There were many acid tests happening in the 1950s and 1960s. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters dosed sometimes-unsuspecting proto-hippies. The CIA was dosing unsuspecting mainstreamers. Leary dosed fully cognizant artists, therapists and students. But meanwhile, over at Army Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, psychiatrist James S. Ketchum was testing LSD, BZ and other psychedelic and deliriant compounds on fully informed volunteers for the U.S. military.
As an Army psychiatrist just out of residency, Dr. James E. Ketchum was assigned to Edgewoord Arsenal’s Medical Research Laboratories, first as a research psychiatrist in 1961. He became Chief of the Psychopharmacology Branch in 1963, and then became Acting Chief of Clinical Research in 1966. After a brief hiatus at Stanford University, he returned as Edgewoods’ Chief of Clinical Research in 1968, staying there until 1971. Dr. Ketchum and his team were looking, primarily, for non-lethal incapacitating agents, and he was central to many of the experiments with these compounds that took place during that time.
Now, Dr. Ketchum has released his fascinating self-published memoir, Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten, primarily detailing his times at Edgewood. The book boasts charts, graphs and experimental reports — a veritable goldmine of information for those who are interested in psychedelics, deliriants, or chemical warfare. It’s also a funny, observant, and reflective personal memoir, casting a light not only on Ketchum and his work, but on a decade that saw 60s counterculture and the military share an oddly intersecting obsession with mind-altering drugs.
Dr. Ketchum himself has remained intrigued by these chemicals, as reflected in his ongoing friendship with Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, who wrote a foreword for this book.
I recently interviewed him for The RU Sirius Show. Steve Robles joined me.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: Tell us about the research you did at Edgewood Arsenal with various substances as weapons. What was the political environment?
JAMES KETCHUM: It was during the Cold War and there was great concern about what the Soviet Union might be plotting. It was known that they were investing a lot of money in chemical warfare research — about ten times as much as we were. And at the same time, there was an interest in the U.S. in developing weapons that might be called more “humane” as opposed to “conventional” weapons. In 1955, Congress was entertained by Major General Creasy, who described what LSD could do. At the time, that was the latest drug of interest. And as he described it to Congress, they became very enthusiastic, and voted in favor of doing research into LSD as a possible incapacitating agent that would be life-sparing. Congress passed a resolution with only one vote against it, which is perhaps indicative of the philosophy of the times.
So money was allocated to build a project at Edgewood Arsenal, the army chemical center. And over the next few years the budgeting increased, supported by John F. Kennedy, among others. I was given the opportunity to go there after my residency in psychiatry in 1961, and I thought it would be interesting. I ended up spending about ten years there. When I arrived, the program was just in its nascency. There had been some work done by others there with LSD, but they had never had a psychiatrist. And they’d run into a few problems that made them think they ought to have one. So I was given pretty much a free hand over the next few years to develop a program that would be safe and also provide the information that was being sought, not only about LSD but about drugs like BZ, and others.
RU: So you actually ended up having a long strange trip of your own. You had some very interesting experiences with it.
JK: I enjoyed it very much. Unfortunately at the time, classification of that research was so great that very little of the information we found was leaked out to the public or allowed to be spread among the public. And as is the custom in the army — or was the custom — classified papers usually remained classified for 12 years before they’d be downgraded and made available. By that time, most people had gone separate ways. The program itself had been pretty much terminated. No one really wrote the history of that decade. I thought, later, that was a serious omission. And that’s what led me to write this book.
STEVE ROBLES: Did you find any evidence that the Soviets might have taken this tack in their own chemical warfare research?
JK: There was information indicating that, around 1960, the Soviet Union was importing vast quantities of contaminated rye from the satellite countries. This was interpreted as being indicative of their interest in producing LSD, since there’s not much use for contaminated rye except that it contains ergot, which is a form of contamination [ed: ergot is used to prepare lysergic acid, the raw material for LSD]. That made us think maybe they were having a big LSD development program of their own.
SR: So there was a different kind of space race going on at the same time.
JK: That’s right. Inner space.
RU: The meat of this book, and the fun part, is descriptions of people undergoing the experiments. I wonder if any moments in particular pop into your head showing the way that human beings behave under the influence.
JK: I watched a number of people — actually, more than a hundred — going through the experience of having BZ, which is a long-acting atropine type compound. It produces delirium if given in a sufficient dose. Half-a-milligram is sufficient in the case of BZ, as compared with about 10 milligrams of atropine. To describe the tripping in detail would take some time. In the book, I’ve documented an entire BZ trip over a hundred-hour period, including everything that was said and done.
RU: You had a man watching an entire football game on his fingernail or something?
