The Brotherhood of Eternal Love
Stewart Tendler and Davaid May
The events of Friday 16 April 1943, have passed into the hagiography of the drug world. At 3 P.M. Dr. Albert Hofmann, a biochemical researcher for the Sandoz chemical company in Basle, Switzerland, reached for his laboratory diary and wrote: 'laboratory intoxification'. Dizzy and restless, the 37-year-old scientist went home to rest.
As he lay down he suddenly 'became strangely inebriated. The external world became changed as in a dream. Objects appeared to gain in relief. They assumed unusual dimensions and colours became more glowing. When the eyes were closed there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense kaleidoscope-like play of colours.'
After two hours this 'not unpleasant experience' disappeared, leaving Hofmann to ponder events over the weekend. Somehow, he decided, he had absorbed through the pores of his skin a tiny amount of the chemical he called LSD-25.
Chemists at Sandoz were, pioneers in extracting medicaments from a rye fungus called ergot. Eight years earlier, Hofmann, following this line of research, began synthesizing a derivative called lysergic acid. Searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, he created over twenty compounds. Number twenty-fivelysergic acid diethylamideseemed unexceptional. Hofmann tried it on animals but there was little to warrant further research. It would have stayed unexplored if Hofmann, nagged by curiosity'a peculiar presentiment' as he later put ithad not returned to the compound in 1943.
That LSD should produce hallucinations was not in itself totally surprising. Sandoz first took an interest in ergot, which looks like a tiny purple golfball under the microscope, because of the multitude of stories passed down through the centuries. There are scholars who believe that something like it was used in sacred rites in ancient Greece; but a more malevolent side has dominated its history in the West. If ergot-diseased rye was unwittingly milled into flour, the contaminated bread could produce mass mental and physical disorders. Medieval chronicles tell of villages where many went temporarily mad, men were stricken with gangrenous limbs and women aborted. St Anthony was designated patron saint of ergot sufferers and the poisoning dubbed 'St Anthony's Fire', after the charred appearance of the gangrenous limbs. Even in modern times, ergotism, the medical term, still appears, and there were epidemics in Russia in the 1920s.
Yet, looking at the history of ergot, scientists and doctors often wondered whether there might not be a positive value in the fungus: chemicals which triggered off gangrene might also be useful in controlling circulation, while those which caused abortion could be useful in obstetrics. Sandoz, following on fitful research over the centuries, discovered several important new medicines by the time Hofmann began his work.
Given the tales of temporary madness, Hofmann knew that LSD must be responsible for his experience, but no known drug had such an effect in such a small dose. There are over a hundred plants which contain compounds capable of hallucinogenic reactions. They range from marijuana to peyote, a cactus synthesized as mescaline, and various mushrooms. Many such plants were important in ancient native culturesmarijuana and peyote even reached the fringes of Western societyyet none seemed to compare with LSD. Hofmann could not believe the potency of his creation.
The following Monday, 19 April, Hofmann and an assistant prepared a mere five milligrams of LSD. A notebook by his side, Hofmann swallowed 250 micrograms250 millionths of a gram. The drug was tasteless and, still doubting its potency, the scientist was prepared to go on taking doses until he registered a reaction. But forty minutes later, he again felt dizzy and restless. As the drug took hold he abandoned the laboratory and, guarded by his assistant, cycled home.
Now in the grip of far stronger symptoms than he had first experienced, Hofmann slipped from sensual distortions into a mental crisis. His family seemed to be wearing hideous masks and he felt separated from his body, standing like a 'neutral observer'. When he closed his eyes his mind filled with images of fantastic colour and shape; sounds became visual forms. A doctor, called by the family, found no physical effects apart from a weak pulse, and the hallucinations abated. After a night's sleep Hofmann was normal again, albeit tired. Years later he commented ruefully that his experiment had been a 'bum trip, as one would say'.
