Seventy-five years ago, lysergic acid diethylamide was synthesised for the first time by Dr Albert Hofmann. The profound effects of LSD became resoundingly apparent to the chemist during the course of his first proper experience with it. Here was a drug of matchless potency, a fashioner of voluptuous hues and shapes and visions, the dissolver of I and Me and Mine. On its uplifting wing, one was in aeternam renatus, and made able to see the interrelation of all things. Over the years, uncountable individuals did so: among them was the mystic who, under the influence, saw Cellini in a piece of detritus, and the one who perceived a ‘solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebb thru the vale, a wavelet of Immensity’. A third, of particular renown, died peacefully atop the misty summit of one final blissful psychedelic experience.
In time, of course, LSD became the psychiatrist’s most trusty lancet, and then both nectar and emblem of a counterculture movement. But for all its power and popularity—or rather, because of those very things—this chemical has behind it a severely pockmarked history.
The Central Intelligence Agency is one of the most nefarious purveyors of state-sponsored terrorism that has ever existed. Over the years, it has murdered, tortured and trafficked with impunity; it has dismantled democracies and bankrolled brigands. But in many ways, it is Project MKULTRA which represents best its reprobate nature. This particular illegal operation was launched by the CIA in the early 1950s, and mind control was its nightmarish raison d’être.
Test subjects—some witting, many not—were not inhabitants of distant lands, but American citizens. The search had been for biological and chemical agents that could, in the words of a contemporary CIA document, ‘promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness’; ‘render the induction of hypnosis easier’; ‘produce amnesia’; ‘produc[e] shock and confusion over extended periods of time’; ‘produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc’; and ‘lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men’. In short, the US government was seeking to unearth substances that would enable it to manipulate and control human behaviour for its own political ends.
LSD was of interest to the CIA because it produced extremely powerful effects, and crucially at doses minute enough to elude detection. The drug was surreptitiously administered to non-volunteers time and time again, without medical supervision and in everyday settings. Fear, paranoia and depression often ensued, and understandably so: one must remember that LSD had not at that stage acquired the more favourable reputation that became attached to it during the counterculture of the following decade. It was very much a mystery, and especially frightening to those who were unknowingly exposed to it.
In at least one case, such surreptitious administration resulted in death. A dose of LSD was slipped into the drink of Dr Frank Olson, a government scientist, in late 1953. The unwitting Olson went on to suffer a ghastly breakdown, one from which he never recovered. Eight days after ingesting the drug, Olson was dead, apparently having hurled himself from a hotel window.
But of course, the CIA continued after the death to administer LSD covertly, with many of the victims being among the most vulnerable members of society, addicts and veterans and prostitutes among them. Where there was no such skulduggery, the consent of participants was exploited to give experimenters a shocking amount of latitude: one investigation saw seven volunteers kept under the influence for eleven consecutive weeks. As John C. Marks dryly noted, even Hunter S. Thompson—that most hardened of psychonauts—’would shudder at the thought of 77 days straight on LSD’. During other, milder tests, volunteers were interrogated or polygraphed or placed in isolation chambers after being dosed.
The full extent of CIA experimentation shall never be known, because most documents relating to the operation were deliberately destroyed in 1973—well before the American public became aware that such an operation had ever existed at all. It must also be stressed that the CIA’s testing was not confined to LSD; a vast array of other substances and techniques were deployed over the years, all with the same nefarious aim in mind.
Ultimately, LSD was found to be too unpredictable. That it was abandoned for such a reason only underlines the wickedness of the operation as a whole. By pursuing the objectives that it did, the US government participated in the same Form of twisted totalitarianism as the despots it denounced (and indeed those that it backed). These days, of course, attempts at mind control are rather more subtle, and perhaps more successful, occurring as they do through the state-corporate news media. Still, we ought never to forget the sheer heinousness of MKULTRA.
In 1968, it became illegal to possess LSD in the United States. The drug had grown popular with the public over the course of that decade, having previously been confined to psychiatry and to artists and intellectuals. Its therapeutic potential was demonstrated by many an experiment: alcoholism and mental disorders withered and died when confronted by it. Also well established was the positive effect that LSD could have on one’s creative faculties. Aldous Huxley, no less, testified to that.
But from about 1960 onwards, the use of LSD became more widespread. In the words of Hofmann himself, the drug had gone ‘from remedy to inebriant’. The US government, apparently concerned about public health, moved to ban it. The medicinal value of LSD was denied, while negative incidents—which were relatively few—received full coverage in the media. ‘A divorce is news; a happy marriage isn’t.’ So wrote Alan Watts in the prologue to his Joyous Cosmology.
And it is Watts who can illuminate for us the actual reason for prohibition—the reason why LSD was declared a Schedule I drug. ‘[T]he real danger of psychedelics,’ wrote Watts, ‘is not so much neurological as political—that “turned-on” people are not interested in serving the power games of the present rulers.’ Here, Watts alludes, of course, to the famous and manifestly political slogan popularised by Timothy Leary: ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Hofmann wrote that ‘the last of these three precepts… was the challenge to escape from bourgeois life, to turn one’s back on society, to give up school, studies, and employment, and to dedicate oneself wholly to the true inner universe’. Unsurprisingly, Leary was removed from his teaching position at Harvard, that fortress of the Establishment. He was watched, followed and imprisoned. It is clear to see why: he threatened in some sense the existing superstructure, and its guardsmen therefore locked him away. LSD itself invoked their wrath as well. (It must be noted, however, that, in the final analysis, Leary was nothing short of ‘disgusting’, a ‘swine’ who snitched on his friends to the FBI. The words in quotation marks are none other than Hofmann’s.)
All these decades later, it cannot be said that the prohibition of the psychedelic drugs has been justified or successful. Back in the Sixties, Watts cogently enumerated some of the problems with absolute suppression:
(1) it has seriously hindered proper research on these drugs; (2) it has created a profitable black market by raising the price; (3) it has embarrassed the police with an impossible assignment; (4) it has created the false fascination with fruit that is forbidden; (5) it has seriously impeded the normal work of courts of justice, and herded thousands of non-criminal types of people into already overcrowded prisons; (6) it has made users of psychedelics more susceptible to paranoia than ever.
One may summarise thus this classic exhibition of authoritarianism. The US government, through the CIA, covertly and unlawfully attempted to manipulate the behaviour of its subjects by means of LSD. When, years later, the US government realised that the selfsame drug was disrupting the prevailing order, it was made illegal. The experience of a CIA agent is a fitting note on which to end:
[Under the influence of LSD] you tend to have a more global view of things. I found it awfully hard when stoned to maintain the notion: I am a U.S. citizen—my country right or wrong…. You tend to have these good higher feelings. You are more open to the brotherhood-of-man idea…. I think this is exactly what happened during the 1960s, but it didn’t make people more communist. It just made them less inclined to identify with the U.S. They took a plague-on-both-your-houses position.