The MKULTRA scientists reaped little but disaster, mischief, and disappointment from their efforts to use LSD as a miracle weapon against the minds of their opponents. Nevertheless, their insatiable need to try every possibility led them to test hundreds of other substances, including all the drugs that would later be called psychedelic. These drugs were known to have great potency. They were derived from natural botanical products, and the men from MKULTRA believed from the beginning that rare organic materials might somehow have the greatest effect on the human mind. The most amazing of the psychedelics came from odd corners of the natural world. A1bert Hofmann created LSD largely out of ergot, a fungus that grows on rye; mescaline is nothing more than the synthetic essence of peyote cactus. Psilocybin, the drug that Timothy Leary preferred to LSD for his Harvard experiments, was synthesized from exotic Mexican mushrooms that occupy a special place in CIA history.
When the MKULTRA team first embarked on its mind-control explorations, the "magic mushroom" was only a rumor or fable in the linear history of the Western world. On nothing more than the possibility that the legend was based on fact, the Agency's scientists tracked the mushroom to the most remote parts of Mexico and then spent lavishly to test and develop its mind-altering properties. The results, like the LSD legacy, were as startling as they were unintended.
Among the botanicals that mankind has always turned to for intoxicants and poisons, mushrooms stand out. There is something enchantingly odd about the damp little buttons that can thrill a gourmet or kill one, depending on the subtle differences among the countless varieties. These fungi have a long record in unorthodox warfare. Two thousand years before the CIA looked to unleash powerful mushrooms in covert operations, the Roman Empress Agrippina eliminated her husband Claudius with a dish of poisonous mushrooms. According to Roman history, Agrippina wanted the emperor dead so that her son Nero could take the throne. She planned to take advantage of Claudius' love for the delicious Amanita caesarea mushroom, but she had to choose carefully among its deadly look-alikes. The poison could not be "sudden and instantaneous in its operation, lest the desperate achievement should be discovered," wrote Gordon and Valentina Wasson in their monumental and definitive work, Mushrooms, Russia and History. The Empress settled on the lethal Amanita phalloides, a fungus the Wassons considered well suited to the crime: "The victim would not give away the game by abnormal indispositions at the meal, but when the seizure came he would be so severely stricken that thereafter he would no longer be in command of his own affairs." Agrippina knew her mushrooms, and Nero became Emperor.
CIA mind-control specialists sought to emulate and surpass that kind of sophistication, as it might apply to any conceivable drug. Their fixation on the "magic mushroom" grew indirectly out of a meeting between drug experts and Morse Allen, head of the Agency's ARTICHOKE program, in October 1952. One expert told Allen about a shrub called piule, whose seeds had long been used as an intoxicant by Mexican Indians at religious ceremonies. Allen, who wanted to know about anything that distorted reality, immediately arranged for a young CIA scientist to take a Mexican field trip and gather samples of piule as well as other plants of "high narcotic and toxic value of interest to ARTICHOKE."
That young scientist arrived in Mexico City early in 1953. He could not advertise the true purpose of his trip because of ARTICHOKE's extreme secrecy, so he assumed cover as a researcher interested in finding native plants which were anesthetics. Fluent in Spanish and familiar with Mexico, he had no trouble moving around the country, meeting with leading experts on botanicals. Then he was off into the mountains south of the capital with his own field-testing equipment, gathering specimens and testing them crudely on the spot. By February, he had collected sacks full of material, including 10 pounds of piule. Before leaving Mexico to look for more samples around the Caribbean, the young scientist heard amazing tales about special mushrooms that grew only in the hot and rainy summer months. Such stories had circulated among Europeans in Mexico since Cortez had conquered the country early in the sixteenth century. Spanish friars had reported that the Aztecs used strange mushrooms in their religious ceremonies, which these converters of the heathens described as "demonic holy communions." Aztec priests called the special mushrooms teonanactl, "God's flesh." But Cortez's plunderers soon lost track of the rite, as did the traders and anthropologists who followed in their wake. Only the legend survived.
Back in Washington, the young scientist's samples went straight to the labs, and Agency officials scoured the historical record for accounts of the strange mushrooms. Morse Allen himself, though responsible in ARTICHOKE research for everything from the polygraph to hypnosis, took the trouble to go through the Indian lore. "Very early accounts of the ceremonies of some tribes of Mexican Indians show that mushrooms are used to produce hallucinations and to create intoxication in connection with religious festivals," he wrote. "In addition, this literature shows that witch doctors or 'divinators' used some types of mushrooms to produce confessions or to locate stolen objects or to predict the future." Here was a possible truth drug, Morse Allen reasoned. "Since it had been determined that no area of human knowledge is to be left unexplored in connection with the ARTICHOKE program, it was therefore regarded as essential that the peculiar qualities of the mushroom be explored...." Allen declared. "Full consideration," he concluded, should be given to sending an Agency man back to Mexico during the summer. The CIA had begun its quest for "God's flesh."
