Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD

By Ryan Boysen 09/18/15

“The LSD movement was started by the CIA." Timothy Leary, 1977.


A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Unless, of course, the CIA is paying you to do it.

Just ask George Hunter White. A hard-drinking, hard-charging veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, White “made headlines breaking up opium and heroin rings in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the U.S.” during the '40s and '50s, SFWeekly’s Troy Hooper writes. 

That was his day job. 

As the sun set and the moon began to trace its path across the night sky however, a change came over White. Instead of busting degenerate drug-pushers and their ilk, his thoughts turned to sex, violence and the brutal administration of mind-altering substances to those wholly unprepared for them, an effort aided by a harem of drug-addicted whores who reported directly to White. This was all in the name of national security, of course. It was 1957 and the Cold War was in full swing; desperate times called for desperate measures. 

White’s home base was San Francisco’s upscale Telegraph Hill neighborhood. Here he would sit atop a portable toilet given to him by a friend, guzzling martinis and scribbling notes as he watched, through a two-way mirror, the unspeakable acts committed in the next room over at his behest.

White was under contract with the CIA to study the effects of LSD and other drugs on the drunks, drifters and other human flotsam on the margins of San Francisco society. It wasn’t entirely necessary that his test subjects be drawn from the dregs of the City by the Bay, but it was easier that way. Fewer questions when things inevitably went wrong. What was essential was that they have no prior experience of the drugs they were about to be dosed with, no preexisting mental defenses to protect them from the imminent breakdown White would be gleefully observing on his side of the two-way mirror.

On the other side of the reflective coating, the walls were covered in posters depicting women in various acts of bondage and other dark fantasies. It was here that White’s whores would bring their unsuspecting Johns, generally drunks from the rowdy North Beach bar scene. Their mission was simple: seduce the Johns, bring them back to the pad, dose their drinks with whatever substance White had selected for that evening, go to work and let come what may. 

If they didn’t remember what had happened the next morning, that was no problem. White would. After all, that’s what the CIA was paying him for. And damned if he wasn’t loving every minute of it.

“I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,” White wrote, in a letter to his at-the-time boss, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the éminence grise behind the CIA’s MKULTRA program. “Where else could a red-blooded boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest? Pretty Good Stuff, Brudder!”

MKULTRA was the codename given to the CIA’s wide-ranging series of drug and mind control experiments. Active from the early '50s until it was officially halted in 1973, MKULTRA was an ominous umbrella program that cast its shadow over everything from the sickeningly bizarre to the relatively mundane. Decidedly unscientific outfits like White’s coexisted alongside other experiments conducted in sterile, fluorescent-bathed operating rooms by otherwise well-respected doctors and scientists. 

In one such experiment on a mentally handicapped individual, “a hallucinogen was administered along with a local anesthetic, and the subject was told to describe his visual experiences as surgeons removed chunks of his cerebral cortex,” write the authors of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.

Dr. Paul Hoch, who oversaw that particular operation, was once quoted as saying “It is possible that a certain amount of brain damage is of therapeutic value.” He was later appointed New York State Commissioner for Mental Hygiene. Go figure.

The sprawling MKULTRA program was much more than the sum of its deeply weird parts however. On one hand, the program demonstrated the extraordinary depths the CIA was prepared to sink to in order to combat the Red Menace, the Agency’s raison d'être during the long, strange years of the Cold War. At the same time, MKULTRA would go on to become the unwitting midwife of the '60s acid craze, providing the drive shaft for the youth counterculture movement that represented the very antithesis of everything the agency stood for. 

As the '60s wore on, acid would bring out the best and worst in both the agency and the hippies, even as both sought the same ultimate goal, neatly summed up by the Bible verse still chiseled into the lobby of the CIA’s headquarters:

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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Ryan Boysen is a freelance journalist based in New York. He previously co-wrote about Santa Cruz making war on homeless addicts. You can follow Ryan on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.