Let’s Talk About LSD!


Don’t know if any of you noticed, but the Drug War that costs this country billions of dollars and incarcerates many thousands of people–a lot of them non-violent–every year while drug use continues to stay pretty steady as though none of that law enforcement was occurring didn’t really come up in that presidential election we just sat through. This, despite the fact that most economists worth their Milton Friedman Secret Decoder Rings have long advocated the complete ending of the Drug War (see this April 2012 column from Forbes advocating exactly that).

I bring this up because I just read Raffi Khatchadourian’s lengthy new investigative story “Operation Delirium” in the Dec. 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. Great, great story. See, our government hasn’t always been so anti-drug. In the early 1960s, in fact, the United States Army engaged in all kinds of risky, questionable psychochemical-warfare experiments on its own soldiers.

One brief anecdote from Khatchadourian’s story, which occurred in 1961 and concerned Colonel James S. Ketchum, who for a time ran the experiments at the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal on Chesapeake Bay, really encapsulated the dangerously haphazard nature of the experiments and the absurdly arbitrary way in which the U.S. Army kept researchers and subjects informed about the work they were doing:

The psychochemical-warfare program was a small part of the over-all research, and in many respects it was the strangest. Once, Ketchum walked into his office and found a barrel the size of an oil drum standing in a corner. No one explained why it was in his office, or who had put it there. After a couple of days, he waited until evening and opened it. Inside, he found dozens of small glass vials, each containing a precisely measured amount of pure LSD; he figured there was enough to make several hundred million people go bonkers–and later calculated the street value of the barrel to be roughly a billion dollars. At the end of the week, the barrel vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared. No one spoke about it. He never learned what it was for.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for a kick-ass LSD-related Christmas gift, consider buying a copy of my friend and former colleague Nick Schou’s outstanding Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, a fantastically readable account of hippie surfers from OC who sold LSD in the 1960s. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo: William Rafti/Wikimedia Commons

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