Project MK-Ultra

LSD’s introduction to America was a fascinating double-edged sword in that it would be explored and boasted then abused and abandoned by the two cultural spheres it would come to divide: the military and the counterculture.  The latter’s association is much more recognizable as art, fashion and music all took heavy influence from the visual and auditory effects of the drug.  American espionage’s use of LSD, however, was much more obscure as it began in 1953 and continued through the early 1960s but would not be released to the public until 1977 under the Freedom of Information Act.[1]  There is a plethora of information and conspiracy that at times can be overwhelming when trying to analyze just where LSD went so wrong but it largely comes down to the recreational use of it outside of the study of psychiatry that doomed its potential for benefitting mental health. 

Distorted view of Allen W. Dulles, Director of the CIA.

LSD’s escape from the lab is often contributed to overly excited intellectuals sharing it with their friends and undergrads and while this is mostly true, it leaves out the part of LSD’s story where the intellectuals themselves were given the drug. This is a brief overview of LSD’s conspiracy drenched and truly unethical association with the Central Intelligence Agency’s “truth serum”.

When LSD reached the Bay Area one of the biggest hurdles to its research was funding and while America is not synonymous with healthcare, it is with militarization.  And so rather than be researched for benefits to schizophrenia, LSD began to be studied as a psychochemical weapon that could render the enemy completely susceptible to interrogation through mind control.  On April 10, 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began Project MK-Ultra after director Allen Dulles announced the “battle for men’s minds” against the Soviet Union.[2]   

What was to follow was disturbing and devastating testing on military personnel and civilians under the direction of chemist Sidney Gottlieb.[3]  Much of the unethical testing came from the method of “depatterning” which was developed and researched by Dr. Ewan Cameron from 1957 to 1961.  Depatterning was meant to make someone completely open to suggestibility or brainwashing by erasing their own reality through repeated doses of LSD, drug induced sleep, repetitive audio recordings and electroshock therapy.[4]

“Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching” 

By the early 1960s the CIA had begun to lose interest in LSD as it was most effective through ingestion that would not be practical for widespread dosages during wartime operations.[5]  The use of LSD as a psychochemical weapon was detrimental to its introduction as a treatment for mental health to the public, but perhaps more damaging than this was its beginning recreational usage by both soldiers and students taking the drug outside of controlled settings.  While intellectuals and researchers would be largely responsible for allowing LSD to leave the lab, it was only possible due to the funding and encouraged exploration of the drug’s effects by the CIA.[6] 

[1] David Remnick, “25 Years of Nightmares,” Washington Post, July 28, 1985,

[2] Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, Revised edition (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 27.

[3] Terry Gross, “The CIA’s Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A ‘Poisoner In Chief,’” Fresh Air (NPR, September 9, 2019),

[4] Lee and Shlain, 22.

[5] Lee and Shlain, 41.

[6] “Before-LSD-Was-Acid.Pdf,” accessed October 25, 2021,