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Nonsense About LSD

The Daily Telegraph in the UK has a story today claiming that a 1951 outbreak of hallucinations and dementia in the French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit was not (as everyone thought) an example of ergot poisoning. No, according to some guy who’s writing a book, it was. . .a secret LSD experiment.
Now, there most certainly were secret LSD experiments during the 1950s and 1960s. (The book Storming Heaven has a good account of them, as well as of the history of LSD in general). But it’s rather hard to see why the CIA should decide to dose some village in the Auvergne, especially when the symptoms (burning sensations in the extremities as well as hallucinations) seem to match ergotism quite well.
But no matter. I think we can dispose of this new book and its author pretty quickly. Just take a look at some of his scoop:

However, H P Albarelli Jr., an investigative journalist, claims the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The scientists who produced both alternative explanations, he writes, worked for the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD.
Mr Albarelli came across CIA documents while investigating the suspicious suicide of Frank Olson, a biochemist working for the SOD who fell from a 13th floor window two years after the Cursed Bread incident. One note transcribes a conversation between a CIA agent and a Sandoz official who mentions the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit” and explains that it was not “at all” caused by mould but by diethylamide, the D in LSD.

Laughter may now commence. For the non-chemists in the audience, diethylamide isn’t a separate compound; it’s the name of a chemical group. And LSD isn’t some sort of three-component mixture, it’s the diethylamide derivative of the parent compound, lysergic acid. (I’d like to hear this guy explain to me what the “S” stands for). Diethylamides have no particular hallucinogenic properties; they’re too small and common a chemical group for anything like that. DEET, the insect repellent, is a common one, and there are plenty of others.
In short, neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific “source” of this quote, know anything about chemistry. This is like saying that the secret of TNT is a compound called “Tri”. Nonsense.
Update: see the comments section. Not everyone’s buying my line of thought here. . .

46 comments on “Nonsense About LSD”

  1. Vader says:

    I ran across a similar book once, but the ignorance was of basic physics as well as chemistry. This book claimed the Japanese actually succeeded in producing an atomic bomb in Korea just before they surrended in 1945.
    It was replete with fascinating information, such as its explanation of how a cyclotron separates isotopes. Apparently the magnetic field attracts nuclei with a force equal to their charge, so that U-238 with its 238 protons is more strongly attracted than U-235 with its 235 protons. You see, the 238 is the number of protons and the 92 is the number of electrons in the nucleus.
    The author was baffled, though, by the mysterious acronym “HE” in a number of memos from an explosives experiment station.
    But he has a real scoop in his story of the Spanish spy who landed by submarine in Mexico and infiltrated Los Alamos, returning with radioactive debris from a test explosion — in 1943. This Spanish spy later used his U-boat to spirit Martin Bormann to Argentina after Berlin fell.
    No, really. The science and history were that bad.
    It’s a shame, too. It sounds like there was a pretty interesting story going on with a handful of bright Japanese scientists trying to make some kind of progress on pitiful resources. I can’t buy that they got anywhere near making a bomb, though, and I bet the story would be even more interesting told by someone who had a clue what the science was.

  2. dearieme says:

    The WWII Japanese abandoned one atom bomb project when they calculated the amount of copper required (presumably for the windings on the motors of the compressors). Their second one was destroyed in a bombing raid. I hadn’t heard of a third one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have no intention of defending the conspiracy premise, but dismissing it for references to “diethylamide” is almost as ludicrous.
    I routinely hear chemicals referred to by just one part of their proper name, particularly if the speaker is dealing with several similar chemicals. If they’re playing around with a bunch of derivatives of lysergic acid (and in the early 50’s they probably were) then they quite likely talked about them amongst each other using just the distinguishing derivative group.
    There may be plenty of reasons to lambaste that story, but this isn’t one of them.

  4. wcw says:

    What Anon said. Don’t you remember ‘ethyl’ gasoline?

  5. coprolite says:

    While on a class trip at Morley MJS to France, Syd Barret to Roger Waters exclaimed, “Electric Yellow’s got me by the brain banana.”

  6. Sili says:

    Some years ago when ‘Fantasy’ was the biiiig drug scare, the local paper helpfully described GHB as being gamma-hydroxybutanoïc acid consisting of “Gamma, hydroxy and butanoïc acid”.