JK: It was a tiny baseball game on the padded floor. The hallucinations were “real” hallucinations. I’d like to make a distinction between BZ hallucinations and LSD so-called hallucinations, which are really not hallucinations — they’re more illusions. People generally know that they’re not real, but produced by the drug. Whereas with BZ, the individual becomes delirious, and in that state is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and may see, for instance, strips of bacon along the edge of the floor.
RU: Belladonna would probably be the most common deliriant among drug experimenters.
JK: Right. Loco weed. Belladonna, in the form of Asmador, for example, was used for asthma and contains atropine. People were getting high on this in the 60s. My brother described one young man trying to crawl across a street in New York City and grabbing onto the pants leg of a police officer. People don’t know what they’re doing when they’re under the influence. They mistake people for objects and objects for people. They’ll salute the water fountain or bump into a nurse and say, “Excuse me, sir,” and the like.
RU: Were you guys doing a lot of chuckling while this was going on? You’re trying to maintain a certain degree of decorum, but…
JK: Yes. I would tell the technicians that it wasn’t nice to laugh at these things, even though the subject probably wouldn’t remember it later. It was sometimes hard to suppress it. Like when one individual asked another, in the same padded room, if he could have a cigarette. And then, when the other individual held out an empty hand that looked like it was holding a pack, he said, “Oh, I don’t want to take your last one.” So it was fully “out there” on a fantastic scale.
RU: I had a friend who took belladonna at a rock concert. And about halfway into it, he thought he was back in his own room and that the music on the radio really sucked, and he was going to turn it off. That basically involved twisting this girl’s kneecap until he got kicked out. Fortunately, it was just the kneecap.
JK: One young man tried to straighten out my arm, as if it were a pipe of some sort! He tugged on it, and pulled it, and didn’t seem at all aware that I might be discomforted by that.
RU: So this book, which is about a very serious subject, is actually quite an amusing read.
JK: Yeah, I tried to keep it from being too heavy, and included a number of anecdotes about people who weren’t delirious that were equally funny.
RU: Some of the inter-office activity was amusing too. Describe what happens when soldiers try to deal with mock-up battle conditions under the influence of BZ.
JK: Well of course, commanders wanted to know what would happen if this stuff were ever used in the field. So at first we set up an indoor type of situation, a sort of simulated command post with four soldiers in it. One of them was given a full dose of BZ while the others were given either small doses or none at all, in order to have some possibility of maintaining order. So this one individual would continually go to the door and try to get out. He’d turn around and say, “I’ll see you later,” but it was locked, and he finally concluded that he was trapped. When the cameras, which were behind these sliding plywood doors, were opened, he came over to one and looked into it as if it were the eye of a Martian. And then he tried to climb out through the medicine cabinet. Then he went over to the water bag and yelled, “Hey, this broad just committed suicide.” It took quite a bit of help from his teammates to keep him from hurting himself. But fortunately, nothing serious happened.
RU: You write that nobody was really injured or permanently damaged by these experiments, and you make a distinction between the work that you did at the arsenal and work done by the Central Intelligence Agency.
JK: I tried to dissect out the work done by the army from the work done by the CIA. The CIA, of course, was the first to undertake studies of LSD. They did it without any real scientific structure; and they took liberties that they shouldn’t have taken, giving it covertly to American citizens and the like. This was the MK-ULTRA program. Unfortunately, Edgewood Arsenal acquired a reputation for being somehow involved in the MK-ULTRA program — being somehow underwritten by the CIA. And this was not true. There were a couple of individuals who had a secret connection to the CIA, but the program itself was transparent, at least within the military, and there was none of the hijinx that the CIA carried out in San Francisco and other places. [ed: they gave LSD to customers in a house used for prostitution and watched them through a two-way mirror.]
RU: You recently gave testimony about the CIA program. Tell us a little bit about that.
JK: I testified on behalf of Wayne Ritchie, a deputy U.S. Marshall who had been an ideal officer — four years in the Marines, a year at Alcatraz as a guard. He was regarded as perfectly stable — normal. After a Christmas party, where people from the CIA office next door were present, he came back to his office and began to believe that everyone was against him. And then he went out on the street and walked home for the first time without his car, and was convinced that his girlfriend was against him; and the bartender was against him. So he decided to hold up a bar and get enough money for his girlfriend to fly to New York, and then he’d be arrested and they would kick him out of the US Marshal Service and everyone would be happy. So this is what he did, and this is what happened. And when he came to and realized what he’d done, he felt terrible. He wanted to commit suicide. He asked for a bullet to save the state some money, and he submitted a letter of resignation.
