Timothy Leary’s liberation, and the CIA’s experiments! LSD’s amazing, psychedelic history

The U.S. psychedelic drug scene was kickstarted by spies and spooks, just as much as Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia

Topics: Drugs, LSD, Switzerland, Europe, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, grateful dead, San Francisco, California, History,

Timothy Leary's liberation, and the CIA's experiments! LSD's amazing, psychedelic historyTimothy Leary (Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill)
Excerpted from "Drugged"

“Sandoz, Sandoz who taught me love,
Sandoz, Sandoz, heavens above,
They could all learn something from your mind Yeah baby!”
– Eric Burdon and the Animals, “A Girl Named Sandoz” (1967)

If you were going to predict which country would jumpstart the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, it wouldn’t be Switzerland. In Switzerland nothing seems out of place. Sitting in the Lindenhof overlooking the river Limmat, the capital of Zurich looks like the perfect Mittel-European small city. It is the essence of picturesqueness—that is, of course, if you ignore the heroin addicts strewn all over the Spitzplatz behind the Hauptbahnhof. The worthy citizens of Switzerland have a well earned reputation for being no-nonsense folk, hardworking and sensible. But perhaps there is another Switzerland percolating just below the surface? If we consider the life of the religious revolutionary Ulrich Zwingli, the work of the great alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (aka Paracelsus), or the brooding canvases of the painter Arnold Böcklin, then we may realize that there is a very different Swiss personality strain that emerges every so often if the opportunity arises. Perhaps that is the best way of understanding the career of Albert Hoffman—the man who discovered LSD.

Basel is the center of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, with its many drug and chemical companies arrayed along the banks of the river Rhine. These companies are tucked into a corner of Europe where the borders of three countries—Switzerland, Germany, and France—all meet. I remember visiting the Sandoz company in the 1980s and being surprised that if I parked my car near the main research building I was in Switzerland, but if I parked at some distance across the parking lot I was actually in Germany!

The chemical company of Kern & Sandoz was founded by Alfred Kern and Edouard Sandoz in 1886. As can be seen from the names of the two founders, German and French, this was a typically Swiss mixture. As with many successful pharmaceutical companies, Kern and Sandoz began by making dyestuffs. Subsequently, the company became known solely as Sandoz and began making pharmaceuticals, the analgesic and antipyretic antipyrine being its first major product of this type.

In 1917 Sandoz created a pharmaceutical department headed by Professor Arthur Stoll (1887–1971) and started a pharmaceutical research group to search for novel drugs. It was this department that the young Albert Hoffman joined following the completion of his PhD at the University of Zurich in 1929. Just as we have described in the case of gaboxadol, the Sandoz research department was interested in following up therapeutic leads based on natural products. Indeed, they had already had some success with this approach, having succeeded in the isolation and marketing of ergotamine, a leading drug for the treatment of migraine. After a period of time in which the young Albert Hoffmann was concerned with attempts to isolate substances known as cardiac glycosides from the Mediterranean Squill (a small hyacinth-like plant), he shifted his attention to making semisynthetic derivatives of lysergic acid—an intermediate in the biosynthesis of all the ergot alkaloids including ergotamine. In 1938 he synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or LSD-25, as it was the 25th substance he had made. Hoffmann had predicted that LSD might possess “analeptic” actions; that is to say, it would act as a respiratory stimulant. He thought this because its structure was similar to nikethamide (nicotinic acid diethylamide), a drug that was known to have this kind of effect. Unfortunately, when LSD was tested on animals, analeptic activity was not observed. Hoffmann did observe that the animals became somewhat restless during the experiments, but this was not considered to be very interesting and the compound was shelved.

However, there was something of the genius about Hoffmann. He had “insights” and “hunches” that normal people just don’t have. Science is supposed to be an entirely logical enterprise. However, every scientist knows this is not entirely true. Really good scientists have an instinct about how things work. Where it comes from, nobody knows. As Hoffmann recounts in his memoirs, for no real reason he couldn’t get LSD-25 out of his mind and had a hunch that there was more to the compound than had been observed. But he was very busy with his project and didn’t get round to making it again until 1943. What happened next was detailed in a report he sent to his superior, Prof. Stoll:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Hoffmann realized that his experiences were likely due to the substance he had been preparing in the laboratory and that it seemed possible that he might have absorbed some of it through his skin. Because Hoffmann was very meticulous he knew that if this was the case the amount must have been very small indeed. A few days later he tested this hypothesis by self-experimentation, taking some LSD tartrate orally at a dose (0.25 mg) which would have been appropriate if he were taking one of the other Sandoz ergot-based drugs such as ergotamine. Of course he didn’t realize that he had synthesized one of the most potent drugs known to man and that the dose he took was about 10 times greater than the actual minimum amount of LSD required to produce an effect. Here are his laboratory notes.

