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Tripped Up

The acid-washing of American capitalism

In How to Operate Your Brain, a 1993 “public service video,” the chromatic shadow of Timothy Leary’s face demands over an unceasing electronic beat that the viewer “think for yourself” and “question authority.” The video proceeds like this for twenty-nine minutes: anti-authoritarian counsel layered over strobing New Wave visuals.

Thinking for yourself and questioning authority have morphed into very different propositions since the psychedelic heyday of Leary’s well-chronicled experiments with mind-altering substances. Consider, for instance, the brain-operating regimen promoted these days by Princeton-educated Tim Ferriss—a blond, blue-eyed, muscle-jawed entrepreneur and Silicon Valley insider. It’s not hard to picture Ferriss gratefully imbibing Leary’s agitprop video in a sustained show of corporate mindfulness. Ferriss is the best-selling author of self-help books such as The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef, and has extolled the benefits of carefully calibrated doses of psychotropic drugs in the high-stress workplaces of the tech world. “The billionaires I know almost without exception use hallucinogens on a regular basis,” he says in a CNN interview. When asked by the interviewer whether “creativity comes from drugs,” he responds cagily: “The people I know who are trying to be very disruptive look at the problems in the world that exist and ask completely new questions.”

To judge by Ferriss’s influential testimony, a new wave of tech bro capitalists, keen to “disrupt” various industries and economic sectors, are seeing vast returns on their backdoor investments in hallucinogens. Or, to put things in a slightly more dour register: a linchpin of the 1960s hippie rebellion is now being used to promote productivity among the ruling class.

Tune In, Turn On, Disrupt

This transformation is easily tracked, online and off. Millennial “microdosing coach” Paul Austin formed the Third Wave organization with the intent of normalizing the use of psychedelics. According to Austin’s website, the first and second waves had been “traditional tribal use” and “use during the counter-culture of the 1960s.” The third wave would cast off the baggage of aimless Baby Boomer debauchery and reinstate psychedelics as tools for psychosocial betterment. “The focus of the Third Wave psychedelic movement is two-fold,” the site’s manifesto reads, “to restart an informative and rational dialogue concerning psychedelic use and to encourage the use of small to moderate amounts for therapeutic and creative reasons.”

According to a report by the Financial Times, general practitioner Dr. Molly Maloof believes that psychedelics could be legal within five to ten years. Maloof counts among her patients a number of Silicon Valley executives interested in “biohacking,” or unlocking the right combination of exercise, vitamins, and drugs that will help them become centenarians. While she doesn’t prescribe illegal drugs for obvious reasons, she does offer harm-reduction counseling when it comes to taking nootropics and LSD. She receives as much as $40,000 per patient, per year for her services.

This isn’t altogether the sort of study in countercultural dissonance it might seem at first glance. For long-suffering students of the hipster-capitalist sloganeering favored among our tech lords, there’s nothing especially strange about someone like Ferriss promoting the use of illegal drugs. Going at least as far back as Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad, which conjured the Macintosh computer as a revolutionary device, insurrectionary rhetoric has always been bruited alongside Silicon Valley’s reigning neoliberal credo of maximum return on investment. The relevant difference here is that, instead of staging a real revolution, the insurgent rebels of the Valley scene reject authority by innovating the old guard out of existence and becoming authorities themselves. There’s no risk in assuming the mantle of rebellion when it’s just another word for “disruption”—when you are, in other words, a rich white man in the tech industry.

Your Brain on the Cold War

Still, the broader historical background of the microdosing craze is instructive in that it marks the reemergence of psychedelics in productivity-enhancing guise as less a freakish tech-bubble departure than an eternal return. From its origins onward, the modern psychotropic age is a long, grim parade of figures seeking to capture and control the inner workings of the human mind for maximum ideological advantage. To conscript mind-expanding drugs into the keystroke-counting rounds of software engineering represents, if anything, a return to form—albeit for a postideological neoliberal age hellbent on enhancing productivity over and above any other competing social goods.

Consider the duly credentialed and war-driven aims of the initial LSD rebellion, a little more than half a century ago. From 1960 to 1963, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Baba Ram Dass of Be Here Now fame) ran the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a decidedly laissez faire effort to track the experimental effects of psilocybin on non-randomly selected subjects. Leary and Alpert drew criticism at the time for their suspect scientific ethics and tendency to conduct experiments while themselves under the influence of psilocybin.

