The sordid history of LSD, from the White House to Woodstock
by Freddie Machin
In the late 1950s LSD exploded into mainstream culture. For a time employed as a psychiatric tool it was soon adopted as a recreational drug unlocking imaginations and inspiring some of the major artistic creations of the twentieth century.
For Andy Warhol, David Bowie and a generation of beatniks and hippies, LSD was the catalyst of choice, opening doors of perception hitherto unreachable in everyday consciousness.But the beginnings of LSD are not quite as peace, love and unity as they might seem. Developed by accident in a Swiss lab and commandeered by the CIA it was initially developed as a tool for brainwashing and coercion.
Dr Albert Hoffmann first synthesized LSD in 1938, only discovering it’s mind-expanding properties when he intentionally ingested it five years later – on a bicycle. Hoffmann saw LSD’s future in medicine. Long before Allen Ginsberg and company ever got their hands on it, LSD was used to treat psychiatric patients. One of its greatest advocates whilst it was still legal was Hollywood’s most debonair and unruffled leading man Cary Grant.
"I learned many things in the quiet of that room ... I learned that everything is or becomes its own opposite ... You know, we are all unconsciously holding our anus. In one LSD dream ... I imagined myself as a giant penis launching off from earth like a spaceship."
- Cary Grant
Already experimenting with hypnosis and mysticism, it was Grant’s third wife Betsy Drake who introduced him to LSD. Administered under controlled conditions at The Psychiatric Institute of Beverly Hills to help him cope with unresolved psychological issues he had with his mother.
Meanwhile the CIA had also taken an interest in Hoffmann’s discovery and began conducting covert experiments on unwitting US, Canadian and foreign nationals as well as its own employees. Following reports in Korea of the use of truth serums to loosen the tongue of suspects and adversaries, LSD was recruited for the CIA’s own burgeoning mind control program MK-ULTRA.
The goal was to develop a substance with no taste and no smell which would disable the target, rendering them completely acquiescent, be that in the battlefield, the interrogation room or on the witness stand.
Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request in 1970 we now know the extent of the CIA’s covert operations under MK-ULTRA. $25 million of laundered funding was made available to the project between 1953 and 1963, funding covert and unethical tests on unwitting subjects.But there are still some loose ends. On one summer’s day in the early fifties a sleepy town in the south of France fell under a mysterious curse. Men threw themselves from windows, women removed their clothes and clucked like chickens and children murderously attacked their parents.
The official line put the incident down to ergotism – a freak fungal mutation of rye in the local bakery – but this verdict still has its skeptics. References to Pont St. Esprit in CIA documents and a sighting of Hoffmann himself in the town in subsequent days draw many to suspect a conspiracy of a much more deliberate nature. Four people died and 50 were interned in mental asylums as a result suggesting an operation gone wrong which the CIA is unlikely to admit to.
Although no effective brainwashing or confession-inducing procedures were discovered during their many operations, the CIA learnt much about coercion and interrogation. Out of this research the CIA’s counterintelligence manual was written, which remains the agency’s base document for interrogation and torture procedures to this day.
The public backlash to the dangers of taking LSD was huge. And by the mid-sixties the substance was becoming illegal across the US and Europe.
Relatively late to the party were The Beatles, whose introduction to the substance which would inspire so much of their output was equally unconsenting.
In 1965, George Harrison had invited his dentist along to a party who slipped LSD into his and John Lennon’s coffee, apparently out of curiosity. For decades, the perpetrator was known only as “the wicked dentist” from an interview with Harrison and has only recently been revealed as John Riley, a Chicago trained dentist to the stars. The band cut contact with Riley immediately after, considering themselves to be innocent victims despite its heavy influence on songs such as Help! And – although John Lennon insists it was a coincidence – perhaps even Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Although LSD is illegal in most developed nations today it remains popular with young people around the world.
Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and one of the CIA’s original LSD guinea pigs suggested that the authorities were afraid of LSD because “there are doors that they're afraid to go in, and they don't want us to go in there either, because if we go in we might learn something that they don't know. And that makes us a little out of their control”.
Given the revelations of MK-ULTRA and more recently Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning it might not only be mystical knowledge that the government is withholding from the public but also important information about its own interrogation procedures.