Synthetic Pot as a Military Weapon? (pt.1)

July 20, 2008

SYNTHETIC POT AS A MILITARY WEAPON?

Meet the Man Who Ran the Secret Program

It was billed as a panel discussion on “the global shift in human consciousness.” A half-dozen speakers had assembled inside the Heebie Jeebie Healers tent at Burning Man, the annual post-hippie celebration in Black Rock, Nev., where 50,000 stalwarts braved intense dust storms and flash floods last August.  Among the notables who spoke at the early evening forum was Dr.  Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the Bay Area-based psychochemical genius much beloved among the Burners, who synthesized Ecstasy and 200 other psychoactive drugs and tested each one on himself during his unique, offbeat career.

Sitting on the panel next to Shulgin was an unlikely expositor.  Dr.  James S.  Ketchum, a retired U.S.  Army colonel, told the audience, “When Sasha was trying to open minds with chemicals to achieve greater awareness, I was busy trying to subdue people.”

Ketchum was referring to his work at Edgewood Arsenal, headquarters of the U.S.  Army Chemical Corps, in the 1960s, when America’s national security strategists were high on the prospect of developing a nonlethal incapacitating agent, a so-called humane weapon, that could knock people out without necessarily killing anyone.  Top military officers hyped the notion of “war without death,” conjuring visions of aircraft swooping over enemy territory releasing clouds of “madness gas” that would disorient the bad guys and dissolve their will to resist, while U.S.  soldiers moved in and took over.

Ketchum was into weapons of mass elation, not weapons of mass destruction.  He oversaw a secret research program that tested an array of mind-bending drugs on American GIs, including an exceptionally potent form of synthetic marijuana.  ( Most of these drugs had no medical names, just numbers supplied by the Army.  ) “Paradoxical as it may seem,” Ketchum asserted, “one can use chemical weapons to spare lives, rather than extinguish them.”

Some of the Burners were perplexed.  Was this guy cool or creepy?

Shulgin, a critic of chemical mind-meddling by the military, was wary when he first met Ketchum at a 1993 event honoring the 50th anniversary of the discovery of LSD.  But Ketchum is not your typical military bulldozer type.  An intelligent, gracious man with a disarming sense of humor, in his own way he has always been a free spirit.  He and his wife, Judy, who currently reside in Santa Rosa, became close friends with Sasha and his formidable partner, Ann.  They stayed in frequent contact and occasionally socialized together.  When the Shulgins invited them to Burning Man, the Ketchums joined the caravan of RVs driving to the desert.

“I’m kind of a Sasha worshipper,” Ketchum, who reads neuropharmacology textbooks during his leisure hours, confessed.  Tall and lanky, the colonel, now 76, is one of the few people who can actually understand what Shulgin, six years his senior, is talking about when he lectures on the molecular subtleties of psychedelic drugs, waving his arms furiously like a mad scientist.  Shulgin took Ketchum under his wing and welcomed him into the fold.

Shulgin wrote the foreword to Ketchum’s self-published memoir, Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten, which lifts the veil on the Army’s little-known drug experiments and illuminates a hidden chapter of marijuana history.  A graduate of Cornell Medical College, Ketchum describes how he was assigned as a staff psychiatrist to Edgewood Arsenal, located 25 miles northeast of Baltimore, in 1961.

“There was no doubt in my mind that working in this strange atmosphere was just the sort of thing that would satisfy my appetite for novelty,” Ketchum wrote.  Soon he became chief of clinical research at the Army’s hub for chemical warfare studies.  Although the Geneva Convention had banned the use of chemical weapons, Washington never agreed to this provision, and the U.S.  government poured money into the search for a nonlethal incapacitant.

Red Oil

The U.S.  Army Chemical Corp’s marijuana research began several years before Ketchum joined the team at Edgewood.  In 1952, the Shell Development Corporation was contracted by the Army to examine “synthetic cannabis derivatives” for their incapacitating properties.  Additional studies into possible military uses of marijuana began two years later at the University of Michigan medical school, where a group of scientists led by Dr.  Edward F.  Domino, professor of pharmacology, tested a drug called “EA 1476″ — otherwise known as “Red Oil” — on dogs and monkeys at the behest of the U.S.  Army.  Made through a process of chemical extraction and distillation, Red Oil, akin to hash oil, packed a mightier punch than the natural plant.

Army scientists found that this concentrated cannabis derivative produced effects unlike anything they had previously seen.  “The dog gets a peculiar reaction.  He crawls under the table, stays away from the dark, leaps out at imaginary objects and, as far as one can interpret, may be having hallucinations,” one report stated.  “It would appear even to the untrained observer that this dog is not normal.  He suddenly jumps out, even without any stimulus, and barks, and then crawls back under the table.”

With a larger dose of Red Oil, the reaction was even more pronounced.  “These animals lie on their side; you could step on their feet without any response; it is an amazing effect and a reversible phenomenon.  It has greatly increased our interest in this compound from the standpoint of future chemical possibilities.”

In the late 1950s, the Army started testing Red Oil on U.S.  soldiers at Edgewood.  Some GIs smirked for hours while they were under the influence of EA 1476.  When asked to perform routine numbers and spatial reasoning tests, the stoned volunteers couldn’t stop laughing.

But Red Oil was not an ideal chemical-warfare candidate.  For starters, it was a “crude” preparation that contained many components of cannabis besides psychoactive THC.  Army scientists surmised that pure THC would weigh much less than Red Oil and would therefore be better suited as a chemical weapon.  They were intrigued by the possibility of amplifying the active ingredient of marijuana, tweaking the mother molecule, as it were, to enhance its psychogenic effects.  So the Chemical Corps set its sights on developing a synthetic variant of THC that could clobber people without killing them.

Enter Harry Pars, a scientist working with Arthur D.  Little Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass., one of several pharmaceutical companies that conducted chemical warfare research for the Army.  ( Two Army contracts for marijuana-related research were awarded to this firm, covering a 10-year period beginning in 1963.  ) A frequent visitor to Edgewood, Pars synthesized a new cannabinoid compound, dubbed “EA 2233,” which was significantly stronger than Red Oil.

At the outset of this project, Pars had sought the advice of Shulgin, then a brilliant young chemist employed by Dow Chemical.  Shulgin was a veritable fount of information regarding how to reshape psychoactive molecules to create novel mind-altering drugs.  Eager to share his arcane expertise, Shulgin gave Pars the idea to tinker with nitrogen analogs of tetrahydrocannabinol ( THC ).  Pars never told Shulgin that he was an Army contract employee.  A declassified version of Pars’ research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society ( August 1966 ), in which he thanked Shulgin for “drawing our attention to the synthesis of these nitrogen analogs.”

The U.S.  Army Chemical Corps began clinical testing of EA 2233 on GI volunteers in 1961, the year Ketchum arrived at Edgewood Arsenal.  When ingested at dosage levels ranging from 10 to 60 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, EA 2233 lasted up to 30 hours, far longer than the typical marijuana buzz.

“I Just Feel Like Laughing”

In an interview videotaped seven hours after he had been given EA 2233, one soldier described feeling numb in his arms and unable to raise them, precluding any possibility that he could defend himself if attacked.  “Everything seems comical,” he told his interlocutor.

Q: How are you?

A: Pretty good, I guess.  …

Q: You’ve got a big grin on your face.

A: Yeah.  I don’t know what I’m grinning about, either.

Q: Do things seem funny, or is that just something you can’t help?

A: I don’t — I don’t know.  I just — I just feel like laughing.  ..

Q: Does the time seem to pass slower or faster or any different than usual?

A: No different than usual.  Just — just that I mostly lose track of it.  I don’t know if it’s early or late.

Q: Do you find yourself doing any daydreaming?

A: Yeah.  I’m daydreaming all kinds of things.  …

Q: Suppose you have to get up and go to work now.  How would you do?

A: I don’t think I’d even care.

Q: Well, suppose the place were on fire?

A: It would seem funny.

Q: It would seem funny? Do you think you’d have the sense to get up and run out, or do you think you’d just enjoy it?

A: I don’t know.  Fire doesn’t seem to present any danger to me right now.  .  Everything just seems funny in the Army.  Seems like everything somebody says, it sounds a little bit funny.  …

Q: Is it like when you’re in a good mood and you can laugh at anything?

A: Right.  …  It’s like being out with a bunch of people and everybody’s laughing.  They’re just –

Q: Having a ball?

A: Yeah.  And everything just seems funny.

Q: Would you do this again? Take this test again?

A: Yeah.  Yeah.  It wouldn’t bother me at all.

EA 2233 was actually a mixture of eight stereoisomers of THC.  ( An isomer is a rearrangement of atoms within a given molecule; a stereoisomer entails different spatial configurations of these atoms.  ) Eventually, Edgewood scientists would separate the eight stereoisomers and investigate the relative potency of each of them individually in an effort to separate the wheat from the psychoactive chaff and reduce the amount of material needed to get the desired effect for chemical warfare.

Only two of the stereoisomers proved to be of interest ( the others didn’t have much of a knockdown effect ).  When administered intravenously, low doses of these two synthetic cousins of tetrahydrocannabinol triggered a dramatic drop in blood pressure to the point where test subjects could barely move.  Standing up without assistance was impossible.  This was construed by cautious Army doctors as a warning sign — a sudden plunge in blood pressure could be dangerous — and human experiments with single THC stereoisomers were suspended.

Looking back on these studies, Ketchum wonders whether his colleagues made the right decision.  “This hypotensive ( blood-pressure-reducing ) property, in an otherwise nonlethal compound, might be an ideal way to produce a temporary inability to fight, or do much else, without toxicological danger to life,” Ketchum says now.  Given the high safety margin of THC — no one has ever died from an overdose — and the likelihood that the stereoisomers would display a similar safety profile, Ketchum believes the Army may have spurned a couple of worthy prospects that were capable of filling the knock-‘em-out-but-don’t-kill-‘em niche in America’s chemical warfare arsenal.

As for the two exemplary stereoisomers weaned from EA 2233, Ketchum speculates, “They probably would have been safe in terms of life-sparing activity.  …  But a person who received them would have to lie down.  If he tried to stand up and get his weapon, he would feel faint and lightheaded and he’d keel over.  Essentially he would be immobilized for any military purpose until the effects wore off.”

The colonel’s assessment: “A safe drug that knocks people down — what more could you ask for?”

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