From Weapon to Wonder: A Brief Social History of LSD

From Weapon to Wonder: A Brief Social History of LSD

When Sandoz chemist Dr Albert Hofmann was messing around synthesizing ergot derivative compounds in 1938, the seemingly unremarkable twenty-fifth compound he produced was unceremoniously stored among its siblings on a shelf for the next five years.

On 16 April 1943, Dr Hofmann decided to investigate the compound further. Accidentally ingesting a small dose through his fingertips, he unwittingly enjoyed the very first acid trip, following it up with another, intentional, dose of 250 μg three days later. Thinking that 250 μg (more than double today’s standard tab), wouldn’t have much effect, the good doctor was flying high when he bicycled home from his lab that day. This was 19 April 1943, which is now commemorated as Bicycle Day each year, upon which grateful trippers across the globe enjoy LSD in honour of Hofmann’s glorious maiden voyage.

Lysergic acid dimethylamide, a.k.a. LSD-25, is one of the most researched recreational drugs on the market today. Snaking its way from the controlled clutches of the CIA and the military through into popular culture, there are fewer substances that have enjoyed such a varied and well-documented social history as LSD.

After Hofmann reported his findings on LSD-25 to other Sandoz staff, the pharmaceutical company began to test on volunteers, looking for psychiatric applications for the drug (an incredible property of LSD is that it is active in such miniscule quantities – one gram of pure LSD crystals offers 10,000 – 20,000 single doses). After receiving notable mention in medical journals, the drug ended up on the radar of the US Army around 1949.

The CIA had spent the better part of the late 1940s testing all manner of substances under the operation “Project CHATTER” for their potential as a “truth serum,” the most notable of these being cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and marijuana. They were particularly excited about LSD’s behaviour as a psychotomimetic, and had become rather interested in psychoactives such as mescaline after learning of the horrific mescaline mind control experiments that Nazi doctors had tested at Dachau concentration camp.

The endeavour Operation Paperclip saw the US Army importing six hundred Nazi scientists to continue these kinds of experiments in America. A key figure among them was Dr Hubertus Strughold, who had been responsible for psychological tests at Daschau, involving submerging prisoners in freezing water, placing them in air pressure chambers, and performing surgery without anaesthetic, resulting in many gruesome deaths (icepick lobotomies were also a favourite of Strughold’s). This ongoing testing was renamed Operation BLUEBIRD, later becoming Operation ARTICHOKE in 1951.

In 1953, the covert project MK ULTRA was born. Run by a small team in the CIA named the Technical Services Staff (TSS), MK ULTRA encompassed some pretty dodgy shit that the government kept secret from citizens, one of which was Operation Midnight Climax. Midnight Climax entailed TSS agents fitting out apartments in New York and San Francisco with two-way mirrors, and hiring sex workers to bring clients to these safehouses, where they would be unknowingly spiked with LSD, while cocktail-chugging TSS agents watched the shenanigans from behind the mirrors. Midnight Climax began in the 1950s and was not abandoned until 1966 – that’s a heck of a lot of prostitutes on the US government payroll, spiking a heck of a lot of unwitting American citizens.

After Midnight Climax wound down, Richard Helms, a pioneer of MK ULTRA, became director of the CIA. “We do not target American citizens” he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1971. “The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we who lead the CIA are honourable men, devoted to the nation’s service” (yeah, righto Helmsy). Shortly after this, before he resigned, he ordered the comprehensive destruction of all MK ULTRA paperwork – suggesting there may have been a lot more to the CIA’s LSD testing operations than what was eventually brought to light from the few documents that survived the cull.

The US government has subsequently admitted to dosing unknowing citizens from 1955 through 1966 (not just at the safehouses, but in many public places such as beaches and parks), and has paid out millions of dollars to the families and victims of these secret LSD spikings.

Obviously, the US was convinced that Russia and China were also developing LSD for mind-control purposes, so clearly the most logical thing they could do was to familiarise their own soldiers with the drug. At Fort Bragg, war games and military drills were carried out on LSD, while at Fort McClellan around 200 officers were given the drug to familiarise them with the effects.

At Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, soldiers were given LSD and placed in sensory deprivation chambers, after which they were subjected to hostile interrogation to incite anxiety, fear and confession. For nearly twenty years Edgewood staff included at least eight imported Nazi doctors involved in these inhumane tests.

By the mid 1960s, at least 7,000 soldiers had been involved in US Army LSD experiments – some of which were coerced or spiked unknowingly. Edgewood Arsenal was responsible for the death of tennis professional Harold Blauer who was stationed there at the time – an overdose of methyl di-amphetamine was responsible. Researcher Dr James Cattell later testified, “we didn’t know if it was dog piss or what it was we were giving him.”

