ACID DREAMS, THE COMPLETE SOCIAL HISTORY OF LSD: THE CIA, THE SIXTIES, AND BEYOND
Thousands of people jammed the auditorium at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Those who were unable to gain admittance stood outside and pressed their faces against the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the visiting dignitaries. An all-star lineup of poets, scientists, journalists, and media celebrities had convened for the opening of a weekend conference entitled "LSD: A Generation Later." Topping the bill was the man they call the "Father of the Psychedelic Age."
At seventy-one years of age Dr. Albert Hofmann seemed miscast in his role as hero of such a gathering. His white, closely cropped hair and conservative attire contrasted sharply with the motley appearance of his youthful admirers, who could just as easily have turned out for a rock and roll concert or an antinuke rally. But as he strode to the podium to deliver the evening's keynote address, Dr. Hofmann was greeted by a long and thunderous standing ovation.
"You may be disappointed," he warned the audience. "You may have expected a guru, but instead you meet just a chemist." whereupon Hofmann launched into a serious scientific discussion of the step-by-step process that led to the discovery of LSD-25, the most potent mind drug known to science at the time. Occasionally he flashed a diagram on the screen and expatiated on the molecular subtleties of hallucinogenic drugs. While much of the technical data soared way above the heads of his listeners, they seemed to love every minute of it.
Dr. Hofmann first synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 while investigating the chemical and pharmacological properties of ergot, a rye fungus rich in medicinal alkaloids, for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. At the time he was searching for an analeptic compound (a circulatory stimulant), and LSD was the twenty-fifth in a series of ergot derivatives he concocted; hence the designation LSD-25. Preliminary studies on laboratory animals did not prove significant, and scientists at Sandoz quickly lost interest in the drug. For the next five years the vial of LSD gathered dust on the shelf, until the afternoon of April 16, 1943.
"I had a strange feeling," Hofmann told the assembled masses, "that it would be worthwhile to carry out more profound studies with this compound." In the course of preparing a fresh batch of LSD he accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips, and soon he was overcome by "a remarkable but not unpleasant state of intoxication ... characterized by an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered state of awareness of the world." A knowing chorus of laughter emanated from the audience as Hofmann continued to read from his diary notes. "As I lay in a dazed condition with eyes closed there surged up from me a succession of fantastic, rapidly changing imagery of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid, kaleidoscopic play of colors. This condition gradually passed off after about three hours."
Dr. Hofmann was baffled by his first unplanned excursion into the strange world of LSD. He could not comprehend how this substance could have found its way into his body in sufficient quantity to produce such extraordinary symptoms. In the interest of science, he assured his audience, he decided to experiment on himself. Another boisterous round of applause filled the auditorium.
On April 19, three days after his initial psychedelic voyage, Dr. Hofmann swallowed a mere 250 micrograms (a millionth of an ounce), thinking that such a minuscule amount would have negligible results. But he was in for a surprise. As he bicycled home accompanied by his laboratory assistant, he realized the symptoms were much stronger than before. "I had great difficulty in speaking coherently," he recounted. "My field of vision swayed before me, and objects appeared distorted like images in curved mirrors. I had the impression of being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant told me afterwards that we had cycled at a good pace."
When Hofmann arrived home, he consulted a physician, who was ill equipped to deal with what would later be called a "bad trip." Hofmann did not know if he'd taken a fatal dose or if he'd be lost forever in the twisted corridors of inner space. For a while he feared he was losing his mind: "Occasionally I felt as if I were out of my body ... I thought I had died. My 'ego' was suspended somewhere in space and I saw my body lying dead on the sofa."
Somehow Hofmann summoned the courage to endure this mind-wrenching ordeal. As the trip wore on, his psychic condition began to improve, and eventually he was able to explore the hallucinogenic terrain with a modicum of composure. He spent the remaining hours absorbed in a synesthetic swoon, bearing witness as each sound triggered a corresponding optical effect, and vice versa, until he fell into a fitful sleep. The next morning he awoke feeling perfectly fine.
And so it was that Dr. Albert Hofmann made his fateful discovery. Right from the start he sensed that LSD could be an important tool for studying how the mind works, and he was pleased when the scientific community began to use the drug for this purpose. But he did not anticipate that his "problem child," as he later referred to LSD, would have such enormous social and cultural impact in the years to come. Nor could he have foreseen that one day he would be revered as a near-mythic figure by a generation of acid enthusiasts.