In the early 1960s, Leary had also begun to experiment with LSD on his own. By the time he got fired for neglecting to fulfill his duties as a lecturer, he had founded the International Federation for Internal Freedom, the organization through which he would continue to “study”— and more baldly, to promote—the consciousness-changing use of LSD. Leary ran afoul of the authorities several times (Richard Nixon once described him as “the most dangerous man in America”), but trouble never seemed to stick to him for long. In the mid-1960s, he was facing a sentence of up to thirty years on a Texas marijuana charge, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned that. He was retried and given a ten-year sentence by a Texas judge in 1970 but by this time a 1968 arrest for marijuana possession in Laguna Beach, California, had landed him in a minimum-security prison in San Luis Obispo, with another ten-year sentence. Several months into the term he escaped the facility, supposedly with the help of the Weather Underground. He traveled the world, staying with Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria and an ultra-rich arms dealer in Switzerland. He finally ended up serving three years in California prisons before both a federal parole board in Washington and a Texas judge cleared him for release in April of 1976.

In a “Third Wave psychedelic movement,” a linchpin of the 1960s hippie rebellion is now being used to promote productivity among the ruling class.

If Leary’s research has proven anything, it’s that rebelling against the system is easiest when you are well educated and amply outfitted with sociocultural capital. A Harvard lecturer dosing graduate students with hallucinogens commands trust and reverence until things get truly out of control—and even then, he can go on to have a career as a bona fide, best-selling middle-class American guru. This, indeed, is one clear point of continuity wedding the acid politics of the past to the acid praxis of the present: Ferriss’s turn at the acid pulpit reminds us, yet again, that a Princeton graduate extolling the virtues of an illegal cognitive enhancer is more likely to be taken seriously than nearly anyone else doing the same. Leary wanted free minds and Ferriss wants a free market. With a little libertarian elan, LSD can be pitched as the gateway to both.

For anyone acquainted with the real history of LSD in the United States, its migration into the boardrooms of Silicon Valley is far from a shock. Initial experimentation with the drug had nothing to do with the eager curiosity of psycho-spiritual seekers to turn on, “reprogram” their brains, and eventually make more money. No, the first generation of acid researchers regarded the recently synthesized chemical as a potential agent of biological warfare, as well as a weapon used to flip apparatchiks and wring confessions out of Korean POWs. The acid of the Cold War was not the acid of patchouli-soaked be-ins and the Grateful Dead. The drug’s dark history has been relatively obscured by its countercultural fame. Disappointingly for the rebel psychonaut, the CIA, along with a network of researchers and academics, was largely responsible for introducing LSD to Americans.

Paranoid Styles

On November 16, 1938, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD at the Sandoz Pharmaceutical laboratory in Basel. He and another chemist named Arthur Stoll had been studying a fungus known as ergot, in search of a blood stimulant that wouldn’t affect the uterus. He put the derivative aside for a few years and came back to it on April 16, 1943. On that day, he accidentally ingested some of the drug, and reported seeing “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Three days later, on April 19, he dosed himself with 250 micrograms of the drug: the first intentional acid trip. As he rode his bike home, the effects began to take hold. (This is why April 19 is known as Bicycle Day among devotees of the drug.)

In 1953, pipe-smoking CIA Director Allen Dulles gave a speech to a gathering of Princeton alumni during which he referred to the Cold War as “brain warfare,” arguing that the battle for Americans’ minds was far more than an ideological skirmish: Russians were actually trying to manipulate free will. The Soviet experiment, he said, took two forms:

First, the attempt at mass indoctrination of hundreds of millions of people so they respond docilely to the orders of their master. This permits the creation of a monolithic solidarity in the Soviet state which outwardly gives it the appearance of great unity.

Second, the perversion of the minds of selected individuals who are subjected to such treatment that they are deprived of the ability to state their own thoughts. Parrot-like, the individuals so conditioned can merely repeat thoughts which have been implanted in their minds by suggestion from outside. In effect the brain under these circumstances becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on a spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control.

In 1951, reports that Russians had bought 50 million doses of the mind-control agent LSD from Sandoz sent the CIA into a nail-biting panic. Two years later, intelligence that Sandoz was seeking to sell ten kilograms of LSD led to a full-scale uproar. What could the Russians do with twenty-two pounds of a psychoactive weapon that had rendered Hofmann temporarily insane? Three days after his speech to the Princeton alumni, Dulles authorized the beginning of project MK-Ultra, a CIA program for the “covert use of biological and chemical materials.”

