“Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!”

But seriously – who knows? And are the men evil? Or is it their hearts? Or is it the means that they employ? Can their cause serve as cover? Can there be righteous justification for some of the horrendous things done in the name of self-preservation? 

In the short gap between World War II and the Cold War, America was battling new enemies, both foreign and domestic. How could that be? How could the superpower that conquered the Nazis and fought off attacks from the Pacific suffer internal moral and ethical turpitude? 

Fear. Fear causes people to do amazing and improbable things. Fear of an enemy, fear of an unknown. They are powerful motivators and ones that Syndey Gottlieb embraced with every fibre of his professional being. The same man whose family would have been Nazi victims engaged in some of the most insidious “experiments” known to man – experiments based on the knowledge and tutelage of the same Nazi scientists who deployed the gasses that would have killed his own family. 

Join us as New York Times reporter and prolific author, Stephen Kinzer introduces us to the most diabolical personalities of the psychedelic journey to date. This episode includes nothing short of the best Bourne thriller – with murder, mayhem, science, spies, brainwashing, and oh so much more. 

And then… let’s bring in Mr. LSD himself, Dr. Timothy Leary. 

All of this came to a pinnacle, and contributed to the 1971 war on drugs. Join us as we explore paranoia, brutality, recklessness and glorification of recreational use led to where we are today. 


1972. Under the direction of the  CIA head Richard Helms, Gottlieb was said to have destroyed close to 7 crates worth of MK Ultra paperwork pertaining to the clinical work and only a few remained. It was only when John Marks, the author of “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, filed a request under the freedom of act to gain access to these documents that some of the truth come to light. 

That was some seriously dark stuff. It is clear that LSD experiments run by the CIA didn’t pan out as they had thought and as a result they abandoned it. They had quite dug themselves quite a deep hole, and could that have been the reason for LSD to be banned? Are we missing anything? Ah, yes,…the 1960s counter-culture. What about it? 

One the key missing pieces in the story that we have heard so far is how LSD came to be the poster child for the 1960s counter-culture. Now you know where the 10,000 doses ordered by Al Hubbard landed. Here is Stephen Kinzer again. 

Kinzer : There’s a whole other aspect to his LSD work, that I think is probably the least expected result of his work. One of the things that he wanted to do was see how LSD would work on people who were fully knowledgeable, and that were volunteers in a normal clinical and medical setting. So he sent it because the CIA didn’t have the ability to carry out these tests. So Gottlieb set up a couple of bogus medical foundations that were actually CIA front. These foundations then contacted hospitals and clinics around the United States, and told them very explicitly, we’re experimenting with LSD, that psychoactive drug that was invented in the 1940s by Albert Hoffman, and we’re gonna send you a supply of it, you will advertise for volunteers, you will pay them with money we will give you you administer it, and then we pay you for this and you just write reports of what happened. So almost overnight an entire market grew from hospitals that wanted to take advantage of this new source of funding, and who were among the very first volunteers to come in and be asked to try this new drug. 

Narration: It is true even today. While cutting edge research happens where the money is, the alternate is also true. One that most academics will not be shy of admitting. The academics go where the money is. So if CIA had set up medical foundations testing LSD, all of which appeared reputable to the on-looker, why the hell not was the thinking? 

At this point, the whole thing requires reflection of a really grey area. It is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight but at the time in the late 1950s and 1960s,  Should the researchers have paused and thought for a second about what the source of money is? Think about it, as you listen on. 

So, one such testing facility was in California in Palo Alto at the veteran affairs hospital. Ken Kesey was a volunteer in the studies funded by CIA and had taken both mescaline and LSD multiple times to supplement his income while taking courses at Stanford. Kesey did not just stop there. He also moon-lighted as the janitor at the VA, in fact that is how he even got to being the subject on the CIA funded study.  Here is the author in his own words. 

Kesey saying – “My key fit the doctor’s office”.

Well, this is the place where the events that led to the  defining what psychedelic means, plays out. Remember what Osmond wrote to Aldous Huxley – “To fathom hell, or soar angelic, take a pinch of Psychedelic” . So please pinch yourself and let’s see what happened from this janitor’s over-exuberance. Here is Kinzer again. 

