The Billion-Dollar Barrel of LSD, and Other Insanities of the U.S. Army's Cold War Drug Experiments

During the Cold War, the U.S. Army pursued a research program that used soldiers as lab rats to test the effects of various chemical agents—ranging "from tear gas and LSD to highly lethal nerve agents, like VX." As a huge class action suit against the government by those who were experimented upon nears its trial date, the New Yorker has dropped a huge piece full of details on just how much crazy shit our military was doing in a single secret facility in Maryland.

Drawing on extensive access to the records kept by Colonel James Ketchum (a free spirit by military standards, who, as a young man, submitted an essay called "Sex in Outer Space" to Playboy), who led the research program for the Army, Raffi Khatchadourian recounts the history of the "Edgewood" program, its justifications, and its consequences. As a moral quandary for any warmaking nation, it is an important topic. But the story's most sensational bits are the asides on the blasé nature of the drug testing. Oh, the things that Army could do to its volunteers:

I spoke to a former Edgewood test subject who was given the nerve agent VX, which, when applied to the skin, is a hundred times as deadly as sarin. An officer came to his bedside to draw a small circle on his arm, and then a doctor with a syringe squirted on a drop of liquid. The effect was rapid. The subject heard other people groaning-one man said, "Oh, shit"-but he felt only a calm disassociation from his environment. There was a radio on in the room, but the words made little sense. When he was given food, he didn't know what to do with his utensils. "I was not in control," he told me. "It was incredible. This tiny drop had rendered me helpless." As the test continued, he was seized by an agonizing wave of tension, as if each nerve ending were being crushed in a vise. "It was intense," he told me. "My body was clenched. All of my nerves were tight, physically and mentally."

The high demands of patriotism. There are stories of whiskey laced with PCP, acid slipped in officers' morning coffee, and one loose cannon scientist who "was known to dip his finger in a beaker containing the lethal agent, then rub it on the back of a shaved rabbit; as the animal convulsed and died, he would casually walk across the room and bathe his finger in a Martini to wash off the VX." And perhaps most fascinating anecdote of all is this:

Once, Ketchum walked into his office and found a barrel the size of an oil drum standing in a corner. No one explained why it was in his office, or who had put it there. After a couple of days, he waited until evening and opened it. Inside, he found dozens of small glass vials, each containing a precisely measured amount of pure LSD; he figured there was enough to make several hundred million people go bonkers-and later calculated the street value of the barrel to be roughly a billion dollars. At the end of the week, the barrel vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared.

There's much, much more.

[The New Yorker. Photo: Emma/ Flickr]