The Secret Black History of LSD

The Secret Black History of LSD

Research on psychedelics, then and now, has been riddled with medical racism and exclusion. But that hasn’t stopped Black people from finding creativity and solace through such drugs.


Born of America’s Cold War paranoia that the Soviets had achieved breakthroughs in the development of mind control drugs, Project MK-Ultra was the CIA’s covert counter-operation to locate the ultimate “truth serum” for interrogations, as hearings on the project later described it. Approved in 1953 by then–CIA director Allen Dulles, MK-Ultra primarily involved the secret—and highly illegal—“administration of LSD to unwitting individuals,” according to the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities in its 1975 investigative report. In 1977, roughly 16,000 pages of misfiled documents were unearthed showing that the “25-year, $25-million effort by the [CIA] to learn how to control the human mind,” in The New York Times’ description, not only saw the US government dose thousands of American (and Canadian) citizens with LSD without their knowledge or consent, but also disproportionately target those “who could not fight back,” as one CIA official admitted.

“Black Americans were uniquely exploited during this first wave of psychedelic research,” concluded the authors of a 2021 University of Ottawa study of abuses in the early trials of LSD. Overwhelmingly, the African American victims of MK-Ultra were drawn from prisons and hospital mental wards, including the National Institute of Mental Health’s Addiction Research Center (ARC), which tested LSD and some 800 other psychoactive drugs on an inmate population that was almost exclusively Black. In numerous other MK-Ultra experiments, according to the study, “participants were subject to differential and torturous treatment and dosing dependent on race.” In one 1960 study, “‘Negro’ men convicted on drug charges…were recruited from prison and given LSD in a research ward,” while a comparison group made up of “professional White people at Cold Spring Harbor, living freely,” took LSD in “the principal investigator’s home ‘under social conditions designed to reduce anxiety.’”

“In the 1950s and ’60s, researchers weren’t thinking about the need to take extra precautions with vulnerable populations,” says Dana Strauss, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Ottawa and a coauthor of the 2021 study. ”Whether or not those researchers were explicitly targeting Black Americans, they drew their participants mostly from prisons where Black Americans were overrepresented because of racism in arrests, charges, incarceration, and sentencing.”

Just as the mistreatment of marginalized Black folks in MK-Ultra demonstrates the dangers of medical racism, so, too, does their exclusion from contemporary research into the effectiveness of drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA to treat trauma, anxiety, and depression. As what’s been called the “psychedelic renaissance” in psychotherapy blooms, this is a key moment to acknowledge that, while the popular face of “tripping” has been stark white since the days of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and flower power, Black folks have long found creativity and solace in the intentional and consensual use of psychedelics. But the War on Drugs complicated that relationship.

MK-Ultra comprised “some 149 subprojects” conducted by at least 80 institutions, the Supreme Court noted in a 1985 decision. At all of the principal prison “recruitment” sites—ARC in Lexington, Ky., Atlanta State Penitentiary, Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison), the New Jersey Reformatory, and Maryland correctional facilities—the University of Ottawa researchers found that “compared with the state population, [people of color] were overrepresented.”

In 1955, the CIA struck a deal with the chair of psychology at Tulane University, Dr. Robert Heath. Using CIA funds, Heath and his assistant Harry Bailey conducted nonconsensual experiments in 1955 and 1956 on Black inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary, giving them LSD and bulbocapnine, a drug that in large doses, a CIA document noted, induced “catatonia or stupor.” The CIA wanted to learn whether the drugs would result in “loss of speech, loss of sensitivity to pain, loss of memory, loss of willpower and an increase in toxicity in persons with a weak type of central nervous system.” Bailey would reportedly later state, reflecting on the unorthodoxy of the forced treatments, that it had been “cheaper to use niggers than cats, because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.”

Described in a 1977 New York Times article as an “eager experimenter” for the CIA, Dr. Harris Isbell was the research director at ARC when MK-Ultra launched. The facility billed itself as a hybrid hospital/addiction-science lab forging new ground in drug rehabilitation. In practice, it worked more like a prison—where Isbell, preying on the addictions of his overwhelmingly Black male patient population, conducted MK-Ultra experiments from the early 1950s to the ’60s. “The deal was pretty simple,” Dominic Streatfeild, author of Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control, writes. “The CIA needed a place to test dangerous and possibly addictive drugs; Isbell had a large number of drug users in no position to complain.” Referred to as “volunteers,” the patients who signed up for Isbell’s drug trials were never told which narcotic they’d be given or its potential effects. They were compensated in heroin and morphine—the same drugs for which they were supposedly receiving addiction treatment.

