However, less well-known is the CIA project called “MK Ultra” that exploited people of color (POC) and other vulnerable groups to test the human limits of drugs like LSD for its use as a “mind-control” agent.
Many have heard of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which Black American men with syphilis were denied treatment and left to suffer through the course of the disease and die so that white scientists could study the effects of syphilis on the human body. However, less well-known is the CIA project called “MK Ultra” that exploited people of color (POC) and other vulnerable groups to test the human limits of drugs like LSD for its use as a “mind-control” agent.
The Creation of Project MK Ultra
In 1975, news emerged about CIA-sponsored research with LSD. Due to fears, stemming from the Cold War, that the Soviets had developed methods for “mind-control” (Marks, 1979) and that LSD could be used as biochemical warfare (Dyck, 2008), the CIA project MK Ultra was created to test the potential of LSD for “mind control,” “brainwashing,” and as a “truth serum” for interrogating spies.
It was discovered that over 80 private and public universities, prisons, and hospitals conducted LSD experiments on civilians, prisoners, and patients with and without knowledge that the research funds were obtained through the CIA MK Ultra program (Richert & Dyck, 2020). Although evidence of project MK Ultra was ordered to be destroyed by CIA director Richard Helms, some records survived and were illuminated during US Senate hearings (Richert & Dyck, 2020; Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources, 1977) as well as through scientific publications with connections to MK Ultra.
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Diving Deeper: Our Research
While one might assume such a nefarious project would be kept top secret, the products of this research were published in publicly accessible, peer-reviewed scientific journals. Our research team at the University of Ottawa examined 49 such research articles published from the 1950s to the 1970s that administered psychedelics to test subjects, including LSD, DMT, mescaline, psilocybin, and THC. We sought to understand how and to what extent people of color and other vulnerable groups were exploited during this first wave of psychedelic research in the United States. Specifically, we examined the race and ethnicity of the participants, the recruitment strategy, study methodology, and potential dangers across the selected studies, and we uncovered recurring themes surrounding safety and ethics that gave us pause.
Overall, we found that the researchers conducted brutal experiments on prisoners and people with psychotic disorders, in which they gave participants extremely high doses of psychedelics far too often and for far too long.
Across all of the studies analyzed, there were issues surrounding use of incarcerated populations, coercive incentives, unsafe dosing, questionable scientific merit, and oppressive set and setting. Overall, we found that the researchers conducted brutal experiments on prisoners and people with psychotic disorders, in which they gave participants extremely high doses of psychedelics far too often and for far too long. Almost 30% of the studies reported using POC, half of the studies used incarcerated participants, and 15% used participants with psychotic disorders. Further, over three quarters of the studies used a high-risk dosing schedule, and just under 90% of studies had at least one ethical violation.
Although roughly 30% of the examined studies reported using POC (mostly Black American men, as well as a few Puerto Rican men), many did not report the race or ethnicity of the participants; however, we investigated the recruitment sites used, and we found that people of color, predominantly Black Americans, were significantly overrepresented in the prisons from which participants were recruited. One of these sites was the Addiction Research Center (ARC) in Lexington, Kentucky.
Worse, the prisoners at ARC were offered heroin as payment for participating in research studies, which they could use after the study or bank for later.
This was a prison built for doing research on inmates. Worse, the prisoners at ARC were offered heroin as payment for participating in research studies, which they could use after the study or bank for later. This was unquestionably unethical, but it was also particularly coercive and exploitative, considering the fact that prisoners at ARC were often there for drug-related offenses. Researchers were, therefore, giving heroin to prisoners who also might have been struggling with substance use disorders.
In another study, Black participants were given more than double the dose (180 mcg) of LSD, compared to white participants (75 mcg), and white participants endured 8 days of LSD administration, while Black participants endured chronic LSD administration for up to 85 days
Some of the studies that did report the participants’ race also documented treating the participants of color worse than white participants. For example, despite knowledge of the importance of set and setting, in one study, the researchers reported that the white participants, who were living freely, were given LSD in the researcher’s home under conditions designed to reduce anxiety, whereas the participants of color, who were prisoners, were given LSD in a prison ward in which comfort or anxiety were not considerations (Abramson, 1960). In another study, Black participants were given more than double the dose (180 mcg) of LSD, compared to white participants (75 mcg), and white participants endured 8 days of LSD administration, while Black participants endured chronic LSD administration for up to 85 days (Isbell, et al., 1956)! In many cases, the prisoners did not even know what they had been given. One prisoner, who was essentially being tortured, asked many times to leave the experiment but was forced to stay.
