This is really as much a book about the CIA as about LSD. Authors Martin Lee and Bruce Shalin follow the 1938 discovery of Lsysergic Acid Diethylamide from the Sandoz Pharmaceuticals research lab in Switzerland to the psychedelic-soaked streets of San Francisco in 1970. The cast of characters is large and unlikely, including: scientists, political activists, politicians, an heir of the Mellon (Gulf Oil/ Mellon Bank) fortune, rockstars, law enforcement, the mafia, CIA, FBI, MI-6, INTERPOL, and the Hell's Angels.
Most readers will have at least a passing familiarity with the pop culture aspects of LSD: flower children, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary. That stuff has been well-covered in a thousand other books, so I won't elaborate here.
Much less-explored, and in my opinion more interesting, is the story of what the CIA made of LSD. Discoverer Albert Hoffmann's early notes describe intense hallucinations and altered consciousness upon ingestion. Some of the anecdotes here are comical (e.g. tripping out while riding a bicycle through the streets of Zurich), but they attracted the attention of national security agencies. From its inception in 1947, the CIA took an active interest in the drug, believing its disorienting properties would make it a good "truth serum".
A little exposition is in order here: there's apparently been a long history of intelligence agencies seeking out a fabled "truth serum", as if it were some sort of Holy Grail of the spy world. Through client agencies (including, oddly, several Canadian universities), the CIA conducted experiments exploring the pliability and suggestibility of subjects tripping on the compound. Often, the studies were conducted on people with questionable ability to refuse participation, such as the mentally deranged, prisoners, military recruits, and the terminally ill. Other times, studies were conducted on the unwitting or misinformed. The now-famous "MK-ULTRA" mind control program- as seen in "The Manchurian Candidate", "The X-Files" and Vigilantcitizen.com - are mentioned here in passing, but only as part of a much larger body of unethical experimentation. On one occasion, in 1954, the CIA actually rigged a New York City subway car to spray an aerosolized solution of LSD on riders. Those were unconsenting taxpayers! The very people who funded the CIA... who trusted it was "out there" fighting the good fight against the "Red Menace", not drugging up American citizens. Oh, the naïveté!
The experiments didn't have the desired results, and the CIA eventually gave up on LSD as a truth serum. Instead of giving up entirely, the agency came to think of LSD as a good potential incapacitating agent. Weapons were devised. An LSD-laden hand grenade, for example- meant to disperse the hallucinogen throughout an enemy's camp on detonation, rendering them useless to fight. The grenade was actually manufactured and used in actual battlefield trials in Vietnam, but again proved disappointing. Results ranged from unreliable to completely ineffective; too little of the drug remained after the initial explosion, and there was no way to keep it from blowing back and effecting American troops. (American troops were big fans of LSD, it happens, and the book details that fact, but I will not here.)
While Defense designers were busy coming up with weaponized psychadelics like that, civilian use was rapidly accelerating. From the mid-50's to mid-60's, enthusiastic intellectuals like Aldous Huxley popularized hallucinigens in writings like "The Doors of Perception" (from whom the band "The Doors" take their name). This encouragement pushed LSD into the common practice of psychotherapists, psychologists, academic philosophers, religious practitioners, even social workers. During a brief "golden age" of experimentation, the substance was uncontrolled, easy to obtain, and there were no stigmas attached to its use.
From these conditions arose some unexpected developments: it turns out that LSD therapy has the best success rate of any program for rehabilitating chronic alcoholism. Creative types hailed it as a new muse- and indeed, Acid Rock, Acid Jazz, Alan Guinsburg's poetry, and William S. Burrough's novels seem to back this up- and no less than a Roman Catholic cardinal wrote that the substance is a gift from God, for the perspectives it opened users up to.
Perspectives... that's what the philosophical war about LSD was waged over. The new post-war generation followed Timothy Leary's advice, and turned on to LSD. Unlike alcohol, it didn't intoxicate them. Unlike marijuana, it didn't mellow them. For lack of a better descriptor, it blew their minds.... made a lot of them spiritual. Users write about it intellectually, as a horizon expander, and the CIA, (California) Gov. Ronald Reagan, and other standard-bearers for conservatism came to see LSD and the expanded horizons that come with it as a reason the younger generation wasn't uncritically accepting the values and narratives of their elders. The postwar kids weren't putting their noses to the grindstone, dreaming of climbing the corporate ladder, working for The Man, and accumulating the prizes of mid-century consumerism; they were tripping out, dreaming of spiritual planes, worldwide love, communal consciousness, and a lot of other non-monetizable hooey. This is of course simplistic, but there is probably also a kernal of truth there too. The war in Vietnam was a more immediate source of youth discontent, and the demographics of the "baby boom" had more to do with inter-generational conflict than psychadelics. The social upheaval of the late 60's was multifactoral, but there in the midst of it was LSD, and that was an easy scapegoat. The powers that be, who once harbored secret hopes that LSD would be a tool of social control, now saw it as an inspiration to dissidents. It had to be turned off.
It was made illegal in 1966, and the CIA and FBI used the apparatus of drug law enforcement to infiltrate and at times derail social protest movements. The mainstream press joined in, publishing apocryphal stories about LSD causing chromosome damage (there appears to be no evidence of this), and citing fictional cases about users trapped forever in a "bad trip". Simultaneously, however, the CIA had a hand in the production, distribution, and sale of LSD. It was a great source of revenue with no Congressional accountability tied to it. The final third of this book details a very complex web of CIA money laundering, through mafia-run Caribbean casinos and offshore banks run by politically well-connected freewheeling Wall Street financiers. To distribute the drug, the CIA had dubious partnerships with "Hell's Angels" biker gang, and production occured at one point on a cult commune in rural New Mexico. There are double and triple agents, as well as CIA "assets" in Hollywood and both major American political parties. Even the most outrageous James Bond plot can't outdo the crazy history of the CIA and LSD.
Lee and Shalin wrap up the narrative in the mid-70's, with the flower children disbursing, the Vietnam war over, and new fads in recreational drug use on the horizon. Since then, cocaine has moved more money, commanded more interest, and created more geopolitical intrigue than LSD. Every drug probably has its own interesting story, but this one is worth reading.