From 1953 until 1973, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA conducted a clandestine program involving psychedelics on sometimes unwitting American citizens under Project MK Ultra.
Throughout universities in the U.S. and Canada, studies were conducted with the aim of using psychedelic drugs and their properties for brainwashing and psychological torture.
The Cold War shadow
After the end of World War Two, the United States and the Soviet Union, once allies during the war, entered into decades long frosty relations. Proxy wars from Korea to Afghanistan as both fought to prove the supremacy of their economic and political systems.
During these years, a nuclear arms race proliferated with the Cuban Missile Crisis being the height of the tensions.
While these events were clear for the public to see, although the public perhaps didn’t quite realise how close nuclear Armageddon was, in the background both nations were running secretive programs trying to gain an upper hand against the other.
One such secretive program that arose was Project MK Ultra. The CIA and the U.S. government were already fearful that American prisoners of war were being brainwashed by the Soviets in Korea.
Alan Dulles, then director of the CIA, approved MK Ultra to research whether they could develop techniques to control humans with drugs and other psychological methods.
So began over 150 human experiments involving psychedelic drugs, paralytics and electroshock therapy.
How did MK Ultra work?
While some participants were aware that they were participating in a study, there were many examples of participants having no idea that they were part of a study.
Many of these unwitting participants were from the marginalised sectors of the American community, sex workers, drug addicts and cancer patients were all used and abused.
Operation Midnight Climax, part of MK Ultra, is one of the clearest examples of how the CIA abused their power. Under Operation Midnight Climax, government employed prostitutes lured men to a CIA safe house.
Once the men arrived, they were then dosed with LSD while agents of the CIA watched behind a two-way mirror and listened via the recording devices hidden in the room.
Unintended consequences of MK Ultra
Unsurprisingly, there were many unintended consequences that arose from the MK Ultra program.
One example of blowback involves Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey was a knowing volunteer in the MK Ultra program while he was a student at Stamford University. His experiments mainly consisted of consuming LSD.
After these experiments, Kesey went on to host LSD fuelled parties which became known as “Acid Tests.” These parties are associated with the kick-starting of the hippie culture of the 1960s. One of the main guests at the parties was The Grateful Dead. Years later, the CIA would write of LSD and the Grateful Dead:
“LSD originates from San Francisco, California through a renowned rock group known as the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead is well known to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), San Francisco”.
The End of MK Ultra
Seymour Hersh, a New York Times journalist, published a story in 1974 that broke the lid on the clandestine CIA study. This story came at an awkward time for the U.S. government with the Watergate scandal happening a few mere months earlier.
With trust in the U.S. government waning, President Ford set up the Rockefeller Commission to examine CIA activities.
The Church Committee was also set up, which expanded the net of the investigation to include other intelligence agencies, including the FBI.
It was the Church Committee that discovered many of the thousands of documents related to MK Ultra.
Eventually, an Executive Order was signed by Ford that prohibited “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject”.