When chemist Albert Hofmann’s accidental alchemy created LSD-25, known as acid, in 1938, he unleashed on the world a drug so powerful that it had the power to permanently change lives and alter individuals’ beliefs about the nature of reality; millions of minds were blown and the cultural landscape was never the same again.
One of the many cultural side effects of LSD was its ability to generate some really great urban legends. For instance, one rumour has it that if you take LSD two (or is it seven?) times, you are legally insane! Another, stemming from a 1967 newspaper article, holds that LSD will make you stare at the Sun until you go blind. You want more? Well, everyone knows that dealers hand out LSD-laced “paper tattoos” (transfers or decals) drenched with LSD to children to get them hooked, don’t they? (FT63:26–27) Sure they do – dealers just love giving drugs away to people who will freak out and end up in hospital surrounded by police wanting to know where they got them from! And, of course, taking LSD affects your genes and causes deformed babies. Not to mention its propensity to drive babysitters to put their charges in microwaves. And so on, each tale less evidential and more lurid than the last, each heavily freighted with the barely subliminal message that LSD is bad medicine.
But of all the fortean fables associated with acid the ‘LSD in the water supply’ urban legend is by far the most potent and long-lived. And, unlike the rest of them, this one has at least some basis in reality. The legend comes in many forms, but the basic premise is that various individuals and groups, invariably framed by the media as political or psychedelic terrorists, have conspired to introduce LSD into the water supply, usually by dumping huge quantities in reservoirs. Society’s fear is that the dramatic effect of LSD on the masses will result in a disoriented and incapacitated population who are rich pickings for invasion, mind control or involuntary use in a demonstration of the drug’s power over ‘straight’ society by enemies of the state.
Over the past 50 years, the legend has manifested often, appearing in newspapers, magazines, books, films and TV shows. The idea sounds vaguely plausible – but is it? Has it ever happened, and, if not, just how did the story grow into an urban legend?
THE PSYCHEDELIC COLD WAR
All legends have their genesis in at least a grain of truth, and in this case the origins of the LSD-in-the-water tale appear to lie with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its fascination with the drug as a possible mind-control weapon. The effects of LSD were first noticed in 1943 – five years after he’d first synthesised it – by Hofmann, and within a few years the CIA had begun to experiment with it in their search for a ‘truth drug’.
The psychedelic water saga arose at the height of the Cold War in 1953, when the intelligence agency approached Dr Nick Bercel, a Los Angeles psychiatrist working with LSD in a psychotherapeutic context. After querying him on the possible consequences if the Russians were to put LSD in the water supply of a large American city, the spooks demanded Bercel calculate how much LSD would be needed to dose Los Angeles’s water supply with acid.
Bercel dissolved some LSD in a glass of chlorinated water, which promptly neutralised the psychedelic, leading him to tell the CIA the idea was not worth pursuing. The spooks were unconvinced, allegedly designing another version of LSD that was not neutralised by chlorine. Yet although the experiment had failed, the idea that LSD could be used to mass-dose the population had been created – and even though scientific opinion was against it, the notion was just too powerful to give up and started to take on a life of its own.
The CIA became obsessed with it. One formerly secret document reported that even if the notion of contaminating an entire city’s water supply was out of the question, there were still other micro-possibilities. For instance, one CIA document noted: “If the concept of contaminating a city’s water supply seems, or in actual fact is found to be, far-fetched (this is by no means certain), there is still the possibility of contaminating, say, the water supply of a bomber base or, more easily still, that of a battleship… Our current work contains the strong suggestion that LSD-25 will produce hysteria (unaccountable laughing, anxiety, terror)… It requires little imagination to realise what the consequences might be if a battleship’s crew were so affected.”
The CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS) was also very interested in the possible manipulation of a city by introducing LSD into the water supply. In John Marks’s classic spook chronicle The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, he recalls a member of the TSS saying: “We thought about the possibility of putting some in a city water supply and having the citizens wander around in a more or less happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves.”
The idea received another boost in 1958, when the chief officer of the US Army’s Chemical Corps, Major General William Creasy, declared that psychedelic compounds were an ideal way of dealing with the enemy. Creasy logically argued that spiking a city’s water supply with LSD was a much simpler, more humane and cost effective method of taking control of a populace than simply bombing it into submission. And, of course, it had the added advantage that buildings and infrastructure remained intact. When the citizens came down from their trip, they could be ordered straight back to work for their new leaders, already part programmed and timid and submissive from the terrifying ordeal they had been through.
