Project MKUltra: When the CIA Tested LSD on Unsuspecting Americans

During the 1950s and '60s, the CIA actually administered LSD to an unknown number of Americans for "scientific" purposes. blackred/Getty Images

You, like any other sane person, perceive a concrete world, one that's generally calm and unmenacing. Everyday objects remain still and solid and don't tend to melt into their surroundings. There is no one out to get you; strangers aren't actually actors in an elaborate and nefarious ruse at which you are the uninformed center. There may or may not be a God; the secrets of the universe remain sequestered from you.

All of this changes with LSD. The potent hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide can temporarily occupy the psyche of a person who ingests it. Because of its potency and ability to unlock the "doors of perception," as author Alduous Huxley put it, LSD can be psychically violent. It can hijack the user's mind, gently revealing life's latent truths, or it can turn bully, reducing the user to a state of abject fear. Dr. Timothy Leary proposed that the latter, a bad trip, could be prevented by mindset and setting. The mindset of the user and the atmosphere where the trip takes place are of the utmost importance, in Leary's view. "LSD favors the prepared mind," agrees one psychiatrist [source: Stratton].

In other words, LSD is not to be taken flippantly. This makes dosing an unsuspecting person with it, especially one who isn't already experienced with LSD's properties, a particularly ghastly act. A person unacquainted with LSD and unaware he or she'd been given it could be brought to the edge of mental crumble. It's cruel to surreptitiously spike someone with the drug.

So one could consider the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cruel for administering LSD to an unknown number of unsuspecting Americans during the 1950s and '60s. The agency conducted clandestine experiments on college students, drug addicts, veterans, soldiers, sailors, johns, mental patients, at least one young mother and a jazz singer. For a time, the drug was so prevalent in the CIA, agents dosed one another for fun. And for a punch line, the heyday of 1960s counterculture -- including its subversion of the establishment -- was preceded and directly created by the CIA's acid tests.