Cattell’s colleague, Dr Paul Hoch, had experimented on psychiatric patients with LSD and given them lobotomies thereafter. In one of Hoch’s experiments, he administered LSD to a patient, along with a local anaesthetic, and the patient was told to describe his experience as they removed parts of his cerebral cortex. Absurdly, Hoch later went on to become the New York state commissioner for mental hygiene.

During this period, the US Army was receiving rejected drugs from pharmaceutical companies solely for their undesirable effects, which the army wanted to exploit. One superhallucinogen in particular, quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ), was ultimately preferred by the army over LSD, due to its powerful nature. Between 1959 and 1975, around 2,800 soldiers were given BZ, and it rendered many of them fucked up, both temporarily and permanently.

In the 1950s, the CIA was also using penal and mental institutions for their testing, knowing that inmates and the mentally unwell were easy targets. The Addiction Research Centre, a penal institution in Lexington, Kentucky, was one such place. When the CIA received new reject drugs from the pharmaceutical companies, they would ship them on over to Dr Harris Isbell at Lexington, who would offer up heroin and morphine as payment to coerce the (mostly black) already drug-addicted prisoners into submitting to testing.

Among the experiments conducted by Isbell, he boasted of one in which certain inmates were kept on LSD for 77 days straight. Where he felt it necessary, he would administer up to quadruple the recommended dose in order to combat tolerance.

In the sixties, Edgewood Arsenal began phasing out LSD testing in order to narrow their focus on the drug BZ, which was developed for use in grenades and the 750lb cluster bomb.

While the CIA’s obsession with LSD for military application began to fade, its therapeutic potential was of great interest to many therapists and psychiatrists, and in 1953 Dr Ronald Sandison opened the first public LSD clinic in England. More of these popped up throughout Europe, Canada and the US. A professional US spy by the name of Captain Al Hubbard was introduced to LSD by Sandison, and thereafter contacted Dr Humphrey Osmond, a young psychiatrist who was researching LSD and mescaline in Canada.

In 1953 Osmond gave Aldous Huxley the infamous mescaline trip that prompted him to write The Doors of Perception, which popularised psychedelics in a way that had not previously been seen. Hubbard and Osmond both began to use LSD as treatment for alcoholics, and this resulted in an unprecedented rate of recovery – Hubbard even received permission from Rome to use LSD for treatment within a Catholic setting.

Of course, while all this was happening, that old dirty bastard the CIA was paying close attention, and Sandoz, along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), kept the CIA abreast of any LSD purchases – Hubbard was, of course, a prominent customer.

Earlier referred to as a “psychomimetic” by the military, the term “psychedelic” to describe LSD was coined via correspondence between Osmond and Huxley in 1957. This marked a turning point for LSD; rather than being a potential weapon to induce anxiety and psychosis, it was now being seen as a great drug with many positive effects. Within a therapy setting, LSD was used to induce a safe space to explore one’s psyche, rather than the horrific military testing environments (“no wonder they report psychotics,” Huxley once noted of the CIA’s test results).

A couple of Harvard professors in the 1960s, Timothy Leary and Michael Hollingshead, began exploring with using psychedelics, such as psilocybin and mescaline (which Sandoz doled out free to researchers) for therapy. Hollingshead had been given 1 gram of Sandoz LSD, which he mixed with sugar and distilled water and kept in a mayonnaise jar – this jar would become legendary in LSD subculture, and was responsible for introducing thousands of influential people to LSD. At one point, Hollingshead’s entire apartment was laced with LSD – the door handles, the food, pretty much every surface.

As the CIA focused their watchdog efforts on Leary and Hollingshead, the FDA investigated their use of LSD in trials, and finally ruled that Leary would no longer be allowed to test LSD without a medical doctor present. In 1963, Leary was fired from Harvard and subsequently set up the IFIF – International Federation For Internal Freedom, in pursuit of changing the world through exposing as many people to LSD as possible.

Over on the west coast, the famous writer Ken Kesey was a student at Stanford when he got wind of a veteran’s hospital which was conducting experiments, where volunteers were given “psychomimetic drugs” along with $75 per day. He enjoyed his experience as a guinea pig so much that he soon began working as a night attendant in the wards there, obtaining access to LSD and mescaline, among other psychoactive drugs. Unsurprisingly, these drugs began doing the rounds within his group of friends.