Creasy told This Week magazine in May 1959: “I do not contend that driving people crazy even for a few hours is a pleasant prospect. But warfare is never pleasant [..] would you rather be temporarily deranged [..] by a chemical agent, or burned alive…?”
Creasy’s suggestion was never taken up, but Timothy Leary, soon to become the poster boy for LSD evangelism, took the idea and gave it a twist. In a 1962 article published in the Journal of Atomic Sciences, he suggested the US government should plan ahead for such an eventuality by dosing their own water supplies, thus preparing citizens for psychedelic attack by the Communists!
Another early source of the legend is the British Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) investigation of LSD. In the early 1960s, the newly created MoD was testing LSD on troops at Porton Down in Wiltshire. One of their ambitions was to develop an LSD delivery system so the drug could be used as a battlefield incapacitant, destroying the fighting spirit of any opponent and leaving their attack in disarray. There is no direct evidence to suggest the MoD looked at putting LSD in water supplies, although they briefly discussed dispersing it on the battlefield in vapour form. The MoD soon abandoned the idea when they realised the effects of LSD on large numbers of people was not predictable, and therefore not controllable.
PARANOIA AND PRANKSTERS
Neither the CIA nor the MoD’s speculations appear to have progressed much further than the brainstorming stage. But word of that speculation had spread, and rumour seeped out into the general population, acting as a base from which the scare story grew. The idea of LSD as a “mind-controlling” water contaminant (though “mind-altering” would be more appropriate) had now entered the Petrie dish of modern media culture, and it was only a matter of time before the public picked up on it – and the first known reference to the mass use of LSD by elements outside of an intelligence or military context occurred in a British magazine.
Prior to 1966, there had been virtually no media interest in LSD in Britain, where use of the drug among the young and hip was still an underground scene. This situation changed quickly and forever on 19 March 1966, when quintessential swinging London magazine London Life ran an interview with Desmond O’Brien, co-founder (with Michael Hollingshead) of Chelsea’s World Psychedelic Centre.
Entitled “The Drug That Could Become a Social Peril”, the article opened with O’Brien rather unwisely introducing himself as “Mr LSD” and claiming that anyone could take control of London in under eight hours by putting acid in the water system. London Life speculated further, quoting Dr Donald Johnson, former MP for Carlisle, who confidently asserted: “It is quite feasible that LSD could be used to take over a city or even a country. I agree if it were put into reservoirs, it would disable people sufficiently for an enemy to take control.”
This brief, but ill-advised, mention of LSD as a psychedelic contaminant thus entered media consciousness and began to spread, becoming a counterculture virus and a media bête-noire on both sides of the Atlantic within months.
In America, the media-led moral panic about LSD reached fever pitch in the latter half of the Sixties and there was a genuine fear among the political establishment that unchecked use of the drug could overthrow the cherished American way of life. Psychedelic activists, both serious and of the Merry Prankster variety espoused by Ken Kesey and friends, abounded and were recast by media and law enforcement agencies as terrorists, hell-bent on indiscriminately bending minds with the new devil-drug.
The November 1966 edition of the magazine Vue ran one of the many scare stories published about LSD that year, “Why They Had to Outlaw LSD”. In a round-up of the drug’s effects, writer WH Carr, clearly having taken a huge dose of disinformation, noted that “[A] few ounces of it, dumped in the water supply of a major city, could shake up millions.” This paranoia, now firmly entrenched in the mind of Mr and Mrs America, wasn’t lost on some elements of the counterculture, who decided to use it to their own advantage in the escalating war between hip and straight society.
In June 1967, during a federal investigation into organised crime, the motives of the Neo-American Church, founded by Art Kleps, a former associate of Timothy Leary, were called into question. Dr James L Goddard, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, gave damning testimony in Washington before the House subcommittee. He quoted Neo-American Church publications that stated they believed in the psychedelic assassination of politicians and that, should the Church be attacked, it would fight back with psychedelic weapons such as “clouds of dust sprayed over cities and LSD in the water supply”.
