Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid, was a critical part of the counter-culture in the 1960s. While most people commonly associate acid with hippies at music festivals, it actually was used in a variety of medical tests before it became illegal in 1965. What’s even more surprising (depending on your view of things) is that our own United States government used LSD in a secret mission named MK-ULTRA, or the code name of Operation Midnight Climax. Long before hippies were getting “turned on” (as Timothy Leary, one of the fathers of LSD, would say), the CIA was secretly administering civilians, military personnel, and prisoners doses of LSD and monitoring their reaction to gain insight into the possibility of using the psychedelic in the Cold War. This covert operation went from 1953 to 1964 until the US government found out the experiment that the CIA was trying so desperately to keep secret. This whole scandal was brushed discreetly under the rug (partly because members of the CIA shredded most all the documents involved in an attempt to destroy any and all evidence of the experiment) until the mid-1970s when the documents became declassified and the story spread like wildfire. A lot of controversy rose around the fact the government had done testing on individuals without telling them, no surprise there, and questions arose as to why the government had outlawed, and stopped research on, a substance that they had used themselves. While they claimed it was because it was a dangerous drug and detrimental to a person’s overall health and well being, I’m not convinced that is true. To understand a bit better, let’s do some homework on the drug in question: LSD.
Albert Hofmann was a Swiss chemist who accidentally discovered the psychopharmacological effects of LSD in 1943. He had originally found the substance in 1938 when he was doing research, but it wasn’t until 1943 when he accidentally absorbed some of the chemical through his fingertips and took a trip to another planet. This accidental ingestion lead to what people later called a “trip”. Hofmann reported that he felt as though the world was closing in around him and he even called the doctor to complain about “dying” sensation that he was experiencing. In the height of the trip, he demanded that a coworker “drive” him home on a bicycle. LSD can have some physical effects on the body, such as sweating and dilated pupils, but most of the effects are visual and auditory. Users of LSD report that colors seem stronger and lights seem brighter. They also report euphoric feelings where they love everything and see the beauty in all the things around them. It is almost impossible to imagine what an acid trip is like without experiencing it for yourself, but many LSD “experts” have given detailed accounts of their trips making it possible for people to have some sort of idea what the experience is like.
After Hoffman had his initial trip, he self-administered LSD for a second time to confirm that what he had experienced was actually from the chemical, and not just some bizarre happening. The second time he ingested LSD, he had a bad trip. He was tripping uncomfortably hard and thought that his life was going to end. This did not deter him from exploring the chemical further, however; even though he had a bad experience with the chemical the second time he used it, he understood the vast number of possible uses for such a drug. After experimenting a couple more times, he published a paper detailing the compound that he had initially discovered in 1938.
Over the course of his life, Hofmann experimented with LSD countless times, not simply to “get high” off the substance, but to try and gain a deeper understanding of the human mind and connect with nature. Albert Hofmann lived to be 102 years old, and he greatly attributed his extremely and unusually long life to his extensive experimentation with the drug. During his lifetime, he was always strongly against those who use his compound to get high without the supervision of a trained professional. Hofmann believed that the chemical was much too strong for people to simply be taking whenever they pleased, and that it had a great potential to assist those in therapy. Even with his disdain for recreational acid users, he was still acquainted with many of the big figures of the counter-culture movement.
Albert Hofmann wasn’t the only person who believed that LSD had high potential in the therapeutic world. Many other highly respected research agencies, such as hospitals and psychiatric practices, believed that LSD could be extremely beneficial to therapy. Before the government made LSD illegal, it allowed medical research to be conducted by respected institutions. Even though acid is associated most often with the United States because of the hippy craze, but other countries were using LSD for medical research.
Dr. Abram Hoffer, Canadian director of psychiatric research, published a paper in 1966 stating that in his study, he had found that LSD helped alcoholics recover from their addiction. This study concluded that in these 24 specific cases, dosing alcoholics with “a large enough dose of LSD to produce a memorable experience” had resulted in half of them quit drinking cold turkey after years of heavy dependence and abuse. There were countless other studies like this one that provided similar results.
Working with a compound as potentially dangerous as LSD, it is crucial that researches explain exactly what the participants can expect during their experience. A patient needed to be properly warned about what was going to happen to them during their trip so that they did not freak out and spiral into a terrible trip. Timothy Leary (who thought of himself as a doctor, not too many other doctors regarded him as one) believed that set and setting were the most important components of having a happy and successful trip. Set is defined as a person’s mindset; whether they are at a good point in their life or not will often determine the atmosphere of the trip. Setting is the more obvious one – if someone is in a terrifying or uncomfortable location chance of them experiences a bad trip are greatly increased. Willing participants in LSD experiments ranged from housewives to retired military officers. Some less willing participants were prisoners who were given doses of acid and there was nothing that they could really do about that.