LSD became a talking point among Sandoz staff, who provided volunteers for more tests. Since the company's business was medicine there was speculation that LSD might serve a useful function in psychiatry. At the turn of the century, pioneers such as Havelock Ellis were dabbling with peyote as a means of reaching the depths of the mind, and the creation of mescaline in the 1920s had stimulated more interest. But both the natural form of the drug and its synthetic twin produced physical side-effects. None seemed to be present in Hofmann's discovery. The head of Sandoz's pharmaceutical department, himself a pioneer ergot researcher, asked if his son might extend the tests clinically. Dr Werner Stoll, just starting a career in psychiatry, tested LSD on both normal and psychiatric patients at the University of Zurich hospital. In 1947 he formally published his results in the Swiss Archives of Neurology. LSD appeared to affect the areas of the brain controlling psychic and intellectual functions. Two years later, his second report in the same journal began to stir the psychiatric world; the age of the psychochemical was dawning.
Stoll's description of a 'new hallucinatory drug active in small quantities' eventually stimulated international medical interest in LSD. Research, chiefly in the United States and Britain, heralded the drug as a breakthrough in psychotherapy. LSD offered a method of simulating psychosis; it gave doctors a new 'chemical' concept of the nature of mental illness; and many psychiatrists believed that its therapeutic potential was boundless. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s there were more than 1,000 papers discussing experiments on 40,000 patients.
As word of LSD spread through the medium of conferences and papers, researchers tried to discover more about its effects and why it works the way it does. Tests carried out on spiders, cats, fish and rats showed the spiders built better webs, cats cowered before untreated mice, fish which usually stayed close to the bottom of streams stayed near the top, and rats lost their equilibrium. In one experiment an elephant was given a massive dose of 300,000 micrograms in an investigation of the periodic madness which strikes some elephants. The creature convulsed and died.
Research on thousands of human subjects showed that while LSD created dramatic effects in the mind, its outward manifestations amounted to a slight increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, coupled with dilation of the pupils. Tolerance levels varied according to the subjectpsychiatric patients resisted dosages as high as 3,000 microgramsand no lethal dose was ever discovered. LSD could be absorbed through the skin pores, the mucous surfaces, swallowed or injected.
Nearly three decades after the research began, scientists today still cannot positively answer the basic question of how LSD works. Investigations with radio-active LSD have traced the drug on its progress through the body and found that it does not collect in the brain but in the kidneys, liver and small intestine. Taking 100 micrograms as an average dose, it has been calculated that two-hundredths of a microgram pass into the brain. Since the drug leaves the brain before the onset of its effects, this means that the brain cells react to an infinitesimal amount of LSD in little more than a few minutes. It is thought that LSD may act as a trigger, firing off a set of reactions in the mid-brain where emotional responses, awareness and many physical functions are controlled. Within the mid-brain there is an area where an enzyme, serotonin, can be found, and this chemical has a structure similar to LSD. The enzyme normally acts as a censor for that section of the brain which regulates information from the senses and compares it against past experience. LSD may block serotonin's effect; but LSD derivatives without the hallucinogenic effects can do the same. Researchers using equipment to measure brain responses suggest, on the other hand, that LSD may alter the brain's data-processing functions so that the analytical left side of the brain gives way to the right which deals with the senses.
From the early days of research in the 1950s, the reports and theories circulating in the United States were studied not only in universities and hospitals but also within the Pentagon and the newly-formed Central Intelligence Agency. Parallel to the civilian work on LSD, the generals and CIA executives had initiated their own black brand of research. In 1951 a civilian doctor passed on to the Pentagon details of LSD that he had gleaned from European colleagues. At the height of the Korean War, the military were worried by the use of brainwashing techniques on American prisoners by Communist interrogators, and the intelligence of a new, highly potent, mind-altering drug hit a raw nerve. Anxiety reached a new pitch shortly afterwards when a US Embassy official reported from Switzerland that the Russians had bought 50 million doses. The report proved to be wrong, but the Pentagon and the CIA could wait no longer. Separately and together, they pursued a multi-pronged programme. One objective was to keep any further LSD out of the hands of the West's enemies; another was to find out as much as possible about the drug; and the third was to experiment with LSD as a weapon in warfare and espionage.
A chance to fulfil the first objective came in 1952. Sandoz offered to turn out 100 grams a week for the Americans for as long as the Americans wanted. Some agreement appears to have been made, but the details have never been released. At the same time Sandoz promised they would never sell to Communists, would keep them posted on production and shipments and pass on any intelligence they discovered on East European interest. No one seems to have told the Americans that since Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are among the world's leading producers of ergotamine and since the formula had been available for some years, it is very unlikely Russia would have needed to go to Sandoz or anyone else in the western world.