Characteristically, Morse Allen was planning ahead in case the CIA's searchers came up with a mushroom worth having in large quantities. He knew that the supply from the tropics varied by season, and, anyway, it would be impractical to go to Mexico for fungi each time an operational need popped up. So Allen decided to see if it were possible to grow the mushrooms at home, either outdoors or in hothouses. On June 24, 1953, he and an associate drove from Washington to Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania, in the heart of "the largest mushroom-growing area in the world." At a three-hour session with the captains of the mushroom industry, Allen explained the government's interest in poisonous and narcotic fungi. Allen reported that the meeting "was primarily designed to obtain a 'foothold' in the center of the mushroom-growing industry where, if requirements for mushroom growing were demanded, it would be done by professionals in the trade." The mushroom executives were quite reluctant to grow toxic products because they knew that any accidental publicity would scare their customers. In the end, however, their patriotism won out, and they agreed to grow any kind of fungus the government desired. Allen considered the trip a great success.
As useful as this commitment might be, an element of chance remained as long as the CIA had to depend on the natural process. But if the Agency could find synthetic equivalents for the active ingredients, it could manufacture rather than grow its own supply. Toward this goal of bypassing nature, Morse Allen had little choice but to turn for help to the man who the following year would wrest most of the ARTICHOKE functions from his grasp: Sid Gottlieb. Gottlieb, himself a Ph.D. in chemistry, had scientists working for him who knew what to do on the level of test tubes and beakers. Allen ran ARTICHOKE out of the Office of Security, which was not equipped for work on the frontiers of science.
Gottlieb and his colleagues moved quickly into the mysteries of the Mexican hallucinogens. They went to work on the chemical structures of the piule and other plants that Morse Allen's emissary brought back from his field trip, but they neglected to report their findings to the bureaucratically outflanked Allen. Gottlieb and the MKULTRA crew soon got caught up in the search for the magic mushroom. While TSS had its own limited laboratory facilities, it depended on secret contractors for most research and development. Working with an associate, a cadaverously thin chemistry Ph.D. named Henry Bortner, Gottlieb passed the tropical plants to a string of corporate and academic researchers. One of them, Dr. James Moore, a 29-yearold chemist at Parke, Davis & Company in Detroit, was destined to be the first man in the CIA camp to taste the magic mushroom. Moore's career was typical of the specialists in the CIA's vast network of private contractors. His path to the mushroom led through several jobs and offbeat assignments, always with Agency funds and direction behind him. A precise, meticulous man of scientific habits, Moore was hardly the sort one would expect to find chasing psychedelic drugs. Such pursuits began for him in March 1953, when he had returned to his lab at Parke, Davis after a year of postdoctoral research at the University of Basel. His supervisor had called him in with an intriguing proposal: How would he like to work inside the company on a CIA contract? "Those were not particularly prosperous times, and the company was glad to get someone else to pay my salary [$8,000 a year]," notes Moore 25 years later. "If I had thought I was participating in a scheme run by a small band of mad individuals, I would have demurred."
He accepted the job.
The Agency contracted with Parke, Davis, as it did with numerous
other drug companies, universities, and government agencies to
develop behavioral products and poisons from botanicals. CIA-funded
chemists extracted deadly substances like the arrow-poison curare
from natural products, while others worked on ways to deliver
these poisons most effectively, like the "nondiscernible
microbioinoculator" (or dart gun) that the Army Chemical
Corps invented. CIA-connected botanists collectedand then chemists
analyzedbotanicals from all over the tropics: a leaf that killed
cattle, several plants deadly to fish, another leaf that caused
hair to fall out, sap that caused temporary blindness, and a host
of other natural products that could alter moods, dull or stimulate
nerves, or generally disorient people. Among the plants Moore
investigated was Jamaica dogwood, a plant used by Caribbean natives
to stun fish so they could be easily captured for food. This work
resulted in the isolation of several new substances, one of which
Moore named "lisetin," in honor of his daughter.