4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.
17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.
Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle. From 18:00 – ca. 20:00 most severe crisis.

His journey home was by bicycle owing to the fact that it was wartime and travel by car was restricted. Hoffmann was accompanied by one of his laboratory assistants. Here are some comments on his journey.

On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.

Once at home, Hoffmann lay on his bed as he found himself quite unable to carry on normally. The requested milk did arrive, although his neighbor had been transformed into “a malevolent insidious witch with a colored mask.” Hoffmann worried about his sanity. A doctor was called and arrived but was quite baffled as to what was going on, as Hoffmann displayed few external symptoms apart from mydriasis (dilated pupils). Hoffmann recounts that eventually he got somewhat used to the situation and that he began to enjoy the wonderful “kaleidoscope” of shifting shapes and colors that presented itself when he closed his eyes. Hoffmann’s wife returned from a trip to Lucerne—she had been contacted by phone—and eventually he went to sleep. He woke the next day with no hangover or any ill effects. In fact he recalls that he had never felt better and that the drug made him see everything “in a new light.”

Hoffmann reported his experiences to his superiors, Prof. Stoll and Dr. Rothlin. They were extremely skeptical about the entire thing. So Hoffmann suggested that if they didn’t believe him, they should also try the new substance. This they did, taking one-third the dose he had taken. Hoffmann relates that as a result, “all doubts about the statements in my report were eliminated.” Thus, the first people ever to “trip out” on LSD were a number of Swiss drug company executives! LSD aficionados around the world now celebrate April 19th every year as “Bicycle Day.”

* * *

Following its original discovery, the news about the amazing effects of LSD was rapidly disseminated. Sandoz supposed that the drug, marketed under the name Delysid, might find a useful niche in the psychiatric market. But what exactly should it be used for? In order to understand its potential, the drug would need to be tested by psychiatrists “in the field.” The original report on the effects of LSD were published by the psychiatrist Werner Stoll—none other than the son of Dr. Arthur Stoll, Albert Hoffmann’s superior at Sandoz. Thereafter, Sandoz made samples of their new drug widely available to those who wanted to test it under the appropriate clinical conditions. However, the cat was very much out of the bag at that point and the first major group to examine the potential use of LSD was, of course, the CIA. In the 1950s and ‘60s the CIA had several top secret initiatives under the names BLUEBIRD, ARTICHOKE and MK-ULTRA, which sought to develop mind control techniques or “brainwashing” à la Manchurian Candidate as an aid to the interrogation of subjects as part of their Cold War activities. These programs had been inspired by, among other things, documents that the CIA had obtained after World War II describing experiments with mescaline performed by Nazi doctors on the inmates of the Dachau concentration camp. LSD was first brought to the United States in 1949 by Dr. Max Rinkel, who carried out research using the drug on a population of 100 volunteers. Together with his colleague Dr. Paul Hoch they noted that LSD produced effects that mimicked schizophrenic psychosis. Indeed, they postulated that LSD produced a model psychosis—that is, it was “psychotomimetic.” As we have seen, similar ideas circulated about the properties of mescaline. Such ideas were very influential and stimulated a great deal of subsequent research, which ultimately fell out of favor but has recently been revived.

