Times New Roman: volunteers needed to aid medical school pharmacology department. But where's the fun in that?

They probably don't even DO these kinds of studies any more, I don't know. I mean LSD is against the law now, right? It wasn't then.

Keith and I were both drama majors, and in our precious indulgent actorish way we considered any experience—especially via sex and/or drugs—to be grist for the mill.

They offered us twenty-five bucks apiece to drop acid under a doctor's supervision. The hardest part, we figured, would be remaining "drug and alcohol free" for 72 hours previous to the test. What ho, we said in unison, ordering chamomile tea in the coffee shop, and in the name of science and an excuse to spend the weekend in the city high, we reported to the Big City Medical School on what was to become an alarmingly regular basis. Every other Friday morning. We scheduled our classes around it.

I wish I could say that we found ourselves part of the essential and important American research into human consciousness that was prevalent in those days, but that was just not the case. It is to our everlasting discredit as an inquisitive and benevolently scientific society that this was pretty much about the time we were beginning to abandon any meaningful studies on psychoactive substances and the way the brain works, apart from the highly individualized, informal, not to mention illegal experiments that were going on in every college dorm room you'd care to visit.

The whole thing was a political hot potato, and what with Vietnam heating up, the government felt it necessary to quash official drug studies. This, of course, was not always the case.

As early as 1942, General William Donovan, chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, created a covert psychological research program under the direction of Dr. Winfred Overholser because the American government wanted to find "a substance that could break down the psychological defenses of enemy spies and POWs, thereby causing an uninhibited disclosure of classified information."

The OSS program looked high and low for the miracle substance, testing alcohol, barbiturates, caffeine, peyote, and scopolamine. They settled on marijuana as the substance that had the highest (sic) potential for inducing "spontaneous speech," an irony that was not lost on author Thomas Pynchon when he was creating his classic paranoid WW II fantasy, Gravity's Rainbow, thirty years later.

War in its many guises provided the perfect rationale for secret drug studies. Though the marijuana tests didn't pan out, primarily because results were so various—sure, the subject might talk a blue streak, but he was just as liable to clam up tighter than a tipsy nun after curfew, or develop an excruciating case of the munchies—the military and the spies were undaunted.

In 1945, the U.S. Navy Technical Mission reported that the Nazis had used mescaline during interrogations at Dachau, the concentration camp near Munich. Two years later in 1947, the same year the OSS became the CIA, the Navy began its own studies of mescaline as a sort of "truth serum," after noting that the Soviet Union had had remarkable results with "truth drugs." They called it Project Chatter and continued to fund it until 1953. 1947 was truly a banner year for this sort of thing, as it marked the publication of the first tests of LSD by Dr. Warner Stoll, a colleague of Dr. Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered the American hippies' sacramental drug of choice in Stoll's laboratory in Switzerland in 1938. Hofmann was working on alkaloids, searching for circulatory stimulants. When the 25th compound he isolated failed to produce any significant results in laboratory animals, he lost interest until 1943, when he accidentally ingested a small dose through his fingertips.

Hofmann's colleagues were astounded when the scientist insisted that such profound mental changes occurred from such an infinitesimal dosage. The possibility that LSD might be the drug they were looking for kicked American research into high gear, and the CIA combined a series of scattered programs into a comprehensive study termed Project Bluebird. Eventually this became something called Project Artichoke which actually competed with Project MK-ULTRA. Subtle though it may appear, the transformation in names and the paranoid competition within the agency itself underscored the CIA's intent: to "create an exploitable alteration of personality."

Many of these early tests were conducted at Veterans' Hospitals and mental institutions. In fact, both author Ken Kesey and LSD advocate and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg volunteered for CIA-sponsored studies in hallucinogens. The late novelist went so far as to obtain a job as a janitor in a mental ward where such studies were done. Kesey described his psychedelic forays as "shell-shattering ordeals that left us kneedeep in the cracked crusts of our pie in the sky personalities." He composed much of his brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest high on peyote and LSD.

Nonetheless, for the CIA it was a nefarious business, fraught with missteps and tragedy, deaths, prostitution, child abuse, and betrayals. The Cold War stirred the psychedelic pot even more as the paranoid agency believed the Soviet Union (a huge source of rye fungus, the basis of LSD) might literally have been able to create a putative psychological robot, a Manchurian Candidate if you will, dangerously mind-controlled by the forces of the Evil Empire.

The irony of the history of psychedelic research is that, unaware that the government was looking for a new weapon, civilian researchers were studying the therapeutic potentials of the new drug and its herbal relatives.

There were hugely encouraging results from the use of LSD in the treatment of alcoholism. The inherent spiritual component of LSD seemed to induce a profound sobriety, and treatment centers sprung up, particularly in Canada.