Moore had no trouble adjusting to the secrecy demanded by his CIA sponsors, having worked on the Manhattan Project as a graduate student. He dealt only with his own case officer, Henry Bortner, and two or three other CIA men in TSS. Once Moore completed his chemical work on a particular substance, he turned the results over to Bortner and apparently never learned of the follow-up. Moore worked in his own little isolated compartment, and he soon recognized that the Agency preferred contractors who did not ask questions about what was going on in the next box.
In 1955 Moore left private industry for academia, moving from Detroit to the relatively placid setting of the University of Delaware in Newark. The school made him an assistant professor, and he moved into a lab in the Georgian red-brick building that housed the chemistry department. Along with his family, Moore brought his CIA contractthen worth $16,000 a year, of which he received $650 per month, with the rest going to pay research assistants and overhead. Although the Agency allowed a few top university officials to be briefed on his secret connection, Moore appeared to his colleagues and students to be a normal professor who had a healthy research grant from the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research in Washington.
In the world of natural productsparticularly mushroomsthe CIA soon made Moore a full-service agent. With some help from his CIA friends, he made contact with the leading lights in mycology (the study of mushrooms), attended professional meetings, and arranged for others to send him samples. From the CIA's point of view, he could not have had better cover. As Sid Gottlieb wrote, Moore "maintains the fiction that the botanical specimens he collects are for his own use since his field interest is natural-product chemistry." Under this pretext, Moore had a perfect excuse to make and purchase for the CIA chemicals that the Agency did not want traced. Over the years, Moore billed the Agency for hundreds of purchases, including 50 cents for an unidentified pamphlet, $433.13 for a particular shipment of mescaline, $1147.60 for a large quantity of mushrooms, and $12,000 for a quarter-ton of fluothane, an inhalation anesthetic. He shipped his purchases on as Bortner directed.
Moore eventually became a kind of short-order cook for what CIA documents call "offensive CW, BW" weapons at "very low cost and in a few days' time . . ." If there were an operational need, Bortner had only to call in the order, and Moore would whip up a batch of a "reputed depilatory" or hallucinogens like DMT or the incredibly potent BZ. On one occasion in 1963, Moore prepared a small dose of a very lethal carbamate poisonthe same substance that OSS used two decades earlier to try to kill Adolf Hitler. Moore charged the Agency his regular consulting fee, $100, for this service.
"Did I ever consider what would have happened if this stuff were given to unwitting people?" Moore asks, reflecting on his CIA days. "No. Particularly no. Had I been given that information, I think I would have been prepared to accept that. If I had been knee-jerk about testing on unwitting subjects, I wouldn't have been the type of person they would have used. There was nothing that I did that struck me as being so sinister and deadly.... It was all investigative."
James Moore was only one of many CIA specialists on the lookout for the magic mushroom. For three years after Morse Allen's man returned from Mexico with his tales of wonder, Moore and the others in the Agency's network pushed their lines of inquiry among contacts and travelers into Mexican villages so remote that Spanish had barely penetrated. Yet they found no magic mushrooms. Given their efforts, it was ironic that the man who beat them to "God's flesh" was neither a spy nor a scientist, but a banker. It was R. Gordon Wasson, vice-president of J. P. Morgan & Company, amateur mycologist, and co-author with his wife Valentina of Mushrooms, Russia and History. Nearly 30 years earlier, Wasson and his Russian-born wife had become fascinated by the different ways that societies deal with the mushroom, and they followed their lifelong obsession with these fungi, in all their glory, all over the globe. They found whole nationalities, such as the Russians and the Catalans, were mycophiles, while others like the Spaniards and the Anglo-Saxons were not. They learned that in ancient Greece and Rome there was a belief that certain kinds of mushrooms were brought into being by lightning bolts. They discovered that widely scattered peoples, including desert Arabs, Siberians, Chinese, and Maoris of New Zealand, have shared the idea that mushrooms have supernatural connections. Their book appeared in limited edition, selling new in 1957 for $125. It contains facts and legends, lovingly told, as well as beautiful photographs of nearly every known species of mushroom.
Inevitably, the Wassons heard tell of "God's flesh," and in 1953 they started spending their vacations pursuing it. They took their first unsuccessful trek to Mexico about the time James Moore got connected to the CIA and Morse Allen met with the Pennsylvania mushroom executives. They had no luck until their third expedition, when Gordon Wasson and his traveling companion, Allan Richardson, found their holy grail high in the mountains above Oaxaca. On June 29, 1955, they entered the town hall in a village called Huautla de Jimenez. There, they found a young Indian about 35, sitting by a large table in an upstairs room. Unlike most people in the village, he spoke Spanish. "He had a friendly manner," Wasson later wrote, "and I took a chance. Leaning over the table, I asked him earnestly and in a low voice if I could speak to him in confidence. Instantly curious, he encouraged me. 'Will you,' I went on, 'help me learn the secrets of the divine mushroom?' and I used the Indian name nti sheeto, correctly pronouncing it with glottal stop and tonal differentiation of the syllables. When [he] recovered from his surprise he said warmly that nothing could be easier."