So almost overnight in a tire market grew up from hospitals that wanted to take advantage of this new source of funding, and who were among the very first volunteers to come in and be asked to try this new drug. One of them was Allen Ginsburg, who went on to become the great poet, poetic promoter of LSD. One was Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Another was Ken Kesey, he who wrote that classic book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all of these people went home immediately and said, You got to dry this drug, and then can Kesey even got a job in the hospital. As he writes, later on. He did that not to gather material for his book, but because he wanted to steal the LSD so he could bring it home and have parties with his friends. In this way. Sidney Gottlieb is the unwitting godfather of the LSD counterculture in the United States. And of course, the irony is that the drug did he hoped would give the cia the tool to control the world wound up fueling a generational rebellion that was aimed at destroying everything the cia stanchion

The Merry Pranksters, the band that Kesey blooded after his cult success of the book – One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is history. Almost every major event in california after this, in California and world over, especially in EUrope and specifically in England, reeked of psychedelic influence. And it wasn’t just the Merry Pranksters and the hippies that Kesey cultivated. There was one more person who added fuel to fire. 

Remember Timothy Leary. At this point, Timothy Leary was a lecturer at Harvard University. As alluded to before, young even in the  early 1950s, when Huxley had taken mescaline and was singing its praise, Leary was not a fan of psychedelics. Until, one trip to Mexico changed all that.  Leary’s tool of choice was LSD that he was exposed to when in England and another synthesized substance derived from mushrooms. The instigator for that trip was a person called Gordon Wasson. Wasson and his wife, had some interest in foraging for wild mushrooms while on honeymoon in the Catskill mountains of new York. They took some fascination to mushroom. In 1957, while visiting Mexico for holiday, Gordon Wasson befriended a local curandera, Maria Sabina who was being a kind host and let the couple sit in on their healing ceremony. But what would follow, would land Maria Sabina in a spot of bother. 

Gordon Wasson arrives back in the United States, with his bravado as the Vice President of Public relations and muscles his way to publishing an article for Life magazine. I am looking at the Life Magazine cover published on 13th of May, 1957. It has a picture of a man, who looks like a funny brother of Alfred Hitchcock, peering out from behind a pot of indoor palm tree, and a black call out banner in the top right, that says, “Great adventures!! The discovery of mushrooms that cause strange visions”. 

Wasson, wrote up an article and shipped it to the editor about how wonderful the visions where with these mushrooms that was provided by Eva Mendez, a pseudonym for the curandera Maria Sabina. In fact, Wasson took a picture of Maria Sabina with the mushrooms and Maria is said to have taken this picture if he were to keep this private. But what did Wasson do? He published it, of course since his bragging was more important than the request of the very person who allowed him to the ceremony and let him take pictures. And can we also say that, we can leave it to the Americans to inject some oomph into the mushrooms by calling it “Magic” Mushrooms. God knows, what the word magic is said to have meant, but it definitely didnt help lower the hysteria around psychedelic substances. 

This article brought hundreds and thousands of visitors to the remote village in Oaxaca. The community thought Maria Sabina had sold out the soul of the region to the western world as more Americans and westeners flocked to this region. 

The list included many, and most notable were two people. First, is the man who gave eureka moment   and a cult status for these substances –  Albert Hoffman. Hoffman is said to have made a trip, brought back a bunch and successfully synthetized the prodrug, Psilocybin. And what does Sandoz do? Market it, of course! For a specific disease indication – nahh…we will figure it out as time goes on, or so they thought. 

Another person, who made the journey was Timothy Leary. Tim Leary was so fascinated by the experience that in a couple of years he undertook two of the most provocative experiments that his legacy would be determined by. 

First was the Concord prison experiment, where the clinical psychologist, Tim Leary, along with his academic colleague, Richard Alpert tried dosing inmates of the prison in Concord, Massachusetts with Psilocybin with a goal of running a scientific study. They were planning to study outcomes of recidivism in anti-social behaviours. Timothy Leary was one of the first proponents of the idea that if the psychedelic drugs were tested in the right environment, which we can call as the aesthetic setting, in a subject who has a baggage that predisposed him to have a certain type of behaviour- the set. Therefore, coining the terminology set and setting for the use of psychedelics.  Timothy Leary argued that psilocybin triggered a mystical experience that enabled them to examine their behaviour during self-reflection. It seemed to have 60% efficacy in the 32 subjects that Timothy Leary is said to have treated. But buoyed on by this success, Leary tried to do a bigger experiment that seemed to have failed and caught the attention of those in the scientific and political community. The efficacy of the next stage of testing is said to have dropped to 20 percent based on some accounts and the scientific community was largely unhappy at the degree and type of follow-up. But Leary’s ego took over and his evangelism of the idea and being too much in love with the idea was the start of his downfall. The root of all this was in the idea of Leary that he needed to ingest these substances along with the subjects to give himself the empathy but also to experience the same as what his patients felt. Once again, we want you to mull that over. Should a physician dose himself and give himself a trip every time he sees a patient? 

