Photo by Josh Carter

Outlaw LSD Chemist Fights for Freedom After Marijuana Arrest in Mountain West

CASPER, Wyo. — The first time we spoke, Casey Hardison had just woken up inside of an ugly room in the heart of one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.

On a side street of Jackson — a Wyoming ski town favored by celebrities and the uber rich at the base of Grand Teton National Park — the Teton County Jail stands out only for its ugliness. Its seventies ski lodge aesthetic matches the rest of the town until it’s neutered by its pallid beige monochrome and the glimmer of barbed wire shining across the parking lot that’s just steps away from the town hall.

Inside of the jail, Hardison — a bearded 48-year-old — shared facilities with criminals who, according to crime statistics, are more prone to theft or burglaries than more violent crimes. And in a community known to play host to politicians, CEOs and celebrities, Hardison was likely its most famous inmate.

“Those who speak up against an unjust law are showing respect for the law, rather than just bowing down and adhering to it.”

Casey Hardison

The fast-talking Hardison is something of a legend among psychonauts — explorers of altered states of consciousness, which means ‘psychedelics’ to the rest of us — the world over. He’s the closest thing you could find to an “outlaw chemist.” He became legendary to many for his nine-year stint in a British prison after being caught running one of England’s biggest LSD labs from the back room of a rented bungalow in the East Sussex countryside. The Argus, the Sussex local newspaper, described the facility at the time of his 2005 arrest as the “most sophisticated and complex discovered by police in the UK for 25 years,” producing more than $6 million in product.

Before that he was a world traveler, living out of a converted bus which was on the road surfing the coattails of groups like the Grateful Dead; a hippie with an activist streak who once petitioned President Barack Obama for clemency for all non-violent Deadheads serving lengthy prison sentences for drug offenses. (The online petition, which got more than 19,000 signatures, ultimately did not achieve the goal.) 

Casey Hardison out on bail in Wyoming in 2021. Photo courtesy of the author

After a few years of freedom, Hardison soon found himself back in jail. After a few years of freedom, Hardison soon found himself back in jail. Last August, the famed chemist was arrested in California after two years on the run following a botched undercover drug sting in Wyoming where he thought he was being robbed, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide. Still, he sold an undercover agent two pounds of marijuana (Hardison says his choice strains at the time were Hindu Kush and San Fernando OG) before allegedly trying to run the cops over with his car, a claim Hardison disputes. (The aggravated assault charges against him were later dropped for lack of evidence, Hardison says.) 

It was not his first brush-in with local law enforcement. Hardison’s name emerged in a 2017 coroner’s inquest on a local filmmaker’s overdose death following his ingestion of the designer drug DMT, which Hardison provided him. He was never charged in the case, but this most recent incident would mark his first time getting caught by the local law. He now faces two felony drug charges as a self-proclaimed “prisoner of war in the War on Drugs.”

His case looks to achieve not only his own innocence, but to land a few blows against the Controlled Substances Act embedded in the Wyoming Constitution itself. The document criminalizes drugs like marijuana, but it also contains provisions allowing the state to benefit from the sale of allegedly more harmful vices, like alcohol and tobacco.

In Wyoming — a so-called “control state” — the state’s Department of Revenue actually maintains a large warehouse in Cheyenne where it facilitates the distribution of spirits from the “Wyobraska” border town of Torrington all the way to Evanston, a small community on the state’s southwestern border which has become a favorite stop for Utahns seeking higher alcohol contents than they can find at home.

That relationship, Hardison told The News Station, will also serve as the basis for his legal defense: the state is improperly criminalizing some mind-altering substances while profiting off of others despite no proven medicinal benefit. 

“They protect specific fundamental rights for alcohol and tobacco, fundamental interests, with regards to manufacturing, commerce and consumption that they’re not protecting, for, say, marijuana, or even cocaine,” he said in a phone interview from the jail. “They’re saying these drugs — alcohol, tobacco — are good drugs, and that those drugs are bad drugs. And yet, they’re doing that with no objective rationale.”

