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How LSD evolved from a CIA mind control drug to a counterculture emblem

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Project MK ULTRA, a US government-led mind control program, sheds light on the origins of LSD’s powerful transformation.

John Lennon of the Beatles summed up the story of LSD best in 1981 an interview: “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the military for LSD… They invented LSD to control people, and what they’ve done is give us freedom.”

It turns out that this wasn’t just poetry from one of rock’s greatest songwriters. In the 1950s and 1960s, a top-secret government program was set up by the CIA to investigate the possibility of mind control, primarily with LSD—all in the name of protecting American freedom and fighting Russia during the Cold War.

Stephen Kinzer Poison Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA are searching for mind control (2019), charts the CIA’s obsession with finding a miracle drug to unlock the secrets of mind control, which ultimately leads to the creation of Project MK ULTRA. The program did extensive and extensive research and experimentation on LSD, to the point where the drug eventually became popular in the community. Artists, writers, actors, academics, and others began taking the drug for its healing and mind-expanding properties.

Little did the government know that LSD would help open minds and fuel the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, which would revolt against the very government that tried to control it. The story of how LSD became popular and helped propel the hippie movement follows a circuitous path through torture chambers, brothels, drug dens, assassination attempts, and drug experiments on unwilling subjects. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.

What was the MK ULTRA project?

The story of MK ULTRA began in Switzerland, in 1938, where chemist Albert Hofmann was working on a project to isolate compounds from fungi in rye grains. Eventually he found diethylamide-25 from lysergic acid, and LSD was born.

But the compound wasn’t related to his current work, so Hoffmann shelved it. In 1943, he He took a large dose of LSD on purpose And the flight was recorded. After a rough night, Hoffmann enjoyed the kaleidoscopic images and reported that “a sense of well-being and renewed life flowed through him” the next morning. Hoffman became a lifelong advocate for the drug and its consciousness-expanding abilities.

At the same time, World War II engulfed most of the world. The United States government created a biological warfare unit out of fear that the Nazis would develop the technology first. Not much came of the unit, and it continued to operate after the war in a much reduced capacity.

Not long after, Cold War paranoia broke out, strengthening the competition between the United States and Russia. Both countries tried to outdo each other in developing new technologies: the first nuclear bomb, sending the first people into space, and developing biological weapons that could spread among the population. In hindsight, Russia probably wasn’t even interested in biological weapons.

As part of this fear-based mentality, the idea of ​​brainwashing came into the public’s imagination next Article published in 1950 He claimed that the Chinese Communists were able to control people’s minds. McCarthyism, and the threat of communism taking over the world, prompted many in the United States government to take drastic measures to combat it.

the movie The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Help spread the idea of ​​brainwashing. (courtesy MGM)

The CIA eventually began working with scientists from the remnants of the Biological Warfare Research Division, and through several name changes, this collaboration would eventually be called “MK-ULTRA”.

LSD came to the attention of Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s chief chemist and founder of what would become Project MK ULTRA, and he experimented with it himself. Gottlieb became convinced of the power of matter to open up, explore, and possibly control the mind.

The CIA expands research on LSD

LSD followed a dark and winding path from CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb to John Lennon and the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

The substance was initially used as a truth serum on former Nazis and political prisoners from Eastern Europe. Combined with experimental techniques such as hypnosis, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, LSD was intended to soften prisoners for interrogation.

When Sidney Gottlieb was appointed to the CIA, testing with LSD increased dramatically, and the MK ULTRA program grew. Safe houses were set up in New York City and San Francisco, which were essentially brothels and drug dens where victims were unsuspectingly lured in and given drugs in the name of MK ULTRA.

Gottlieb also consulted with physicians at several hospitals and research centers, notably at Emory University, Stanford University, and what is now the Massachusetts Center for Mental Health. In some institutions, LSD was given to subjects without knowledge, or even forced upon them. Sometimes drug addicts were offered the substances they were trying to get rid of in exchange for participating in LSD experiments. Most of the people were black men. Some people claimed that they took LSD almost every day for 15 months.

Additionally, in 1953, a former MK ULTRA scientist jumped out of a Manhattan hotel window, his death haunting the secret program. Parts of the story didn’t quite fit – decades later, a story emerged that he was drugged with LSD against his will at an MK ULTRA elemental retreat, never recovering from the experience. Rumors circulated that he had been pushed out of a window instead.

In the early 1960s, new leadership in the CIA questioned the nature and intent of the top-secret ULTRA MK. Not wanting to reveal his secrets, Gottlieb let the program finish, and in 1963, MK ULTRA was completed, after 10 years. But the secrets of the MK ULTRA program weren’t revealed until the 1970s, when Congress set up a special committee to investigate any suspicious CIA actions. Many program details remain unknown, to this day.

LSD fuels the counterculture movement and beyond

Unbeknownst to Gottlieb, his followers in MK ULTRA, and the US government, LSD has slipped into society. MK ULTRA had 149 subprojects, many of which were collaborations with legitimate research institutions that reached out to students and volunteers to test LSD.

Perhaps most famously, author Ken Kesey participated in LSD experiments while a student at Stanford University, which were later turned into part of the MK ULTRA program. The Someone flew over the cuckoo’s nest The author has thrown LSD parties, bringing together an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, writers, poets, and more. He and the merry pranksters traveled the country, spreading the word of LSD, and forming the basis of the hippie counterculture movement that spread across the country in the 1960s.

Grateful Dead lyricist and collaborator Robert Hunter has also been involved in the experiences of MK ULTRA and claims that insight from the drug led him to many of the band’s song lyrics. Poet Laureate Allen Ginsberg, Author howlingand it is also said that he participated in MK ULTRA.

Even famous celebrities have turned to the drug — actor Cary Grant is said to have it take the essence About 100 times for therapeutic reasons outside the MK ULTRA program.

LSD exploded in popularity in the 1960s and firmly moved into the mainstream. “Sex, drugs and rock and roll” was the slogan of the era, and dozens of musicians and artists embraced LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Countless songs about psychedelia have influenced a generation and those to come.

In particular, the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” makes references to LSD in particular, while other anthems from the 1960s such as “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and others by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd and many more , honoring hallucinogens, deeply influencing culture and attitudes around the world for decades to come.

LSD still resonates in society

Decades later, LSD has also affected not only artists, musicians, and writers, but also some of the minds behind Silicon Valley. It was Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple He is heavily influenced by LSD, saying in an interview: “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates is also believed to have it acid decreased In the past.

Today, narcotic drugs are back in popularity. Current movies and shows like Wonderful fungi and Michael Pollan How do you change your mind It brought psychedelic drugs and their therapeutic benefits into the mainstream. In the latter case, a man suffering from cluster headache takes LSD in a clinical trial to treat his condition.

LSD Promise appears In the treatment of many conditions other than cluster headaches, including alcohol and drug addiction, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, and end-of-life anxiety. More research needs to be done on the substance’s medicinal potential, but it looks promising.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and Colorado followed suit this year. At the same time, across the country, many cities have decriminalized stimulants, or narcotic drugs and the plants they contain, in the wake of the legalization of cannabis.

The CIA probably thought they were on to something with LSD, but it sure wasn’t mind control. In the quest to try and control people’s minds, LSD ended up gaining immense popularity for its positive mind-expanding effects, helping people open their minds and question society. The substances are finally being recognized for their therapeutic potential and are becoming more accepted, and can help people achieve more fulfilling lives.


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