Shortly thereafter, the Indian led Wasson and Richardson down into a deep ravine where mushrooms were growing in abundance. The white men snapped picture after picture of the fungi and picked a cardboard box-full. Then, in the heavy humid heat of the afternoon, the Indian led them up the mountain to a woman who performed the ancient mushroom rite. Her name was Maria Sabina. She was not only a curandera, or shaman, of "the highest quality," wrote Wasson, but a "seņora sin mancha, a woman without stain." Wasson described her as middle-aged and short, "with a spirituality in her expression that struck us at once. She had a presence. We showed our mushrooms to the woman and her daughter. They cried out in rapture over the firmness, the fresh beauty and abundance of our young specimens. Through the interpreter we asked if they would serve us that night. They said yes."
That night, Wasson, Richardson, and about 20 Indians gathered in one of the village's adobe houses. The natives wore their best clothes and were friendly to the white strangers. The host provided chocolate drinks, which evoked for Wasson accounts of similar beverages being served early Spanish writers. Maria Sabina sat on a mat before a simple altar table that was adorned with the images of the Child Jesus and the Baptism in Jordan. After cleaning the mushrooms, she handed them out to all the adults present, keeping 26 for herself and giving Wasson and Richardson 12 each.
Maria Sabina put out the last candle about midnight, and she chanted haunting, tightly measured melodies. The Indian celebrants responded with deep feeling. Both Wasson and Richardson began to experience intense hallucinations that did not diminish until about 4:00 A.M. "We were never more wide awake, and the visions came whether our eyes were open or closed," Wasson wrote:
They emerged from the center of the field of our vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly at the pace that our will chose. They were vivid in color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardensresplendent palaces with semiprecious stones.... Could the miraculous mobility that I was now enjoying be the explanation for the flying witches that played some important part in the folklore and fairy tales of northern Europe? These reflections passed through my mind at the very time that I was seeing the vision, for the effect of the mushrooms is to bring about a fission of the spirit, a split in the person, a kind of schizophrenia, with the rational side continuing to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is enjoying. The mind is attached by an elastic cord to the vagrant senses.
Thus Gordon Wasson described the first known mushroom trip by "outsiders" in recorded history. The CIA's men missed the event, but they quickly learned of it, even though Wasson's visit was a private noninstitutional one to a place where material civilization had not reached. Such swiftness was assured by the breadth of the Agency's informant network, which included formal liaison arrangements with agencies like the Agriculture Department and the FDA and informal contacts all over the world. A botanist in Mexico City sent the report that reached both CIA headquarters and then James Moore. In the best bureaucratic form, the CIA description of Wasson's visions stated sparsely that the New York banker thought he saw "a multitude of architectural forms." Still, "God's flesh" had been located, and the MKULTRA leaders snatched up information that Wasson planned to return the following summer and bring back some mushrooms.
During the intervening winter, James Moore wrote Wasson"out of the blue," as Wasson recallsand expressed a desire to look into the chemical properties of Mexican fungi. Moore eventually suggested that he would like to accompany Wasson's party, and, to sweeten the proposition, he mentioned that he knew a foundation that might be willing to help underwrite the expedition. Sure enough, the CIA's conduit, the Geschickter Fund, made a $2,000 grant. Inside the MKULTRA program, the quest for the divine mushroom became Subproject 58.
Joining Moore and Wasson on the 1956 trip were the world-renowned French mycologist Roger Heim and a colleague from the Sorbonne. The party made the final leg of the trip, one at a time, in a tiny Cessna, but when it was Moore's turn, the load proved too much for the plane. The pilot suddenly took a dramatic right angle turn through a narrow canyon and made an unscheduled stop on the side of a hill. Immediately on landing, an Indian girl ran out and slid blocks under the wheels, so the plane would not roll back into a ravine. The pilot decided to lighten the load by leaving Moore among the local Indians, who spoke neither English nor Spanish. Later in the day, the plane returned and picked up the shaken Moore.