  7. David Formerly Known as a Chemist says:

    But, man, that diethylamide has, you know, me going by the toes, that D. I was feelin funkin’ & groovy before putting that little tab under my tongue, then the trees came to life. Not life like eating carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, but life like little mouths and leaves that spoke to me, mainly sighing, but sometimes whispering secrets that no human knew about, like the real purpose of roots is to sneak into sewer pipes and spy on people through their sinks, reporting what they learn back to the birds. The birds are the ones who really rule the earth, man, not us. They clean up the carcasses and distribute the seeds that grow into hemp plants that give us those cool sandals and, I’ve heard, is smoked by some. But the lysergic part of that tab, the L, it’s the part that keeps the CIA out of my ears, even so, they’re always knocking, trying to get in, shining brightly colored lights on my wall that twists and turns so they can’t find the knob. I still can’t find the S part of the tab, but I know it’s there, curvy, snakelike, hissing and poking at me until I finally surrender, stop cruising and fall asleep. These trips tend to happen to me whenever I’m in Pont-Saint-Esprit , but sometimes when I hear that Grace Slick sing about that white rabbit, hey, don’t get me started on that rodent.

  8. MTK says:

    That’s actually how I thought of it as well. The use of “D” could be just shorthand for LSD. A colloquial term if you will.
    If the investigator could find other documentation or notes where D is used to denote LSD that would bolster his interpretation of the note. Otherwise, D could be anything, I guess. Without more context it’s hard to know.

  9. Chrispy says:

    It’s funny but the journal article describing the synthesis of the diethyl amide of lysergic acid was routinely torn from the bound copy in the chemistry library by people looking to make it. I guess they couldn’t afford to Xerox it. You’d think that the amide would be the easy part.

  10. throwback says:

    @ #7 LOL–your post said it all—hilarious!

  11. Honest Engine says:

    It doesn’t say “was caused by D”. It says: “caused by… diethylamide, the D in LSD”. So unless the letter says something different and diethylamide doesn’t make you hallucinate, I agree. This story is hokum.

  12. mad says:

    I agree the story is garbage. The author knows it otherwise he would have just paraphased that the chemist said LSD. He put in the specific words of the chemist and the reference to the letter D to aviod a direct lie

  13. Fargo says:

    As someone who did a lot of LSD, both in terms of regular dosages over time and enormous doses all at once, I have to say that I never experienced anything like burning in the extremities.
    Tingling, time delayed sense of touch, and a feeling like my teeth were orbiting their sockets, but no burning.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps you could sell it to GSK…..they like that level of science and due diligence is a breeze

  15. Fjällräv says:

    “Acid Dreams” by Bruce Shlain and Martin Lee is a thoroughly researched and interesting read on the strange history of LSD.

  16. Fjällräv says:

    S = Säure (german for acid, it was invented in Basel)

  17. Frodo says:

    “Science is founded on the conviction that experience, effort and reason are valid; magic on the belief that hope cannot fail nor desire deceive.”
    -Branislaw Malinowski
    Magic, Science and Religion 1948
    Michael Shermer quotes this at the beginning of his book “Why People Believe Weird Things.”
    For some reason, evolution has endowed all of us with some degree of paranoia. Perhaps it helped us from being hunted by packs of predators out on the African plain. Unfortunately today, all it serves us is to demonstrate how easily we are deceived by our own desire to make sense of the world.
    Instead of teaching self-esteem in schools today, we should be teaching Ockham’s Razor. Given a choice to explain the above event between a huge CIA plot and subsequent cover-up and bad rye bread, I think the answer is pretty obvious. As a parent, I’m making the best effort I can to teach my children HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

  18. Loonesta says:

    Est-ce que personne n’a pensé à l’ergotism ? There are documented accounts of ergotism outbreaks from moldy rye bread during the Middle Ages. The symptoms are much the same as this incident. And Rye ergot was the source material for Dr Hoffman’s discovery…

  19. DoMer says:

    Maybe Myth busters will pick this one up?

