Seventy-two years ago today, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the psychedelic properties of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A powerful hallucinogen, LSD gained prominence twenty years later when counterculture figures such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey popularized its use as a recreational drug. But not everyone who took LSD did so voluntarily. This week, On Remand looks back at LSD and the Supreme Court case of an Army sergeant who unwittingly consumed the drug in a top-secret experiment.

The Discovery of LSD

Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938 during his work on ergot, a fungus that grows in rye kernels. He hoped the substance would have use as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. But Hofmann’s colleagues at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel showed no interest in it, so testing stopped. Five years later, on a hunch that LSD possessed more beneficial properties than at first realized, Hofmann re-synthesized the compound. This time, he accidentally ingested a small amount:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

After accidentally ingesting LSD, Hofmann did what any good scientist would do: He took it again to replicate the results. But Hofmann’s second experience with LSD was not as pleasurable. He perceived “demonic transformations” within himself and in his surroundings. As Hofmann later explained:

Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. . . . A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. . . . My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying?

Despite this “terrifying” experience, Hofmann continued to experiment with LSD, convinced its perception-altering properties would be of use in pharmacology, neurology, and psychiatry. At the time, he had “no inkling that [LSD] would also come to be used beyond medical science, as an inebriant in the drug scene.”

Advertisement

But the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s counterculture movement were not the only groups that experimented with LSD. The Army did it too, and one of the resulting lawsuits from its surreptitious experiments wound up in the Supreme Court.

James Stanley’s “Gas Mask Tests”

In February 1958, James Stanley, a master sergeant in the Army, volunteered to test clothing and equipment designed to protect against chemical warfare. But Stanley’s visits to the Chemical Warfare Lab in Edgewood, Maryland, for the tests turned out to be very bad trips. On four consecutive Wednesdays, while trying on gas masks, he was asked to drink a glass of water. Many years later, Stanley described what happened next:

I held onto the bed. I felt I was floating through space and time. The drinking water brought the body up to a high degree and caused hallucinations and a back-through-time effect. It caused total chaos. I didn’t know where I was at or what I was doing.

Advertisement

Confusion, hallucinations, memory loss, and incoherence plagued Stanley in the years following the tests. He behaved bizarrely, but remembered nothing. On occasion, he beat his family in the middle of the night, and once threw an iron lung weighing hundreds of pounds against a wall. For years, he doubted his sanity. Stanley’s promising military career unraveled. Despite making master sergeant at the young age of 20, the army demoted him two years after the tests for “inefficiency,” then discharged him in 1969. Stanley’s personal life too was wrecked. His children were afraid of him and his wife divorced him.

Seventeen Years Later, the Truth Comes Out

In 1975, Stanley received a letter from the Army requesting his participation in a study of the long-term effects of LSD on “volunteers” who participated in the 1958 tests. For the first time, Stanley learned that the Army administered LSD to him during those tests.” “When I opened up the letter,” Stanley recalled, “I stood there and cried.”

Advertisement

The next year, a Senate Report exposed shocking details about the U.S. government’s experiments with chemical agents, including the Army’s LSD experiments. Fearing that the Soviet Union might dump LSD in the country’s water supply, the Army began testing it on unknowing subjects. But what began as an effort to defend Americans against the use of chemicals by enemies evolved into an offensive program to “determine the potential effects of chemical or biological agents when used operationally against individuals unaware that they had received a drug.”

Stanley Sues

Stanley sought recompense. First, he filed a claim for compensation from the Army. It was denied. Then, in 1977, he filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking $624,000 in damages. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. However, the lurid tale of the Army’s disregard for Stanley’s constitutional rights was not before the Supreme Court. Rather, the question was whether Stanley could even sue the government.

Advertisement

Reciting the distressing facts with uncharacteristic restraint, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion delivered bad news for Stanley. Supreme Court precedent established that maintaining “military discipline” is of such importance that it bars lawsuits for constitutional violations for injuries arising out of activity incident to service. Because the lower court had determined that Stanley’s participation in the tests was incident to his Army service, he had no legal recourse.

Justice Brennan, writing in dissent, was appalled. In his view, the LSD experiments violated the Nuremberg Code by “treat[ing] thousands of [U.S.] citizens as though they were laboratory animals.” Developed after the trial of Nazi doctors, the Nuremberg Code provides rules for the ethical use of human subjects in experiments. The first tenet of the Nuremberg Code requires voluntary consent of the subject, who must be fully apprised of the purpose and potential risks of the experiment. But, as the Senate Report found, to maintain the clandestine testing program, the Army’s consent forms did not mention LSD. The Army also tried to bury what it had done, remarking in a 1959 report:

In intelligence, the stakes involved and the interests of national security may permit a more tolerant interpretation of moral-ethical values. . . . Proper security and appropriate operational techniques can protect the fact of employment of EA 1729 [LSD].”

Advertisement

Justice Brennan put it more bluntly: “. . . legal liability could be avoided by covering up the LSD experiments.”

Justice Brennan wrote that government officials who commit serious constitutional violations should be held accountable and be subject to suit. “Soldiers ought not be asked to defend a Constitution indifferent to their essential human dignity,” Brennan concluded.

All’s Well That Ends Well?

Two years after Stanley lost at the Supreme Court, a United States Congressman introduced a private bill to compensate Stanley for damages he suffered as a result of the LSD experiments. The bill passed in 1994, a few years after the Department of Defense dropped its objection to it. For the violation of his constitutional rights, and resulting psychological, professional, and personal problems, Stanley received $400,577.

Advertisement

As for Hofmann, his many self-experiments with LSD apparently caused few psychological, professional, or personal problems. He worked for Sandoz Laboratories into his 60s, stayed married to the same woman for nearly 75 years, and died in 2008 at the age of 102.