Finally in Huautla, sleeping on a dirt floor and eating local food, everyone reveled in the primitiveness of the adventure except Moore, who suffered. In addition to diarrhea, he recalls, "I had a terribly bad cold, we damned near starved to death, and I itched all over." Beyond his physical woes, Moore became more and more alienated from the others, who got on famously. Moore was a "complainer," according to Wasson. "He had no empathy for what was going on," recalls Wasson. "He was like a landlubber at sea. He got sick to his stomach and hated it all." Moore states, "Our relationship deteriorated during the course of the trip."
Wasson returned to the same Maria Sabina who had led him to the high ground the year before. Again the ritual started well after dark and, for everyone but Moore, it was an enchanted evening. Sings Wasson: "I had the most superb feelinga feeling of ecstasy. You're raised to a height where you have not been in everyday lifenot ever." Moore, on the other hand, never left the lowlands. His description: "There was all this chanting in the dialect. Then they passed the mushrooms around, and we chewed them up. I did feel the hallucinogenic effect, although 'disoriented' would be a better word to describe my reaction."
Soon thereafter, Moore returned to Delaware with a bag of mushroomsjust in time to take his pregnant wife to the hospital for delivery. After dropping her off with the obstetrician, he continued down the hall to another doctor about his digestion. Already a thin man, Moore had lost 15 pounds. Over the next week, he slowly nursed himself back to health. He reported in to Bortner and started preliminary work in his lab to isolate the active ingredient in the mushrooms. Bortner urged him on; the men from MKULTRA were excited at the prospect that they might be able to create "a completely new chemical agent." They wanted their own private supply of "God's flesh." Sid Gottlieb wrote that if Moore succeeded, it was "quite possible" that the new drugs could "remain an Agency secret."
Gottlieb's dream of a CIA monopoly on the divine mushroom vanished quickly under the influence of unwanted competitors, and indeed, the Agency soon faced a control problem of burgeoning proportions. While Moore toiled in his lab, Roger Heim in Paris unexpectedly pulled off the remarkable feat of growing the mushrooms in artificial culture from spore prints he had made in Mexico. Heim then sent samples to none other than Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, who quickly isolated and chemically reproduced the active chemical ingredient. He named it psilocybin.
The dignified Swiss chemist had beaten out the CIA, and the men from MKULTRA found themselves trying to obtain formulas and supplies from overseas. Instead of locking up the world's supply of the drug in a safe somewhere, they had to keep track of disbursements from Sandoz, as they were doing with LSD. Defeated by the old master, Moore laid his own work aside and sent away to Sandoz for a supply of psilocybin.
This lapse in control still did not quash the hopes of Agency officials that the mushroom might become a powerful weapon in covert operations. Agency scientists rushed it into the experimental stage. Within three summers of the first trip with James Moore, the CIA's queasy professor from America, the mushroom had journeyed through laboratories on two continents, and its chemical essence had worked its way back to Agency conduits and a contractor who would test it. In Kentucky, Dr. Harris Isbell ordered psilocybin injected into nine black inmates at the narcotics prison. His staff laid the subjects out on beds as the drug took hold and measured physical symptoms every hour: blood pressure, knee-jerk reflexes, rectal temperature, precise diameter of eye pupils, and so on. In addition, they recorded the inmates' various subjective feelings:
After 30 minutes, anxiety became quite definite and was expressed as consisting of fear that something evil was going to happen, fear of insanity, or of death.... At times patients had the sensation that they could see the blood and bones in their own body or in that of another person. They reported many fantasies or dreamlike states in which they seemed to be elsewhere. Fantastic experiences, such as trips to the moon or living in gorgeous castles were occasionally reported.... Two of the 9 patients . . . felt their experiences were caused by the experimenters controlling their minds....
Experimental data piled up, with operational testing to follow.
But the magic mushroom never became a good spy weapon. It made people behave strangely but no one could predict where their trips would take them. Agency officials craved certainty.
On the other hand, Gordon Wasson found revelation. After a lifetime of exploring and adoring mushrooms, he had discovered the greatest wonder of all in that remote Indian village. His experience inspired him to write an account of his journey for the "Great Adventures" series in Life magazine. The story, spread across 17 pages of text and color photographs, was called "Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico's mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions." In 1957, before the Russian sputnik shook America later that year, Life introduced its millions of readers to the mysteries of hallucinogens, with a tone of glowing but dignified respect. Wasson wrote movingly of his long search for mushroom lore, and he became positively rhapsodic in reflecting on his Mexican "trip":
In man's evolutionary past, as he groped his way out from his lowly past, there must have come a moment in time when he discovered the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms. Their effect on him, as I see it, could only have been profound, a detonator to new ideas. For the mushrooms revealed to him worlds beyond the horizons known to him, in space and time, even worlds on a different plane of being, a heaven and perhaps a hell. For the credulous, primitive mind, the mushrooms must have reinforced mightily the idea of the miraculous. Many emotions are shared by men with the animal kingdom, but awe and reverence and the fear of God are peculiar to men. When we bear in mind the beatific sense of awe and ecstasy and caritas engendered by the divine mushrooms, one is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of God.
