Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD - Page 2

By Ryan Boysen 09/18/15

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

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In 1959, Ken Kesey was a graduate student studying creative writing at Stanford, just an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. While there were glimmers of the countercultural icon Kesey would soon become—an anti-authoritarian streak and a critical gaze locked firmly onto the peculiar hierarchies of American society, to name a few—at this point in his life, he was anything but. 

Growing up in rural Oregon, the powerfully built Kesey got into the University of Oregon on a football scholarship and was also a champion wrestler, nearly qualifying for a spot in the Olympics before a shoulder injury put an end to his days as a star athlete. His early life was as all-American as it gets, full of muscle cars, comic books and drive-in movies. While at college, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, and they remained married until the day he died.

When he first arrived at Stanford he’d never even had a sip of beer. 

That all changed rather quickly however, when a friend told him about a program at a nearby VA hospital where doctors paid volunteers $75 a day to eat research chemicals and report on their experiences. Kesey’s interest was piqued. He volunteered.

As he sat on the edge of a hospital bed, Kesey swallowed a pill given to him by a white-smocked doctor and stared idly out the window. What he saw next sparked a life-long journey of discovery that would profoundly influence the coming psychedelic movement which, at that very moment, was just beginning to claw its way out of the stodgy off-white shell of '50s America. 

“...The first thing he knew about it was a squirrel dropped an acorn from a tree outside, only it was tremendously loud and sounded like it was not outside but right in the room with him and not actually a sound, either, but a great suffusing presence, visual, almost tactile, a great impacting of… blue… all around him and suddenly he was in a realm of consciousness he had never dreamed of before and it was not a dream or a delirium but part of his awareness,” writes Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. “...And yes, that little capsule sliding blissly down the gullet was LSD.”

It would be decades before this fact came to light, but Kesey’s acid was from the same place White’s was: the CIA.

***

The Agency had been busy at work unlocking the mysteries of acid for several years before Kesey took his first hit in ‘59. Efforts to weaponize psychoactive substances went back even further, all the way to the birth of the modern U.S. intelligence establishment in 1943. This was when the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime predecessor, first embarked upon a top secret initiative to systematically catalogue every single mind-altering substance or technique they could get their hands on, and evaluate their potential usefulness for clandestine operations and interrogations. 

Throughout the war, the OSS tested the obvious candidates (marijuana, alcohol, caffeine) and the less obvious (peyote, barbiturates), eventually settling on a super-pure THC extract known as T.D.—truth drug—as their, well, truth drug of choice. When the OSS became the CIA in 1947, its officers continued their exhaustive drug and behavioral conditioning research, further experimenting with T.D. and a variety of psychedelics, uppers, downers and hypnosis techniques—sometimes all in the same session. 

By 1951, the CIA was comfortable enough with these experimental techniques that they authorized their use in the field. “There will be many a failure,” writes a CIA scientist in a formerly-classified memo obtained by the authors of Acid Dreams, but “every success will be pure gravy.”

The Agency didn’t know the half of it. 

That same year the CIA finally stumbled upon LSD, which had first been synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. The initial experiments were promising: interrogators were often able to pry secrets easily from test subjects, and some of these experienced amnesia after the fact, a supremely useful quality in any potential truth serum. LSD produced these effects when administered in extremely small amounts, and was also tasteless, odorless and colorless. Gravy indeed.

“We had thought at first that this was the secret that was going to unlock the universe,” a CIA officer told the authors of Acid Dreams.

Things got very weird at the CIA for the next couple of years, at least in the Technical Services Staff division, which ran MKULTRA. Soon, getting zonked on acid became both a cherished pastime and an occupational hazard for TSS agents. It was not uncommon to show up at work and, after a few sips of your morning coffee, have a colleague tap you on the shoulder and suggest taking the day off, because he had dosed it. Heavily.

Shortly after their introduction to Lucy, the Agency began doubling down on research into psychedelics and other stranger things. Seances were infiltrated. Funding was secured for ESP research. By 1953, the CIA had contracted with George White to set up a clandestine LSD whorehouse in Greenwich Village, the precursor to his later experiments during “Operation Midnight Climax” in San Francisco. 

Soon however, the Agency realized LSD was more complicated than they’d thought. Sometimes test subjects became outgoing and loquacious, other times pensive and withdrawn. Sometimes they spoke the truth, sometimes they babbled nonsense. Acid was clearly much more than just a simple truth serum. 

While disappointed, the Agency was nonetheless determined to get to the bottom of acid and its fellow psychedelics. By the early '50s the CIA was clandestinely underwriting a massive campaign of clinical research into psychedelics, funneling money through shell companies to a wide array of (mostly) unsuspecting scientists and secretly keeping tabs on the results of their experiments. What followed was a golden era of psychedelic research, in which prominent scientists and academics of every stripe engaged in wide-ranging experiments to pin down the uses and effects of psychedelic drugs. It wasn’t always pretty, as Dr. Hoch and his acid lobotomies can attest to, but the sheer volume of work done on psychedelics during this time was nonetheless humbling—and often very productive. 

The CIA was by no means solely responsible for this post-war psychedelic research boom, but the Agency effectively became the puppet master at the heart of this exciting new field of study. Whether scientists were actively collaborating with the Agency or wholly unaware of its involvement, the CIA was ultimately pulling the strings. For the next decade or so “it was impossible for an LSD researcher not to rub shoulders with the espionage establishment,” write the authors of Acid Dreams, “For the CIA was monitoring the entire scene.”

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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.

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