Before LSD escaped the lab and was evangelized by hippies, the U.S. government was secretly testing the effects of the drug on hundreds of unsuspecting civilians. In 1951, a french town called Pont-Saint-Esprit, was hit by a mysterious outbreak of hallucinations that left five people dead and many others seriously ill. The outbreak was blamed on a local baker who had unwittingly contaminated his flour with ergot, a psychedelic fungus. However, almost 60 years on, new evidence uncovered by an American investigative journalist has challenged this theory.
The inhabitants of the southern french village were suddenly racked with horrific hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire. People were sectioned to asylums and one man even tried to drown himself, screaming that snakes were eating his belly. For decades, the French believed that the chronic hallucinations were due to the ‘cursed bread.’ And, it was. Just not in the way that they could have possibly imagined. Investigative journalist H P Albarelli Jr. claims that the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and US Army’s top secret Special Operations Division (SOD).
Two years after the ‘cursed bread’ incident, Frank Olson, a biochemist who worked for SOD fell from a 13th floor window. While investigating Olson’s suspicious death (which was reported as a suicide) Albarelli obtained a number of CIA documents. This included transcriptions of a conversation between a CIA agent and an official from a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Sandoz Pharmaceutical (now, a division of Novartis). The transcription mentioned the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit,” and that the cursed bread had nothing to do with mold, but with diethylamide, the D in LSD. The CIA was sprinkling diethylamide into the food supply, possibly with the knowledge of some French officials.
In Albarellis’ book, A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiment, Albarelli also reveals a White House document sent to members of the Rockefeller Commission. It contained the names of French nationals who had been secretly employed by the CIA. Albarelli also claims that the US army drugged over 5,700 American servicemen between 1953 and 1963.
The LSD experiments were allegedly carried out because the U.S. believed that communist Russia, North Korea and China were using the drug to brainwash captured Americans. Consequently, the CIA didn’t want to fall behind in developing and responding to this potentially useful technology. As a result, they conducted completely uncontrolled tests which lacked ethical controls. They drugged civilians and then watched them without intervening. In the spring of 1963, John Vance, a member of the CIA Inspector General’s staff, learned about the project’s “surreptitious administration to unwitting nonvoluntary human subjects” and insisted that the agency follow new research ethic guidelines. As a result, all programs on non-consenting volunteers were brought to an end.
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