Back home in the United States, the Eli Lilly company in Indianapolis established a new process for LSD which meant that the drug could now be mass-produced. The CIA agent who reported this development to his superiors noted that the military services had access to a home supply of LSD by the ton. Eli Lilly kept details of the full process confidential and made up a special batch of LSD for the CIA.
In pursuit of the second objective, both the CIA and the Pentagon invested in civilian research. While working for the soldiers and spies, the researchers published unclassified parts of their work in learned journals, adding to the growing fund of information. They told their colleagues about its use with psychotherapy to deal with fears of homosexuality or ego enhancement, and the CIA about LSD's effects on memory, suggestibility, changing sexual patterns and the creation of mental disturbance.
Dr Harris Isbell of the Addiction Research Center attached to the Lexington Federal Drug Hospital persuaded inmates to take LSD in return for payments of their favourite drugs. The prisoners could build up deposits in a 'drugs bank' or, if they did not want drugs, they earned remission from their sentences. Ex-prisoners later revealed that they experienced 'trips' lasting up to seventeen hours after taking LSD in cookies. At one point, Isbell kept seven men on LSD for a total of seventy-seven days, responding to their increased tolerance levels by tripling or quadrupling their dosages.
Work like Isbell's was a valuable adjunct to the third objective: that of discovering the strategic or espionage value of LSD. Throughout the Cold War years, the CIA had a ravenous appetite for super-technology, gadgets and drugs with which to keep abreast of the other side. Was LSD the super truth-drug the CIA men had dreamt of the drug which could crack the will of an enemy operative and subvert not only his tongue but his loyalty by distorting reality? Alternatively LSD clearly had potential as a 'dirty tricks' weapon.
To investigate these possibilities, the CIA established Project MKULTRA with an initial budget of $300,000. Run by a group of specialist technicians, the project coordinated information and indicated lines of research. Gradually, however, the technicians themselves became part of the experiments. They took LSD at the office or their homes, and more than one espionage agent found himself propelled into a visionary's world. At a party after one session, a CIA man wept at returning 'to a place where 1 would not be able to hold on to this beauty'. The team also spiked the cocktails or morning coffee of their colleagues; one technician who unsuspectingly sipped an LSD dose in his coffee lost control and fled across Washington, pursued by his friends.
Such unpredictable behaviour was not news to the CIA team. During the early Swiss research, one man had been given LSD and tried to swim a lake in Arctic conditions. Sandoz's literature on the drug, written by Hofmann, included the warning: 'Pathological mental conditions may be intensified... Particular caution is necessary in subjects with a suicidal tendency... The psycho-effective liability and the tendency to commit impulsive acts may occasionally last for some days.'
In 1952 the CIA were warned of the case of a doctor in Geneva who had taken part in an LSD experiment and killed herself three weeks later. The woman had suffered from depression before taking the drug, but the case was to be tragically mirrored in the United States when the CIA team moved from testing its own members to testing unsuspecting outsiders. In November 1953 the CIA men tried the drug out on staff at the US Army's Special Operations Division (known by the unfortunate initials SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Although warned about the need for authorization before using the drug, the team acted without consultation.
At an annual working retreat for CIA and Army technicians in a remote hunting lodge in West Maryland, Dr Sidney Gottlieb, leader of the LSD project, slipped the drug into the post-prandial Cointreau on the second evening of the meeting.
As the evening drew on one Army man in particular seemed to react badly. Dr Frank Olsen, temporary head of SOD chemical corps and a specialist in biological warfare, kept insisting that someone was playing tricks on him. His mood did not improve when the meeting broke up. The normally gregarious family man returned home quiet and withdrawn. His behaviour so alarmed his superiors that they called in the CIA who sent him to New York to see Dr Harold Abramson at Mount Sinai Hospital. Olsen was now in a state of paranoia dominated by fears of the CIA.
Abramson, an allergist by training and a CIA researcher, could do little with the Army officer. In the next few weeks he was watched night and day by a colleague from Fort Detrick while he stayed in New York and the CIA considered their next move. Olsen gave his keeper the slip one night and was found wandering the streets of the city tearing up money and throwing it to the winds. He said he was too embarrassed to go home for Thanksgiving because of his 'condition, and plans were laid to move him to a sanatorium. The night before he was due to travel, Olsen and a CIA man checked into the Statler Hotel. In the early hours of the following morning, Olsen took a headlong run at the closed window of their room and crashed to his death ten floors below.
