How LSD evolved from CIA mind-control drug to counterculture emblem

Published on December 16, 2022 · Last updated December 19, 2022
mk ultra lsd
(Sasha Beck/Leafly)

Project MK ULTRA, a mind-control program led by the US government, sheds light on the origins of LSD’s powerful transformation.

John Lennon of the Beatles summed up the story of LSD best in a 1981 interview: “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD… They invented LSD to control people, and what they did was give us freedom.”

Turns out, this wasn’t just a bit of poetry from one of rock music’s greatest songwriters. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a top-secret government program was created by the CIA to investigate the possibility of mind control, primarily by using LSD—all in the name of protecting American freedom and combating Russia during the Cold War.

Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (2019), charts the CIA’s obsession with finding a miracle drug to unlock the secrets of mind control, eventually leading to the creation of Project MK ULTRA. The program conducted intense and expansive research and experimentation on LSD, so much so that the drug eventually became popular in society. Artists, writers, actors, academics, and more began taking the psychedelic for its therapeutic and mind-expanding properties.

Little did the government know that LSD would help open minds and fuel the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, which would rebel against the same government that tried to control it. The story of how LSD became popular and helped propel the hippie movement follows a twisting path through torture rooms, brothels, drug dens, assassination attempts, and drug experiments on unwilling subjects. Sometimes, real life is stranger than fiction.

What is LSD (Acid)?

What was Project MK ULTRA?

The story of MK ULTRA starts in Switzerland, in 1938, where a chemist named Albert Hofmann was working on a project to isolate compounds of a fungus in rye kernels. He eventually stumbled upon lysergic acid diethylmide-25—and LSD was born.

But the compound wasn’t related to his current work, so Hofmann shelved it. In 1943, he intentionally took a large dose of LSD and recorded the trip. After a rough night, Hofmann enjoyed kaleidoscopic images and reported that a “sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through” him the next morning. Hofmann became a life-long advocate of the drug and its abilities to expand consciousness.

At the same time, World War II gripped most of the globe. The US government created a biological warfare unit for fear that the Nazis might develop the technology first. Not much came of the unit, and it continued to operate after the war in a much-reduced capacity.

Not too long after, Cold War paranoia set in, fostering a competition between the US and Russia. Both countries tried to outdo each other in developing new technologies: the first nuclear bomb, sending the first person into space, and developing biological weapons that could be spread over populations. In hindsight, it may be that Russia wasn’t even interested in biological weapons.

As part of this fear-based mentality, the idea of brainwashing came into the public imagination after an article published in 1950 claimed that Chinese communists were able to control people’s minds. McCarthyism, and the threat of communism taking over the world, pushed many in the US government to come up with drastic measures to combat it.

manchurian candidate film brainwash
The film The Manchurian Candidate (1962) helped popularize the idea of brainwashing. (Courtesy MGM)

The CIA eventually began working with scientists from the remnants of the biological warfare research division, and through many name changes, this collaboration would eventually be called “MK-ULTRA.”

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LSD came to the attention of Sidney Gottlieb, head chemist at the CIA and founder of what would become Project MK ULTRA, and he tried it for himself. Gottlieb became convinced of the substance’s ability to open and explore the mind, and potentially control it.

The CIA expands research on LSD

LSD followed a dark and twisting path from CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb to John Lennon and the ‘60s counterculture movement.

The substance was initially used as a truth serum on ex-Nazis and Eastern European political prisoners. Coupled with experimental techniques such as hypnosis, electroshock, and sensory deprivation, LSD was meant to soften up prisoners for interrogation.

When Sidney Gottlieb was hired for the CIA, testing with LSD increased dramatically, and the MK ULTRA program grew. Safe houses were set up in New York City and San Francisco, which were essentially brothels and drug dens where unsuspectingly victims were lured in and given drugs in the name of MK ULTRA.