Scary stuff, and just what the suburban masses feared. But Goddard had failed to realise that the Neo-American Church were acid surrealists, psychedelic pranksters for whom the idea of acid in the water supply was almost as powerful as the real thing. They had no intention of carrying out their plan, but knew it would freak out the straights.
The late Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Albert), another self-confessed acid prankster and ‘Yippie’, probably generated the most notorious instance of the LSD-in-the-water legend. Besides being an acidhead, Hoffman was also very active in left-wing politics, a somewhat dour movement to which he brought some humour and surreality. During the run-up to the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, Hoffman was in daily contact with the media, trying to get them to take him seriously, but at the same time using prankster techniques to grab headlines.
Hoffman recalled: “There was a point when we announced to the press that if they fucked with us we were going to put LSD in the drinking water.” The reaction to this threat was dramatic and the story was heavily covered on TV and in the papers, with thousands of National Guardsmen being posted to guard the reservoirs against hippies. Things took on an interesting twist when Hoffman said he’d been “negotiating with the Deputy Mayor behind the scenes and I said, ‘Why can’t we work this out? To show my good faith, I’ll tell you that you can take all your soldiers away, because it’s chemically impossible to put LSD in the water supply – LSD simply doesn’t dissolve that readily.”
Time magazine wryly noted how easily Chicago’s political administration had fallen for the scam, hook, line and sinker: “Mayor Richard Daley and his police and military aides appeared to accept at face value all of the fiery statements made by the demonstration leaders. Chicago’s newspapers repeatedly listed diabolical threats aimed at the city, ranging from burning Chicago down by flooding the sewers with gasoline, to dumping LSD in the water supply, to having 10,000 nude bodies float on Lake Michigan.”
The Deputy Mayor was now caught between a rock and a hard place. “I know it can’t happen,” he agreed, before immediately contradicting himself by adding “but we can’t take any chances anyway.” But the acid-in-the-water myth had now moved beyond the realms of common sense and simply could not be stopped. As LSD evangelist Tim Leary once said: “LSD is the drug with the most unusual emotional and psychological effects when compared to any other drug. Because just the idea of the drug is enough to cause terror among those who have never even taken it!”
Hoffman also recommended that the Deputy Mayor contact the chemistry department at the university to check whether it was possible to dose a reservoir with LSD. The politician replied that he had already asked the scientists on his staff who had told him it could not be done. Nevertheless, such was the paranoia surrounding LSD that he was concerned that Hoffman might be using “better scientists”; and thus, on such shaky reasoning, was the National Guard despatched to prevent hippies pouring acid into the water system.
"WE'LL BLOW A MILLION MINDS!”
Hippie exploitation books and films were all the rage in the late 1960s, and the LSD-in-the-water legend was a godsend to them. The 1968 AIP film Wild in the Streets was a satire featuring a rock star elected as President when the voting age is lowered to 15. In what must have been a very real fear for many Americans at the time, he sets up concentration camps for everyone over 35 and, you guessed it, dumps LSD into the Washington water supply!
Robert Siffert’s 1969 novel The Polluters dealt with the subject in some depth. As one character says: “We decided [..] that the only thing to do to get this society back to reality was to shock it into a sense of awareness of the now [..] We’ve expanded their minds [..] We got together with others who knew the score [..] We got the chemistry students, the engineering drop-outs [..] we picked out the biggest centres of the establishment in the country. We found a way to get into the public waterworks in each city… Acid!… LSD, man, the greatest boon to mankind!”
In the 1969 episode “Is This Trip Necessary”, the popular spoof secret agent series Get Smart saw evil scientist Jarvis Pim (Vincent Price) threatening to spike Washington DC’s water supply with a psychedelic even stronger than LSD!
But if straight culture had fallen for the myth, it seemed that the counterculture had done so too. In 1973, Michael Hollingshead, the maverick Englishman who’d turned Tim Leary on to acid in 1961, published his autobiography. It seemed that the usually perceptive Hollingshead had fallen hook, line and sinker for the LSD-in-the-water legend. What had started out as right-wing paranoia had now been adopted as a possible truth by Hollingshead and psychedelic luminaries like Timothy Leary, George Litwin, Gunther Weil and Richard Alpert, who jointly signed this statement:
“If an enemy does drop LSD in the water supply and if you are accurately informed and prepared, then you have two choices. If you have the time and inclination you should sit back and enjoy the most exciting education experience of your life (you might be forever grateful to the saboteur). If you don’t have the time or the inclination for this pleasant and insightful experience, then swallow a tranquilliser, which is a good antidote, and you’ll be back to the prosaic reality.”
