Project MKUltra: When the CIA Tested LSD on Unsuspecting Americans

CIA LSD Experiments

Shooting heroin, circa 1955.
Shooting heroin, circa 1955.
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

George Hunter White was already a legend in the law enforcement community by the time he was recruited by the CIA to carry out Dr. Sidney Gottlieb's experiments. He'd made a name for himself by working undercover as a heroin trafficker and taking down a syndicate of Chinese opium dealers. White was a little too good at his job; he was excommunicated from New York after digging up political dirt on the governor. He was a swinger, whose sexual proclivities tended toward the kinky. By all accounts, White was crazy, reckless and the perfect man to get the job done when the job took nerve, heartlessness and a complete disregard of established laws and social norms.

At first it was White who carried out Gottlieb's tests. White and his ostensibly informed wife held parties at their New York apartment wherein White furnished his guests with LSD-laced martinis. As the drug took hold, he observed its effects on the unwitting participants, making notes on their reactions. In some instances, the effects included giddiness and euphoria; others were darker, with the subjects realizing something was terribly wrong and reacting badly. White noted this type of reaction as "the horrors" [source: Valentine].

Eventually, the experiments were moved from White's apartment in New York to a CIA-funded safe house in San Francisco dubbed "the pad" [source: Stratton]. It was here that White recruited Ike Feldman. In his guise as pimp, the cop collected prostitutes and paid them to bring back customers to the pad and surreptitiously administer LSD into their drinks. Throughout, George White sat quietly behind a two-way mirror, drinking martinis, watching the ignorant test subjects trip and taking notes on their reactions.

White also continued the same kind of direct involvement in the San Francisco MKULTRA LSD tests that he had in New York. Often on acid himself, he'd adopt the alter ego of a merchant sailor or an artist, delving headlong into San Francisco's seamy underbelly of hookers, drug addicts and sexual deviants. It was this population that the CIA had identified as fair game for the tests, since the agency figured they were degenerates [source: Stratton]. In his alternate personas, White rooted out test subjects.

Unlike the legitimate experiments held in research facilities, the covert experimenters failed to keep an appropriate and objective distance from their tests. Instead, the CIA higher-ups determined it would be best for their operatives to try LSD themselves, an effort to prepare them in the event they should be slipped the drug by Soviet agents. They would be better equipped to handle the bent version of reality.

This official decision either led to or justified a culture of acid users in the CIA in the 1950s; it's unclear which came first. Either way, in the middle of the 20th century, a significant number of CIA operatives knew what it meant to trip on acid. Coming down was a disappointment: "I felt like I would be going back to a place where I wouldn't be able to hold on to this kind of beauty," one reported [source: Stratton].

The "beauty" of LSD wasn't experienced by all involved in the clandestine tests, however. At least one person is believed to have died as an indirect result of what can only be described as a truly bad trip, and others' lives were ruined from the CIA's surreptitious dosing.