The article caused a sensation in the United States, where people had already been awakened to ideas like these by Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. It lured waves of respectable adultsprecursors of later hippie travelersto Mexico in search of their own curanderas. (Wasson came to have mixed feelings about the response to his story, after several tiny Mexican villages were all but trampled by American tourists on the prowl for divinity.) One person whose curiosity was stimulated by the article was a young psychology professor named Timothy Leary. In 1959, in Mexico on vacation, he ate his first mushrooms. He recalls he "had no idea it was going to change my life." Leary had just been promised tenure at Harvard, but his life of conventional prestige lost appeal for him within five hours of swallowing the mushroom: "The revelation had come. The veil had been pulled back.... The prophetic call. The works. God had spoken."
Having responded to a Life article about an expedition that was partially funded by the CIA, Leary returned to a Harvard campus where students and professors had for years served as subjects for CIA- and military-funded LSD experiments. His career as a drug prophet lay before him. Soon he would be quoting in his own Kamasutra from the CIA's contractor Harold Abramson and others, brought together for scholarly drug conferences by the sometime Agency conduit, the Macy Foundation.
With LSD, as with mushrooms, the men from MKULTRA remained oblivious, for the most part, to the rebellious effect of the drug culture in the United States. "I don't think we were paying any attention to it," recalls a TSS official. The CIA's scientists looked at drugs from a different perspective and went on trying to fashion their spy arsenal. Through the entire 1960s and into the 1970s, the Agency would scour Latin America for poisonous and narcotic plants. Earlier, TSS officials and contractors actually kept spreading the magic touch of drugs by forever pressing new university researchers into the field. Boston Psychopathic's Max Rinkel stirred up the interest of Rochester's Harold Hodge and told him how to get a grant from the Agency conduit, the Geschickter Fund. Hodge's group found a way to put a radioactive marker into LSD, and the MKULTRA crew made sure that the specially treated substance found its way to still more scientists. When a contractor like Harold Abramson spoke highly of the drug at a new conference or seminar, tens or hundreds of scientists, health professionals, and subjectsusually studentswould wind up trying LSD.
One day in 1954, Ralph Blum, a senior at Harvard on his way to a career as a successful author, heard from a friend that doctors at Boston Psychopathic would pay $25 to anyone willing to spend a day as a happy schizophrenic. Blum could not resist. He applied, passed the screening process, took a whole battery of Wechsler psychological tests, and was told to report back on a given morning. That day, he was shown into a room with five other Harvard students. Project director Bob Hyde joined them and struck Blum as a reassuring father figure. Someone brought in a tray with six little glasses full of water and LSD. The students drank up. For Blum, the drug did not take hold for about an hour and a halfsomewhat longer than the average. While Hyde was in the process of interviewing him, Blum felt his mind shift gears. "I looked at the clock on the wall and thought how well behaved it was. It didn't pay attention to itself. It just stayed on the wall and told time." Blum felt that he was looking at everything around him from a new perspective. "It was a very subtle thing," he says. "My ego filter had been pretty much removed. I turned into a very accessible state accessible to myself. I knew when someone was lying to me, and the richness of the experience was such that I didn't want to suffer fools gladly." Twenty-four years later, Blum concludes: "It was undeniably a very important experience for me. It made a difference in my life. It began to move the log jam of my old consciousness. You can't do it with just one blast. It was the beginning of realizing it was safe to love again. Although I wouldn't use them until much later, it gave me a new set of optics. It let me know there was something downstream."
Many student subjects like Blum thought LSD transformed the quality of their lives. Others had no positive feelings, and some would later use the negative memories of their trips to invalidate the whole drug culture and stoned thinking process of the 1960s. In a university city like Boston where both the CIA and the Army were carrying on large testing programs at hospitals connected to Harvard, volunteering for an LSD trip became quite popular in academic circles. Similar reactions, although probably not as pronounced, occurred in other intellectual centers. The intelligence agencies turned to America's finest universities and hospitals to try LSD, which meant that the cream of the country's students and graduate assistants became the test subjects.
