Ten scientists, some from the CIA, gathered in a cabin in Maryland for their semiannual review and conference in November 1953. On day two, a bottle of Cointreau — spiked with LSD — appeared; after it was emptied, Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA program director, informed his colleagues that they were in for a wild ride.
Although the men all seemed to weather their respective trips, things were about to take a turn for the worse. Gottlieb, according to a 1976 report, noticed nothing strange about fellow scientist Frank Olson before the dosing. That night, he had been chatty and boisterous, and all was well. But the next day, Olson appeared to be agitated, then depressed; later that month, he committed suicide, falling 10 stories from a hotel in Washington, D.C.
Rather than a war on drugs, it was a war with drugs.
Gottlieb was the head of an ultrasensitive CIA program called MKUltra, tasked with developing behavior and mind control, which began in 1953 and ran until the mid-1960s. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it was all the rage: The U.S. was in the midst of a Cold War and had just emerged from World War II, which had raised a “general interest in propaganda” and “psychological manipulation,” says H. P. Albarelli Jr., author of A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments.
The project directors were intrigued by the notion of making world leaders look foolish in public by drugging them, dosing whole populations through the water supply and manipulating suspects during interrogation. Rather than a war on drugs, it was a war with drugs.
But the revolutionary idea needed testing, and the CIA wanted to acquaint its own operatives with the effects of the drug. Under MKUltra’s umbrella, LSD — invented in 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann — was tested on CIA agents and unwitting civilians. In 2006, a man named Wayne Ritchie brought a case claiming that in 1957, he had attempted to rob a bar due to LSD testing at an office Christmas party. Unfortunately for Ritchie, and others, the link between dosings and terrible consequences have been hard to prove.