  20. Anonymous says:

    experience and effort?
    Well harumpf.
    the only thing they should teach about Razors is that biased jumps in logic have no business being referenced in the scientific lexicon. Especially when being used to indoctrniate others to the virtues of laziness.
    paranoia: vigilance; tomato: tomahtoe
    people will believe anything that makes them feel good.

  21. boron bodger says:

    The author seems confused about the identity of substance D, surely we wouldn’t need to grow the flowers if it was only diethylamide.

  22. eugene says:

    Well, after coming off a poisoning by tributyltin-Cl earlier in the week, which I assume was a secret experiment by an Indian postdoc working for the Indian security services, I keep referring to the substance as tin and skip the tributyl and Cl parts… so I guess it’s remotely believable.
    The almost passing out part was a bit of a bummer, but it felt like smoking a whole bunch of stuff from the gravity bong all at once (from, uh… comparing my experience with tributyltin to that of others with more conventional drugs). Definitely cheaper. At least I didn’t throw up continuously before dying like all those poor rabbits.
    Surely, there must be better way to make Western chemists want to give up on their jobs (I’d take outsourcing over what I felt like a few days ago), but I suppose that the Indian state security apparatus is still in the experimental stage.

  23. The mass-poisoning whose symptoms began circa August 16, 1951 in Pont-Saint-Esprit, France most definitely wasn’t caused by LSD, let alone anything that was sprayed through the air.
    The poisoning was traced back to bread made by local baker Roch Briand. It didn’t affect people in the area generally, but only those who had eaten the contaminated bread. So Hank P. Albarelli, Jr.’s claim that the poisoning was due to “a covert LSD aerosol experiment directed by the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, Maryland” can be definitely ruled out.
    Further, the symptoms of poisoning were incompatible with those of LSD’s effects. Symptoms began 6 to 48 hours after eating the contaminated bread. Whereas if it had been LSD, effects would have started to occur at about an hour for normal doses and sooner for massive doses (and sooner still for insufflation via aerosol spraying). Secondly, people haven’t died from even massive overdoses of LSD, unlike a number of people who died of convulsions from the mass-poisoning in Pont-Saint-Esprit. There has never been a unambiguous recorded human death from LSD overdose. The therapeutic index for LSD is among the highest known for any pharmacologically active substance. Physiologically speaking, it’s extremely safe.
    For a description of the symptoms of the Pont-Saint-Esprit victims by the physicians who treated them, see Gabbai, Lisbonne and Pourquier, “Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit,” British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4732, pp. 650-651, available for free on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
    Concerning U.S. Army scientist Dr. Frank Olson, an investigation in 1994 by a forensic team headed by Prof. James E. Starrs of George Washington University concluded that the overwhelming probability is that Dr. Frank Olson’s death was not a suicide but a homicide. Dr. Olson’s family have uncovered evidence that he was involved in lethal torture experiments and anthrax experiments under the C.I.A.’s Project ARTICHOKE, which later became Project MKULTRA. Oslon’s family believe that he became disillusioned with the military and was planning on quiting, and that the U.S. government murdered him as they considered him a risk regarding potentially revealing details of his work. For more on that, see the below items.
    Eric Olson, Ph.D., Stephan Kimbel Olson, Nils Olson, D.D.S., Lauren Olson and Kristin Olson, “Family Statement on the Murder of Frank Olson,” Frank Olson Legacy Project, August 8, 2002.
    Del Walters, “Army Scientist Killed by CIA?,” WJLA-TV (ABC 7 News, Arlington, Virginia), August 8, 2002.

  24. Sasha says:

    @17 Occam’s Razor is more or less a cop out, invoked as some invioble law of the universe to avoid investigating difficult topics. Was it ergot? Possible. Was it a CIA experiment? Again, possibly. The CIA was quite busy through the ’50s testing CIA all over the place, and had an “everything is at stake” mentality that would have made something like this entirely possible.
    Refuting it with Occam’s Razor, as if it’s a law of nature like gravity, is intellectual laziness, and a fundamental misunderstanding of that postulate. At most, it suggests that one possibility is more likely than the other, not that one must be true.

  25. Jose says:

    Sadly, as much as I love Occam’s razor, there is no firm theory (statistical, or scientific) behind it. That said, anytime you need to invoke secret legions of evil CIA operatives, common sense says…

  26. Pablo says:

    Nobody tell the author that such thing as triethylamide exists. If 2 is bad 3 must be devastating!