Olsen's case was muffled by a security blanket which gave his family and the police no clue to the reasons behind his death. The family were eventually given a government pension after pressure from the soldier's colleaguesone of whom filed a form noting that Olsen had died of a 'classified illness'and the full truth of what seemed to be an inexplicable suicide did not emerge until the CIA came under investigation almost twenty years later.
Within the CIA the shock waves reached as high as Allen Dulles, the director of the Agency and initiator of the MKULTRA programme, who ordered an internal inquiry. At its conclusion, the CIA team received little more than a bureaucratic slap' on the wristan official letter saying the experiment was in poor judgement but that the letter would not go on their files and harm their future careers. But the importance of LSD overrode any reservations and a new, bizarre research programme began.
Using files from the wartime Office of Strategic Servicesforerunner of the CIAGottlieb discovered that a secret drug-testing programme had been run on unsuspecting Mafiosi. The tests were organized by George White, a tough, old-fashioned, narcotics agent; Gottlieb seconded White to start up a similar programme using LSD. This time White was told to steer clear of the Mafia and use less significant criminals: the pimps, prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells on the underworld's fringes.
White, posing as an artist and seaman, opened a safe house, complete with two-way mirrors and bugging equipment, in Greenwich Village, New York. The CIA learnt not only about the effects of LSD, but also the sexual proclivities of the subjects they were testing it on: the kind of material used in the more traditional spycraft of blackmail. In 1955 White was transferred to San Francisco where two safe houses were eventually opened.
None of the subjects who passed through the CIA safe houses knew what was going on. People sometimes walked off into the night still under the influence of drugs which the CIA technicians were too scared to try on themselves. The safe houses lasted until the mid-1960s.
They provided both a testing ground and a rehearsal theatre for operation in the field; by 1957, LSD and other drugs had been used against thirty-three people in six still secret incidents, while stocks were held at 'field stations' in Manila, Philippines, and Atsugi, Japan. In 1960, the CIA is reported to have plotted to slip 'super LSD' to Fidel Castro before a television broadcast, in an attempt to sabotage his image. During the Watergate crisis a Nixon aide with CIA experience also contemplated using LSD against one of the President's enemies.
Unlike the CIA, the Pentagon did not have to fuss with safe houses or search in prisons for suitable LSD subjects; they could practise on thousands of men in uniform. While the CIA looked at LSD for clandestine uses, the generals considered LSD as a potential strategic weapon which could redress the imbalance in manpower between East and West. One told senators: 'It is my hope through the use of incapacitating weapons the free world will have a relatively clear and rapid means of both fighting and deterring a limited war.' In 1952, contracts were given to companies to examine a range of drugs, and in 1955 the Secretary of the Army endorsed a report urging development of chemical, biological and radiological Weapons. At the end of the Korean War, American spending on chemical and biological warfare was $10 million but within a few years it was running at between $100 and $150 million.
Experiments were carried out at the Army's Chemical Center at the Edgewood Arsenal and at the Aberdeen Testing Ground in Maryland. Ex-servicemen later reported other tests at Fort Benning, Georgia, and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; tests were also made on European and Pacific posts.
The early co-operation between the services and the CIA had by now deteriorated and the agency was sometimes forced to spy on the Army to find out what was happening in its LSD programme.
Conducted in part with researchers from the University of Maryland, the tests were designed to measure the effects of LSD on combat effectiveness. Attempts had been made to allow the experimenters to try their drugs out on the crew of a Nike guided missile site, but the request was turned down. Instead one group of crewcut recruits dressed in combat fatigues and carrying backpacks was filmed staggering through the Maryland woods while trying to take part in a 'war game'. Much to the disgust of the civilian advisers, LSD was given to unsuspecting soldiers at mess parties. Eventually some 1,500 army personnel took LSD; other comrades tried the thousands of new compounds delivered to Edgewood by pharmaceutical companies. General William Creasey, sometime head of Edgewood, boasted that for the first time 'war would not necessarily mean death' for troops and civilians.