Excerpts from the Research Articles Studied
We’ve included some excerpts below from the research articles that were produced from these experiments.
A schizophrenic participant was quoted pleading, “Dr. X, this is serious business—we are pathetic people—don’t play with us” (Cholden et al., 1955, p. 217).
In another study, a chronically ill Black participant was described to be of “low intelligence, with only 2 years’ education and an impoverished socioeconomic background.” The researchers then go on to describe him as if he were an animal. They reported that he had a “wild frightened look” and “he became quiet and no longer required restraints, which had been necessary during the previous experiment” (Monroe, et al., 1957, pp. 633–634).
In another experiment, with respect to one of the incarcerated Black participants, the researchers reported, “After recovery from this severe reaction, the patient wished to drop out of the experiment but after considerable persuasion agreed to continue. He was started on 50 mcg LSD once daily, and this dose was increased until he again received 180 mcg of LSD on the 22nd day” (Isbell et al., 1956, p. 475).
In an interview, Edward M. Flowers, the only surviving prisoner research participant to have been located, reflected on his participation in LSD experiments at ARC saying, “they used my ass and took advantage of me…” (Campbell & Stark, 2015).
Socially Responsible and Culturally-Competent Research
Addressing these research abuses begs the question, “What does socially responsible and culturally-competent research look like?” Ethical research mandates that participants are treated in accordance with the principles outlined in the Belmont Report: beneficence, justice, and respect for persons. Ethical research also requires the inclusion of historically disadvantaged and exploited groups, particularly Black and Indigenous communities. Inclusion does not simply mean diverse participant pools (although this is important too), but also truly inclusive (non-tokenized) representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) across all echelons of the research process (e.g., in research labs, as principal investigators, on journal editorial boards, etc.), writing and publishing on culturally-inclusive topics, and that participants and experts are treated with care and respect.
Within Black and Indigenous communities, there remains a strong cultural memory of research abuses perpetrated against them by white, Western researchers, and, as a result, BIPOC may not feel safe or comfortable in clinical settings with white researchers and clinicians.
Within Black and Indigenous communities, there remains a strong cultural memory of research abuses perpetrated against them by white, Western researchers, and, as a result, BIPOC may not feel safe or comfortable in clinical settings with white researchers and clinicians. Thus, additional measures must be taken to ensure that BIPOC participants feel safe and comfortable. There are many resources with information on culturally-competent research methods (e.g., Eriacho, 2020; George et al., 2020; Williams et al., 2020. Some recommendations include community-based participatory research with BIPOC communities (ensuring appropriate compensation for time and expertise so as not to perpetuate exploitation), culturally-informed therapeutic models and clinical settings, offering ethnoracially-matched clinicians for participants, anti-racism and cultural competency training for all researchers and clinicians, as well as basic trust and respect (Eriacho, 2020; George et al.,, 2020; Williams et al., 2020).
Next Steps Moving Forward
You might be wondering, “What should be done with this unethical research?” There has yet to be a consensus reached as to the handling of this research, and it continues to be used and cited today, albeit critically. However, the question remains: Should it still be used and cited or done away with? One possibility is to handle this research the same way as the literature resulting from the Nazi human experiments. The scientific community has largely agreed that the Nazi experiments were so appallingly unethical that any literature citing that research should also be considered unethical and be retracted (Moe, 1984). On the other hand, it is also conceivable that the participants who suffered so immensely for this research might not want it to go to waste and be forgotten about.
It is only appropriate that the thoughts and feelings of the research participants, themselves, be considered with regard to the handling of this literature. Unfortunately, most of the original participants are no longer alive to ask, so their descendants and the impacted communities of color should be consulted in their stead.