"Dr. Hofmann," said Stephen Gaskin, leader of the largest counterculture commune in America, "there are thousands of people on the Farm who feel they owe their lives to you." Gaskin was among the guests invited to participate in a panel discussion on the second day of the colloquium. Its purpose was to provide a forum for counterculture veterans to reflect back upon the halcyon days of the psychedelic movement, which had reached a peak a decade earlier during the infamous Summer of Love, and assess what had since come to pass. Poet Allen Ginsberg likened the event to a "class reunion." He decided to do some homework before joining his fellow acid valedictorians, so he took some LSD on the plane flight to the West Coast. While under the influence of the psychedelic, he began to ponder the disclosures that had recently surfaced in the news media concerning the CIA's use of LSD as a mind control weapon. The possibility that an espionage organization might have promoted the widespread use of LSD was disturbing to Ginsberg, who had been an outspoken advocate of psychedelics during the 1960s. He grabbed a pen and started jotting down some high-altitude thoughts. "Am I, Allen Ginsberg, the product of one of the CIA's lamentable, ill-advised, or triumphantly successful experiments in mind control?" Had the CIA, "by conscious plan or inadvertent Pandora's Box, let loose the whole LSD Fad on the U.S. & the World?"
Ginsberg raised the CIA issue during the conference, but few seemed to take the matter seriously. "The LSD movement was started by the CIA," quipped Timothy Leary with a wide grin on his face. "I wouldn't be here now without the foresight of the CIA scientists." The one-time Pied Piper of the flower children was in top form, laughing and joking with reporters, as though he hadn't been chased halfway around the world by US narcotics police and spent the last few years in prison. "It was no accident," Leary mused. "It was all planned and scripted by the Central Intelligence, and I'm all in favor of Central Intelligence."
A jovial mood prevailed throughout much of the panel discussion. Old comrades who had not seen each other for a long time swapped tales of acid glory and reminisced about the wild and unforgettable escapades of yesteryear. "As I look at my colleagues and myself," said Richard Alpert, one of Leary's original cohorts at Harvard University in the early 1960s, "I see we have proceeded just as we wished to, despite all conditions. I feel that what we are doing today is partly demonstrating that we are not psychotic!" Alpert went on to declare that he didn't care if he ever took LSD again but that he appreciated what his hundreds of trips had taught him and hoped there would be a more favorable climate for serious LSD research in the near future.
Alpert's sentiments were echoed by many of the panelists, who called on the government to reconsider its restrictive policies so that scientists and psychologists could resume studying the drug. There were frequent testimonials to the contributions LSD made to science and society. Acid was praised as a boon to psychotherapy, an enhancer of creativity, a religious sacrament, and a liberator of the human spirit. Dr. Ralph Metzner, the third member of the Harvard triumvirate, suggested that the appearance of LSD constituted nothing less than a turning point in human evolution. It was no coincidence, he maintained, that Dr. Hofmann discovered the effects of LSD shortly after the first nuclear chain reaction was achieved by the Manhattan Project. His remarks seemed to imply that LSD was some sort of divine antidote to the nuclear curse and that humanity must pay heed to the psychedelic revelation if it was to alter its self-destructive course and avert a major catastrophe.
Author Richard Ashley elaborated on the theme of acid as a chemical messiah. As far as he was concerned, LSD provided the most effective means of short-circuiting the mental straitjacket that society imposes on its members. A worldwide police state was a virtual certainty, Ashley predicted, unless more people used psychedelics to raise their consciousness and resist the ominous specter of thought control.
Others were somewhat more cautious in speculating upon the role of hallucinogenic drugs in advanced industrial society. "LSD came along before our culture was ready for it," asserted Dr. Stanley Krippner, a leading parapsychologist who once directed the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in New York. "I think we're still not ready for it. We haven't used it for its greatest potential. Psychedelic substances have been used very wisely in primitive cultures for spiritual and healing purposes. Our culture does not have this framework. We don't have the closeness to God, the closeness to nature, the shamanistic outlook. We've lost all that."