  27. Vent says:

    LSD might indeed very well have been called diethylamide. Just like people say (crystal) meth. (And it’s quite had to bite off the methyl). It seems the author does not understand this, or he just wrote it down in an awkward way.
    And about the poisoning… France has a very long history of ergotism and ergot poisonings. The fungus lives there very well, and a lot of grain is grown there.

  28. Steve Hager says:

    The case for an LSD attack on the town is based on the fact that Frank Olson and other scientists from SOD at Fort Dietrick (who were working on chemical weapons) were in the area at the time of the incident. It is also based on documents that show the CIA had a great interest in covering up the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident after the story of Olson’s death began unraveling during the Rockefeller hearings on CIA abuses in the 1970s. Have any of you read the book? Saying this is all based on one document from Sandoz is ridiculous. The fact that Sandoz sent Hoffman to the town immediately to cover up is another piece of evidence. You ask why did they want to dose a town? They were testing the potential of this drug to disable a town, only the experiment went awry, people died, people went insane, and then they had to cover it all up to avoid the lawsuits, which included murdering Frank Olson, the scientist who weaponized the LSD. Next you’re going to tell us Olson commited suicide by jumping out of 13-floor hotel room in the middle of the night wearing only his underpants six days after taking 60 micrograms of LSD. Olson was murdered. And he was murdered because he told people about Pont-Saint-Esprit.

  29. Mark says:

    As far as I remember, LSD is a very fragile molecule. It’s both light sensitive and easily oxidized by chemicals used to sterilize drinking water.

  30. El Selectride says:

    The Atlantic picked this up on their blog:
    An historian who specializes in French bread also seems skeptical of “weaponized LSD”

  31. “S” is Sauer – German for Acid.
    I don’t find this report far fetched, I also find it plausible that some might call it Diethylamide as a short hand for D Lysergic acid diethylamide – just as now many refer it to now as “Acid” without any ambiguity (for instance battery acid)

  32. Frodo says:

    O.k. I guess I’ll take the time to defend Ockham’s Razor:
    “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”
    -Carl Sagan
    It isn’t laziness to not take seriously an extraordinary claim unless extraordinary evidence is present. The above event is supported by no such evidence. I guess if you have a lot of time on your hands, you can go off on all sorts of flights of fancy whenever something like this happens. Maybe the whole thing was caused by space aliens. Or maybe the local doctor opened up a secret satellite designed to capture space viruses to be used in biological weapons, and it killed the whole town.
    Hey, that last scenario would make a good book…
    And as far as paranoia and vigilance being related, there are some vigilant people around here.

  33. MTK says:

    Of course France has a long history of ergotism. That’s why the CIA chose that village. It’s called a cover story. 🙂

  34. Mark says:

    “I think we can dispose of this new book and its author pretty quickly.”
    I don’t see how your argument calls any of what the author claims into question. Certainly there is some distance to go to prove his point, but not understanding chemistry proves nothing about the existence or authenticity of the purported documents.
    This is a pretty shameful display of a specious argument in action. I hope you don’t do chemistry this way.

  35. Cartesian says:

    As a French I do not prefer the option of having being poisoned by Americans than the egotism one. Also I think that USA is rather helping in general against this kind of things.

  36. RI Pete says:

    Several comments about unofficial shorthand for chemicals; yes, it is quite common. Anyone that has worked around a non-chemist chemical sales guy has heard many such chemical abbreviations. In their defense, “Xylylene” doesn’t always roll off the tongue easily.
    Amide formation being ripped out of journals does make sense, since if I recall Lysergic Acid was on the market as a treatment for migraine headaches. Getting the complicated rink structure was much like getting the precursor to crystal meth.
    #17 Frodo: You may want to make some suggestions to your kids about what to think in addition to teaching them how to think. You are the adult and your experience is very valuable. One doesn’t have to always start with first principles.
    I too have heard Occam’s razor as a cop out. Still seems like a good rule of thumb to prioritize explanations, kind of a relation to the K.I.S.S. Principle.

