Both Sides of the Law – An Interview with Leaf Fielding
In his recently published memoir, To Live Outside the Law, sixty-three-year-old Leaf Fielding gives the first ever account of the legendary Operation Julie drugs bust from the perspective of inside the gang, whose motivation was to transform the world for the better through the mind-altering powers of LSD. For Leaf the drug proved to be both an avatar of enlightenment and downfall, leading to him serving a five-year prison sentence. He first tried it back in 1966, as an idealistic eighteen year old, and that wholly positive experience kick-started his quest. He captures his youthful excitement and enthusiasm beautifully in the text:
‘…Jack and I were afire with our trip and talked about it for days. He too had experienced a sense of oneness with nature, life as energy and worlds in grains of sand as well as the sensory overload, distortion of time and space and hallucinatory after-images. Our lives had been turned on their heads and we were a great deal better for it, we agreed. Our friends ought to try this miraculous stuff. Everyone should… The light of joy was in our eyes; we’d stumbled across the elixir of life, the substance that was going to transform humanity!’
By then LSD was illegal, so Leaf’s inclination naturally pushed him onto the wrong side of the law. The next few years were colourful and picaresque, involving travelling and dope running in Europe, Turkey, Morocco and Thailand; and later back in England, he became a key member of the Julie outfit, who manufactured and supplied millions of doses of acid in the 1970s. In the book Leaf conveys the subtle changes in his outlook over the passage of time, and also the ambivalence of his position, distributing acid for idealistic reasons, yet having to put up with the stresses and strains of outlaw life.
‘At the beginning of our acid-dealing days I was light-hearted and full of optimism. Over the years the stress levels grew. Life is a continuum – by the time of the bust I was paranoid and full of anxiety, not a good exemplar for my wares.’
In the Operation Julie bust all his worst fears were realised. The gang were treated like big-time criminals and parallels were drawn between them and the IRA and Baader Meinhof. ‘It was falsely stated that there were links between us – a very effective smear in terms of demonising us in the mind of the public.’
The ‘real story’ from Leaf’s point of view – of wanting to raise consciousness to free the spirit – was lost and he became famous for all the wrong reasons and faced years in jail. So how did he cope with such a crushing experience?
‘I’d been busted with a sizeable group of like-minded friends. That helped enormously. Although riven by divisions we were all in the same mess and many of us were still good pals – we’d been through a lot of psychic territory together. By the time we were split up I was well used to being in prison. Anyway, I was accustomed to institutional life, having done ten years in boarding school. Being part of the Julie mob was another big plus; we had status. All these factors contributed to my survival.’
Leaf’s account his jail time is extraordinarily vivid and totally conveys the static horror of long-term incarceration. Jail knocked a big hole in the prime of his life and wrecked his first marriage. As someone who was basically an idealist hippy rather than a genuine career criminal, does he feel any lasting bitterness about the way the system treated him?
‘I feel no bitterness whatsoever. I got over prison. I don’t mean I’ve dismissed it – I incorporated it in the totality of my being. I’ve always tried to do what I think is best and accept the consequences of my actions. I accept it all. There’s no place for recriminations in my heart – bitterness corrodes the soul. Writing about my life has been a huge help in enabling me come to terms with all my experiences. From the moment I left school my whole life has been a series of adventures – some went wrong but most were marvellous. They’re still continuing: I’m in my sixties and have just had my first book published! It’s true, the prison dreams don’t go away, I don’t suppose they ever will. So I have some bad nights, but when I awake in the morning I fully appreciate the improbable miracle of my life all over again.’
The legal position regarding LSD and other psychedelics hasn’t changed, but there is now much greater awareness and understanding about how they differ from damagingly addictive substances, such as heroin and cocaine. Though Leaf no longer takes drugs himself, he remains adamant about the positive, redeeming powers of psychedelics.
‘Psychoactive plants and fungi can be found all over the world and psychedelics have long been a vitally important part of the human story. I look forward to the day when their use is fully accepted. In terms of the legal position, I would prefer all drugs to be legalised – even those whose use I deplore. Prohibition in the USA showed that the social costs of prohibition are far worse than the costs of dealing with the consequences of drug abuse. We should recognise that we are a drug-taking species. The stupidly-named War on Drugs cannot be won. Its direct consequences include a crime wave of theft (with something like a third of a million heroin addicts in Britain having to steal on a daily basis to support their habit), the criminalising of a big chunk of the population and the rise of ruthless gangs who fight each other for control of the lucrative traffic so that the cities have become a war zone. How clever is that?’
To Live Outside the Law covers the period from Leaf’s middle childhood in the ’50s to his release from prison in 1982. Now appearing so many years after the events it describes, what were the processes that led to its writing?
‘…it’s been twenty-seven years in the making. I got the first draft down in longhand, in Goa, in the winter of 1983-4. It was clumsily written, full of anger, and the tone swung erratically around the emotional compass. Over the years, it’s gone through ten versions. Those early drafts were my apprenticeship, my first serious attempts at the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”.’
Along the way Leaf also penned a thriller called Durruti’s Gold, about Catalunya and the Spanish Civil War. ‘I wrote it in Spain in the ’90s. The first agent I sent it to took me on. She believed we would break the mould with a thriller of wit and intelligence. Sadly she was wrong. Although the MS gathered fair praise it brought no offers. I’d fallen between two shelves – my book wasn’t cliffhang-crazy enough to be a modern thriller, nor was it a novel.’
A new memoir continuing Leaf’s life story, Leaf by leaf, is at the second draft stage and he intends to work on it for much of the coming winter. It will include his post-prison travels in India, and his experiences teaching English in Spain and setting up a home for orphans in Malawi. As well as writing, he is running a wholefoods business in South West France, where he now lives – a return to his original line of work before the bust. ‘I am greatly enjoying my life at present – which is fortunate, for the present is all we’ve got! I have many good friends, I live in a stunningly beautiful part of the world with a wonderful woman… I count myself a very lucky man.’
For more information about To Live Outside the Law, please visit Leaf Fielding.com