Dropping acid to boost the Pentagon’s psychic powers was just the start. The Men Who Stare At Goats, the upcoming movie based on Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same name, has George Clooney and Jeff Bridges in a bizarre military research project involving astral projection, remote viewing, and LSD. But for the real dope on the Army’s narcotics and psychedelics tests, you have to turn to Dr. James S. Ketchum, who wrote a firsthand account of the military’s trials with these “incapacitating chemical agents.”
The experimenters tried some of the substances themselves, including red oil, a highly-concentrated distillation of marijuana, which appeared to be highly effective (and not unpleasant) as an incapacitant. The military decided it was not powerful enough, however, “and perhaps too socially unacceptable” for military purposes, Ketchum notes. A better candidate was LSD, a more powerful psychoactive drug with an effective dose measured in micrograms.
On one occasion, Ketchum found a colleague wandering around at night in his underwear with what appeared to be a glass watch faceplate taped to his wrist. Ketchum asked what he was doing:
“I’m trying to see if LSD has any effects through the skin,” he replied somewhat distractedly. “I’ve got it in some ethylene glycol under this watch glass.”
“So far it hasn’t had any particular effect,” he added.
I was still dubious.
But Ketchum’s report shows that the Army’s operation was a model of scientific experimentation compared to the CIA’s. In 1953, the Agency attempted to purchase ten kilograms of LSD, supposedly for testing purposes. This was enough for over a hundred million doses. They were informed that the total amount manufactured was only ten grams.
However, on a Monday morning, a rather curious incident occurred. Ketchum found that his office had acquired a new piece of furniture, a steel barrel like an oil drum in one corner of the room. At first he ignored it, but eventually curiosity got the better of him, and one evening when he was along Ketchum undid the fastenings. The barrel was packed with jars:
Neatly labeled, tightly sealed glass canisters, looking like cookie jars, filled the entire drum. I cautiously took one out and examined it. According to the label, it contained approximately three pounds of pure EA 1729 (LSD).
Ketchum estimated that the barrel contained at thirty to forty pounds of the drug, a few hundred million doses and with a street value of something like a billion dollars. The sort of amount the CIA had been after.
Ketchum was not given any explanation for the giant stash, and on the Friday morning it had disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived. It seemed like something out of fiction, and Ketchum got as far as starting a novel with the billion-dollar-barrel in the opening scene before giving up. But the barrel stuck in his mind, a disturbing presence which he likens to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey
“The similarity struck me as quite spooky, and remains somewhat spooky as I think about it today.”
Who knows where the massive supply went? Certainly the CIA had something of an obsession with LSD, at one point believing it was an effective truth drug. In the infamous Operation Midnight Climax, unwitting clients at CIA brothels in New York and San Francisco were slipped LSD and then monitored through one-way mirrors to see how they reacted. They even killed an elephant with LSD. Colleagues were also considered fair game for secret testing, to the point where a memo was issued instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked.
But the LSD testing ended in tragedy – as recounted in the book of the Men Who Stare at Goats – with the death of scientist Frank Olson after he fell to his death. The findings have suggested homicide, but the case has never been resolved.
Now, it seems that LSD is back: this time as a potential treatments (along with MDMA, aka Ecstasy) for post-traumatic stress disorder, something which is currently causing the military real problems. So instead of being used as a weapon, mind-altering drugs are being used to heal: the kind of happy ending that Jeff Bridges’ hippie character would thoroughly approve of.