The idea that LSD could produce mental disorganization encouraged the CIA to start using it in experiments similar to those carried out by the Nazi doctors. CIA operatives began administering the drug in secret to different subject populations (or indeed to each other). Like the Nazis, the CIA used different populations of helpless individuals such as prisoners, drug addicts, and mental patients in their experiments, often with appalling results. The CIA not only performed experiments on individuals but also came up with schemes for contaminating the water supply of potential enemies with LSD so as to incapacitate entire hostile populations. For this they would need large amounts of the drug, at one point ordering the equivalent of 100 million doses from Sandoz. When they found out that obtaining such a large amount as this might be somewhat problematic they turned to Eli Lilly and Company, whose capable chemists broke the secret Sandoz patent and assured the CIA that they could produce LSD in tons or similar amounts. Thankfully for the future of humanity, this eventuality never came to pass. In the end the CIA concluded that the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD were just too unpredictable for general use in the Cold War, and should just be reserved for very specific circumstances. Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of general paranoia that pervaded the postwar era, the CIA maintained an important role in manipulating the developing drug culture. CIA operatives acted as drug suppliers if they were interested in observing drug effects under particular circumstances, and infiltrated different drug-using groups with political points of view deemed to be of “interest” so as to relay information back to Washington.

However, it was not just the CIA who started the nascent drug culture simmering in the United States. As we have seen, Gordon Wasson had published his article on the use of psychedelic mushrooms in Mexico in Life Magazine in 1957, and this was very widely read and discussed. Aldous Huxley was another individual who greatly enhanced the awareness of the potential of psychedelic drug use. His interest in this subject clearly preceded the drug revolution of the 1960s as his famous book “Brave New World,” which had described the use of psychotropic drugs to control an entire society, had been published in 1931. Of course, much of the research on hallucinogenic drugs at the time was not just being performed at the behest of the CIA. There was enormous excitement in the psychiatric community about the possible uses of hallucinogens in psychiatry. Not only was there the idea that these drugs could be psychotomimetic and represented models of psychosis, but simultaneously other theories were being proposed suggesting the potential use of these same drugs in the treatment of mental disorders. Hence, LSD was simultaneously viewed as being psychotomimetic and a treatment for psychosis, reflecting the ferment in the psychiatric research community that the arrival of such a powerful drug had stirred up. LSD-mediated psychotherapy became highly popular and film stars such as Cary Grant were treated in this way, becoming propagandists for the drug.

In the vanguard of LSD research in psychiatry was Humphrey Osmond, whom we have already encountered as the man who introduced the word psychedelic and who, along with John Smythies, suggested the endogenous psychotogen theory of schizophrenia. Osmond attempted to use LSD as a treatment for a variety of disorders such as alcoholism, and claimed to have had considerable success. Aldous Huxley became aware of Osmond’s writings and volunteered to be a subject in one of his experiments. So, in May 1953 Osmond agreed and travelled to Huxley’s home in California to supervise his drug experience. Huxley was duly impressed and continued experimenting with the drug on subsequent occasions. Huxley’s final novel Island, published in 1960, summarized his views on the use of hallucinogens (called moksha in this novel) as an integral part of an ideal society. When he died in 1963 Huxley had his wife administer LSD to him on his deathbed as he slid into the hereafter. Other writers such as the “Beats,” including Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs, also experimented with hallucinogens. Their book “The Yage Letters” (1963) details their sojourn in South America experimenting with ayahuasca.

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It can therefore be seen that in the 1950s hallucinogenic drugs including mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD had become a widely discussed topic in medical, political, and artistic circles. However, in order for the use of hallucinogens to really take off in society in general, something else was needed. Proselytizing leaders were required, and one was soon at hand.

In 1960 Timothy Leary was a 39-year-old psychology lecturer at Harvard. He clearly had a bright career ahead of him, having carried out important basic research in behavioral psychology. Leary read Wasson’s article in Life Magazine and, like many others, was intrigued. That summer he traveled down to Cuernavaca in Mexico with friends and obtained some samples of psilocybin mushrooms. Leary was profoundly impressed with his experience. Basically, he was bored with the kind of life he was leading as a faculty member at Harvard and saw that hallucinogens represented an entirely new path for the exploration of the psyche. Soon after returning to Boston he was sharing psilocybin with students and faculty alike and, together with his colleague Richard Alpert, set up an entire psilocybin-based research project which included “experiments” such as the Marsh Chapel religious event discussed in the previous chapter. Eventually Leary was also introduced to LSD, and this became his experimental drug of choice. However, the authorities at Harvard had soon had enough of Leary’s antics, self-promotion, and his entire modus operandi. In 1963 both Leary and Alpert were dismissed from their faculty positions.