Another potential next step towards rectifying this injustice might be to understand the toll this research has taken, and continues to take, on the affected communities of color, and implement reparations.
Another potential next step towards rectifying this injustice might be to understand the toll this research has taken, and continues to take, on the affected communities of color, and implement reparations. For example, how were the Black communities in Lexington, KY, impacted by the ARC experiments, and what are the impacts of these unethical experiments today for these communities? How would they like to be compensated, and what would they like done with the resulting research findings?
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The Future of Psychedelic Research
People of color, particularly Black Americans, and other vulnerable groups (prisoners and people with psychotic disorders) were exploited and even tortured during the first wave of psychedelic research in the United States. Ethically speaking, it is critical that the current wave of psychedelic research is culturally inclusive so that resulting treatments are safe, effective, and accessible for a diverse society, and honor Indigenous communities through reciprocity. It is also critical that psychedelic researchers acknowledge the contributions, however painful and non-consensual, of Black, Indigenous, and people of color to the field, whose bodies were used to gain knowledge to benefit others and without whom the field would not be where it is today. Finally, today’s researchers must be cognizant of the research abuses committed by white, Western researchers against POC in early psychedelic research and take responsibility to address the ways in which these research abuses have impacted and continue to impact these communities.
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Campbell, N., & Stark, L. (2015). Making up “vulnerable” people: Human subjects and the subjective experience of medical experiment. Social History of Medicine: The Journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine, 28(4), 825–848. https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkv031
Dyck, E. (2008). Psychedelic psychiatry: LSD from clinic to campus. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Eriacho, B. (2020, July 6). Considerations for psychedelic therapists when working with Native American people and communities. Chacruna. https://chacruna.net/considerations-for-psychedelic-therapists-when-working-with-nave-american-people-and-communities/
Estes, C. (2019, November18). Federal Medical Center, formally known as the United States Narcotic Farm, located on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky [Image]. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/claryestes/2019/11/18/the-narcotic-farm-and-the-little-known-history-americas-first-prison-for-drug-addicts/?sh=756ad2337b3b
George, J. R., Michaels, T. I., Sevelius, J., & Williams, M. T. (2020). The psychedelic renaissance and the limitations of a white-dominant medical framework: A call for Indigenous and ethnic minority inclusion. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 4–15. https://doi.org/10.1556/2054.2019.015
Marks, J. (1979). The search for the “Manchurian candidate”: The CIA and mind control. New York City, NY: Times Books.
Moe, K. (1984). Should the Nazi research data be cited? The Hastings Center report, 14(6), 5–7. https://doi.org/10.2307/3561733
Richert, L., & Dyck, E. (2020). Psychedelic crossings: American mental health and LSD in the 1970s. Medical humanities, 46(3), 184–191. https://doi.org/10.1136/medhum-2018-011593
Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Human Resources. (1977). Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification: Joint hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, ninety-fifth Congress, first session, August 3, 1977. Washington DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
Williams, M. T., Reed, S., & Aggarwal, R. (2020). Culturally-informed research design issues in a study for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 4(1), 40–50. https://doi.org/10.1556/2054.2019.016
References for Unethical Studies
Abramson, H. A. (1960). Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25): XXXI. Comparison by questionnaire of psychotomimetic activity of congeners on normal subjects and drug addicts. Journal of Mental Science, 106(444), 1120–1123. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.106.444.1120
Cholden, L., Kurland, A., & Savage, C. (1955). Clinical reactions and tolerance to LSD in chronic schizophrenia. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 122(3), 211–221. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-195509000-00001
Isbell, H., Belleville, R., Fraser, H., Wilker, A., & Logan, C. (1956). Studies on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25): 1. Effects in former morphine addicts and development of tolerance during chronic intoxication. AMA Arch NeurPsych, 76(5), 468–478. doi:10.1001/archneurpsyc.1956.02330290012002
Monroe, R., Heath, R., Mickle, W., & Llewellyn, R. (1957). Correlation of rhinencephalic electrograms with behavior. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 9(4), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1016/0013-4694(57)90084-6
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