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Don't Drink the Water

The CIA were more interested in working with huge quantities of hallucinogens than is widely realised

Forum - LSD

Illustration by Emmanuel Romeuf


Andy Roberts’s feature on LSD in the water supply (‘Reservoir Drugs’) described the CIA’s obsession with this type of threat in the 1950s and the scare stories about hippies dumping drugs in reservoirs and similar media reports. I’d like to go back a bit and fill in the gap on the CIA’s own interests. The huge quantities of LSD needed might have meant that spiking water supplies was absurdly impractical… but a little thing like that didn’t stop the world’s favourite spy agency. 

In the early 1950s, the CIA approached the Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland, the company that had patented LSD, and requested 10 kilos of the stuff. They were politely informed that the total production only amounted to 10g, enough for some 40,000 doses, but far less than the Agency wanted. The CIA bought what it could from Sandoz, and used some of it in the notorious MK-ULTRA programme. Among other things, the programme explored the effect of LSD on unwitting subjects by spiking drinks at parties. But the idea of using gigantic quantities had not been abandoned. 

Dr Jim Ketchum was involved in the US Army’s programme for testing the military effectiveness of a whole range of psychedelic chemicals. He entered his office as Department Chief one Monday morning in 1969 and found a black steel barrel, a bit like an oil drum, in the corner. [1] The military does not always explain everything, and Dr Ketchum assumed there was a good reason for this unusual addition to the furniture. However, after a couple of days he became curious. He waited until everyone else in the building had gone home one evening and opened the lid. 

The barrel was filled with sealed glass canisters “like cookie jars”. He took one out to inspect it; the label indicated that the jar contained three pounds of pure EA 1729. This wouldn’t mean much to most people, but to anyone working in this field the code was instantly familiar. Substances were given EA designations from the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal; EA 1729 is the military designation for LSD. The other glass canisters were the same, perhaps 14 of them in all. This was enough acid for several hundred million doses with, Ketchum estimated, a street value of over a billion dollars. 

Some wild ideas about what to do next flitted through his mind, but in the event he simply sealed the barrel up again. By the Friday morning it had vanished as mysteriously as it arrived. 

Dr Ketchum never found out who had ordered the LSD or where it went. But it was clear that the CIA still maintained an interest. While many of the documents associated with questionable CIA programmes were destroyed, a document from 1977 recently declassified by the Pentagon lists all the CIA programmes involving mind-altering drugs of which the Department Of Defense was aware. These included three with Army involvement and five with Navy involvement, the last apparently ending in 1973. [2] One was ‘MKNAOMI’, which intended “to stockpile severely incapacitating and lethal materials, and to develop gadgetry for the dissemination of these materials.” 

Andy Roberts calculates that it would take some 26,420kg of LSD to contaminate the more than 100,000 megalitres of water in the Elan Valley reservoir which supplies Birmingham. He estimates it would take several vast LSD labs to make that amount, and a convoy of trucks to deliver it. This is not quite accurate; one of the larger tanker trucks, which can transport 34,000 litres, would do the job nicely. However, this is a highly improbable form of delivery. An airdrop would be much more likely: a couple of Hercules transport aircraft would be adequate for a covert attack, or a single B-52 could suffice – with room left over for a few high explosives to disguise the true purpose of the raid. 

Producing that quantity of the hallucinogen wouldn’t be too much of a problem, either. In the 1960s, the US military spent over m on a facility for producing the psychedelic chemical weapon ‘Agent Buzz’ or BZ (3-quinucidynyl benzilate), producing over 50,800kg between 1962 and 1964 alone (see FT213:48–52 for more on Agent Buzz). 

While spiking the water supply would be far out of the reach of amateurs, it certainly becomes a lot more feasible with the sort of resources that the CIA could command. That still doesn’t mean that the project would work. As Andy Roberts points out, sunlight and chlorination would render the drug ineffective – though it has been claimed that the CIA did find another LSD-like compound which could survive water treatment. [3] In the book Acid Dreams, Martin Lee and Bruce Schlain even suggested that the CIA planned to use hallucinogens in the event of a civil insurrection in the US. [4] Needless to say, this is unproven. 

This takes us back pretty much to where we started, but with something of a twist. It’s quite possible that the CIA was interested in the possible effect of large quantities of LSD in someone’s water supply because they were thinking about dumping it there themselves. And who’s to say that LSD might not have subdued Baghdad more easily and with less bloodshed than the ‘Shock and Awe’ of conventional bombing? 

 James Ketchum: “Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten”
Pentagon document released under Freedom of Information Act (dod.mil).
“LSD and the CIA” (a1b2c3.com).
“The History of ‘What if we dosed the water?’” (brainsturbator.com). 

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Author Biography
David Hambling is a freelance journalist and longstanding FT contributor. His book Weapons Grade on military technology was published in 2005.


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