However, Leary was not deterred in the slightest. Initially he and Alpert started their own organization, the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) for the further study of the religious and psychological potential of hallucinogenic drug use. The IFIF was headquartered in a Mexican resort town. However, the reports of wild orgies and other unseemly behavior caused the Mexican authorities to evict the group, and Leary was back in the United States once again. By this time experimenting with LSD had developed a cachet that was attracting the attention of many high rollers throughout the country. Eventually Leary encountered the fabulously wealthy William Mellon Hitchcock (aka “Mr. Billy”), the grandson of the founder of Gulf Oil. Mr. Billy took to LSD and to Timothy Leary and offered him and his acolytes the use of his 64-room country estate. Here at the Millbrook estate Leary established the Castalia Foundation, named after the priestly sect in Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, which was dedicated to the scholarly study of LSD and its spiritual applications. Apparently Leary saw himself as a latter-day Joseph Knecht and proceeded to hold court with anybody who cared to visit, partake of the LSD experience, and discuss the matter with him. As a guide to the direction and understanding of LSD-induced psychedelic experience, Leary used the Tibetan Book of the Dead which deals explicitly with different states of consciousness. Leary reinterpreted this so that it ended up as a sort of mixture of Buddhist wisdom and Scientology. Clearly at this point Leary had become the high priest of an LSD-fueled religion complete with its own bible. Millbrook was visited by a wide variety of high-profile individuals from the arts and politics, and its place in the general public’s consciousness rapidly increased.

However, it was not only Leary who catalyzed the popularity of LSD. In 1960 Ken Kesey, who had graduated from Stanford’s creative writing workshop, answered an advertisement for human guinea pigs to take part in one of the CIA-sponsored research studies on psychedelic drugs at a local hospital and ended up working there in the psychiatric ward. Here the ample availability of both psychedelic drugs and mental patients inspired him to write his first novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”—a considerable critical and popular success. The money that he earned from the book allowed Kesey, like Leary on the East Coast, a certain degree of freedom. While continuing to write, a group of like-minded and frequently stoned associates began to form a loose association with him.

Kesey’s take on the use of the LSD experience, however, was very different from Leary’s. He saw himself as a sort of agent provocateur whose role was to shake up the entire bourgeois establishment. In 1964, together with his band of “Merry Pranksters,” he purchased a bus, painted it in bright Day-Glo colors and, with the Pranksters attired in outrageous garb, traveled across the country handing out LSD—or “acid” as it was becoming known—to anybody who wanted to try it. In this way Kesey began to democratize the use of LSD, and things began to take on the characteristics of the drug counterculture movement of the 1960s. While in New York, Kesey and the Pranksters visited Leary at Millbrook in what clearly could have been an interesting meeting. However, the presence of two egos as large as theirs was too much even for the 64 rooms of Millbrook. Indeed, Leary did not deign to meet personally with Kesey, and the latter was not impressed with the priestly atmosphere pervading the upper class Millbrook estate where, in spite of everything else, attempts were made to study the effects of LSD on behavior in a conventional sense. So, the result was a culture clash—East coast versus West Coast, upper class versus working class, exclusivity versus egalitarianism. Kesey wanted to popularize the entire “acid trip” in a way that was fundamentally different from what Leary was doing. Following his return to California, Kesey began to mount a series of “Acid Tests,” basically the precursors to hippie happenings where acid-laced “Electric Kool-Aid” was readily available accompanied by the latest music played by Kesey’s favorite rock group, The Warlocks, soon to reemerge as The Grateful Dead.

In 1965, when large amounts of easily available acid hit the streets of US cities, American society was a powder keg ready to explode. The combination of the Vietnam war, the assassination of Malcolm X, the race riots in Watts and other cities, and the volatile mood on US college campuses, all contributed to the general ferment. Society was becoming increasingly radicalized and many young people felt completely disillusioned with their government and society in general. They sought to distance themselves from the status quo and to distinguish themselves as revolutionaries in as many ways as possible. Hallucinogenic drugs were the perfect things to help to define their defiant and alternative life style. As Leary had declared, it was time to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Drop out was what young people wanted to do; they certainly didn’t want to actively participate in the society in which they found themselves. The Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco became the crucible where all these elements came together, and the mass drug culture movement really got going. Owsley Stanley and Tim Scully began the local large-scale manufacture of ultrapure LSD dispensed at low cost as different batches of tablets, each one manufactured in a different psychedelic color. Stanley and Scully continued in their role as the local “alchemists” of Haight-Ashbury for several years and not only distributed LSD but other agents such as DOM/STP as well.