As is the way of urban legends, they wax and wane. The 1970s saw rumour go underground for a while as LSD use became less of a novelty. Then, in 1977, after years of surveillance and infiltration, the police finally cracked the UK LSD manufacturing and distribution ring when they mounted Operation Julie. In the ensuing media free-for-all, every acid myth known to man was trotted out to scare the public. During the sentencing of the primary conspirators in early 1978, the Daily Mirror rushed into print with front-page headlines trumpeting “We’ll Blow a Million Minds! – An entire city stoned on a nightmare drug – that was the crazy ambition of the masterminds behind the world’s biggest LSD factory. They planned to blow a million minds simultaneously by pouring pure LSD in to the reservoirs serving Birmingham.” Despite the headline, filling most of the front page, nothing more was heard of this dastardly plot – which was, of course, non-existent.
Dick Tracy, in his highly critical piece on Operation Julie for the New Musical Express, wrote: “The water supply story can be traced back in the media to at least the mid-60s and probably before. I have had personal experience of this while working in the information caravan at one of the large Isle of Wight festivals, when I heard an almost identical story being dictated over the phone by a Mirror reporter. It wasn’t true then, either.”
THE FEAR FACTOR
While there is plenty of evidence that dosing the reservoirs with LSD wouldn’t work, and no evidence that anyone ever tried it, the myth has continued to circulate.
“Homer Loves Flanders”, a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, saw Shelbyville dosing rival town Springfield’s water supply with LSD. (Marge, on drinking the tap water, notes: “Oooh, the walls are melting.”) Even in a show like The Simpsons, hardly short on drug references, the myth of LSD in the water was still so potent that executives from the Fox Network tried to prevent this episode from airing.
Probably the most recent media reference to the myth was cleverly embedded in the script of the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood. In the 2006 episode “Everything Changes”, Captain Jack Harkness queries what evidence it would take before people accept the presence of the Cybermen. The Gwen Cooper character retorts: “My boyfriend says it’s like a sort of terrorism. Like they put drugs in the water supply. Psychotropic drugs, causing mass hallucinations and stuff.”
After so many rumours and so much speculation, could there really be any truth behind the idea of LSD in the water supply? Well, of course it could happen; people could put LSD in a reservoir – but would it have any effect?
I consulted a retired LSD chemist, who commented: “I did a quick calculation which might help. Assuming that the drinker drank half a pint of water, and needed 100 micrograms, then you would need 1kg of pure LSD for every million gallons in the reservoir. That’s not counting any decay from sunlight, heat or chlorine in the system.”
As an example, the Elan Valley reservoir system in Wales, built to provide the city of Birmingham with its water supply, holds 100,000 megalitres, or 26,420 million gallons. By the LSD chemist’s calculations, it would require 26,420kg of acid to effectively contaminate the water supply for Birmingham. It would take several vast LSD laboratories many years to generate even a fraction of that amount, and a small convoy of trucks to take it to the reservoir.
The problems multiply further. Only a tiny amount of water in a reservoir is actually drunk neat – the majority is boiled or used in cooking or other domestic processes such as washing up, lavatory flushing or gardening, all of which would destroy or discard the psychoactive effect of the LSD. So the idea, while theoretically possible if a wide range of variables could be stabilised, is really a non-starter.
So why has this myth been so long-lived, constantly reappearing in slightly different forms year after year?
The answer must be that fear lies at the heart of this particular urban legend – fear of the effects of LSD; fear of losing one’s mind; fear that a subculture wishing to overthrow the existing order might employ hallucinogenic drugs to disrupt commerce and ‘ordinary’ life. The idea that psychedelic terrorists would tamper with the water supply adds an extra frisson of terror. Water is fundamental to us as human beings; we can’t avoid drinking it in some form and we trust implicitly that what comes out of the tap is safe.
So, next time you hear some raddled old hippie banging on about how the psychedelic revolution could happen if the entire water system could be dosed with acid, raise a glass of tap water to him and laugh. You’re perfectly safe. Aren’t you?
For recent revelations about the possibility of the CIA testing psychedelic drugs on the general public, see 'The Case of the Cursed Bread'.