Kesey went on to write the classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, much of which was written while high on LSD or peyote, and formed a counterculture band of followers dubbed the Merry Pranksters, whose goal was to introduce as many people to psychedelics as possible. In 1965 he met Hunter S. Thompson, while Thompson was writing his book about biker gang the Hell’s Angels. The Angels and Kesey’s Merry Pranksters partied together for weeks, and Hunter S. Thompson later wrote that he would like to repeat his early acid trips with the Hell’s Angels, saying that “dropping acid with the Angels was an adventure; they were too ignorant to know what to expect, and too wild to care.”

The mid-1960s was a heavy period of student activism, and during this movement drug use was a strong avenue for denouncing authority. Radical politics and drug use were usually never far from one another, and this attitude, along with the increasing number of influential people who had tried LSD, meant that the drug was fast becoming irrevocably sutured into Western society.

The first place that LSD was sold on a massive scale was a neighbourhood in San Francisco named the Haight-Ashbury. Manufactured by chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III and a young Berkeley chemistry major, Melissa Cargill, the drug was sold on the streets from February 1965. Drawing some parallels with Walter “Heisenberg” White, Owsley was obsessed with creating the purest product possible - his LSD was said to be even purer than Sandoz’s. Sandoz’s LSD was a yellowish crystalline substance, whereas Owsley managed to refine his so that it appeared bluish (like Heisenberg’s meth!) and piezoluminescent (emitting flashes of light when shaken).

Initially sold in powder form contained in gel capsules, or a blue-tinged liquid known as “mother’s milk,” Owsley decided to acquire a pill press in order to control dosage. Keeping the price per trip at a stable $2, Owsley was rumoured to have turned out four million trips, freely giving away as much as was sold – impressively, he was possibly more interested in sharing this incredible compound and raising collective consciousness than he was in getting rich.

Once LSD was available freely on the street, things began heating up where the FDA and CIA was concerned (how dare anybody enjoy themselves? If a drug couldn’t be used to torture and coerce people then it definitely shouldn’t be available for enjoyment!). In January 1966, a three-day LSD festival aptly named “Trips Festival” was held, and LSD was well and truly out in public view. In April that year, Sandoz recalled all the LSD they had given to researchers, and all LSD testing came to a halt (with the exception of the CIA’s secret activities, of course). Six months later, on 6 October 1966, California passed a law banning LSD use.

The CIA henceforth dedicated much effort into spreading misinformation about the drug, claiming that LSD was responsible for all manner of horrors, such as chromosomal damage and “holes in the brain”. Undeterred, the masses still indulged in their beloved LSD, and in January 1967 over 25,000 people gathered in San Francisco to take part in The Human Be-In, an event promoting LSD, love and peace. Flower children, hippies, and the Summer of Love were in full swing, and the impact of LSD was flowing throughout mainstream culture. By the time The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, they were all taking LSD regularly and writing songs about the drug. John Lennon has stated that (on the cover of Sgt. Pepper) “you can see that two of us are flying,” referring to himself and George Harrison.

A few months after The Human Be-In, Owsley was arrested with around ten million dollars’ worth of LSD, sentenced to three years in prison, and ordered to pay a three thousand dollar fine. This caused a street LSD drought, which paved the way for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Owsley’s former assistant Tim Scully, and chemist Nick Sand, were able to procure ergotamine tartrate (a key ingredient in LSD) from Europe, and they commenced production, under the name “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love”.

Sand and Scully’s LSD was considered to be even purer than Owsley’s, and, by the time their lab was closed in 1969, they had manufactured around ten million hits of their product – known as Orange Sunshine. Orange Sunshine was smuggled from Orange County, California to numerous countries, appearing in places as far flung as Australia, Israel and India. Orange Sunshine also made it to Vietnam, where soldiers who were already getting freely fucked up on heroin and marijuana welcomed it with open arms.

After the Brotherhood was shut down following a one-year investigation culminating in dozens of arrests (including Timothy Leary), LSD devotees were once again in luck. A British chemist named John Kemp succeeded the Brotherhood’s manufacturing efforts, but was subsequently nailed by Scotland Yard in 1977. However, a lucky legal twist meant that Kemp was forced to reveal his method for making LSD – and when this information wormed it’s way into the public record, it was responsible for a resurgence in LSD production that exists to this day.

For a drug to have been accidentally discovered and so well researched, with such a phenomenally rich and intriguing history, it’s small wonder that many revere this mystical compound. The socio-political history of the US has a lot to thank LSD culture for, and you simply don’t see many decent historical accounts of the fifties and sixties in the US that do not highlight the impact of this drug culturally.

“You don’t hear about it anymore, but people are still visiting the cosmos. We must always remember to thank the CIA and the army for LSD. That’s what people forget […] They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom. Sometimes it works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.” - John Lennon.

This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2017.
Posted 11:59am Sunday 21st May 2017 by Chelle Fitzgerald.