You would have expected that some of his academic friends must have sided with him. But that was far from the case and it so happened that Leary, didn’t have any academic friends either. One of his psychiatrist friend, said and I quote – “Timothy Leary certainly popularized the notion inside a lot of a people to experiment with LSD but he did not really give fair information. He was talking about LSD, you know, as a substance that makes you sing songs of liberation. He didn’t tell people about the dangers, that you know, before you go to heaven, you might go to hell. Or if you don’t do it right, you might stay there”. 

The careful analysis was published 34 years after the concord prison experiments in Journal of Psychoactive drugs by Rick Doblin, who went on to found a charity organization to further psychedelic drug therapy. Doblin’s conclusion based on review and interview of 21 of the 32 patients was the following – The results of the follow-up study indicate that published claims of a treatment effect were erroneous. This follow-up study supports the emphasis in the original reports on the necessity of embedding psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy with inmates within a comprehensive treatment plan that includes post-release, non drug group support programs. Despite substantial efforts by the experimental team to provide post-release support, these services were not made sufficiently available to the subjects in this study. 

This concord prison experiment ran from 1960-1963. And around the same time, Leary and his Harvard colleague, Richard Alpert started on the Harvard Psilocybin Project, where the real trouble started. Leary, using his influence, is said to have coerced his students to have taken psilocybin and act as subjects in the clinical studies to understand what Psilocybin was doing and how beneficial it would be, much like an experimental medicine study in today’s world. But Leary’s coercion took an ugly turn when two of the students who were dosed with psilocybin ended up in the hospital with psychosis. For some reason, Harvard, which had a policy of not questioning its faculty and providing them with creative freedom, did demand that undergraduate students should NOT be part of the project. Why was it restricted only to graduate students and what factors were taken into account to come to these decisions is not entirely clear, but definitely, this was shaky ground on both sides. 

Finally, as news emerged that Leary and Alpert recruited undergraduates into the study, Harvard dismissed its blazing faculty members. Leary then used his influence to run psilocybin assisted psychotherapy with philanthropic money and got hold of a mansion in Millbrook, NY. Here, things took an ugly turn from psilocybin research being a scientific pursuit to slowly turning into a party oriented pleasure use. Leary also became the figurehead of the 1960s counter-culture and urged people to “Turn On, Tune In and drop out!”. This raised many eyebrows and as the 60s rolled on, Timothy Leary’s exuberant enthusiasm met the failed experimentation and failures of CIA, to LSD and Psilocybin ingesters being part of the hippie movement and questioning authority, all led to a panic beyond measure. All of this came to a hilt, when the paranoid Nixon labelled him as the “High Priest of LSD”. It was a massive hit for someone as intelligent as Leary, who spoke of some amazing concepts as Set and Setting to be labelled as the “Most Dangerous man in America” . 

Timothy Leary:  We often say that we’re teaching people how to use their head. The point is that in order to use your head, you have to go out of your mind not to go out of out of the static symbolic ways in which you think experience 

Narration: With that language, I am not surprised the high priest of LSD got into some serious trouble. Here is another republican,  1966 gubernatorial candidate, Ronald Regan talking about LSD. 

This is how the tiger had its fangs removed. LSD went from one that was mystical to one that fed to the paranoia largely due to the misuse and glorification of its use for pleasure, all of which had negligible scientific credibility. So it is not surprising that LSD ended up on the ban, along with psilocybin and other substances.  

 But how did the psychedelic substances make a comeback? The scars were so deep that it would be another 20 years before anything appreciable would happen. Well, as with any innovation, it is a process of toil, blood, sweat and tears! 

We have to find out about that, don’t we? 


You have been listening to PsychedeRx. PsychedeRx is a SKRAPS Original podcast produced and narrated by Arun Sridhar and JoJo Platt. 

SKRAPS is a volunteer run organization created by Arun Sridhar and JoJo Platt to disseminate factful stories of science, scientists and innovators as a service to the world. 

Select research for this podcast series was performed by Sharena Rice.  The producers thank Clara Burtenshaw for her invaluable input. Multimedia services were provided by Dr. Romeo Racz. The scripts were written and edited by Arun Sridhar and JoJo Platt.  Financial support to cover the production costs was from Cybin, Inc and a kind donor, BB. 

Recordings were done at Caprino Studios in the UK and Slightly Red Studio in San Francisco. Swaminathan Thiru Gnana Sambandham performed the mixing and mastering. All recordings including interviews are properties of the producers and should not be reproduced without permission. The show notes, transcripts and useful links pertaining to the episode are located at the podcast website –  www.PsychedeRx.com