In 1969 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs published a fascinating little study designed to curb illegal LSD use. The authors wrote that the drug's "early use was among small groups of intellectuals at large Eastern and West Coast universities. It spread to undergraduate students, then to other campuses. Most often, users have been introduced to the drug by persons of higher status. Teachers have influenced students; upperclassmen have influenced lower-classmen." Calling this a "trickle-down phenomenon," the authors seem to have correctly analyzed how LSD got around the country. They left out only one vital element, which they had no way of knowing: That somebody had to influence the teachers and that up there at the top of the LSD distribution system could be found the men of MKULTRA.
Harold Abramson apparently got a great kick out of getting his learned friends high on LSD. He first turned on Frank Fremont-Smith, head of the Macy Foundation which passed CIA money to Abramson. In this cozy little world where everyone knew everybody, Fremont-Smith organized the conferences that spread the word about LSD to the academic hinterlands. Abramson also gave Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead's former husband, his first LSD. In 1959 Bateson, in turn, helped arrange for a beat poet friend of his named Allen Ginsberg to take the drug at a research program located of f the Stanford campus. No stranger to the hallucinogenic effects of peyote, Ginsberg reacted badly to what he describes as "the closed little doctor's room full of instruments," where he took the drug. Although he was allowed to listen to records of his choice (he chose a Gertrude Stein reading, a Tibetan mandala, and Wagner), Ginsberg felt he "was being connected to Big Brother's brain." He says that the experience resulted in "a slight paranoia that hung on all my acid experiences through the mid-1960s until I learned from meditation how to disperse that."
Anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson then worked at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto. From 1959 on, Dr. Leo Hollister was testing LSD at that same hospital. Hollister says he entered the hallucinogenic field reluctantly because of the "unscientific" work of the early LSD researchers. He refers specifically to most of the people who attended Macy conferences. Thus, hoping to improve on CIA and military-funded work, Hollister tried drugs out on student volunteers, including a certain Ken Kesey, in 1960. Kesey said he was a jock who had only been drunk once before, but on three successive Tuesdays, he tried different psychedelics. "Six weeks later I'd bought my first ounce of grass," Kesey later wrote, adding, "Six months later I had a job at that hospital as a psychiatric aide." Out of that experience, using drugs while he wrote, Kesey turned out One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He went on to become the counterculture's second most famous LSD visionary, spreading the creed throughout the land, as Tom Wolfe would chronicle in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
CIA officials never meant that the likes of Leary, Kesey, and Ginsberg should be turned on. Yet these men were, and they, along with many of the lesser-known experimental subjects, like Harvard's Ralph Blum, created the climate whereby LSD escaped the government's control and became available by the early sixties on the black market. No one at the Agency apparently foresaw that young Americans would voluntarily take the drugwhether for consciousness expansion or recreational purposes. The MKULTRA experts were mainly on a control trip, and they proved incapable of gaining insight from their own LSD experiences of how others less fixated on making people do their bidding would react to the drug.
It would be an exaggeration to put all the blame onor give all the credit tothe CIA for the spread of LSD. One cannot forget the nature of the times, the Vietnam War, the breakdown in authority, and the wide availability of other drugs, especially marijuana. But the fact remains that LSD was one of the catalysts of the traumatic upheavals of the 1960s. No one could enter the world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares, through doors opened by the Agency. It would become a supreme irony that the CIA's enormous search for weapons among drugsfueled by the hope that spies could, like Dr. Frankenstein, control life with genius and machineswould wind up helping to create the wandering, uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.
R. Gordon and Valentina Wasson's mammoth work, Mushrooms, Russia and History, (New York: Pantheon, 1957), was the source for the account of the Empress Agrippina's murderous use of mushrooms. Wasson told the story of his various journeys to Mexico in a series of interviews and in a May 27, 1957 Life magazine article, "Seeking the Magic Mushroom."
Morse Allen learned of piule in a sequence described in document #A/B,I,33/7, 14 November 1952, Subject: Piule. The sending of the young CIA scientist to Mexico was outlined in #A/B, I,33/3,5 December 1952. Morse Allen commented on mushroom history and covert possibilities in #A/B, I, 34/4, 26 June 1953, Subject: MushroomsNarcotic and Poisonous Varieties. His trip to the American mushroom-growing capital was described in Document Number illegible], 25 June 1953, Subject: Trip to Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania. The failure of TSS to tell Morse Allen about the results of the botanical lab work is outlined in #A/B, I, 39/5, 10 August 1954 Subject: Reports; Request for from TSS [deleted].