By the time the conference drew to a close, over thirty speakers had rendered their verdicts about LSD and the so-called psychedelic revolution. While it was clear that everyone had been deeply affected by the drug experience and the social movement it inspired, there was no overall consensus as to what it all meant. Each person had his or her ideas about why things happened the way they did and what the future might portend. Some felt that LSD arrived on the scene just in the nick of time, others saw it as a premature discovery, and there were a few who thought it might already be too late. If that wasn't enough to thoroughly confuse the audience, John Lilly, the dolphin scientist, urged his listeners to ignore everything they heard from their elders and make their own discoveries. Ginsberg seconded the motion in his concluding remarks. "We must disentangle ourselves from past suppositions," he counseled. "The words 'psychedelic revolution' are part of a past created largely by media images. We need to throw out the past images."
Less than a month before the Santa Cruz convention, LSD was the main topic at another well-attended gathering. The setting on this occasion was an ornate Senate hearing room on Capitol Hill. The television cameras were ready to roll as Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, strolled toward the lectern flanked by a few of his aides. During the next two days he would attempt to nail down the elusive details of Operation MK-ULTRA, the principal CIA program involving the development of chemical and biological agents during the Cold War.
In his opening statement Kennedy told a large audience that he hoped these hearings would "close the book on this chapter of the CIA's life." He then proceeded to question a group of former CIA employees about the Agency's testing of LSD and other drugs on unwitting American citizens. These activities were considered so sensitive that only a handful of people within the CIA even knew about them. A previously classified document explained why the program was shrouded in secrecy: "The knowledge that the Agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles and would be detrimental to the accomplishment of its mission."
Although most of the testimony had been rehearsed earlier when witnesses met with a Kennedy staff member, the senator from Massachusetts still managed to feign a sense of astonishment when David Rhodes, formerly a CIA psychologist, recounted an ill-fated LSD experiment at a CIA safehouse in the San Francisco Bay area. He described how unsuspecting individuals were recruited from local bars and lured to a party where CIA operatives intended to release LSD in the form of an aerosol spray. But as Rhodes explained, the air currents in the room were unsuitable for dosing the partygoers, so one of his cohorts snuck into the bathroom and tried the spray on himself. The audience chuckled at the thought of grown men spritzing themselves with government acid, while news reporters scribbled their renditions of the headline-making tale.
Throughout the hearings the senators listened to one account after another of bumbling and clumsiness on the part of Agency personnel. Phillip Goldman, a CIA chemical warfare specialist, could have been describing a Three Stooges routine when he told of an attempt to test a launching device for a stink bomb. The projectile hit the window ledge, and the spooks held their noses. There were more laughs when he mentioned a drug-coated swizzle stick that dissolved in a cocktail but left a taste so bitter that no one would drink it. And so forth and so on. This kind of buffoonery proved to be an effective public relations ploy for the CIA, deflecting serious scrutiny from drug-related misdeeds. By stressing ineptitude the Agency conveyed an all too human air. After all, why prosecute a bunch of regular Joes for fooling around with chemicals they could never hope to understand?
The star witness on the second day of the hearings was the CIA's chief sorcerer-scientist, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the MK-ULTRA program. Gottlieb, a slight man with short gray hair and a clubfoot, agreed to testify only after receiving a grant of immunity from criminal prosecution. His testimony before the Senate subcommittee marked the first public appearance of this shadowy figure since he left the Agency in 1973. Actually his appearance was "semi-public." Because he suffered from a heart condition, Gottlieb was allowed to speak with the senators in a small antechamber while everyone else listened to the proceedings over a public address system.
The purpose of Operation MK-ULTRA and related programs, Gottlieb explained, was "to investigate whether and how it was possible to modify an individual's behavior by covert means." When asked to elaborate on what the CIA learned from this research, Gottlieb was afflicted by a sudden loss of memory, as if he were under the influence of one of his own amnesia drugs. However, he did confirm earlier reports that prostitutes were used in the safehouse experiments to spike the drinks of unlucky customers while CIA operatives observed, photographed, and recorded the action.
When asked to justify this activity, Gottlieb resorted to the familiar Cold War refrain that had been invoked repeatedly throughout the hearings by other witnesses. The original impetus for the CIA's drug programs, he maintained, stemmed from concern about the aggressive use of behavior-altering techniques against the U.S. by its enemies. Gottlieb claimed there was evidence (which he never shared with the senators) that the Soviets and the Red Chinese might have been mucking about with LSD in the early 1950s. This, he explained, had grave implications for our national security.