The department heading up MK-Ultra was the Technical Services Staff (TSS), otherwise known as the gadgetry division, typically responsible for Bond-like undertakings such as cleaning up counterfeit documents and concealing radio transmitters in false teeth. In charge of the TSS was Sidney Gottlieb, a Cal Tech biochemistry PhD and dedicated folk dancer. In The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project, Ed Regis writes of Gottlieb et al.:

Conceivably, an involuntary dose of [LSD] could unlock the minds of foreign spies and force them to cough up their most precious secrets. But the drug had to be tested first, and the members of the [TSS], including Sidney Gottlieb himself, started taking it on an experimental basis. Still, the fact that they knew they were taking it interfered with the results, and to get a clear picture of what the drug could do they wanted to observe its effects when taken unwittingly.

As it turned out, the intelligence had been wrong: Sandoz had only produced 40 grams of LSD in the ten years since Hofmann’s discovery. When two CIA operatives arrived at Sandoz with $240,000 to buy the fictional ten kilograms of LSD, they were offered instead 100 grams weekly for an indefinite period and the promise that the drug wouldn’t fall into communist hands. Still, the CIA was uncomfortable having to rely on a foreign source for their drugs. They turned to the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, whose chemists figured out how to synthesize lysergic acid by the ton. MK-Ultra now presided over a virtually infinite stash.

“Sharing the drug with the Army here, setting up research programs there, keeping track of it everywhere, the CIA generally presided over the LSD scene in the 1950s,” writes John Marks in his whistle-blowing 1979 book, The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate.” One such research program was run by Dr. Harris Isbell, who collaborated with the CIA as director of the Addiction Research Center at the federal drug hospital and prison in Lexington, Kentucky. The hospital was, until 1974, home to both inmates and patients requiring medical and mental health care as they coped with addiction. Capitalizing on the research opportunities afforded by a captive population, Isbell offered inmate-patients either a commuted sentence or the drug of their choice in exchange for participation in his experimental program. The program consisted of dosing subjects with powerful substances and observing their reactions. Most chose drugs as payment: heroin and morphine of rare and irresistible purity. Isbell is infamous for having kept seven men high on LSD for seventy-seven straight days. Another inmate, nineteen-year-old Eddie Flowers endured a hellish sixteen-hour trip with the promise that it would be capped off with a shot of heroin.

Leary wanted free minds and Ferriss wants a free market. With a little libertarian elan, LSD can be pitched as the gateway to both.

Gottlieb needed unwitting subjects in vast supply, and he found them among those marginalized by the law. Sex workers, people addicted to drugs, and small-time criminals were his targets; as he well knew, they would all be powerless to seek aid if they ever discovered what the CIA had done to them. “[The TSS] reasoned that if they had to violate the civil rights of anyone,” Marks writes, “they might as well choose a group of marginal people.”

Notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger was among several prisoners at Atlanta Penitentiary recruited for what researchers alleged was a study to find the cure for schizophrenia. Every month spent in the program counted for three days of good behavior. Every week, subjects spent from twelve to twenty-four hours in the prison hospital being injected with massive doses of LSD. “We experienced horrible periods of living nightmares and even blood coming out of the walls,” Bulger writes. “Guys turning to skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change into the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.” Two subjects became psychotic, and Bulger never saw nor heard from them again.

Dosing and Slumming

While Bulger and his fellow experimental subjects were thrown back on their own resources when it came to the psychic fallout from their experimental dosing, some government administrators of acid in the wild got a voyeuristic charge out of their mission. George White, for instance, was a former Office of Strategic Services employee working as a member of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics when the CIA drafted him for MK-Ultra. White inhabited a world apart from the Ivy League-educated Langley operatives, whom he called “crew-cut, pipe-smoking punks.” A former journalist, he knew how to work the press: he would often tip his hat dramatically during drug busts to signal to photographers that he wanted his picture taken. He had dealt with the criminalized world firsthand, and had met and mingled with sex workers and hustlers—the sort of marginalized people who were generally anathema to the Ivy League breeding of most Cold War CIA operatives.

A diehard enemy of drugs, White had nevertheless sampled many of them, marijuana and LSD included. But he was still a patriot and a man of the law—which meant that he, like the CIA, had no respect for the minds or bodily autonomy of anyone inhabiting the demimonde of drug abuse. So when the CIA recruited White to expand their covert doping program into unsuspecting civilian populations, White didn’t hesitate. Thus began in 1953 what was undoubtedly the most lasciviously named project of the Cold War-era CIA: Operation Midnight Climax.

