liberty argument is juicy, as it involves, as Hardison put it, “the indispensable matrix of nearly every other form of human freedom.” He emphasized that he’s not arguing for the religious right to use psychedelics. “I don’t want to be a pharmaco-chauvinist and say, ‘Oh, my drugs are special, yours aren’t.”
The big question, of course, is whether his argument has a snowflake’s chance in Hell of winning.
“I’m exceptionally confident,” Hardison said. “My argument is explicitly simple. It’s an equal protection issue. Under the Wyoming constitution, there is a rule that says that all general laws must be of uniform operation. And if you have an explicit exemption for alcohol and tobacco on the face of the legislation, then that makes it not a general law anymore.”
So far, the judge overseeing his case has not agreed, Hardison said, and he took a plea deal, which he plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“I finally received the Judge’s Order [regarding] my constitutional arguments and he answered the questions he wanted to and dealt not at all with my non-uniform law or arbitrary law claim,” Hardison wrote in an email. “He recreated my argument as an argument for a fundamental right to use cannabis rather than a fundamental right not to lose my liberty, in line with those who use and commerce alcohol and tobacco arbitrarily excluded from the law. So, it’s off to the [state] Supreme Court.”
From there—and this may be unlikely—the case could be nudged all the way to the US Supreme Court. It’s a longshot, but because the Wyoming Controlled Substances act is modelled after the federal version, if Hardison wins, it could overturn the CSA and essentially end the drug war.
While this effort is certainly unique—Hardison claims it’s the first time this argument has been used in a US courtroom—it’s only one attempt among many to undermine prohibition, of course. Many contemporary arguments for ending the War on Drugs lead instead with the racist origins and implementation of narcotics laws, or illustrate how the harms of prohibition vastly outweigh the harms of drugs. Relatively few people, with Dr. Carl Hart prominent among them, argue that altering consciousness is a fundamental human right.
Casey is also running for president, with the aim of reviving the Democratic-Republican Party, which formerly dissolved in 1834. “We are working out policy positions at the moment,” Hardison told the Jackson Hole newspaper. “But liberty is fundamental.”
Wherever this court battle steers him, “I am not stopping,” Hardison said. “Something else really pertinent to the argument is that there can be no illegal drugs. That’s a complete misnomer. It’s a sleight of hand that distracts people from what’s actually being controlled in this class. What’s being controlled is humans.”
Photograph of Hardison in 2017 by JonRHanna via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0