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Psychedelic Warfare: Exploring the Potential of Psychoactive Weapons

Psychiatrist James Ketchum’s book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten documents the nearly lost history of the U.S. military’s psychedelic chemical warfare research program.

Despite numerous books and articles, many people remain unaware of America’s dark secret with psychedelic drugs. 

Years before the flower power celebrations of the 1960s, LSD was initially researched in this country as a potential weapon or espionage tool. 

Psychedelic drugs were studied by the CIA as part of a covert mind-control program called “MK-Ultra,” where ordinary, unwitting Americans were given LSD without their consent or knowledge.

However, even fewer people are aware of the military project at the Army’s Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal  in Maryland, where, from 1955 to 1975, several thousand U.S. soldiers served as volunteer test subjects, who freely consented to being given LSD and other powerful psychoactive drugs.

Measuring effects on military skills produced by a wide range of mind-bending drugs, these studies were attempts to develop a non-lethal military weapon, one that could be used to temporarily knock people out, without necessarily hurting them.

LSD, strong cannabis derivatives, and deliriant drugs (such BZ and other belladonnoid compounds) were administered to psychologically-healthy volunteers in safe dosages.

Then, each of the volunteers was administered a series of physical and cognitive performance tests to see how well they could perform under the drug’s influence.

When I first learned about this research, I was struck by the strange historical irony, that some of the very drugs that were associated in the 1960s with the counterculture’s antiwar movement in America were--at the very same time--being researched as military weapons.  

During the 1960s, psychiatrist James Ketchum was Chief of the Clinical Research Department, a component of the Army Chemical Center’s Medical Research Laboratory at Edgewood Arsenal.

Ketchum is also the author of the recent book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten, which details this fascinating research, and fills an important niche in the history of psychedelic drugs.

While the thought of government-funded experiments into chemical warfare agents may give you the chills, Ketchum maintains that his research was motivated by the desire to save human lives and develop more humane, non-lethal weapons. 

Part of Ketchum’s motivation for writing this book was to clear up the misconceptions that many people have about the Army’s all-volunteer research program, which is often confused with the CIA’s notorious and nefarious MK-Ultra mind control program that I mentioned above.

“I still feel quite proud of what we did while working for the Chemical Corps. As you can tell, I didn't feel very good about the CIA work. A few years ago, in fact, I testified against the CIA in Federal Court as the sole expert witness for the prosecution,” Ketchum told me.

I asked Ketchum to clarify the difference between these two programs.

“They were entirely separate, Ketchum said.

“The public had acquired the notion that the CIA operations back in the 1950s--when they actually gave LSD to unwitting citizens--was somehow tied to the research that we did at Edgewood Arsenal with the same compound. In fact, it was not.” 

”The program that the CIA ran was so secret that most of the other members of the CIA didn’t know much about it.  When it finally came to light, its leader, Dr. Gottlieb, arranged to destroy all the records, so it is no longer possible to know who actually received it surreptitiously.” 

“Edgewood, on the other hand, had a fully transparent program that was approved by the Surgeon General, the Secretary of the Army, and the Secretary of Defense, so the program was not any kind of secret.”

”Furthermore, the MK-Ultra program conducted by the CIA was aimed at seeking drugs that could produce actual changes in behavior. They thought that perhaps they could give LSD to someone and make him confess to something he was holding back, or carry out some mission he had been told to carry out while under the drug’s influence.”

“None of this was achieved, fortunately, and while these illegal experiments in progress, our laboratories at Edgewood began a totally different approach to the development of chemicals that could temporarily incapacitate without any lasting effects.”

“They would be used only for short-term military purposes, and there was no thought of changing personalities, or getting people to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

The research at Edgewood ended in 1975, and in 1993 the United States signed the Chemical Warfare Convention treaty, which outlaws the use of any chemical weapon during aggressive military action, so it doesn’t seem like this research will be picked up any time soon.

However, can you just imagine what it would be like, to have the military dropping LSD on to people instead of bombs? Besides “incapacitating” terrorists, this might help to engender mystical experiences, increase ecological awareness, and perhaps even inspire visions of world peace.

To learn more about James Ketchum’s work, see my interview with him: http://mavericksofthemind.com/james-ketchum-m-d

To order a copy of Ketchum’s book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten see: http://www.amazon.com/Chemical-Warfare-Secrets-Almost-Forgotten/dp/1424300800

If you enjoy my column, and want to learn more about psychedelic and cannabis culture, “like” my Facebook page:

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Stephen Coffman November 04, 2012 at 12:29 AM
I was a MEDVOL for the experiments at Edgewood Arsenal between January and April 1975. Due to health problems I filed a claim with the VA a few years ago. Every 3 months I get a letter from the VA telling me they are still working on it. Sure. "Delay, Deny, wait until they Die." See I can not appeal their decision until they make a decision. So they just delay and delay.
Mike Viall November 08, 2012 at 06:35 PM
"However, can you just imagine what it would be like, to have the military dropping LSD on to people instead of bombs? Besides “incapacitating” terrorists, this might help to engender mystical experiences, increase ecological awareness, and perhaps even inspire visions of world peace." Umm . . . right. Can you please stop selling drugs?
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