We all know the CIA was recklessly spiking peoples drinks and dosing them with LSD back in the 60s, but it seems the Army too was playing games with drugs – in hope of creating nonlethal weapons that could minimize casualties in a war.
Sitting on the panel next to Shulgin was an unlikely expositor. Dr. James S. Ketchum, a retired U.S. Army colonel, told the audience, “When Sasha was trying to open minds with chemicals to achieve greater awareness, I was busy trying to subdue people.”
Ketchum was referring to his work at Edgewood Arsenal, headquarters of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, in the 1960s, when America’s national security strategists were high on the prospect of developing a nonlethal incapacitating agent, a so-called humane weapon, that could knock people out without necessarily killing anyone. Top military officers hyped the notion of “war without death,” conjuring visions of aircraft swooping over enemy territory releasing clouds of “madness gas” that would disorient the bad guys and dissolve their will to resist, while U.S. soldiers moved in and took over.
Ketchum was into weapons of mass elation, not weapons of mass destruction. He oversaw a secret research program that tested an array of mind-bending drugs on American GIs, including an exceptionally potent form of synthetic marijuana. (Most of these drugs had no medical names, just numbers supplied by the Army.) “Paradoxical as it may seem,” Ketchum asserted, “one can use chemical weapons to spare lives, rather than extinguish them.”
With a larger dose of Red Oil, the reaction was even more pronounced. “These animals lie on their side; you could step on their feet without any response; it is an amazing effect and a reversible phenomenon. It has greatly increased our interest in this compound from the standpoint of future chemical possibilities.”
In the late 1950s, the Army started testing Red Oil on U.S. soldiers at Edgewood. Some GIs smirked for hours while they were under the influence of EA 1476. When asked to perform routine numbers and spatial reasoning tests, the stoned volunteers couldn’t stop laughing.
But Red Oil was not an ideal chemical-warfare candidate. For starters, it was a “crude” preparation that contained many components of cannabis besides psychoactive THC. Army scientists surmised that pure THC would weigh much less than Red Oil and would therefore be better suited as a chemical weapon. They were intrigued by the possibility of amplifying the active ingredient of marijuana, tweaking the mother molecule, as it were, to enhance its psychogenic effects. So the Chemical Corps set its sights on developing a synthetic variant of THC that could clobber people without killing them.
By the time the clinical testing program had run its course, 6,700 volunteers had experienced some bizarre states of consciousness at Edgewood. Under the influence of powerful mind-altering drugs, some soldiers rode imaginary horses, ate invisible chickens and took showers in full uniform while smoking phantom cigars. One garrulous GI complained that an order of toast smelled “like a French whore.” Some of their antics were so over-the-top that Ketchum had to admonish the nurses and other medical personnel not to laugh at the volunteers, even though it was unlikely that the soldiers would remember such incidents once the drugs wore off.
Ketchum insists that the staff at Edgewood went to great lengths to ensure the safety of the volunteers. (There was one untoward incident involving a civilian volunteer who flipped out on PCP and required hospitalization, but this happened before Ketchum came on board.) During the 1960s, every soldier exposed to incapacitating agents was carefully screened and prepped beforehand, according to Ketchum, and well treated throughout the experiment. They stayed in special rooms with padded walls and were monitored by medical professionals 24/7. Antidotes were available if things got out of hand.
“The volunteers performed a patriotic service,” Ketchum says. “None, to my knowledge, returned home with a significant injury or illness attributable to chemical exposure,” though he admits that “a few former volunteers later claimed that the testing had caused them to suffer from some malady.” Such claims, however, are difficult to assess given that so many intervening variables may have contributed to a particular problem.
A follow-up study conducted by the Army Inspector General’s office and a review panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences found little evidence of serious harm resulting from the Edgewood experiments. But a 1975 Army IG report noted that improper inducements may have been used to recruit volunteers and that getting their “informed consent” was somewhat dubious given that scientists had a limited understanding of the short- and long-term impact of some of the compounds tested on the soldiers.
Ketchum draws a sharp distinction between clinical research with human subjects under controlled conditions at Edgewood Arsenal and the CIA’s reckless experiments on random, unwitting Americans who were given LSD surreptitiously by spooks and prostitutes. “Jim is very certain of his own integrity,” says Ken Goffman, aka R.U. Sirius, the former editor of the psychedelic tech magazine Mondo 2000. “There is little doubt in his mind that he was doing the right thing. He felt he was working for a noble cause that would reduce civilian and military casualties.” Goffman helped Ketchum edit and polish his book manuscript, which vigorously defends the Edgewood research program.