Cognitive and Civil Liberties: A Primer 

After serving nine years of a 20-year sentence — one of the harshest drug sentences ever levied in the region at the time of his 2005 arrest —  a change in English sentencing laws allowed Hardison to be released from prison, a place he described in a 2014 interview with Vice News as an “awesome opportunity” for self-improvement.

“Once I accepted the powerlessness of not being able to alter my prison sentence, it turned into this extraordinary opportunity to study and understand myself — to go within and basically find my peace in that environment,” he told the online magazine. “I got to study physics, law, and mathematics, watch the BBC, and read the Times, the Economist, and New Scientist every week.”

But the attention generated by his sentence — Hardison has been known to keep in touch with the outside world from his jail cell throughout the years, maintaining regular relationships with journalists behind bars — was also an opportunity for Hardison to become the embodiment of the greater concept of “cognitive liberty” — the freedom for one to expand their mind and drop out unrestrained by the arbitrary limits of polite society.

At the conclusion of his initial 10-month trial in 2005, he told the judge one would think he “was a terrorist” for how he was treated. The judge called him a foreigner exploiting the nation’s drug laws for profit at an “industrial scale,” saying Hardison’s remorseless response to the justice system hinted at “every intention of pursuing your misguided beliefs in the future.”

“I wanted to articulate these principles in court and hopefully, have them heard around the world,” Hardison said in a 2017 interview with podcaster Mike Brancatelli discussing his case. “Those who speak up against an unjust law are showing respect for the law, rather than just bowing down and adhering to it.”

They were the ideals shared by his father, a Montana native more commonly known by the name of “Barefoot Bob” — a name he got in They were the ideals shared by his father, a Montana native more commonly known by the name of “Barefoot Bob” — a name he got in California 1974 from friends at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the Orange Olive Friendship Club. (Casey says it came out of a need to differentiate all of the different “Bobs” in recovery at the same time.) Barefoot also had a habit of taking off his shoes for meetings, his son recounted, joking that if he didn’t spend all his money on booze, he could have afforded good shoes. 

A local newspaper clipping of Casey Hardison’s father, “Barefoot Bob.”

Bob — whether barefoot or not — was a Montana native whose family fled the harsh winters of his homeland for the windier, less biting but still-relentless winters of Casper, Wyoming, which happens to be former-Vice President Dick Cheney’s adopted homeland. The successful oil community is where the Hardisons eventually founded a tool and die shop. 

It would be Bob’s distrust of institutions and his own perceptions of society that came to shape Hardison’s worldview from an early age: a vision of a world run by tyrants, where the answer to everything lay not within politics or organized religion, but through spirituality and survival defined on one’s own terms.

Politicians were largely bad (though he favored Ron Paul, an icon of the modern Libertarian movement, during his 2012 longshot presidential run) and religious leaders even worse — hucksters selling a version of God roped to doctrine and traditions too trivial for the architect of creation. Does a divine being care what type of shoes you wear, whether you pay tithes, eat pork or take a mission to a distant country? Or are their priorities something mor consequential, more cerebral?

“I want to be around when you find that your religious leaders and your political leaders have ALL been lying to you to control your mind and your pocket book for their benefit,” Barefoot wrote on his website, which has been kept active since his death in 2009. “I intend to survive, so that when YOU have been hurt bad enough, I will be around to hear the sound of your head popping out of your ass. It will be a grand and glorious sound.”

A fire was lit in the elder Hardison when, as a student at Casper College in the 1950s, Barefoot Bob went to visit some friends at the National Guard barracks on the outskirts of town where the group, in Hardison’s telling, stole a jeep so they could shoot jackrabbits. They didn’t get away with it, and the authorities who caught the young Bob Hardison gave him two choices: tote a state-issued Bible at Leavenworth or a state-issued rifle in Korea. 

He chose Korea.

“That really transformed him,” Hardison said. “That turned him into a killer with post-traumatic stress disorder. He didn’t know how to handle it. It turned him into a raging alcoholic – not that he hadn’t already developed the temperaments when he was younger.”

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And so, Barefoot Bob chose to drop out. When his son and our story’s subject, Casey, was two, Bob moved the family onto a sailing vessel called the “Spirit of Freedom,” wasting his days on the water and the beaches of southern California. Naturally, he was barefoot. When Hardison’s parents divorced around the time he was 12, Casey moved with his father to Idaho, where they rigged up a canoe and made a six-month journey from the mountains down into New Orleans — a journey Hardison calls his father’s own, personal declaration of independence.

“It seemed like the fulfillment of a dream,” a 1984 article of their journey published in the Leavenworth Times (a picture of which was furnished to this reporter through an intermediary) read. “’I was free of wives,’ since his unhappy marriage had ended, and ‘I was free of debt, since I’d just paid off my ranch in Montana,’ his homeland.” 

It was also a rebuke of the limitations of a society that tells you to go to work, pay your bills, and follow the rules someone else defined for you, an idea which broadly helped shape the younger Hardison’s view of the world and law.

“Isn’t that what we’re here for? Isn’t that why we’re born? I don’t know why I don’t want to give a teleological explanation for why we’re born, but that’s what we do,” Hardison told The News Station. “We are organisms in time and space, testing the limits of time and space. You know, it’s like Hunter Thompson said, that only those who’ve gone over the edge know where the edge is at.” 

Testing the Limits of Reality

“Patriotism” is a recurring theme in Casey’s life story: Hardison’s first arrest for cannabis (and his second overall) was by the local authorities in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, on July 4, 1997. He was a passenger during a traffic stop where his friends were caught with open containers. He got out of jail “in time to see the fireworks,” he recalled, and was reacquainted with his “nug jug” afterward, sans the marijuana nugs it was full of when left with the police. 

Since those early years, Hardison’s life has been about testing those limits in pursuit of his own definition of freedom. A user of nearly every substance known to man since a very young age (he first smoked pot from the barrel of a shotgun around the age of five, he told Vice), he got clean in his teenage years and later discovered psychedelics — a sort of “rebirth” amid his rigid abstinence from the substances that corrupted his father until his dad eventually found sobriety.

While his time in England made him something of a folk hero in the War on Drugs — even getting him his own episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia on Vice TV — Wyoming would be the ultimate challenge. In this holdout state now surrounded by a wilderness of legal marijuana, the simple act of being high in public can get you a misdemeanor, a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. According to numbers provided to the Wyoming Department of Transportation in 2018, statewide law enforcement busts netted more people for marijuana possession than methamphetamine; a threat to the public welfare deemed large enough that former-Attorney General William Barr came to the state personally to try and help combat it. 

Casey Hardison, Easter 2017. Via Wiki Commons.

Meth itself is a well-documented problem in Wyoming, deemed by the Department of Justice as early as 2001 to be the most significant problem facing local law enforcement. In 2019, nearly half of all cases heard in Sheridan, Wyo. — a stomping ground for Ernest Hemingway about 20 miles south of the Montana border — were related to methamphetamine, according to a March 2020 article in the Sheridan Press newspaper

Overall, methamphetamine — the drug of choice for cartels in the region, according to federal law enforcement — accounted for nearly two-thirds of all drug investigations conducted by law enforcement between 2014 and 2018, according to a copy of the 2019 Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Threat Assessment, an annual survey of drug distribution networks in the Mountain West. Meanwhile, legal drugs like alcohol cost the state more than $1,100 per year in public funding per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Even if Hardison’s ultimate point — that one harmful drug’s legal status is discriminatory toward the less harmful drugs (like marijuana) — is a valid one, it’s an open question whether Hardison will accomplish what he seeks to achieve with his case. Hardison verifiably broke the law in a state clearly erring on the side of ‘law and order.’

While polls here show a near-even split among citizens in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, both the legislature and law enforcement community have shown little appetite in pursuing it. That’s in spite of it now being en vogue among Wyoming’s neighbors, like Colorado, which achieved record-high revenues from the recreational sale of the drug last year. (There have been negative implications of legalization such as a sharp increase in traffic deaths, according to a 2019 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.)

After Hardison’s initial request to the judge to drop the charges against him, the prosecutor wrote in her own response that his appeal not only failed to address the assault and battery charges against him, but that his argument — that the state’s marijuana laws are somehow arbitrary — was an appeal for a change in legislation rather than a robust constitutional challenge to his due process rights, and that marijuana was clearly in a different classification than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco.

“Defendants opinion that marijuana should be treated the same as alcohol and tobacco is irrelevant,” the response reads. “The substances are clearly different and can be treated accordingly.”

While the law is the law, Hardison’s challenge raises serious questions in a state whose politics have long been defined by a commitment to civil liberties — an ethos of “live and let live” embraced by residents of the West that often finds itself at odds with some of the nation’s strictest penalties for drug users. How much sovereignty do we really have over our own minds or what we put into our bodies? Why should “personal responsibility” define critical questions around public health — like wearing face masks to prevent the spread of a deadly virus — and not other decisions we make in our daily lives? How much autonomy do we really have, and at what point do those protections cease to be the result of a public mandate and that of a punitive system based in tradition and control? 

“I have the right to be free from drug use if I choose to do so,” Hardison said. “Alcohol and tobacco users have the right to alter their mental functions as they see fit with alcohol and tobacco. If they harm others, there are laws for that already. Drunk driving laws are a perfect example. Don’t operate machinery under the influence of alcohol. We have certain specified limits for those substances, and we can have the same limits with cannabis. We are big people, we can figure this out.”

The Price of Freedom 

Alongside a myriad number of subjects ranging from 9/11 trutherism to the spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples around the continent, Hardison’s father’s website contains a number of quotations from the founding fathers, including a plea from President John Adams to follow the constitutional foundations of “pure virtue” to sustain the nation.

“If this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty,” Adams wrote. “They will only exchange Tyrants and tyrannies.”

Hardison’s battle has cost him years of his life in the real world. During his time in jail, he lost his father and now faces years in a Wyoming prison. Having been in before, the obvious question arises during our conversation that’s interrupted every 15 minutes due to the jail’s telephone system: “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?”

“Why do I keep doing it? I want to smoke marijuana, and I think I have inalienable rights to do so,” he said. “I want to have that inherent right which existed before the foundation of any democracy or any rule of law, any of that stuff. For them to tell me not to is absolutely fucking absurd … for some government that came along a hundred years ago to say ‘oh, you can’t have that,’ is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s fundamentally ignorant of who we are as human beings.”

It’s the reason Hardison signs his legal motions from the Teton County Jail as a “POWD,” a so-called “prisoner in the War on Drugs” after running from a police officer he said was in plainclothes with their gun drawn at the time he fled. Others, he said, are beginning to move that war from the margins into the mainstream. 

“Why do I keep doing it? I want to smoke marijuana, and I think I have inalienable rights to do so.”

Casey Hardison

Now out on bail, Hardison walks the streets again as a semi-free man, and hopes to begin rehabilitating his public image as a drug legalization advocate, and recently visited Casper on a journey through archives and old haunts in search of memories of his father. He’s filed paperwork for an independent campaign for president to give his cause greater visibility and, later this year, hopes to have an appointment with the Wyoming Supreme Court, where he will argue his case — this time, with a proper legal team.

For now, he’s content watching the revolution unfurl. 

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing,” Hardison told The News Station. “But I did not expect to see it so fast. The city of Oakland completely decriminalized all psychedelics. I did not expect other cities to follow suit, and I certainly didn’t expect the state of Oregon to follow suit. But it’s happened that everywhere surrounding the state of Wyoming has recreational marijuana now. Wyoming and Idaho (he lives in a cabin just over Teton Pass, in a town called Victor) are the only holdouts. It’s absurd. The place that protects freedom the most is denying it the hardest.”

Nick Reynolds covers policy and politics in Wyoming and the upper mountain west. Currently, he covers the statehouse and Washington D.C. for Wyoming's statewide newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune, where his work occasionally makes national headlines. His full bio is here.

Nick Reynolds covers policy and politics in Wyoming and the upper mountain west. Currently, he covers the statehouse and Washington D.C. for Wyoming's statewide newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune, where his work occasionally makes national headlines. His full bio is here.

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