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Acid Dreams: Where Government and The Drug Culture Collide

Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press 1985), 268 pages. 

In a Playboy interview shortly before his death, Beatles singer, songwriter and guitarist John Lennon was asked to share his thoughts on LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide aka acid). Lennon’s responded by saying:

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. Everything is the opposite of what it is, isn’t it, Harry? So get out the bottle, boy… and relax. They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom. Sometimes it works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

While Lennon’s assertion that the CIA and army invented LSD is incorrect, he is correct that the intelligence community heavily investigated the drug’s potential as a mind control agent and played a role in its proliferation. This is the subject of Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s 1986 Book “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond“. It is a colorful history complete with mystery, cloak and dagger intrigue, counter-culturalism and some strange personalities. It also documents some disturbing abuses by the US government against unsuspecting American and Canadian Citizens.

The book does an excellent job of keeping the subject matter engaging without going into the sort of speculative conspiracy theorizing that the subjects of hallucinogenic drugs, mind control and the CIA lend themselves to. The authors use some 20,000 pages of declassified material as a source on the CIA’s acid-related activities, though it is known that these are only a small subset of the documents that the state kept on its activities. The vast majority of such documents were destroyed by CIA director Richard Helms in the government-wide panic caused by Watergate.

Martin and Shlain’s story begins in 1938 when Swiss Chemist Albert Hoffman, in his search to create a circulatory stimulant, develops an alkaloid based compound derived from the ergot fungus. The compound sits on the shelf for few years, but upon revisiting it in 1943 Hoffman absorbs some into his skin, discovers its effects, and soon embarks on the first intentional acid trip on his bicycle. The Ergot fungus itself has fascinating history as well, for those interested.

Hoffman’s employer Sandoz Chemical, starts marketing the drug four years later and by the early 1950’s it has attracted the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA, and its predecessor the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), had previously shown interest in a speech-inducing drug intended to facilitate interrogations. Such interest only increased after the agency learned of experiments with Mescaline performed in by NAZIs at concentration camps.

This is where the story of Acid ties into the history of Operation Paperclip, in which US intelligence imported and cleared the records of over 1,500 NAZI scientists, engineers and technicians, including one involved in the mescaline testing. Many of these scientists would play important roles in the space program.

In the heady post-war years of the 1950s, high levels of trust in the American military and the glamorization of spycraft enabled the CIA to work with little to no accountability. Agents were free to investigate the potential of LSD and other substances as truth serums, mind control agents, and sources of disruption. The suspicion that the Soviet Union and Chinese intelligence were doing the same greatly encouraged this exploration. This was the height of early cold war paranoia.

At this time the agency not only conducted in-house experiments on hallucinogens, but agents got into the habit of secretly dosing each other. Unexpected trips became an occupational hazard at the CIA. This practice would ultimately lead to the depression and suicide of a researcher named Frank Olson.

The CIA consolidated its mind control and behavior modification work into an integrated project code named BLUEBIRD, later Project ARTICHOKE, and ultimately Project MKUltra. The end goal was to produce behavior modification techniques that could be used in both foreign and domestic contexts, though a primary aim was for interrogation and torture. Targeted individuals could include “potential agents, defectors, refugees, (and) POWs.”

At this time the agency also started involving outside expertise such as university professors and the medical establishment. A wide assortment of drugs were used in the CIA’s research, and the agency’s long love affairs with cocaine and heroine also date to this time. It was also during this time that the agency would begin funding LSD-oriented experiments led by Dr. Ewen Cameron, marking a very dark chapter in US intelligence and medical history.

Cameron was an esteemed psychiatrist who served as President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, American and World Psychiatric Associations, the American Psychopathological Association and the Society of Biological Psychiatry. His work for MKULTRA consisted of administering electroshock (at 30 to 40 times the “normal” level), and heavy doses of LSD to patients kept in solitary confinement without their knowledge or consent. Some of the unsuspecting patients who sought help for rather minor issues were made permanently comatose, and all were made completely dysfunctional. Nine of them would successfully sue the US government for $1,000,000.

The CIA found that vulnerable people, including the mentally ill, prisoners, foreigners, sexual deviants, and ethnic minorities made ideal unsuspecting subjects for their drug-oriented torture studies. The book notes “It became an open secret among street junkies that if the supply got tight, you could always commit yourself to Lexington, where heroin and morphine were doled out as payment if you volunteered for Isbell’s wacky drug experiments.” It also notes that in one study on prisoners a group of mostly black inmates was dosed with LSD for over 75 consecutive days.

Eventually, a new operation named Midnight Climax is initiated, in which CIA-funded prostitutes lured customers to government run brothels or “safe houses”. The prostitutes would dose their clients with an assortment of drugs while CIA agents observed the results from behind one way mirrors.

The operation was expanded from San Francisco to Greenwich village under the direction of a former narcotics officer and Spy trainer named George Hunter White. White began referring to LSD as “Stormy” for the wild reactions it gave his unsuspecting victims. Off duty White was known to throw drug fueled parties with his narc buddies at the “safe houses”. Referring to his CIA work White declared: “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”

While the CIA saw acid as potential tool for interrogation and torture, the US army saw it a possible tool for mass chemical warfare and started testing it on soldiers. Ironically it was around this time that some early pioneers began also recognizing its potential for recreational and transcendent purposes.