James Moore told much about himself in a long interview and in an exchange of correspondence. MKULTRA Subproject 51 dealt with Moore's consulting relationship with the Agency and Subproject 52 with his ties as a procurer of chemicals. See especially Document 51-46, 8 April 1963, Subject: MKULTRA Subproject 51; 51-24, 27 August 1956, Subject: MKULTRA Subproject 51-B; 52-94, 20 February 1963, Subject: (BB) Chemical and Physical Manipulants; 52-19, 20 December 1962; 52-17, 1 March 1963; 52-23, 6 December 1962; 52-64, 24 August 1959.
The CIA's arrangements with the Department of Agriculture are detailed in #A/B, I, 34/4, 26 June, 1953, Subject: MushroomsNarcotic and Poisonous varieties and Document [number illegible], 13 April 1953, Subject: Interview with Cleared Contacts.
Dr. Harris Isbell's work with psilocybin is detailed in Isbell document # 155, "Comparison of the Reaction Induced by Psilocybin and LSD-25 in Man."
Information on the counterculture and its interface with CIA drug-testing came from interviews with Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, Humphrey Osmond, John Lilly, Sidney Cohen, Ralph Blum, Herbert Kelman, Leo Hollister, Herbert DeShon, and numerous others. Ken Kesey described his first trip in Garage Sale (New York: Viking Press, 1973). Timothy Leary's Kamasutra was actually a book hand-produced in four copies and called Psychedelic Theory: Working Papers from the Harvard IFlF Psychedelic Research Project, 1960-1963. Susan Berns Wolf Rothchild kindly made her copy available. The material about Harold Abramson's turning on Frank Fremont-Smith and Gregory Bateson came from the proceedings of a conference on LSD sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation on April 22, 23, and 24, 1959, pp. 8-22.
1. On their honeymoon, in the summer of 1927,
the Wassons were strolling along a mountain path when suddenly
Valentina abandoned Gordon's side. "She had spied wild mushrooms
in the forest," wrote Wasson, "and racing over the carpet
of dried leaves in the woods, she knelt in poses of adoration
before one cluster and then another of these growths. In ecstasy
she called each kind by an endearing Russian name. Like all good
Anglo-Saxons, I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt the
less I knew about these putrid, treacherous excrescences the better.
For her they were things of grace infinitely inviting to the perceptive
mind." In spite of his protests, Valentina gathered up the
mushrooms and brought them back to the lodge were she cooked them
for dinner. She ate them allalone. Wasson wanted no part of
the fungi. While she mocked his horror, he predicted in the face
of her laughter he would wake up a widower the next morning. When
Valentina survived, the couple decided to find an explanation
for "the strange cultural cleavage" that had caused
them to react so differently to mushrooms. From then on, they
were hooked, and the world became the richer.
2. Within two years, Albert Hofmann would scoop the CIA once again, with some help from Gordon Wasson. In 1960 Hofmann broke down and chemically recreated the active ingredient in hallucinatory ololiuqui seeds sent him by Wasson before the Agency's contractor, William Boyd Cook of Montana State University, could do the job. Hofmann's and Wasson's professional relationship soon grew into friendship, and in 1962 they traveled together on horseback to Huautla de Jimenez to visit Maria Sabina. Hofmann presented the curandera with some genuine Sandoz psilocybin. Wasson recalls: "Of course, Albert Hofmann is so conservative he always gives too little a dose, and it didn't have any effect." The crestfallen Hofmann believed he had duplicated "God's flesh," and he doubled the dose. Then Maria Sabina had her customary visions, and she reported, according to Wasson, the drug was the "same" as the mushroom. States Wasson, whose prejudice for real mushrooms over chemicals is unmistakable, "I don't think she said it with very much enthusiasm." (back)
3. See Chapter 12. (back)
4. Lincoln Clark, a psychiatrist who tested LSD for the Army at Massachusetts General Hospital, reflects a fairly common view among LSD researchers when he belittles drug-induced thinking of the sort described by Blum. "Everybody who takes LSD has an incredible experience that you can look at as having positive characteristics. I view it as pseudo-insight. This is part of the usual response of intellectually pretentious people." On the other hand, psychiatrist Sidney Cohen, who has written an important book on LSD, noted that to experience a visionary trip, "the devotee must have faith in, or at least be open to the possibility of the 'other state.' . . . He must 'let go,' not offer too much resistance to losing his personal identity. The ability to surrender oneself is probably the most important operation of all." (back)
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