When the CIA Partied with LSD on the Taxpayers' Dime
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the Trump administration has been the way that the CIA and the American intelligence establishment has come under public scrutiny in a way not seen for decades. Due to Wikileaks and other whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, the activities of these intelligence agencies have increasingly come to light. In turn, even some of the more outlandish charges against intelligence agencies appear increasingly plausible.
For those who have studied the de-classified history of intelligence agencies, however, new revelations should not be very surprising. The history of CIA antics, for example, is anything but tame.
The CIA LSD Experiments
On April 16, 1943, Dr. Albert Hoffman decided it was time to begin research on a chemical compound he synthesized five years earlier and had ignored since. While handling these substances, he accidentally allowed some of it to be absorbed through his fingertips. Then he began to hallucinate.
The compound he created was lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known by its initials: LSD.
During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) was searching for truth serums and mind-control drugs. These secret projects continued after the war by the CIA and eventually became organized under a single secret behavior modification project code-named BLUEBIRD. Under these projects, the agency experimented with marijuana extracts, cocaine, heroin, and (with the help of more than 600 Nazi scientists imported under Project PAPERCLIP) mescaline.
In 1951, Project BLUEBIRD was formally renamed Project ARTICHOKE. The scientists discovered Hoffman’s compound LSD-25 and believed it had significant potential for enhanced interrogation and behavior control. One experiment, for example, sought to find out if “an individual from [censored] descent be made to perform an act of attempted assassination involuntarily.” For the experiment, “it was proposed that the individual could be surreptitiously drugged through the medium of an alcoholic cocktail ... to be accomplished at one involuntary uncontrolled social meeting.”
Other experiments compelled test subjects to reveal top-secret military information, all without memory of their interrogation. But these results were unpredictable; many tests resulted in an uncontrollable, panicking patient who was of no use. The tests showed promise, but more information was needed.
Many of the initial experiments were conducted on unwitting heroin addicts residing at the Addiction Research Center of the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The CIA supplied the experimental drugs to Dr. Harris Isbell who gave them to his “patients.” This practice lasted so long that drug addicts began to check themselves into Lexington for access to these unknown drugs when they were short on their drug of choice.
In 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles authorized the new Operation MK-ULTRA which was also commissioned with LSD experimentation with even more free rein for experimentation than Project ARTICHOKE. The MK-ULTRA team, headed by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb started off by experimenting with LSD themselves. They then moved on to secretly spiking each other’s drinks with the drug. Following this, the MK-ULTRA team members considered any agency employee fair game for surprise acid trips.
The agents talked as if these were necessary experiments to learn more about the drug, but the reality is they were little more than government-sanctioned pranksters (they were stopped from spiking the punch bowl of the 1954 Christmas party after the Office of Security got wind of the team’s plans). The tax-funded LSD pranks were finally put to a stop after a military scientist named Frank Olson grew paranoid that the CIA was spiking his coffee. His paranoia developed after Olson was secretly dosed with LSD on work-retreat and then informed of the drug only after he ingested it.
According to the internal investigation on the matter, “the day following the experiment, OLSON began to behave in a peculiar and erratic manner and was later placed under the care of a psychiatrist. A few days later, OLSON crashed through a window in a New York hotel in an apparent suicide.”
Olson’s suicide had a quieting effect on the in-house experimentation with LSD, so MK-ULTRA simply moved their work outside the compound. Dr. Gottlieb approached Harry Anslinger for permission to borrow George Hunter White, one of Anslinger’s employees who had previously conducted marijuana experiments on unwitting civilians.
White lured women back to an apartment in Greenwich Village where he slipped them LSD. Their reactions were recorded by surveillance equipment installed by the CIA and observed through a two-way mirror. White also documented the various reactions in his personal diary. After observing a high number of what we would now recognize as a “bad trip,” White nicknamed LSD “stormy,” a name adopted by the CIA for the remainder of their years experimenting with the substance.
A Taxpayer-Funded CIA Party
In 1955, White was sent to San Francisco where he enlisted the services of prostitutes to bring him test subjects for the new “Operation Midnight Climax.” The prostitutes were instructed to pick up strange men, bring them to a CIA established brothel, and give them LSD spiked drinks. White watched the victims through another two-way mirror as they tripped on acid. The experiments at this CIA-established bordello continued until 1963.
What the MK-ULTRA team called “experiments” at this safehouse amounted to little more than taxpayer-funded parties. According to the official report, “the tests were conducted by individuals who were not qualified scientific observers” and “no follow-up was conducted on the test subjects.” In his downtime, White would hunt drug dealers as an agent for the Bureau of Narcotics, and he and his friends would get high in the safehouse with their prostitutes.
Outside the government, dozens of doctors had experimented with the medicinal uses for LSD by 1960. Among other things, LSD-based psychotherapy showed promising results at treating alcoholism, sexual issues, and depression brought on by terminal illnesses. By the time the CIA’s experiments were being shut down, LSD appeared to be on course to be established as a legitimate psychiatric treatment that would, for some ailments, even potentially replace alternative treatments such as electroshock therapy.
Unsurprisingly, the Federal Government stepped in to profess the dangers of the drug. In 1962, the FDA ruled that LSD was not to be classified as a medicine and the substance was strictly regulated by the government, only making it available for approved research purposes. The FDA’s decision was made, at least in part, based on testimony from CIA agents who had participated in the LSD experiments. In those environments, “bad trips” were notably more common than they were under the “coached” psychotherapy sessions that non-government researchers had been conducting. By 1970, LSD was classified as a Schedule I drug, officially declaring that it had zero medicinal value, despite the testimony of dozens of LSD researchers.