A prime example of people being drugged with little or no permission is how the government drugged people in the secret operation MK-Ultra. During the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 1960’s, the fear of communism was in full swing. The CIA found out that other countries had been using lysergic acid diethylamide as a way to get information out of their prisoners of war. The US government, not wanting to fall too far behind their communist rivals, decided to start experimenting with LSD. The only difference between the way that these two countries preformed their research was that the CIA decided that it would be more telling if they drugged people without telling them and watching how they reacted to their surprise trip.
The whole operation, with the code name of Operation Midnight Climax, was completely unknown until around the time of the Watergate scandal. In fact the operation was even kept from most of the other branches of the government, and it is reported that even the president of the United States had no idea what was going on below him in the CIA.
MK-Ultra had two main command posts, one in San Francisco and one in New York City. The things that happened at the San Francisco posts is far more interesting and troubling than what was happening in the New York posts at the time.
The San Francisco leader of this shady operation was George H. White. White was known for his tenacious attitude for breaking up heroin rings all over the world. It’s kind of ironic that a man would go from putting people in jail for the possession of drugs, to secretly dosing people off the street with acid, but I guess some people just don’t know exactly how they feel about illegal substances.
The basic methodology of the study was to secretly administer relatively high doses of LSD to unsuspecting civilians and then watch how they reacted to the substance without ever telling them what was going on. The CIA would pay prostitutes to go out and pick up men to bring back to a hotel room that was outfitted with microphones and two-way mirrors. The prostitute would then offer the unsuspecting male a drink that had been laced with a strong enough LSD to cause a relatively intense trip. The CIA would then sit back and watch behind a two-way mirror. In letters written by then men who watched these encounters, the men say that they would sit behind the mirror, drink alcohol, and watch the bizarre sex that was unfolding before them. The weird sex that they witnessed was the reason that the mission was named Operation Midnight Climax.
While most of the time people targeted in this experiment didn’t get in any trouble or experience lifelong repercussions of the trip. Unfortunately, there was one instance when the CIA drugged the wrong man, Wayne Ritchie.
Wayne Ritchie was a deputy U.S. marshal who had never been in trouble his entire life, the only mistake he made was attending a holiday party with CIA agent’s part of MK-Ultra. Ritchie recalls that night in great detail (at least parts of it) because it’s the night that changed his life forever. While out of his mind on acid and alcohol, Wayne Ritchie held up the Shady Grove, a bar in San Francisco, demanding that the bartender give him all the money before being knocked out by an innocent bystander.
Ritchie doesn’t recall much of that night after being drugged by the CIA agent’s, but he does remember what happened after he was arrested. Since Ritchie had absolutely no idea that the government had drugged, him he was charged as though he had been in control of his actions. He was extremely lucky that the judge had a deep respect for military veterans and seeing that he had a squeaky clean record decided to let him simply pay a fine instead of jail time.
Operation Midnight Climax was shut down in 1964 when the rest of the government found out what this particular branch of the CIA had been doing for the past couple years. The government finally shut this operation down because it was exposing the agency to a serious “moral problem” by drugging unsuspecting civilians. The scientist that had been involved in the operation decided that the best way to keep from getting in trouble would be to destroy the documents involved in the operation.
Once the documents became declassified and news got out about what had happened the nation was in an uproar. How could our own government experiment with something it now considers highly dangerous on random people? Had the government made LSD illegal after this mission got stopped for a reason? People were enraged that the government and government officials had been interacting with a drug that the same government was sending people to jail for using.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that most of the documents were destroyed, a vast majority of the people who were drugged will never know exactly what happened to them. Since their names were never recorded and they were never followed for more than a day or two after the exposure to LSD it is impossible to know if any of the unwilling subjects suffered from any serious psychological damage.
The sixties was a time of change in the United States. There was also a slight sense of unrest due to the fact that people didn’t have the highest faith in their governments. This pretty much proves everyone’s fears that the government was brainwashing them and doing things without the knowledge of the public. It raises the question that people are always asking…What else is the government keeping from me?
Published April 29
“Canadian Reports Success with LSD in Alcoholic Cases.” 1966.New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 17, 47
“Full Accounts Kept on CIA Drug Tests.” 1977.The Hartford Courant (1923-1989), Aug 11, 20.
Hooper, Troy. “Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD.” SF Weekly. March 14, 2012. Accessed April 30, 2015.
Smith, Craig. “Albert Hofmann, the Father of LSD, Dies at 102.” The New York Times. April 29, 2008. Accessed April 30, 2015.
Szalavitz, Maia, and Maia Szalavitz. “The Legacy of the CIA’s Secret LSD Experiments on America | TIME.com.” Time. March 28, 2012. Accessed April 30, 2015.