From that point on, he was regarded as a pariah and he spent the rest of his life believing he had committed a serious crime for which he’d never be forgiven. Then Sidney Gottleib — who was the head of the MK-ULTRA program — died. And in his obituary, it mentioned that he was supervising the administration of LSD to unwitting American citizens. [ed: The CIA also dosed unsuspecting attendants at office parties, as documented in Acid Dreams and elsewhere.] And so the light went on in his head at that point, and Wayne realized, or believed, that that’s probably what happened to him. So a case was eventually brought to court, and I was asked to testify on behalf of Wayne. I spent two-and-a-half days on the witness stand, mostly answering questions from CIA lawyers. Ultimately the outcome was not favorable, unfortunately. The judge didn’t feel convinced, and neither did the Appeals court. The judge said, in effect, “If you can explain this man’s criminal behavior with LSD, then I suppose you could blame anyone’s criminal behavior on LSD.” And this really wasn’t very logical and didn’t fit the facts, but that’s how it ended up. It was a rather unhappy ending to an unhappy story.
RU: A number of your volunteers in the LSD experiments expressed feelings of having had a profound experience. More frequently than not, they expressed a sort of regret in coming down and having the experience end.
JK: Yes. We were primarily interested in measuring performance on a systematic basis. But, of course, clinically it was pretty hard to ignore the differences in the responses to LSD that we observed. Some individuals would become very frolicsome and laugh a great deal. Some would become depressed and withdrawn; some became paranoid. Seeing the spectrum of responses in otherwise normal young men was quite interesting. One individual in particular, I believe, actually had a therapeutic experience. He was in a group of four, and we held a televised discussion after the test, and he admitted finally under pressure from his buddies that he had had some unacceptable erotic thoughts about the nurses that he was reluctant to reveal. And they told him that was all right, there’s nothing wrong with that. And when he went back to his unit, I heard indirectly that his personality was different. He became more sociable and outgoing. I have to give LSD some of the credit in that case.
RU: Also a frequent response from some of the volunteers was to find the tests just silly and absurd and to just laugh at the things they were asked to do.
JK: Yeah, under LSD, they perceived the absurdity of being asked to solve as many arithmetic problems as they could in three minutes. Sometimes they refused to do it all together. But in other cases they did their best, but couldn’t do as well as they did before the drug. I took it once and I had precisely the same difficulty solving arithmetic problems, but I didn’t have any of the wonderful visions and fantasies. I guess because I was thinking of the psychopharmacology of the LSD going through my raphe nucleus and so forth.
RU: You took 80 micrograms. It’s a little bit shy of a trip.
JK: Yeah. But it was chemically pure, U.S. Army-grade, 99.9 percent…
RU: Got any of that stuff left?
JK: Well, there was 40 pounds left in my office one day in a big black barrel…
RU: Oh yes! Do tell the story of the canister.
JK: I was chief of the department at that point. When I came into work one day, I noticed that there was a big, black, sort of oil barrel-type drum in the corner of the room. And no one said anything, or told me anything about it. So after a couple of days, my curiosity overcame me. After everyone had gone home, I opened it up and pulled out a jar. And I looked and saw that it was about 3.41623 kilograms of LSD. And so were the rest of the jars.
RU: Drop that baby on Iran and see what happens.
JK: But after another couple of days, the barrel was gone! I never heard anything; I never got a receipt for it. The LSD there was probably worth about a billion dollars on the street. And it just stayed there for a few days and went away.
SR: Speaking of getting onto the street, I’ve never heard of BZ, I guess it didn’t penetrate the black market?
RU: That’s really not the sort of thing people tend to want to take.
JK: Well, as I say, it’s similar to atropine or belladonna, which some people have taken for trips, and it’s been used through the ages for ceremonial purposes, for various purposes.
RU: I remember Durk Pearson saying it was interesting.
JK: It lasts about 72 hours in a dose that is just sufficient to incapacitate someone. It can last longer if you take more, but we kept the doses as low as we could. Delirium is not something that anyone particularly wants to go through. It’s more of a shipment than a trip, I would say.
RU: You don’t remember much. It’s probably more fun to watch other people take it.
JK: Right. Not too much intelligent insight emerges under its effects.
RU: Let’s get back to the purpose of this research. What you were hoping for?
JK: I felt I was working on a noble cause because the purpose of this research was to find something that would be an alternative to bombs and bullets. It could also be helpful in reducing civilian casualties, which have increased ever since the Civil War from almost zero percent to the eighty percent now or maybe higher — 90 percent perhaps in Iraq, because you can’t really avoid “collateral damage” if the enemy is going to hide among the civilians. Perhaps it’s a good time to rethink our use of incapacitating agents as a humane alternative.