The drug was used on hard-core criminals in clinical tests. Recidivism rates dropped enormously. Why commit a crime when you had found paradise? Psychiatric patients reported that a few sessions of LSD therapy had been more useful to them than ten years of traditional psychotherapy.

It was a miracle drug for the doctors and a damned confusing one for the warriors, because its results were individual. You just couldn't predict what was going to happen when you made the human psyche a battlefield component. The CIA was not encouraged. They would have had to redefine their whole concept of "war."

And then came Dr. Timothy Leary and his partner-in-trips Dr. Richard Alpert, later known as Baba Ram Dass. These Harvard visionaries took the whole thing to another level, combining the ideas of peace, love, God, and drugs into an undeniably attractive package that they didn't even have to sell. It was what we'd all been looking for all along.

And the battle lines were drawn. The government was cracking down on LSD pretty much Big Time while Keith and I were doing our thing. We were the last of our kind.

Taking drugs for a living, no matter how substantial the stipend, is not all it's cracked up to be. In the first place they really mean "drug and alcohol-free." No coffee, no cigarettes, no aspirin, nothing…recreational…and—for the ladies—no birth control pills. There weren't many women in the Big City Teaching Hospital program. After all, it was the 60's, and some things are just too much to ask.

The whole idea is basically macho anyway, isn't it? What man doesn't think about his ability to tolerate whatever nature—and nature's handmaid, the physician—throw at him? Much in the same spirit we'd chug a sixpack at an opening-night party, my friend and I launched ourselves into our new jobs.

The Big City Teaching Hospital had neglected to tell us that we weren't ALWAYS going to be taking "fun" drugs like LSD either. Where do you think the control group comes from anyway? Volunteers like us. Ever hear of placebos? They give them to volunteers. Unlucky volunteers, but hey. It was a double-blind study, so the technicians administering the drugs, too, were clueless. Not knowing how you're supposed to feel lessens the drug experience, enormously, I want to tell you. Pretty soon it becomes just like any other job.

Over a period of six months, I experienced:

  • Nothing, when they pumped me full of…nothing.
  • Nothing, when they pumped me full of…what? Valium? Thorazine? Something totally experimental and therefore life-threatening?
  • Nothing, when they pumped me full of…saline.
  • Euphoria when they pumped me full of…what? Acid? Mescaline? Psilocybin? THC?
  • Full blown psychotic episodes when I took…what? What the hell was THAT?!

For six months, alternating Fridays could be heaven, hell, or someplace in between. We were white mice with driver's licenses. Lab rats with girl friends. We never told our parents what we were doing. At a certain point, since the government had cut all LSD-related research, I began to wonder in a decidedly paranoid fashion if the guy who was running the program was just making the whole thing up as he went along, to assuage some twisted inner demon of psychology experimentation denied.

The all-important set and setting never varied; Scientific Method, right? We were injected with god-knows-what (Seems silly, kinda, doesn't it? Kinda stupid?) while lying quietly in a sterile white-walled and ceilinged room off a very busy corridor on the psychiatric floor of the hospital. Sometimes we'd never leave that room during the entire course of the test, usually because we were too stoned to sit up. Always, we were required to spend the entire day on the psychiatric floor (insurance agents and lawyers come to mind here, but what do I know?) This is where the good times rolled. Because they gave us drugs and then they turned us loose with the rest of the crazies. Sort of like a part-time One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Insane asylum lite.

Something we hadn't considered was that Keith and I were never given the same drugs at the same time, at least so far as we could figure. I was up; he was down. I was mellow; he was edgy. He was stoned out of his mind and I was wondering when the stuff was going to kick in. But always, the people who watched us so... intently... once the doctors had turned us loose, were crazy.

And wonderful. In-patients. Out-patients. Patients who didn't want to be there. Patients who had nowhere else to go. We played with schizophrenic kids. Told jokes to senile geriatrics. Acted out whole scenes from Shakespeare to South Bronx alcoholics who'd never gotten out of the third grade. And some good percentage of the time we were tripping our nutsacks in a frenzy of drama major psychedelic display.

You had to be there.

History will resolve, I am sure, that the failure to follow up the enormous potential of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of alcoholism, mental illness, drug addiction, habitual criminality, and simple human malaise and depression is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

All because the government had a different set of priorities back in the 60's. All because the CIA failed to create programmable assassins from the raw material of the children of paradise.

on American Espionage:

Wild Bill Donovan
Operation Overcast
the Stars of Project Paperclip
burning crosses in the Fatherland
the CIA wants YOU!
When is a monkey's orgasm more than just fun and games?
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
The Nuremberg Code

George Washington, Spymaster
the first American Intelligence failure in New York
Thomas Knowlton

Hamid Karzai
The Bureau and the Mole

a short bibliography:

LSD My Problem Child, Albert Hofmann, New York: Putnam, 1983
Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, Jay Stevens, New York: Grove 1987
LSD: Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, New York: Grove, 1985

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