BOOK REVIEW: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain

Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties RebellionAcid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion by Martin A. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a microhistory of America’s interaction with LSD. LSD, commonly called “acid” from its full name Lysergic acid diethylamide, is a chemical substance that was originally derived from ergot fungus, and which causes distortion of perception, an altered state of consciousness, and – in some cases – hallucinations. When I say it’s American history, that’s an oversimplification because many of the events described happen overseas (e.g. LSD’s own story begins in Switzerland with chemist, Albert Hofmann, after all,) but most of the central players are American and the book’s two primary lines of investigation are both centered on America. One of these lines involves the covert research program designed to discover if acid could be used as a truth serum, a mind-control agent, an incapacitant, or otherwise to the benefit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert agencies. The other line is about the role that LSD played in the countercultural revolution of the 60’s and early 70’s.

The book’s flow begins more heavily focused on the covert programs, then gets into what was happening with the youth in the 60’s, and toward the end discusses where the proceeding lines seem to run together with individuals like Ronald Stark who was a drug smuggler involved with an organization called the “Brotherhood for Eternal Love” but who many suspected of having ties with (if not direct employment by) the CIA – and not entirely without reason (though not with sufficient evidence that firm conclusions are drawn in the book.) I should mention that this just the general flow. The book has a chronological flow with topical segments within, so it’s not like it deals with these issues entirely independently.

If the covert research program had been carried out by competent scientists using accepted methodologies, then the discussion of these programs would probably be at best moderately interesting. (To be fair, some competent science may have occurred, but it’s so unnoteworthy compared to the wild and pranksterish that it draws no attention.) What the reader learns, however, is fascinating because it involves clean-cut and seemingly respectable g-men spiking unwitting subjects with acid like a teenage prankster-idiot might do – but without the “excuse” of being immature, stoned, and having not yet learned to behave responsibly. Perhaps the most bizarre program was Operation Midnight Climax, in which CIA agents hired prostitutes in San Francisco to spike the drinks of their johns so they could find out if the customers got loose-lipped. A CIA agent would watch on, dutifully making pipe-cleaner twists of the various sexual positions performed by the sex-worker and her customer.

The civilian history follows a path from Hofmann’s discovery at Sandoz Laboratories (now owned by Novartis) through the early years of Al Hubbard (the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) through the trials of Timothy Leary to others who figured in the heyday of LSD such as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and, finally, to the crackdown on psychedelics and the illicit smuggling rings that resulted. There is fascinating coverage of how Federal law enforcement tried to stifle production and smuggling of LSD, particularly with respect to training agents to infiltrate hippie organizations.

This book originally came out in the 80’s (though I read the 2007 edition) and while it has a post-script that discuss a bit of a resurgence that occurred beyond the 70’s, it doesn’t touch upon a more recent thaw in attitudes toward psychedelics as they’ve begun to be legalized (or sought out where they are legal) or the surge in popularity of “micro-dosing.” As of this book’s end all psychedelics remained Schedule I – a label which states that they have no legitimate medicinal value (which cooler heads have realized is blatantly wrong given substantial evidence that psychedelics can be of benefit in conquering addiction, in managing depression, and otherwise.)

I found this book intriguing. It’s a must-read if you are interested in any of the following topics: the 60’s counter-culture revolution, mind-control programs, or how public policy gets hijacked by history.

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4 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain

  1. Does this book add anything to Jay Stevens, “Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream”`? I found that fascinating, and have read a number of books by and about Leary, Alpert, Metzner and others. Not sure I need to read another, unless it significantly adds to what is already out there.
    And the recent book by Michael Pollan “How to Change Your Mind” also has a substantial section on psychedelic history, with a fascinating section on Al Hubbard and others, though its main emphasis is on the recent renaissance of research on psychedelics and the decriminalization of psylocibin which has started to occur.

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    • I haven’t read the Stevens book, so can’t comment. Of the related books that I have read it’s much broader than Lattin’s “Harvard Psychedelic Club” and Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” Both of which cover in detail what is only a part of Lee and Shlain’s book does, i.e. Leary/Alpert/Houston Smith/Andrew Weil in the former and Ken Kesey in the latter. Both of those books only touch on the MK-Ultra and other covert projects.

      I have read Pollan’s excellent work, and it brings the subject up to date, but because history is just a part of it, it goes into less depth.

      I guess the question would be how much Stevens goes into the mind-control / covert programs, which Lee and Shlain cover in much more detail than I’ve seen in the other books.

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