Imagine you are an adult of the 1950s. Since this thought exercise places you in a saloon, let’s assume you are male. You have a crewcut and a wardrobe consisting of dark slacks and short-sleeved white shirts. Your drink of choice is bourbon and soda—and that’s your lone tipple.
Drugs are unthinkable. The mere mention of the word “reefer” conjures images of insanity, social decay and jazz musicians. (That speed habit you picked up during the war, when government-issued Benzedrine was available in your medical kit, doesn’t count.)
And then, one fateful night, after you knock back a tumbler of brown liquor, you smack your empty glass down on the bar—and everything, the glass, the bar and your hand, starts to melt and run together in a technicolor hellscape, all while a government agent—dressed exactly like you—watches and takes notes as your mind unspools and your reality comes apart.
This all happened: This was Project MK ULTRA, a lengthy CIA massive domestic surveillance program that also included widespread tests of psychedelic drugs.
Under the auspices of researching mind control, unsuspecting straight-laced joes had drinks doses, prostitutes were paid to lure johns back to CIA safe houses for all-night experimentation sessions and everyday Americans were otherwise used as guinea pigs in drug tests.
As Seymour Hersh first reported for the New York Times in 1974, through the 1950s and early 1960s, untold thousands of people were the subjects of government-run acid tests at 44 American colleges and universities, 15 research institutions and pharmaceutical companies, 12 hospitals and clinics—and three prisons and jails.
As journalist Ben Hartman writes in the Texas Tribune, his grandfather was a Houston-area physician, who also worked as a psychiatrist in a Huntsville, Texas-area prison. (Lee Hartman had been a flight surgeon and general practitioner before a mid-career switch to psychiatry in 1957.) There, he oversaw at least 20 executions, checking the vital signs of condemned men killed on the electric chair, and recording in meticulous, clinically detailed handwritten notes in a diary, the fatal doses of electricity used.
Here’s an entry recounting one execution. “1st shock at 12:02—pronounced dead (by me) at 12:06—very livid—2nd and 3rd degree burns on scalp and left leg and much smoke, more than usual from crown (of head) possibly due to cold. Crown still hot on roller after death. Everyone in good humor and rather jocular.”
Later, after witnessing another prisoner die with “dignity and grace,” he wrote this: “Very shook up and angry over whole cruel mess,” calling the death penalty “brutalizing and sadistic.”
Hartman also oversaw tests of psychedelic drugs on prison inmates.
These test subjects were willing volunteers, according to a 1960 account printed in the Houston Chronicle, but they might not have been had they read the paper. “New Drug That Causes Insanity Used on Prisoners Who Volunteer,” read the article, which nonetheless noted that LSD was being “explored as a boon to mankind.”
Researchers then appeared to know what we know now: LSD is not a very dangerous drug.
Another prison researcher, who was a colleague of Hartman’s, “stated that there is no organic or physiological danger in using the drug.”
LSD is not addictive or deadly like opiate-based painkillers.
Though there are many reports in popular culture about “acid casualties,” otherwise-healthy minds broken by psychedelics, several scientific studies have yet to find a definitive link between psychosis and mind-expanding hallucinogens. (That doesn’t mean that unsuspecting trips can’t turn bad: One straight-laced Joe Average, dosed at a Christmas Party in 1957, became convinced that he should hold up a bar at gunpoint, as SF Weekly reported.)
Thus, the U.S. government’s later decision to declare LSD a Schedule I drug, with no medical value and a high potential for abuse, is as nonsensical—and, ultimately, political—as cannabis’s designation in that same category.
Some good things happened with MK ULTRA—Ken Kesey’s career owes much to his time taking government LSD while in a creative writing program at Stanford—but at least two people died, including one whose heart stopped when he was injected with synthetic mescaline.
And in general, running clandestine government tests on innocent civilians is never a good look.
Nothing aside from the drug’s ban appears to have come from the tests. At least with the prison experiments, they began with the noblest of intentions—a cure for insanity.
Another colleague of Hartman’s at the Huntsville prison, a psychiatrist named C.A. Dwyer, told the Houston Chronicle in the 1960 article that the acid tests’ goal was to find out what part of the brain was activated by LSD—so that, perhaps, the part of the brain “where mental illness resided” could be found, and, presumably, rooted out.
The idea, Dwyer said, was to find a “vaccine for schizophrenia.”
Doing so would have required tests on “thousands of subjects.” That never happened. The drug did change popular culture, and may yet have value in therapy. Instead, authorities did what they could to eradicate acid from the face of the Earth.
Almost all documentation from the prison project has been destroyed: an open-records request filed by Ben Hartman for papers on the project turned up a form letter informing him that no records existed.
And in Dr. Hartman’s diaries, there’s but one entry: a note to himself, a reminder to “bring LSD.”