  37. Ingvar says:

    This is like saying that the secret of TNT is a compound called “Tri”. Nonsense.
    Tri is the common name in Sweden for trichloroethylene. I have a hard time imagining how to use it as a precursor for TNT, though.

  38. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think Frodo is suggesting that Occam’s razor be used as an arbiter of truth, but rather as a heuristic guide. In that regard, it is still a valid principle.

  39. derp says:

    So you’re going to dismiss a theory about the events and actions of secretive government organisations and their inhumane experimentation on unwilling subjects… because the guy writing the piece didn’t pass chemistry?
    I’m pretty sure there’s a nice neat word for that type of fallacy, it’s too bad I can’t recall it, but hey, if I didn’t achieve an abitrary level of knowledge of English, then I probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

  40. Linx says:

    My ex-girlfriend’s dad was a CIA station-chief in southeast Asia during the Viet-Nam era. I had many long conversations with him and several of his “Company” buddies over the years. From what I heard, the CIA is not nearly as capable, or competent, as many people believe. They are actually just another government bureacracy, not particularly efficient at what they do. People like to give them credit for being much more powerful than they actually are.
    One more thing. Her dad said that the general rule-of-thumb with Company business was that if more than about a dozen people knew about an operation, it was considered common knowledge, and not a secret. That is why “conspiracies” are basically impossible to hide.
    I’m with Derek on his conclusion.

  41. milkshake says:

    After I saw the movie “Charlie Wilsons War” which is very funny in a over-the-top way, I red the book on which the film is based, from George Crile. In the book there is a detailed account of maneuvering, machinations and outright conspiracy that took for Gust Avrakotos to run the clandestine Afghan operation with a small group of misfits, very much without blessing of his agency superiors. (He also managed because all the political attention was focused to the botched Contras clandestine support at that time, for many in the agency and Congress the Afghan war was only afterthought.) This book very much confirms the suspicion that CIA is bloated, highly politicized and not very capable bureaucracy. If they do something right it happens despite of their system, not because of it

  42. D says:

    its hilarious how all you people get off harping on the journalist “for not passing chemistry” etc. its also stupid, reread this quoted section in the original post”
    “…it was not “at all” caused by mould but by diethylamide, the D in LSD.”
    there is absolutely nothing wrong with this statement, the D DOES stand for diethylamide! would it be incorrect to say that butryric acid is the B in GHB? perhaps slightly clumsy but not incorrect. it has already pointed out that people commonly refer to psychoactives by a portion of their chemical name/abbreviation – i have heard LSD referred to as L numerous times, MA as meth, 1,4-butandiol as 1,4-B etc. if a CIA operative said the bread was contaminated with “diethylamide” (which btw is the distinguishing difference btw LSD and the natural ergot alkaloids resp. for ergotism making the abbreviation even more significant) i would consider that an interesting and important discovery.

  43. realitysurfer says:

    here is link to my film POWER AND CONTROL: LSD IN THE SIXTIES
    I was able to track down an original participant in Leary’s Miracle of good Friday..who ironically is currently the Dean of the Divinity School where Leary found his subjects
    here is link
    Harvard stuff begins at 7:24
    I posted the entire film

  44. espressofrog says:

    Have you seen the books Hank P. Albarelli Jr. writes?! The guy actually believes Morgellon is an actual disease. And like 99% of everything he writes it must point to the CIA. Morgellons is not even an actual disease.
    Now he is hosted on Voltairenet / Reseau Voltaire. Home of Thierry Meyssan, the man who said no planes crashed on the pentagon. I don’t want to do any character assassination but this is as bad as finding your thesis on infowars or on a page along with David Ike’s reptilian stuff.

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  46. Noni Mausa says:

    @derp #39: “…So you’re going to dismiss a theory about the events and actions of secretive government organisations and their inhumane experimentation on unwilling subjects… because the guy writing the piece didn’t pass chemistry?”
    As a sometimes journalist, this sort of criticism might be out of line in a daily news piece, or even a feature newspaper article. Reporters are archetypically “masters of none.” However, in a feature article in a big publication one would hope the editor might question some of the sciency stuff. That said, the D seems the least of the writer’s flaws. But anyone can look up the symptoms of ergot poisoning versus the lived experience of users of psychedelics, and notice the difference. Bad reporter, no cookie.

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