Among the earliest was an eccentric intelligence operative by the name of Captain Alfred Hubbard. Hubbard was an OSS operative during world war II and was involved in secret operations that supplied American weapons to Britain before this was officially stated policy. He has quite a colorful back-story, but is most known for having introduced thousands of people to LSD. Among these were politicians, scientists, cultural figures, and supposedly a key figure in the Catholic church.

Hubbard turned on “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley, whose book “The Doors of Perception” would become essential reading for the 1960s acid culture, as well as the namesake of a famous rock band. Huxley and his associates Humphry Osmond, and Micheal Hollingshead initiated the chain of events that culminated in numerous musicians, writers and cultural figures embracing LSD, and with it eastern mysticism.

The authors note that during this time it was not possible to be involved with LSD without “rubbing elbows with the intelligence community”. A famous case is that of Timothy Leary, who became the world’s biggest LSD advocate while working at Harvard University, a school whose professors had made themselves “guinea pigs” in some of the CIA’s acid research. Leary’s career as LSD promoter, fugitive, prison escapee and turncoat, are unsurprisingly discussed throughout the book.

Additionally, federal money was given out at many locations for volunteers in experimental studies with hallucinogens. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Author Ken Kesey was paid $75.00 to receive his first dose of acid in such a study as well as future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. The activities of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters are given considerable discussion in the book.

The story reveals many strange and surprising connections to elite figures and families as well. For example, one of Leary’s closest associates is a William Mellon Hitchcock. Anyone familiar with conservative politics should be familiar with his cousin Richard Mellon Scaife, a major donor to right-wing causes. Both of these men are nephews of US treasury secretary and former finance giant Andrew W. Mellon. Hitchcock’s grandfather is also the founder of Gulf Oil. Additionally, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, possibly the biggest provider of acid during the “summer of love” (He gave away large amounts for free), was the son and grandson of a US Senator. Such connections reflect the extent to which acid moved through elite circles before gaining mass popularity.

Leary and his cohorts saw LSD as potentially liberating drug with numerous positive benefits for society, which contrasted sharply with the military and medical establishment’s view of it as a harmful weapon. Their publicity contributed to the drug being outlawed in 1966, just as the 1960s acid culture was beginning to peak. Martin and Shlain explore the radical implications of the youth culture that developed around the drug, in both its implicit radicalism (the very act of taking an illegal drug is a rebellion against the state’s authority) as well as its apathy and escapism. It did, after all, coincide with the growth of a horrific war in Vietnam. This conflict comes to a head when Leary is described as opposing active opposition to the war in favor of “turning on, tuning in and dropping out.”

Throughout the story, the state’s role is too close for comfort. The authors note that CIA’s long time partner of convenience, the Mafia, played a major role supplying low quality acid to the Haight-Ashbury district during the summer of love. More disturbingly, the authors allege that the CIA were in fact active participants in the LSD craze itself, stating:

According to a former CIA contract employee. Agency personnel helped underground chemists set up LSD laboratories in the Bay Area during the Summer of Love to “monitor” events in the acid ghetto. But why, if this assertion is true, would the CIA be interested in keeping tabs on the hippie population? Law enforcement is not a plausible explanation, for there were already enough narcs operating in the Haight. Then what was the motive? A CIA agent who claims to have infiltrated the covert LSD network provided a clue when he referred to Haight-Ashbury as a “human guinea pig farm.”

The authors hold to the view that the CIA was ultimately the unwitting midwife of the acid craze rather than its architect as some conspiracy-theorists would have it. The section on the Haight-Ashbury scene is also interesting for its discussion of the underground press as well as the mutual aid provided by groups such as the Diggers, who would evolve into the anarchist new left group the Yippies. Indeed, the complex and often contradictory relationship between the new left, the anti-war movement and the drug culture is heavily explored by the authors.

Another intriguing tale in the book concerns the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, also known as the Hippy Mafia, whose “Orange Sunshine” became the acid of choice during the late 1960s.The organization is taken over by a mysterious figure named Ronald Hadley Stark, who goes on to produce the biggest illegal acid operation the world has known, and then involves himself in numerous international drug smuggling, terrorist and espionage activities.

He used a wide range of identities and back stories. At one point he convinces Italian authorities he is in fact a CIA agent. His real identity and back story are still up for dispute.

Ultimately, the question arises as to the extent to which the acid craze was orchestrated by the US government as a means of social control. Perhaps it is true that the younger generation of the 1960s was so busy with drugs and mysticism that the new left never did reach its full potential. While the authors acknowledge the role of the state in introducing the drug to the masses they note that the evidence for it deliberately doing so is lacking.

The book is an accessible and enjoyable read that covers some dark, troubling pieces of history, as well as some fun and lively ones. It has also maintained a reputation as the landmark text on its topic for nearly 30 years. It should also be noted that the 1992 republished version also some excellent updates. Anarchists will appreciate the troubling depictions of the state’s secretive, malicious underside, and left libertarians specifically will appreciate this example of how even hidden government activities can drastically alter cultural development. Overall Acid Dreams is a good trip.

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