The CIA’s Experiments With LSD


It has come to light that one of the biggest enthusiasts of LSD since it was first synthesised in 1938, was not only the hippie counterculture but also the CIA. The first section of the book Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD (1985) details how the CIA carried out covert operations with this drug. This was for the purpose of using LSD as a weapon for interrogation, mind control and behaviour modification. It was in the early 70s, once the countercultural movement had fizzled out, that the once-classified documents pertaining to this research became declassified and available for inspection. The following is an outline of the most shocking examples of the CIA’s obsession with this drug.

Before discussing the CIA’s interest with LSD, they had previously been interested in mescaline (another psychedelic compound) as a possible tool for interrogating enemies. The CIA was aware of Nazi experiments being conducted at the Dachau concentration camp during World War II, making use of mescaline. Having learned of these experiments, the CIA then thought it would be a good idea to import more than 600 Nazi scientists to the US to help them out in their mind control program (which went by the name of Project Paperclip). A declassified CIA document from November 26th, 1951 states, “…we feel that by use of certain chemicals or combinations, we can, in a very high percentage of cases, produce relevant information.”

It was in the early 1950s that the CIA first became aware and interested in LSD. LSD became one of the many chemicals that the CIA would experiment with as a mind control weapon, under the name of Operation ARTICHOKE. An ARTICHOKE report dated October 21st, 1951 states that “There is no question that drugs are already on hand (and new ones are being produced) that can destroy integrity and make indiscreet the most dependable individual.” From the outset, CIA scientists would only tell subjects that a new drug was being tested and that no harm or danger would come to them.

At first, the experiments with LSD showed it to be a useful tool for interrogation, but as time went on, things became a bit more sinister. Since subjects were not told that they were receiving a mind-altering hallucinogenic drug, anxiety, paranoia and loss of contact with reality were common reactions. Normally, the CIA would have rejected a chemical if it proved ineffective for the purpose set out for it; but they were too intrigued by LSD to ignore it. As one CIA psychologist reflected, mere micrograms could create “serious mental confusion…and render the mind temporarily susceptible to suggestion.”

The CIA were afraid that the Soviets could also have stumbled upon LSD and be using it for the same purposes as the US. CIA officials convinced themselves that the Russians could use the drug against American spies for the purpose of interrogation, and thought that the best way to prevent the spy from spilling the beans was to give them LSD so that they would be able to handle its effects. A CIA document says that agents who had tried LSD were called “enlightened operatives”. Many CIA agents used LSD on several occasions. The CIA was also considering tactics such as contaminating the water supply of enemy bases. As a CIA document reads:

If the concept of contaminating a city’s water supply seems, or in factual, is found to be far-fetched (this is by no means certain), there is still the possibility of contaminating, say, the water supply of a bomber base ore, more easily still, that of a battleship…Our current work contains the strong suggestion that LSD-25 will produce hysteria (unaccountable laughing, anxiety, terror)…It requires little imagination to realize what the consequences might be if a battleship’s crew were so affected.

In a ridiculous (and pretty much pointless) experiment a Dr Louis Joylon West, a CIA-hired scientist, injected an elephant with a massive 300,000 microgram dose of LSD in order to see if the elephant would go insane (LSD at this point was believed to be a psychotomimetic drug – that is, a drug that mimics psychosis). Instead of becoming psychotic, the elephant keeled over and died.

A very cruel experiment involved the CIA hiring a Dr Ewen Cameron to see if LSD could be used as a way to brainwash someone. The cruelty lies in the fact that 53 schizophrenic patients were tested on at the Allain Memorial Institute at McGill University. The subjects received massive electroshock and frequent doses of LSD in an attempt to wipe out past behaviour, and then their minds would be “reconditioned” by playing tape-recorded messages over and over again while they were sleeping. Nine of Cameron’s patients have since sued the American government for $1,000,000 for the trauma they suffered (they never even consented to take part in the experiment, which meant the CIA violated the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics). Another CIA scientist, by the name of Dr Harris Isbell, gave LSD to black prisoners for 75 consecutive days! To overcome the issue of tolerance, he would administer “double, triple and quadruple doses.”

MK-ULTRA is perhaps the most well-known of the CIA operations that have come to light since it has been declassified. Dr Sidney Gottlieb, who was behind the operation, said that LSD could be useful in other ways besides interrogation. For example, a CIA document notes that covertly giving LSD “to high officials would be a relatively simple matter and could have a significant effect at key meetings, speeches, etc.” – I’m sure it would! In order to test whether this would work, Gottlieb recommended that CIA operatives spike each other with LSD without their knowledge. As crazy as this recommendation was, CIA officials took his advice – they would give each other a surprise dose of LSD (including people who had never tried it before) and then tell them to take the day off. There was also a plan to put LSD in the punch served at the CIA Christmas party, but someone working for security heard about it and reported it.

Obviously giving LSD to someone without their consent or knowledge can have very nasty consequences. A CIA official describes the case of someone else who was dosed during his morning coffee break: “…he couldn’t pull himself together…” – he then proceeded to run frantically around the streets of Washington – “He reported afterwards that every automobile that came by was a terrible monster with fantastic eyes, out to get him personally. Each time a car passed he would huddle down against a parapet, terribly frightened. It was a real horror for him. I mean, it was hours of agony…like being in a dream that never stops – with someone chasing you.” These surprise acid tests would claim their first real victim in November 1953. Dr Gottlieb spiked the cocktails at an after-dinner party with LSD. One army scientist who attended, Dr Frank Olson, had never taken LSD before and was deeply disturbed by the experience. He fell into a depression and a few weeks later would jump from a ten-story hotel. The circumstances leading to the suicide were kept under wraps.

The next stage in the MK-ULTRA program, if their operations so far weren’t extreme enough, was to give LSD to unwitting people in real life situations. George Hunter White, a narcotics agent, was assigned to rent an apartment in New York, to lure people into the apartment and then secretly dose them with LSD. In 1955, White was moved to San Francisco and initiated Operation Midnight Climax – this involved drug-addicted prostitutes being hired to pick up men from local bars and bring them back to White’s apartment so that he could slip LSD into their drinks. He would stand behind a two-way mirror set up in his apartment, watching the insanity unfold. These experiments carried on, uninterrupted, until 1963 – White himself would also become a fan of tripping during this time.

Dr Paul Hoch, a proponent of the idea that LSD produces psychosis, was a scientist and CIA consultant. He oversaw a research project in which psychiatric patients were given LSD and them lobotomized (cutting away parts of the brain). In one ‘experiment’, if it can be called that, LSD was given to a subject and was told to describe his visual experiences as surgeons removed bits of his cerebral cortex. In the late 1950s, the military was using LSD on military units to test their performance (their performance of various tasks ranged from less efficient to complete failure). Other tests were carried out at Edgewood Arsenal where soldiers were given LSD, confined in sensory deprivation, and then subjected to hostile interrogation.” The Special Purpose Team, who were trained in LSD-interrogation, had a subject who “wanted to die” after they gave him LSD.

By the mid-1960s about 1500 military personnel had acted as guinea pigs, with many claiming having suffered from depression and emotional disturbances. Major General Creasy wanted the whole operation to be stepped up a notch. He said the army should be testing the effects of creating clouds of LSD and laying them across cities to see if LSD could be used as a large-scale battle weapon. He argued that using this “LSD gas” against enemies would be the most humane and effective way to subdue and defeat them. However, it turned out that LSD could not practically be administered in this way.

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