A 1956 article by Isbell describes four distinct and excruciating LSD experiments on ARC patients. His notes reveal that Black patients in some of these studies were fed more than twice as much LSD as white patients. What’s more, as the University of Ottawa study observes, “white participants endured only 8 days of LSD administration, while Black participants endured chronic administration for up to 85 days.” In a letter, Isbell states that in one experiment he gave “seven Negro subjects” daily doses of LSD, which he would double, triple, or quadruple to keep them from building a tolerance, all “without the patient’s knowledge.” Isbell reports that this torture continued for a staggering 77 days; a lengthy New York Times piece published after the 1977 document drop states that “a mental patient” at ARC “was dosed with LSD continuously for 174 days.” Isbell, who was given the US Public Health Service Meritorious Service Award in 1962, would tell a Senate subcommittee in 1975, “The ethical codes were not so highly developed and there was a great need to know in order to protect the public in assessing the potential use of narcotics…and to make recommendations about the need for control of these drugs. So it was very necessary, and I personally think we did a very excellent job.”

The US Army conducted its own Cold War drug experiments under Operation Third Chance, deployed primarily against unknowing Europeans abroad. The only American dosed with LSD was James Thornwell, the lone Black soldier at his station in France. Thornwell had been accused of stealing classified documents and was subjected for more than three months to an interrogation in which he was “physically abused,” “terrified with threats of…death,” and “degraded by a steady stream of verbal abuse, including racial slurs and accusations of sexual impropriety,” by members of the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, according to his legal complaint. After 99 days, a team from Operation Third Chance showed up and surreptitiously gave Thornwell LSD, then continued the humiliation and torment. Thornwell, whom Army notes describe as having an “extreme paranoiac reaction” that was “almost incapacitating,” was terrified; unaware that he had been dosed and unfamiliar with LSD or its effects, he thought he was losing his mind. Thornwell’s Army abusers told him they had the power to “extend this state indefinitely, even to a permanent condition of insanity.” He fainted from the trauma, came to, and was finally sent home. An officer on the intelligence team concluded that the Army had “satisfactory evidence of subject’s claim of innocence” from the sadistic session. Four months later, Thornwell was given a general—though not honorable—discharge.

It took 16 years before he learned what the Army had done to him. In a 1979 lawsuit, Thornwell said the experience had turned him into “an isolated social and emotional cripple.” He described a life of headaches, depression, and nightmares. During the trial, evaluating psychiatrists unanimously concluded he suffered from “severe psychiatric disorders.” In 1980, Congress publicly apologized to Thornwell and granted him a $625,000 payment. Four years later, he drowned after a suspected epileptic seizure.

By 1960, MK-Ultra head chemist Sidney Gottlieb’s faith in the experiments was flagging, as evidenced by a memo in which he noted that “no effective knockout pill, truth serum, aphrodisiac or recruitment pill was known to exist,” though the CIA would continue the program for years. Nearly two decades later, Senator Walter D. Huddleston would confirm at a congressional hearing that “any information that was gathered was apparently useless and not worth continuing.”

Edward M. Flowers, who had been an unwitting subject of MK-Ultra experiments at ARC when he was 19, testified at the 1975 hearing at which Isbell appeared. By then, Flowers had become the assistant director of a different rehabilitation and reeducation program for ex-addicts. Years later, he recalled the hearings as the moment he recognized the full scope of his betrayal. “I really got a firsthand insight about some things when we had the hearings, because then the bigger picture kinda showed. Then I got in touch with the fact that the CIA was behind all this,” Flowers said in a 2004 interview, adding, “They used my ass and took advantage of me.” Despite the violations of the Nuremberg Code’s research ethics, no one associated with MK-Ultra was ever punished for their involvement.

The Senate Watergate investigation would lead to the end of both MK-Ultra and the presidency of Richard Nixon, who launched the War on Drugs in 1971. The Controlled Substances Act, another Nixon legacy, made psychedelics Schedule I drugs, categorizing them as having “no currently accepted medical use.” The designation effectively shut down research into LSD until the late 1990s, when public interest in psychotropic drugs was reignited.