At the close of the hearings Kennedy summed up the surreptitious LSD tests by declaring, "These activities are part of history, not the current practice of the CIA." And that was as far as it went. The senators seemed eager to get the whole show over with, even though many issues were far from resolved. Later it was revealed that some of the witnesses conferred among themselves, agreeing to limit their testimony to the minimum degree necessary to satisfy the committee. As Dr. Gottlieb admitted, "The bottom line on this whole business has not yet been written."
Shortly after the Senate forum, a Washington attorney gave us a tip about how to gain access to a special reading room that housed documents pertaining to Operation MK-ULTRA and other CIA mind control projects. The documents had recently been declassified as a result of a Freedom of Information request by researcher John Marks. Located on the bottom floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosslyn, Virginia, the reading room was smoke-filled and crowded with journalists working on deadlines, scouring through a heap of papers as fast as their fingers could turn the pages. We were not bound by such constraints, and we decided to examine the files at an unhurried pace.
Reading through the intelligence records was both exciting and frustrating. Each stack of heavily censored reports contained a hodge-podge of data, much of which seemed trivial. There was no rhyme or reason to their arrangement: financial records, inventory lists, in-house gossip, and letters of recommendation were randomly interspersed with minutes of top-secret meetings and other tantalizing morsels.
We dug in for the long haul, intent on examining every scrap of information related to the CIA's behavior modification programs. Our visits to the reading room became a weekly ritual, and soon we expanded our investigation to include army, navy, and air force documents as well. During the next six months we reviewed approximately twenty thousand pages of previously classified memoranda. We began to think of ourselves as archeologists rather than muck-rakers, trying to unearth remnants of a lost history buried underneath layers of secrecy.
In the course of our inquiry we uncovered CIA documents describing experiments in sensory deprivation, sleep teaching, ESP, subliminal projection, electronic brain stimulation, and many other methods that might have applications for behavior modification. One project was designed to turn people into programmed assassins who would kill on automatic command. Another document mentioned "hypnotically-induced anxieties" and "induced pain as a form of physical and psychological control." There were repeated references to exotic drugs and biological agents that caused "headache clusters," uncontrollable twitching or drooling, or a lobotomy like stupor. Deadly chemicals were concocted for the sole purpose of inducing a heart attack or cancer without leaving a clue as to the actual source of the disease. CIA specialists also studied the effects of magnetic fields, ultrasonic vibrations, and other forms of radiant energy on the brain. As one CIA doctor put it, "We lived in a never-never land of 'eyes only' memos and unceasing experimentation."
As it turns out, nearly every drug that appeared on the black market during the 1960s -- marijuana, cocaine, heroin, PCP, amyl nitrate, mushrooms, DMT, barbiturates, laughing gas, speed, and many others -- had previously been scrutinized, tested, and in some cases refined by CIA and army scientists. But of all the techniques explored by the Agency in its multimillion-dollar twenty-five-year quest to conquer the human mind, none received as much attention or was embraced with such enthusiasm as LSD-25. For a time CIA personnel were completely infatuated with the hallucinogen. Those who first tested LSD in the early 1950s were convinced that it would revolutionize the cloak-and-dagger trade.
As we studied the documents more closely, certain shapes and patterns came alive to us. We began to get a sense of the internal dynamics of the CIA's secret LSD program and how it evolved over the years. The story that emerged was far more complex and rich in detail than the disconnected smattering of information that had surfaced in various press reports and government probes. We were able to understand what the spies were looking for when they first got into LSD, what happened during the initial phase of experimentation, how their attitude changed as they tested the drug on themselves and their associates, and how it was ultimately used in covert operations.
The central irony of LSD is that it has been used both as a weapon and a sacrament, a mind control drug and a mind-expanding chemical. Each of these possibilities generated a unique history: a covert history, on the one hand, rooted in CIA and military experimentation with hallucinogens, and a grassroots history of the drug counterculture that exploded into prominence in the 1960s. At key points the two histories converge and overlap, forming an interface between the CIA's secret drug programs and the rise and fall of the psychedelic movement.
The LSD story is inseparable from the cherished hopes and shattered illusions of the sixties generation. In many ways it provides a key for understanding what happened during that turbulent era, when political and cultural revolution erupted with full fury. And yet, as the decade drew to a close, the youth movement suddenly collapsed and bottomed out, leaving a trail of unanswered questions in its wake. Only by examining both sides of the psychedelic saga -- the CIA's mind control program and the drug subculture -- can we grasp the true nature of LSD-25 and discern what effect this powerful chemical agent had on the social upheavals of the 1960s.