After decades of scientists being unable to study hallucinogens like LSD, not only is promising research underway once again in the US, but more details of past related research appear to be coming to light.
D-lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid, was once considered one of the most promising drugs in psychiatric research. Indeed, its potential was recognized not only by psychologists and psychiatrists, but by the Central Intelligence Agency, which bankrolled much of the early research in an attempt to harness LSD as a truth serum and mind control agent.
After acid “escaped the lab,” however, and became particularly problematic for the government as the drug of choice for the 1960s counterculture, research stopped as the drug was banned. LSD was made illegal in California in 1966, nationwide in 1968.
Recently, however, it has been reported that various scientific research on hallucinogens has been approved and is ongoing. Research is reportedly being conducted at New York University and UCLA, along with Johns Hopkins University, where psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, is being studied. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has also reportedly been given FDA approval for hallucinogen research.
Part of the reason why LSD was banned and research ended in the first place was the controversy surrounding the drug and its dangers. Indeed, the early CIA acid research under the MKULTRA program, focused as it was on offensive capabilities of essentially weaponizing LSD, was exceptionally dangerous and unethical, one might easily argue.
The CIA’s bizarre MKULTRA experiments involved not only dosing patients with LSD, sometimes secretly, but using such techniques as electroshock therapy and forcing people to sleep for extended periods of time. The agency’s interest in mind control apparently stemmed at least in part from the discovery of previously unknown Nazi research at the end of World War II.
According to John Marks, author of The Search For The ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ the book that first exposed in detail the CIA’s mind control efforts, the American government became interested in the potential of things like hallucinogens and hypnosis after reviewing concentration camp records.
“U.S. investigating teams were sifting through the experimental records at Dachau for information of military value,” Marks writes. “The report of one such team found that while part of the data was ‘inaccurate,’ some of the conclusions, if confirmed, would be ‘an important complement to existing knowledge.’ Military authorities sent the records, including a description of the mescaline and hypnosis experiments, back to the United States. None of the German mind-control research was ever made public.”
It has more recently been reported that former Nazi scientists brought to the US under the auspices of Operation Paperclip in fact worked with the CIA in developing its LSD interrogation program.
Regardless of what first sparked interest in drug-induced mind control on the part of the CIA, the flames were unquestionably fanned by the Cold War fears of the day.
“CIA officials started preliminary work on drugs and hypnosis shortly after the Agency’s creation in 1947, but the behavior-control program did not really get going until the Hungarian government put Josef Cardinal Mindszenty on trial in 1949,” Marks writes. “With a glazed look in his eyes, Mindszenty confessed to crimes of treason he apparently did not commit. (…) CIA men felt they had to know how the Communists had rendered the defendants zombielike.”
Despite this feeling on the part of the CIA men, writing in 1979, Marks concluded that they did not have good evidence that their fears had a basis in reality.
“High agency officials felt they had to know what the Russians were up to,” Marks writes. “Nevertheless, a careful reading of the contemporaneous CIA documents almost three decades later indicates that if the Russians were scoring breakthroughs in the behavior-control field (…) the CIA lacked intelligence to prove that. (…) The prevalent CIA notion of a ‘mind-control gap’ was as much of a myth as the later bomber and missile ‘gaps.'”
Now, more than another three decades later once again, even more evidence in favor of Marks’ argument that the CIA deceived themselves appears to be coming to light.
According to an article recently posted on the website AtlasObscura, LSD research did in fact take place behind the Iron Curtain – but not until years after the US programs began.
“What has not been known until recently is that dozens of experiments involving the psychedelic drug (LSD) were carried out in Communist Bulgaria, from 1962 to 1968, by the Bulgarian psychiatrist Marina Boyadjieva,” writes Jordan Todorov. “Among the human guinea pigs were doctors, artists, miners, truck drivers, and even prisoners and mentally ill patients. These research subjects were involved in some 140 trials.”
Todorov’s article also points out that other researchers, including Stanislav Grof and Milan Hausner, also conducted government-funded LSD research in communist Czechoslovakia starting in the later half of the 1950s – as well as giving some insight into Soviet motivations for undertaking mind control efforts:
Boyadjieva’s activities soon came to the attention of the army. “The Cold War was at its peak. Apparently our military had heard some disconcerting things about the LSD experiments conducted in the West at that time,” recalls Boyadjieva. “They were interested if the drug could be used as a weapon of mass destruction or a truth serum. They literally asked me: “Can they [the West] make us go crazy with it?”
So the Soviets, it seems, had reasons remarkably similar to those of the CIA for wanting to research LSD as a weapon of war and mind control. Unlike their American counterparts, however, their fears were well-founded. If Todorov’s article is to be believed, and the LSD research he discusses, which began in 1956, was in fact the earliest conducted in the communist countries, then the CIA’s program predated it. The CIA was funding LSD research from at least as early as 1952, according to Marks, and by 1953 the Agency was deeply involved in hallucinogenic experimentation.
The CIA discontinued MKULTRA in 1964, continuing some of its activities under a renamed “MKSEARCH” program until 1972, when that program too was ended, according to Marks, because LSD and similar drugs were deemed to not be “operationally useful.” In banning the public from using LSD, the government claimed the drug was highly dangerous.
LSD may not have had value as a weapon, and certainly has the potential to be dangerous, especially when used, as the CIA used it, under false pretenses and with the intent to inflict psychological harm. The idea that hallucinogenic drugs have no value whatsoever, though, is now being actively challenged. Perhaps today’s researchers studying the therapeutic effects of these drugs, rather than their potential as weapons, will find value where the CIA could not.