That movement has gained momentum in the past few years, but just as in the 1960s, when psychedelics were closely associated with white hippie culture, the popular image of their use has been overwhelmingly white—which perhaps explains why recreational use has been portrayed as rebellious and visionary. Among those credited with the current resurgence are Silicon Valley gurus like Tim Ferriss, who in 2015 claimed that every billionaire he knows takes “hallucinogens on a regular basis.” But the idea that only white folks are taking part in psychedelic mind-expanding experiments isn’t true. From A$AP Rocky, who has publicly touted LSD for helping him “cope with life,” to Chance the Rapper, who has said that recording his aptly named 2013 mixtape Acid Rap involved “30 to 40 percent” LSD in the studio, to the scenes in the film Black Panther of Prince T’Challa eating a psychedelic leaf that teleports him into the realm of his ancestors, a new generation of Black artists is embracing hallucinogens. And while the image of psychedelic users was whitewashed in the 1960s and ’70s, Black psychedelic rock artists—Love, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Shuggie Otis—were creating trippy sonic experiments that pushed at the boundaries of the genres they incorporated to forge something altogether new. The long-standing rumor that Funkadelic’s 1970 album Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow was made because the band wanted to “see if we can cut a whole album while we’re all tripping on acid” was established by George Clinton himself. The inheritors of this legacy are the Afrofuturists, from Missy Elliott to Janelle Monáe.

And yet the psychedelic renaissance seems to be as whitewashed as its predecessor. A 2018 study found that in 18 trials of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, 82 percent of the participants were white, while just 2.5 percent were African American—a “lack of inclusion” by an overwhelmingly white field of researchers that “goes directly against federally mandated efforts to report and recruit diverse samples in clinical trials.” “We have a long way to go,” Strauss, the University of Ottawa PhD candidate, says.

In 2017, the FDA gave a green light to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to sponsor Phase 3 clinical trials for MDMA-assisted therapy, the last hurdle before approval. Monnica Williams, a Black clinical psychologist who is one of the foremost researchers in psychedelic-assisted therapy, led the first—and thus far the only—study focused solely on examining the healing possibilities of MDMA for people of color. “Because of the criminalization of all these substances and the fallout from the war on drugs, African-Americans face a lot of danger when it comes to using drugs or even talking about them in a way that isn’t true for white people,” Williams said in a 2019 interview, discussing the challenges of recruitment in clinical trials. “Black people have to be a lot more careful, and particularly those of us, for example, who are clinicians and are licensed.”

That remains true even as the laws around psychedelics are loosened. In 2019, Denver became the first US city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, with Oakland, Santa Cruz, Seattle, and four cities in Massachusetts following soon after. Oregon decriminalized psilocybin and legalized its use in psychotherapy in 2020, and ayahuasca, mescaline, and psychedelic mushrooms were decriminalized in Washington, D.C., last year. But disproportionate criminalization remains. A 2020 study by the ACLU found that “in every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, Black people are still more likely to be arrested for possession than white people.” The stigma attached to Black drug use under the War on Drugs also means that “whites have the privilege of publicizing psychedelic use with lesser consequences than minorities and therefore some participants may feel excluded from these experiences.” “For Black people, the punishment for using illicit substances is so much higher,” Sonya Faber, a clinical psychologist who has written about psychedelic-assisted therapy, told me. “So, culturally, we’ve been told to stay far away from those things, because you don’t get a second chance if you get in trouble with drugs.”

There’s also a long history of medical racism that contributes to Black hesitancy to get involved in psychedelic trials. “Often, just in trying to access health care, Black people are routinely met with bias,” Strauss told me. “And these same biases exist in mental health care.” Studies have found that Black folks in state psychiatric hospitals are nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than their white peers. They’re also given more antipsychotic drugs and in higher doses than white patients. The anxiety and depression caused by racial trauma, which creates its own post-traumatic stress disorder, as a study led by Williams found, can go unrecognized by clinicians who overemphasize psychotic symptoms. That’s particularly disheartening considering that a 2021 study led by Williams found that “people of color in North America report improvements in racial trauma and mental health symptoms following psychedelic experiences” and that “trauma-related symptoms linked to racist acts were lowered in the 30 days after an experience with either psilocybin, LSD or MDMA.”

Any legal use of those drugs will be tightly regulated. People who have a diagnosis of PTSD may get access, but the price is expected to be up to $15,000 per treatment round. Those who are insured may have that cost reduced. For others, the cost is prohibitively expensive. Kwasi Adusei, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and cofounder of Mindlumen, says he hopes there will be alternative ways of offering therapy to those who need it most.

“No matter how amazing these tools such as MDMA are, if we don’t deal with the issues of the system itself, all we do is widen health disparities,” Adusei told me. “For those who do want access to psychedelics, getting their way into clinical models is going to be really difficult unless you’re designing for it. If you can design for the people who are the least able to access these services, you offer a system that’s accessible for literally everybody.”

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