Every week, subjects (including Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger) spent from twelve to twenty-four hours in the prison hospital being injected with massive doses of LSD.

For Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA rented safe houses—referred to by White as “pads”—in New York and San Francisco. The more infamous of the two, the San Francisco safe house, was decorated with, as Marks wrote, “items that gave the place the air of the brothel it was to become: Toulouse-Lautrec posters, a picture of a French cancan dancer, and photos of manacled women in black stockings.” Microphones were planted in the bedroom and an observation mirror was built into the wall. With Gottlieb’s blessing, White concocted the following plan: he would recruit sex workers to bring clients to the safe house, where they would give their clients LSD-laced drinks, and White would observe the effects of those drinks on clients. In return, he gave the women “chits,” each good for one favor. The next time a woman was arrested, she could give the officer White’s number to call and she’d be bailed out.

In short order, of course, Midnight Climax turned into a drunken spectacle. Officers took liquid lunches while watching unwitting acid trips unfold in the middle of paid sex. White kept a pitcher of martinis in the fridge and sat on a portable toilet so he wouldn’t miss anything. Eventually, operatives left the safe house and began dosing people in the field. Sites of administration included bars, restaurants, and beaches; tactics of administration included buying someone a drink or offering to light a cigarette. The acid-dosed experimental subjects didn’t always handle themselves well. For instance, Deputy U.S. Marshal Wayne Ritchie took a sip of a laced drink at a holiday party and tried to rob a bar.

High on Their Own Supply

Victims of MK-Ultra included CIA employees themselves. Countless agents were unwittingly dosed with LSD over the course of the project. The Midnight Climax safe houses were scaled back in 1963 and then dismantled altogether in 1965 and 1966. MK-Ultra itself hung on until 1973. In that time, some test subjects fared well and others decidedly less so—especially subjects who were already paranoid counterintelligence officers. Most famous among the latter group was Frank Olson, a bacteriologist with the Army Chemical Corps’ Special Operations Division (SOD) who was unwittingly dosed with LSD during a three-day working retreat in the woods of Western Maryland. Olson, angered that he’d been made to drink drugged Cointreau, spent the rest of the retreat in a state of disgruntlement. Afterward, he began questioning his value as a SOD employee and wondered if his coworkers were out to get him. He fell into a depressive-paranoiac state, convinced both that he was useless and that the CIA was drugging his coffee with Benzedrine. Not long after his dosing, he fell to his death from the tenth story of the Statler Hotel in New York. (Olson’s story has recently been fictionalized in Errol Morris’s speculative Netflix dramatic series Wormwood.) Experiments with LSD paused while Olson’s death was investigated, but it wasn’t long before they resumed again.

White concocted the following plan: he would recruit sex workers to bring clients to the safe house, where they would give their clients LSD-laced drinks.

LSD can present the user with a distillation of one’s life and the world so beautiful it would seem it should only be knowable after death. It can also send the user headlong into a Boschian underworld. Apart from committing numerous criminal and civil-rights violations of U.S. law, the CIA violated the Nuremberg Code of human rights by dosing non-consenting Americans with LSD. The paranoiac belief—which could have been ripped from a bad trip—that Soviets were capable of mind control led to a series of unwitting dosings that cost subjects their sanity and sometimes their lives. There was enough cursory dedication to scientific ethics to regard the experimental human subjects in Operation Midnight Climax as unkillable—but they were still made promiscuously available for a wide range of other sacrifices to science.

That the 1960s counterculture appropriated a Cold War experiment for use in their happenings is unsurprising: any feature of the state can be modified for personal consumption and self-aggrandizement by the people whom the state serves. For the white middle class, the police are a personal protection service, public schools an avenue for self-expression, and drugs a window into the soul. Only a demographic possessing a vast, unquestioned backlog of social power and cultural legitimacy could take a potent biochemical weapon and turn it into the stuff of hippie legend.

From Pranksters to Microdosers

Ken Kesey’s first exposure to acid came through MK-Ultra. He was paid $75 a day to be a human subject for a series of experiments involving “psychomimetic” drugs at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital. He liked it so much that he got his hands on some and began experimenting at home, writing whole chapters of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest under the influence of acid and peyote. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe followed Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in their Day-Glo school bus (christened “Furthur”) on a sleepless, brain-melting trip to New York, presumably to the 1964 World’s Fair. Kesey and the Pranksters evangelize about LSD, which, according to Kesey, gives one the ability to “see into people.” They drank Kool-Aid laced with the drug and held Acid Tests—parties in which everyone from wide-eyed initiates to Allen Ginsberg tripped to the accompaniment of psychedelic music and colorful lights, sometimes resulting in 3:00 a.m. revelations about Vietnam. Wolfe saw them as a religious sect eager to share their ecstatic experiences with the world.

