The Real Story of “Marijuana Truth Serum” and the CIA’s Sordid History of Drug Use

The story about the marijuana truth serum and its use by America’s spy agency in the 1940s has been around for a while. It’s important history, though, and worth re-telling.

The short version is that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the national intelligence agency during the years of World War II) was interested in whether there were drugs that could be used to aid in the interrogation of prisoners of war. Officially, military intelligence asked the National Research Council to look into this, which they did by forming a committee to investigate.

One of the prominent members of the committee was Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and the architect of Reefer Madness and marijuana prohibition. Also on the committee was an FBN and OSS officer named George White, who later played a prominent role in the FBN’s post-war activities.

The scientists at the OSS experimented with various drugs provided by Anslinger’s FBN and settled on tetrahydrocannabinol acetate, which at that time was considered the active chemical compound in marijuana. A report about this truth drug was found in George White’s archives at the Stanford University Library. It didn’t actually compel individuals to tell the truth, but it made them relaxed, a little high and distracted them enough to become a useful tool for interrogators.

More about the program is provided by Douglas Valentine in his history of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “The Strength of the Wolf.” 

Behind the official bureaucratic facade, this was a program designed and run by William Donovan, the head of the OSS and Harry Anslinger. Indeed, a great deal of FBN activity throughout the 20th century was influenced by Anslinger’s talent for ingratiating the agency into national security operations. 

Donovan wanted a truth drug, and Anslinger did his best to provide one. 

But the drug needed to be tested and observed, and this wasn’t really a job for scientists. That’s why George White became important. According to Valentine, “Donovan and Anslinger chose George White to test the Truth Drug on unsuspecting hoods, spies, and assassins.”

First, in May of 1943, they brought a beaker of the drug and an eyedropper into Anslinger’s office. They laced some tobacco with the drug, rolled it into a joint “potent enough to knock White on his ass, High as a Rastafarian.” 

After this initial test, one of the early objectives of the program was to determine which drug traffickers were collaborating with the Nazis in occupied France and which ones were helping the French Resistance. 

White tested “his superpot” on one August Del Grazio, an associate of Mafia boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano with well-known connections to Corsican and Mafia drug smugglers. With reference to work by author John Marks, Valentine reports that Del Grazio’s revelations about the drug trade were so sensational they were redacted from OSS documents before they were released decades later.

With this success, the OSS decided to use the marijuana truth drug on German prisoners and others. 

In September, White paid a visit to security officer John Lansdale with the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atomic bomb) and administered the drug to the program’s scientists.

The use of the drug on human subjects continued at least through 1947, but after years of experimentation, the marijuana failed to be a consistently reliable truth serum—at least in terms of how it was being used by White. 

However, another promising drug emerged during the war years in the lab of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland. 

A scientist was experimenting with variations of naturally occurring ergot fungus, known to have some promising ability to reduce bleeding and smooth muscle contractions. He accidently absorbed a small amount of the 25th variation of the drug he was working on. The scientist was Albert Hoffman. The drug was LSD-25. The result was the world’s first acid trip.

As scientists learned about LSD in 1951, it became one of the many drugs Anslinger and his deputy George Cunningham provided the CIA (the successor agency to the OSS) for potential use as an interrogation aid. 

According to Valentine, “By 1952, the CIA had hired George White to test LSD on unwitting American citizens . . .White’s status as a federal agent provided him with carte blanch to conduct experiments on anyone anywhere.”

And that he did.

White slipped LSD to unsuspecting friends at social events, to individuals undergoing police interrogation, to unsuspecting customers of prostitutes brought to safe houses for observation, and others. As Valentine explained, “White’s major qualification was a wicked mean streak.” 

Apparently, or at least according to a CIA security officer who conducted a background check on White, the man was a sadomasochist who preyed on others to overcompensate for “a poor body image.” Valentine provides several examples of how White abused his access to LSD to inflict pain on others.

In April of 1953, the CIA approved a biochemical warfare program to develop drugs to discredit friends and foes, to aid interrogations, and to assist in assassinations. George White’s truth drug testing activities became a key part of this new CIA program, named MKUltra, a notorious program with a rich and studied history.

There are a number of ironies here. 

One of the obvious is that an agent was getting high on pot in the FBN’s very own offices. Also ironic is that the FBN understood  that the real effects of marijuana were vastly different from the Reefer Madness propaganda they were spreading around. At a greater level, the relationship of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to national security operations provides one of the more fascinating stories, much more fully developed, in Valentine’s book. 

But the greatest irony is that in the long run, history has shown that cannabis is indeed a truth serum. 

After all, it was cannabis users who finally brought the truth out about reefer madness, marijuana prohibition and the wonderful qualities of medical cannabis.

(Photo Courtesy of

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