Perhaps he was forgetting (or did not know) of the death of Harold Blauer in 1953. Blauer, a tennis professional, died five hours after a doctor carrying out research for the Pentagon at the New York State Psychiatric Institute injected him with a hallucinogenic drug. The doctor later told Army investigators: 'We didn't know whether it was dog piss or what it was we were giving him.' In 1976, the Congressional committee headed by Senator Frank Church to look into foreign and military intelligence discovered that the 'dog piss' was a synthetic mescaline derivative. By then General Creasey had retired. It was left to his successors at the Pentagon to listen to the ex-soldiers coming forward with tales of epilepsy and severe depression after LSD trials.
In 1967, the testing programme was abandoned because it was decided LSD was too unpredictable and too expensive. But it had proved its worth in pointing the way to other chemical weapons. The US Army announced in 1958 an agent twice as potent as LSD, known as BZ, which not only created mental hallucinations but also produced unpleasant physical effects. Today, at a time when generals are again tall king of chemical warfare as a strategic tactic to counter the Russian forces facing western Europe, America has ten tons of BZ ready for use.
As far as the Nato Alliance was concerned, during the early days of the CIA interest in LSD and new forms of interrogation, discussions were held with both the Canadians and the British. A discussion paper noted that there was no evidence that the Russians in the early 1950s had changed their techniques: 'The Soviet pattern is remarkably similar to the age-old methods of interrogationwith only minor refinements towards inducing co-operation'; but participants in the discussions were urged to check all known cases.
Since the last war the three countries have made use of a tripartite arrangement on chemical and biological warfare to exchange information and research. There have been suggestions that some of the research carried out in Britain on LSD could have been funded by the United States. In 1956, a US Army report on large-scale LSD testing noted 'the observations of certain British investigations on normal volunteers and reliable reports from their colleagues'.
In the 1950s, the British were interested enough in LSD themselves to examine its spread through water supplies and to decide, wrongly, that it could only be used when the water did not contain chemicals such as chlorine and fluorine. Another version of LSD was developed which did not have this failing.
With intelligence reports of Communist stockpiles of LSD being circulated among the NATO allies in the 1960s, Britain experimented in defences against chemical attack but, unlike the American research, great care was taken. The experiment in 1966 was evaluated by a board of doctors and scientists before it was put into operation, and hospital facilities were readied at Porton Down, the chemical defence experimental station in Wiltshire. A total of 143 soldiers were each given LSD in their morning coffee. The volunteers, recruited from crack regiments by circular, received three shillings (15p) each. The men demonstrated that a small dose of LSD40 micrograms could be successfully resisted by well-disciplined and motivated men. No soldiers were trained in the use of the drug against an enemy. It seems the old lease-lend ideal of the last war still extends to hallucinogenics: Britain would probably borrow stocks from the Americans in return for know-how on defensive precautions.
In aid of undefined research, some years ago the British government bought a job lot of LSD from Sandoz through a senior official at the Department of Health. The purchase provided a tiny stockpile of 200 ampoules holding 10,000 micrograms, and the LSD is now stored in a secret and secure site.
The stockpiles in Eastern Europe also remain secret. There are reports that LSD has been used by Hungarian secret police, and the Czechs carried out academic research from home-grown ergot. A paper released by the Russians in 1970 shows they too have done apparently harmless investigations, but the head of Soviet military medical services once said publicly and unspecifically: 'special interest attaches to the psychic poisons'. At one time during the 1970s the Americans received intelligence that the Russians had built up stocks of a new hallucinogenic agent. Nevertheless military theorists believe the Russians have concentrated chemical weaponry on the Chinese border.
That may explain why the Chinese in the 1960s, when Russia and China were splitting away from each other, came west to buy LSD. With British companies acting as brokers, China bought LSD at the rate of 100 to 150 grams a year, equivalent to 1.5 million doses at 100 micrograms a dose. The source was Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs did not mind that China was buying 80 per cent of their LSD exports.
The China sale was one example in which the CIA/Pentagon policy failed to prevent the spread of LSD abroad. At home, the failure was complete. Worse, the soldiers and the spymasters unwittingly helped the spread. For LSD was not simply a potential weapon of war, a truth drug for spies or a psychiatrist's tool, as the thousands who took part in government-funded research programmes found out.
Slow Dance of Golden Lights