Gottlieb also enlisted clinicians at several hospitals and research centers, notably at Emory University, Stanford University, and what is now the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. At some institutions, LSD was given to subjects unknowingly, or even forced onto them. Sometimes, people addicted to drugs were offered the substances they were trying to kick in exchange for participating in LSD experiments. Most of the subjects were Black men. Some subjects claimed to have been given LSD almost every day for 15 months.

sidney gottlieb
Sidney Gottlieb, head of the MK ULTRA program.

Additionally, back in 1953, a former MK ULTRA scientist jumped from a Manhattan hotel window, and his death haunted the clandestine program. The pieces of the story didn’t quite fit—decades later, a story came out that he had been drugged with LSD against his will at a retreat for MK ULTRA operatives, and he never recovered from the experience. Rumors circulated that he was pushed out of the window instead.

In the early ‘60s, new leadership in the CIA questioned the nature and intent of the highly secretive MK ULTRA. Not wanting to reveal its secrets, Gottlieb let the program expire, and in 1963, MK ULTRA was done, after 10 years. But the secrets of the MK ULTRA program weren’t unearthed until the 1970s, when Congress set up a special committee to investigate any shady actions of the CIA. Many of the details of the program are still unknown, even to this day.

Leafly’s guide to psychedelics

LSD fuels the counterculture movement and beyond

Unbeknownst to Gottlieb, his MK ULTRA cohorts, and the US government, LSD had slipped out into society. MK ULTRA had 149 subprojects, many of which were collaborations with legitimate research institutions that reached out to students and volunteers to test LSD.

Perhaps most famously, author Ken Kesey was involved in LSD experiments while studying at Stanford University, which later turned out to be a part of the MK ULTRA program. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author threw LSD parties, bringing together an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, writers, poets, and others. He and the merry pranksters traveled the country, spreading the word of LSD, and forming a foundation of the hippie counterculture movement that would spread across the country in the 1960s.

Poet and Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter was also involved in MK ULTRA experiments and claimed that insight from the drug led him to many song lyrics for the band. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl, is also said to have been involved in MK ULTRA.

Even famous celebrities were turned on to the psychedelic—actor Cary Grant is said to have taken the substance about 100 times for therapeutic reasons, outside of the MK ULTRA program.

The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a popular homage to LSD.

LSD exploded in popularity in the 1960s and moved solidly into the mainstream. “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” was the slogan of era, and dozens of musicians and artists embraced LSD and other psychedelics. Countless songs about psychedelics influenced the generation and those to come.

Most notably, The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” nods to LSD in particular, while other ‘60s anthems like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and others from Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd, and many more, pay homage to psychedelics, profoundly influencing culture and attitudes across the globe for decades to come.

LSD continues to resonate in society

Decades later, LSD also influenced not just artists, musicians, and writers, but some of the minds behind Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was heavily influenced by LSD, saying in an interview: “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is also thought to have dropped acid in the past.

Today, psychedelics are coming back into popularity. Current movies and shows like Fantastic Fungi and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind have brought psychedelics and their therapeutic benefits into the mainstream. In the latter, a man who suffers from cluster headaches takes LSD in a clinical trial to treat his condition.

LSD shows promise in treating many conditions aside from cluster headaches, including alcohol and drug addiction, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, and end-of-life anxiety. More research needs to be done on the substance’s medical potential, but it looks promising.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and Colorado followed suit this year. At the same time, many cities have decriminalized entheogens, or psychedelics and plants containing them, across the nation, following in the wake of cannabis legalization.

The CIA may have thought they were on to something with LSD, but it sure wasn’t mind control. In the search for trying to control people’s minds, LSD ended up gaining massive popularity for its positive, mind-expanding effects, helping people to open up their minds and question society. The substances are finally being recognized for their therapeutic potential and becoming more accepted, and can potentially help people lead to a more fulfilling life.


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Pat Goggins
Pat Goggins
Pat Goggins is a former Leafly senior editor who handled the site's informational Cannabis 101 and Learn section content, as well as health and science, and growing articles. When not fixing typos or reading a book, you’ll probably find him on a boat or in the mountains.
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