The mass use of acid by elements of the counterculture now spread incredibly rapidly, and by 1966 the US government realized it would have to step in. The government and their allies in the press mounted a smear campaign blaming LSD for everything from psychotic behavior in young people to chromosomal damage, and whipped the general public into a frenzy. Eventually, Sandoz stopped supplying the drug to scientists in the United States and the government placed strict legal controls on its possession and use. To understand the tenor of the times, it is very revealing to watch the 1967 “Blue Boy” episode of the crime drama “Dragnet,” a very popular television series in the 1960s and 1970s. In this episode Sgt. Joe Friday, veteran of the LA police force, and his sidekick set out to rid the Los Angeles area of the LSD menace that is stalking Southern California. Using a semidocumentary style, the drama made it clear that LSD was destroying the lives of young people in the area by making them permanently psychotic and inducing them to behave in a generally lewd manner. This was the type of information that middle-class America was exposed to at the time, and so it was hardly surprising that drug use polarized society in the way it did.

By 1967 the situation at Millbrook had started to deteriorate and Mr. Billy decided to move to the West Coast. Here he joined forces with Owsley Stanley’s colleague Tim Scully (Stanley being in jail at this point) and another chemist called Nick Sand to bankroll the production of large quantities of LSD for general distribution. This they achieved and by 1969 had manufactured over 10 million doses of acid, most of which was in the form of pills known as “Orange Sunshine” (OS). In order to distribute their product they joined forces with a group of ex-bikers from Anaheim who had started experimenting with LSD and had transformed themselves into a hippie church dedicated to bringing people closer to God through the use of acid. The group was known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its leader was “Farmer” John Griggs. Initially giving vast quantities of OS away for free and then setting up an international LSD trading cartel, the Brotherhood was extremely successful in spreading the LSD message and within a year OS was turning up all over the world including with US troops in Vietnam. When Scully’s original supply finally ran out, the Brotherhood teamed up with a remarkable character named Ronald Stark who turned up on their doorstep with a kilogram of pure LSD for the Brothers to do business with. Stark’s actual identity and the source of all of his acid (eventually mounting up to over 50 million hits) have always been something of a matter for speculation—even to suggestions that he was actually a CIA operative.

In 1967 Timothy Leary found his way down to Southern California, where he hung out with the Brothers and became a Hollywood-style celebrity. However, by this time he had already started running afoul of the law and was eventually sentenced to a long prison term for drug possession. The story of what happened after that is so incredible that in truth it is much stranger than fiction. Leary was sent to a low security prison and was “sprung” from there by the notorious Weather Underground, who made great political capital out of the publicity they obtained from freeing a “political prisoner of the capitalist pigs.” The Weathermen then smuggled the disguised Leary out of the country to sojourn with Eldridge Cleaver and his Black Panther government in exile in Algeria. However, Cleaver and Leary did not get on and the Panthers put him under local house arrest. Eventually the Brothers ransomed him for $25,000, and Leary and his wife fled to Switzerland. Leary always found wealthy patrons to support him, and this was true in Switzerland where he eventually settled down to a comfortable existence for the next 18 months and, in what must surely be one of the more interesting meetings of the century, dined with none other than Albert Hoffmann. Naturally they discussed matters pertaining to LSD and its potential uses. In the end, however, the Swiss denied Leary political asylum and the US government started to press for Leary’s extradition, so he decided to move on. In 1973 he flew to Kabul, possibly intending to journey on to Southeast Asia. This proved to be a big mistake. He and his latest wife (another possible CIA operative) were immediately arrested and deported back to the United States where the man labeled by President Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America” was sent back to jail until finally released by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1976. The use of LSD in the United States peaked in the late 1960s around the time of the great “love-in” rock concert at Woodstock in 1969. However, the use of hallucinogens has not gone away, and mushrooms in particular have recently undergone a new surge of popularity.

Excerpted from “Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs” by Richard J. Miller. Copyright 2013. Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Richard J. Miller is the Alfred Newton Richards Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University.

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