The Russians did very well with this. When the Chechnyan terrorists took over an auditorium filled with attendees at a Moscow concert and held them captive for three days, the Russians brought in an incapacitating agent. It happened to be a morphine derivative of high potency, and they pumped it in through the ceiling and the floor, waited for a while, and then rushed in. And those terrorists did not detonate the bombs they had strapped to their bodies; they did not fire their weapons; they were all down on the floor unconscious, as was most of the audience. They were able to save about 80% of the audience.
RU: Do you feel that maybe they could’ve used a better incapacitating agent that would’ve allowed them to save everybody or nearly everybody?
JK: No, I don’t think there was anything better they could’ve used. This was a quick-acting drug, which is what it had to be. If they’d used BZ or some drug like that, the effects would have come on too gradually. The terrorists would have had time to figure out what was going on. So this was a knockout effect, and it worked very well. And I credit the Russians for doing this, although they seem to be embarrassed about giving out the details, because in the United States and the rest of the world in general, chemical warfare in any form is a no-no.
RU: It’s illegal internationally, isn’t it?
JK: A number of treaties were drawn up, the last of which was the chemical warfare convention. And it’s now illegal to use any drug that can either cause death or seriously disturbed behavior. And I think it’s unfortunate that we went in and agreed to this treaty because we’re now in a different kind of war from anything we’ve been in previously.
SR: I wonder what effect of LSD would have in either dislodging — or maybe even reinforcing — the beliefs of real serious believers, like fanatical Islamists, for example.
JK: Well, LSD was discarded pretty early on as an incapacitating agent when it was realized that it produced highly unpredictable effects and that people could still retain the ability to fire a rifle or push a button on a bomb-release mechanism. So I’m pretty sure LSD would not be used. It would have to be something in the opiate category, like what was used in Moscow; or perhaps one of the rapid-acting belladonna-like drugs. Incidentally, although BZ was adopted briefly and even packed into munitions, as far as I know, it was never used, despite rumors to the contrary. And later on we found rapid-acting compounds in the same category — short-acting, rapid-acting compounds that would’ve worked much better. But by this time, the whole notion of militarizing incapacitating agents had lost its window of opportunity. That’s one reason that all this research was kind of left in file cabinets.
RU: We’ve talked about psychedelics, and we’ve talked about deliriants. But what about disassociatives like ketamine and PCP? Do those hold any potential in your opinion, and do you know if they were looked into at all?
JK: A little work was done with PCP before my arrival. They had a complication. One individual became psychotic and required hospitalization. And this kind of scared them. In fact, that’s one reason I was asked to go there. So PCP would probably be an unacceptable drug.
SR: That’s not an uncommon reaction to PCP, right? Violence…
JK: It definitely can produce aggressive and resistant behavior that’s very hard to overcome.
RU: The 1970s was a time of great revelation of government crimes, and Edgewood Arsenal and your work got roped into the general attitude in the media towards the establishment, towards the military and so forth. Talk a little bit about how you feel the media misinterpreted your work.
JK: It grew out of the Congressional hearings, the most famous of which was the Kennedy hearings. The CIA was investigated. Congress attempted to find out just what they did with LSD in the early 50s. The CIA had destroyed all their records and the people who were still around claimed they couldn’t remember anything. But as a result of that, the army was asked to look at its work with similar agents. The Inspector General held a very comprehensive review, the National Academy of Sciences was asked to do a review of the work with BZ, and although they produced follow-ups finding no harm, somehow in the public mind, the CIA work and the U.S. Army work became interwoven. I believe that’s an unfortunate thing.
Another mistake was that the media characterized BZ as a super-hallucinogen, which really is not a good way to describe it. It’s a deliriant, basically — pure and simple.
RU: You’ve indicated the effects of some of today’s potential chemical weapons have been exaggerated in the media. You’ve spoken about the potency of VX, for example
JK: That’s right. This is in relation to nerve agents. I wasn’t an expert on that — that work was going on next door. But people have been told that a couple of drops of VX on the floor of Macy’s would wipe out the entire customer population. And things of that nature have been represented in programs like 24. (It’s a great series but…). People have a morbid fear of anything chemical, which has been encouraged by the media. Many inaccuracies have been brought out. As a matter of fact, ironically, nerve agents are a good antidote for drugs like BZ, and vice versa. Atropine’s used to treat nerve agent poisoning, and nerve agents can be used to treat atropine or BZ poisoning. We found this out in the lab. Of course anyone who heard that they were going to be treated with a nerve agent for their atropine or BZ poisoning would probably be very unhappy and nervous. But it works very well!
RU: So tell people how they can get a hold of this book. It’s an independent publication, with a unique design. It’s almost like a coffee table book.
SR: I thought you were going to say, “Tell people how they can get a hold of that black barrel!”
RU: Yeah. Where did you hide that black barrel?
See also: Excerpts from Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten