Synthetic Pot as a Military Weapon? (pt. 2)

July 22, 2008

Volunteers for America

With THC isomers on the back burner, the U.S.  Army Chemical Corps focused on several other compounds — including LSD, PCP, methylphenidate ( Ritalin ) and a delirium-inducing ass-kicker known as “BZ” ( a belladonna-like substance similar to atropine ) — all of which were thought to have significant potential as nonlethal incapacitants.

By the time the clinical testing program had run its course, 6,700 volunteers had experienced some bizarre states of consciousness at Edgewood.  Under the influence of powerful mind-altering drugs, some soldiers rode imaginary horses, ate invisible chickens and took showers in full uniform while smoking phantom cigars.  One garrulous GI complained that an order of toast smelled “like a French whore.” Some of their antics were so over-the-top that Ketchum had to admonish the nurses and other medical personnel not to laugh at the volunteers, even though it was unlikely that the soldiers would remember such incidents once the drugs wore off.

Ketchum insists that the staff at Edgewood went to great lengths to ensure the safety of the volunteers.  ( There was one untoward incident involving a civilian volunteer who flipped out on PCP and required hospitalization, but this happened before Ketchum came on board.  ) During the 1960s, every soldier exposed to incapacitating agents was carefully screened and prepped beforehand, according to Ketchum, and well treated throughout the experiment.  They stayed in special rooms with padded walls and were monitored by medical professionals 24/7.  Antidotes were available if things got out of hand.

“The volunteers performed a patriotic service,” Ketchum says.  “None, to my knowledge, returned home with a significant injury or illness attributable to chemical exposure,” though he admits that “a few former volunteers later claimed that the testing had caused them to suffer from some malady.” Such claims, however, are difficult to assess given that so many intervening variables may have contributed to a particular problem.

A follow-up study conducted by the Army Inspector General’s office and a review panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences found little evidence of serious harm resulting from the Edgewood experiments.  But a 1975 Army IG report noted that improper inducements may have been used to recruit volunteers and that getting their “informed consent” was somewhat dubious given that scientists had a limited understanding of the short- and long-term impact of some of the compounds tested on the soldiers.

Ketchum draws a sharp distinction between clinical research with human subjects under controlled conditions at Edgewood Arsenal and the CIA’s reckless experiments on random, unwitting Americans who were given LSD surreptitiously by spooks and prostitutes.  “Jim is very certain of his own integrity,” says Ken Goffman, aka R.U.  Sirius, the former editor of the psychedelic tech magazine Mondo 2000.  “There is little doubt in his mind that he was doing the right thing.  He felt he was working for a noble cause that would reduce civilian and military casualties.” Goffman helped Ketchum edit and polish his book manuscript, which vigorously defends the Edgewood research program.

Strange bedfellows, the colonel and the counterculture scribe.  Or so it would appear.  But these days, Ketchum and Goffman see eye to eye on many issues.  Both feel that the alleged dangers of marijuana and LSD have been way overblown.  No doubt, LSD could wreak havoc on the toughest, best-trained troops, derailing their thought processes and disorganizing their behavior.

When used wisely, however, LSD can be uplifting.  Ketchum notes that some soldiers had insightful and rewarding experiences on acid, lending credence to reports from civilian psychiatrists that LSD was a useful therapeutic tool.  “I had an interest in psychedelic drugs long before my interest in chemical warfare,” Ketchum says.  “I was intrigued by the positive aspects of LSD, as well as the incapacitating aspects.”

Mystery Stash

One morning, Ketchum arrived at his office in Edgewood and found “a large, black steel barrel, resembling an oil drum, parked in the corner of the room,” he recounts in his book.  Overcome by curiosity, he opened the barrel and examined its contents.  There were a dozen tightly sealed glass canisters that looked like cookie jars; the labels on the canisters indicated that each contained about three pounds of “EA 1729,” the Army’s code number for LSD.  By the end of the week, the 40 pounds of government acid — enough to intoxicate several hundred million people — vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.  Ketchum still doesn’t know who put the LSD in his office or what became of it.

But this much is certain: Some officers at Edgewood were dipping into the Army’s stash for their own personal use.  “They took LSD more often than was necessary to appreciate its clinical effects,” Ketchum admits.  “They must have liked it.”

The colonel was personally a bit skittish about trying LSD.  Eventually, he worked up the courage to experiment on himself.  Under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable Edgewood physician, he swallowed a small dose and proceeded to take the same numerical aptitude tests that the regular volunteers were put through to measure their impairment.  Constrained by the white-smock laboratory setting, his lone LSD experience was somewhat anticlimactic.  “Colors were more vivid and music was more compelling,” Ketchum recalls, “but there were no breakthroughs in consciousness, no Timothy Leary stuff.”

Ketchum also sampled cannabis shortly after he began working for the Chemical Corps.  His younger brother turned him on to marijuana, but the first time Ketchum smoked a joint nothing happened.  “Later, I read about reverse tolerance.  Some people don’t get high on marijuana until they use it a few times,” Ketchum explains.

It wasn’t until he went on a paid, two-year leave of absence from Edgewood that he started smoking pot socially.  Ketchum had convinced the surgeon general of the Army that it would be in everyone’s best interest if he studied neuroscience at Stanford University.  How better to keep abreast of the latest advances in the field? In 1966, he joined a team of postdoctoral researchers mentored by Karl Pribram, a world-renowned expert on the brain and behavior.

Ketchum related well with his academic colleagues.  “I got together with a few of my friends at Stanford and we had some cheap marijuana, which I smoked, and I got a real effect for the first time,” he says.  “I liked it.  It was very sensuous.  But I didn’t use it very often.  I didn’t have any of my own.”

Ketchum’s West Coast hiatus coincided with the emergence of the hippie movement in San Francisco.  “I was fascinated with this spectacular development,” he gleams.  “Luckily, I caught it at its peak.”

Occasionally, Ketchum took his home movie camera to Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of hippiedom, and filmed the procession of exotically dressed flower children strutting through the neighborhood high on marijuana and LSD.  “I was always interested in drugs, primarily because I’ve always been interested in how the mind works,” he says.  “So when this wave of psychedelic users descended upon San Francisco, I thought maybe I’d learn more by going there.”

Ketchum attended the legendary Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, sitting cross-legged on the lawn with 20,000 pot-smoking enthusiasts, soaking up the rays and listening to rock music, poetry and anti-war speeches.  A few months later, the colonel began working as a volunteer doctor at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, where he treated troubled youth with substance abuse problems.

Life After Edgewood

Ketchum returned to Edgewood in 1968, but the mood back at headquarters was not the same as before.  Growing opposition to the Vietnam War and public disapproval of the use of napalm and toxic defoliants cast a lengthening shadow over classified research into chemical weapons.  When journalists briefly got wind of the Army’s ambitious psychochemical warfare program, they scoffed at the notion of making the enemy lay down their arms by turning them on.

The colonel saw the writing on the wall.  Army brass consented when he asked to be transferred to another base in the early 1970s.  By this time, the Chemical Corps had concluded that marijuana-related compounds would not be effective in a battlefield situation, but the testing of other incapacitating agents under field conditions would proceed.  And drug companies continued to supply a steady stream of pharmaceutical samples for evaluation by the military.

In 1976, Ketchum retired from the Army and embarked upon a new career as a civilian psychiatrist in California.  Commissioned by the California Department of Justice, he collaborated on a 1981 study comparing the effects of alcohol and smoked marijuana on driving performance.  The results were somewhat surprising.  “When combined with alcohol, cannabis produced little additional impairment,” he concluded.

“While alcohol had an adverse impact on steering, THC affected a driver’s ability to estimate time.  But the combination of both drugs did not substantially increase the impairment produced by either one alone.  …  In fact, there was an antagonistic effect.  Marijuana seemed to offset some of the problems caused by alcohol, and vice versa.”

Ketchum feels that drug prohibition is bad public policy.  “It’s the refusal to look at the evidence that keeps pot illegal.  They misrepresented marijuana as an evil weed.  …  I’ve always had a libertarian attitude toward drugs.  I believe people should be able to do anything as long as it’s not harmful to somebody else.”

In the years ahead, Ketchum would reach out to medical marijuana trailblazers, prominent psychedelic advocates and drug-policy rebels working inside and outside the system to end prohibition.  He joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and became a member of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies ( MAPS ).

Founded by Rick Doblin, MAPS has spearheaded the revival of scientific investigations into the therapeutic potential of LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin and ibogaine, while also challenging bureaucratic roadblocks that prevent independent cannabis research in the United States.  Ketchum attended fundraising events and wrote letters to potential donors, praising the work of MAPS.

During the 1960s, Ketchum supervised thousands of drug experiments, yet he barely scratched the surface of the awesome potential of cannabis and LSD.  “Jim is not apologetic for what he did before,” Doblin says, “and I don’t think he sees it as incongruous with supporting research into the therapeutic aspect of psychedelics.  These tools have tremendous power, but he only looked at a narrow slice of it while he was at Edgewood.”

Today, Ketchum steadfastly maintains that cannabis and LSD are safe drugs compared to many legal substances.  This is what the Edgewood experiments and other studies have shown, he contends.  Given his status as a retired army officer who had extensive, hands-on experience testing psychoactive compounds, he speaks with a certain authority that most medical and recreational drug users cannot claim.

Medical Marijuana

After Californians broke ranks from America’s drug-war orthodoxy in 1996 and legalized medical marijuana in the Golden State, Ketchum got a recommendation from his family doctor to use cannabis for insomnia.  “I have personally found it helpful, especially for sleep,” he says.  “I’ve had problems with sleep for a long time.”

It was at a picnic hosted by the Shulgins that Jim and Judy Ketchum first met Tod Mikuriya, the controversial Berkeley-based physician who has been described as “the father of the medical marijuana movement.” One of the prime movers of Proposition 215, the successful med-pot ballot measure, Mikuriya quickly took a liking to the Ketchums and taught them how to use a vaporizer for inhaling cannabis fumes without tar and smoke.

An incurable iconoclast, the colonel has made common cause with counterculture veterans and anti-prohibition activists.  His endorsement of the therapeutic use of marijuana and LSD confers additional credibility on views long championed by his newfound allies.  Validation, in this case, goes both ways.  Embraced as one of the elders, a peculiar elder to be sure, Ketchum somehow fits right in.

“I don’t have a problem with being difficult to categorize,” he says.


One Response to “Synthetic Pot as a Military Weapon? (pt. 2)”

  1. […] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by satanisten01 on 2008-08-12 Synthetic Pot as a Military Weapon? (pt. 2) – […]

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