Some fifty-odd years later, Ferriss’s cohort of tech disruptors began their own experimentations with LSD—but not usually in quantities sufficient to transform them into Merry Pranksters. Frequently they “microdosed,” taking a subperceptual 10 micrograms instead of the normal 250. “I had an epic time,” a twenty-five-year-old startup employee said of his microdosing experience in a 2015 Rolling Stone article. “I was making a lot of sales, talking to a lot of people, finding solutions to their technical problems.”

James Fadiman, the psychologist who is probably the most prominent microdosing researcher in the country, was Kesey’s Menlo Park neighbor back when Kesey was still working at the Veterans’ Hospital. In 2011, Fadiman distributed a microdosing instruction sheet to those interested and able to procure their own drugs. He asked them to take a microdose of LSD every fourth day and report back on the effects they experienced. He received hundreds of trip reports back, most of them glowingly positive. Exercise and healthy eating were on the rise. Insight and contentment were through the roof. One woman’s brutal period cramps were alleviated.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur George Burke revealed in a 2017 interview with Reason that he microdoses every morning before work. He is one of a very few to put a name and face to microdosing. (More recently, author Michael Pollan has described his experimentation with psychedelic drugs, including LSD, in How to Change Your Mind.) Burke was inspired by Steve Jobs’s assertion that taking LSD was “one of the most important things of my life.” Burke is broad-chested and fit-looking—the Reason clip shows him bouldering—while greying slightly at the temples. His now-defunct startup, Fuel, helped clients to custom-tailor their diets to their unique genetic makeups. The first time he microdosed, he was tasked with putting together a large business contingency plan. “It would have been difficult to think about each contingency and incubate it and put it on paper,” he says. “This was going to be a very large document that I was putting together.”

But lo and behold: after microdosing, he could envision the contingencies as branches on a tree. He could “climb” the tree and incubate the ideas on each branch. In the clip, a hand reaches for a branch labeled “Asset Security,” then another labeled “Recovery.” New Age music plays. “With a population of 300 million in the United States, imagine one percent of those people are taking some form of cognitive enhancer,” he says. “That’s three million people who would be able to solve problems better and faster and with a better sense of connectedness than we’ve ever seen before. What impact would that have on America?”

Tripping for Test Scores

What impact would that have on America? Burke’s business contingency tree is a far cry from Leary and Kesey’s visions of ego-busting and consciousness-raising. But they share a preoccupation with cognitive enhancement that is at best elitist—and at worst a psychic accelerant of rampaging inequality. Ever since the sixth century, when Vedic scholars downed bacopa monnieri to memorize sacred hymns and scriptures, nootropics have been the handmaids of perfectionism, helping high achievers achieve ever higher. Now LSD has joined the ranks of green tea, Adderall, and various over-the-counter supplements as a mind- and life-enhancer. It has been integrated into a performance-obsessed culture that demands everything be done better and faster than it was before. The suburban kid cramming for his SATs, the startup employee faced with a weekend of coding, the wealthy stay-at-home mom managing three kids—these striving souls all want to be better, and all have the resources to achieve betterness. The tripping hippie and the venture capitalist are both trying to be better, too: one’s just sifting through time and the other’s sifting through investment proposals. The impact on America? Another rung of inaccessibility separating the commoners from the blissed-out bourgeoisie.

Whether Ferriss, Burke, and other Silicon Valley arrivistes will think creatively enough to inherit Steve Jobs’s commercial empire is debatable. And whether microdosing produces a measurable effect on mood and productivity is likewise a yet-to-be tested empirical proposition. The one incontestable truth is that LSD’s history will continue to fade as it comes to be known as a high-powered nootropic. Acid may help us to think creatively, but when we come down fourteen hours later, we’re still tasked with understanding the ideas and relationships around us with our normal, recently re-contracted minds.

Now, however, that mundane challenge may be bound for the dustbin of history. Various prophets of technological deliverance already predict that the enhanced brain will eventually supplant the human one. A world in which just being human isn’t enough—in which our brains must be manipulated to serve this or that model of capitalist transcendence—sounds like an Allen Dulles paranoid nightmare. It sounds, in other words, like an unrelenting bad trip.