LSD, Hookers, Hit Men, and the Top Levels of the CIA

How MK-ULTRA, LSD and Cold War Paranoia Exposed the Deep Politics of the 50s and 60s.

There is still debate over how involved the government was in the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept America’s urban underbelly in the 1980s. What is indisputable is that in the 50s and 60s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with direction from its highest leadership, engaged in a program called MK-ULTRA.

MK-ULTRA grew out of the anti-communist obsessions of the Cold War. The CIA would go to Switzerland and corner the market on the world’s supply of LSD — originally to keep it out of the hands of Russia and the KGB.

The cast of characters that the CIA assembled to do this was a rogues’ gallery of sleaze. The agency used hookers to attract clients on whom the drugs were tested in safe house apartments. Later tests were conducted on unsuspecting GIs and students and even on hospital patients.

All this skullduggery was carried out in an effort to develop a drug that would create a real life “Manchurian Candidate.” It might seem like little more than an amusing footnote to a time of Cold War paranoia, were it not for the people murdered and the lives ruined — and the fact that it all happened under the watchful eyes of “honorable men” like Allen Dulles and Richard Helms.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy Podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Richard Stratton. Stratton spent most of the 1980s in federal prison for his own drugs-related crimes. In 1994 he revealed details of MK-ULTRA to an incredulous world.

Today, Stratton is an acclaimed filmmaker and screenwriter, whose films have won praise at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festival. He was the creator and writer for Showtime’s Street Time and he is a former editor of the recreational-drug magazine High Times.

His latest book, Smuggler’s Blues: A True Story of the Hippie Mafia (Arcade Publishing, April, 2016), is a lively recounting of Stratton’s high-wire life, including his long friendship with the author Norman Mailer, and the story of exactly how he managed to get a ton-and-a-half of Lebanese hash through customs in New Jersey.

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