As a young man, John Griggs liked to fight. And he was good at it. Short, dark, wiry, and mean, his flair with a punch brought him to the leadership of a teenage gang called the Blue Jackets. These were the guys who parents worried about just before they started worrying about hippies—these guys were greasers, toughs, hoods. They trolled through town looking for trouble. They honed their skills by kicking cigarettes out of each others’ mouths. John and the Blue Jackets liked to jump the fence at Disneyland, track down guys from San Fernando Valley, and beat their asses. This was in Anaheim, California, where John Griggs had settled with his family as a kid, after they had come out from Oklahoma.
For all his roughness, John was still disciplined enough to earn a high school wrestling championship before he graduated in 1961. He got married that same year to a pretty, young brunette named Carol. They quickly had a couple of children together.
Soon, John left the Blue Jackets for the Street Sweepers, an infamous Anaheim “car club” whose members waged drug-fueled drag races while wearing German army helmets; they’d throw water balloons or eggs at people on the street. Somehow in all this, John managed to get a job with Anaheim Parks and Recreation as a trash collector. But he wasn’t the kind of guy who separated work from play. He smoked enormous joints while driving around town on trash details, occasionally rolling down the window to yell, “Hello! I love you!” at passing strangers.
The joys of civil service weren’t enough to keep John satisfied though. He disappeared into the California mountains for a while, earning the nickname “Farmer John” during his attempt to survive as a trapper. When he came down from the mountains, he fell back into old patterns. He became the leader of a south LA motorcycle gang; they smoked tons of grass and preyed on supermarkets.
At that point, John learned about LSD, hearing rumors that a famous Hollywood movie producer kept a large stash of it in the refrigerator of his Beverly Hills home. John and his gang arrived at the producer’s house, motorcycles roaring, armed to the teeth; they found a fancy Tinseltown dinner party in progress. Host and guests, initially disconcerted, felt great relief when they learned that all John and his gang wanted was the LSD. “Have a great trip, boys,” the producer is supposed to have said, as the men tore off with his entire stash. “Jesus,” he added. “I thought it was something serious.”
Around midnight, in the mountains above LA, John and his friends each took 1,000 micrograms of LSD— more than four times a normal dose. Hours later, as dawn broke, each man threw away his weapon, his gun, or his knife.
“This is it,” John said. “This is it.”
He and several members of the gang—plus some of his old friends from the Anaheim days—moved out of LA to share a couple of houses in Modjeska Canyon, east of the city. The group began dealing marijuana and LSD. Two things then happened: They started to talk about buying land together, and John Griggs met Timothy Leary.
John impressed Leary tremendously; Leary described him as “an incredible genius… although unschooled and unlettered he was an impressive person. He had this charisma, energy, that sparkle in his eye. He was good-natured, surfing the energy waves with a smile on his face.” The two men spoke of psychedelics as a form of sacrament; they thought groups who took psychedelics together were like congregations gathering to assert a new faith.
In October 1966, 10 days after California banned LSD, one of John’s followers (the only one without a criminal record) walked into a lawyer’s office and incorporated the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an organization dedicated “to bring[ing] to the world a greater awareness of God through the teachings of Jesus Christ, Rama-Krishnam Babaji, Paramahansa Yogananda, Mahatma Gandhi, and all true prophets and apostles of God.” There was only one rule for joining: Eat as many psychedelic drugs as possible.
The Brotherhood operated out of a meditation room in the Mystic Arts World Store, a head shop across from a Mexican fast-foot stand in South Laguna Beach. They put the police chief of Tijuana on retainer at $30 a month; he looked the other way as Brothers purchased kilos of marijuana and headed back over the border, to sell the product in large markets like San Francisco and LA. The Brotherhood also bought LSD in bulk from suppliers in San Francisco and sold it to the large population of surfers and hippies who lived in Laguna Beach. Business boomed; John couldn’t contain his excitement over the Brothers’ success. “Hey, Uncle Tim,” he’d tell Leary over the phone, “we’ve just moved half a ton of grass and we’ve got some righteous acid.”
Leary sent his son, Jack, to check out John’s operation. Jack found the Brothers counting thousand-dollar bills by candlelight in rooms where the air was heavy with incense and marijuana smoke. Curious (and, probably, STOOOOOOOOOONNNNN-D), Jack lifted a grander off one of the stacks and poked it into the fire. The Brothers just watched. No one stopped him. Later, when Leary found out what Jack had done, he offered to replace the money. John wouldn’t hear it. “It was a great thing he did,” he said. “Very enlightening.”
That was the mood. John and his Brothers weren’t impressed with money. Getting rich wasn’t their goal: They did what they did to get psychedelics out to as many people as possible. But in the drug business in America in 1966–67, an outfit could achieve levels of naïveté like that—heroic levels of naïveté—and still make out like gangbusters. Flush with success, the Brotherhood made good on their original plan to buy land together and put a $50,000 down payment, in cash, on a 300-acre spread near Palm Springs. They dubbed the place Idyllwild Ranch.
The Brotherhood’s drug network expanded—into Afghanistan, Hawaii, the coast of England. At one point, the quality of LSD dipped, but they cut a deal with a chemist and got their product back up to snuff. John also played clean pool, with a hard-line policy against violence. No guns. When two dealers skipped off with $5,000 of Brotherhood money, John wouldn’t even let anyone go after them.
The universe repaid the Brothers with bewilderingly good karma. One night, for instance, John and a group of Brothers were heading home from a party in Hollywood, carrying close to seven kilos of marijuana in the trunk. They were dressed in beads and light robes, and they’d gotten thirsty. Someone spied an orange grove. They pulled off the highway and just went wild, climbing orange trees, eating oranges, having orange fights. A police car drove up.
Now, clearly, these men were all hippies; they were clearly driving on the highway in the early, early morning, and they were clearly stealing oranges.
But John just walked over to the cop and started explaining. No problem here, officer. Just a few thirsty guys out on the road in the wee morning hours, looking for a citrus fix.
Yeah, well, don’t let it happen again, the cop said. And drove away.
The high tide broke, as it must. Nixon became president, and he considered Timothy Leary, with whom the Brotherhood still had strong bonds of friendship and fellow feeling, to be “the most dangerous man in America.” Leary wasn’t trying to lay low, either. In 1969, he announced a bid for the California governorship against incumbent Ronald Reagan and took the media with him to his “mountain retreat,” the Brotherhood’s Idyllwild Ranch. Then, in July, a 17-year-old friend of Leary’s daughter died while visiting the ranch. Her autopsy revealed the presence of LSD in her system; homicide detectives arrested Leary—at at the ranch— for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Soon afterward, drug cops arrived at Idyllwild, in pursuit of several Brothers who were attempting to smuggle Afghan hash into the ranch in hollowed-out surfboards. John Griggs watched through binoculars as his friends were arrested and taken away.
The Summer of Love had ended. Winter was coming. Where once John’s LSD had laced the minds of guys like Jimi Hendrix, it would soon be found altering the consciousness of the Manson Family, of the Hells Angels, of the deadly audience at Altamont.
John departed just before the worst of it. On the night of August 3, 1969, he ate psilocybin crystals that a Brotherhood connection had brought back from Switzerland. In true Brotherhood fashion, he ate as much of the crystals as he could, then went into his teepee to await the results. After 20 minutes, he shouted a warning to the others: “Don’t take the psilocybin! It’s a complete overdose!” A Brother checked on him half an hour later to find John was in bad, bad shape. Still, he refused to go to the hospital. “I don’t want to go and be busted for being loaded,” he said. “It’s just between me and God, and that’s the way it’s going to be.” He grew worse and worse, and by the early morning hours his wife—that same pretty brunette John had been with since Anaheim—insisted someone take him to the hospital.
John just barely made it. He entered the emergency room in the arms of one of his Brothers, still alive. But the doors had not fully shut behind them when his body shivered, and he died.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 14. July 15, 2013.