One day in 1964, Nicholas Sand, a Brooklyn-born son of a spy for the Soviet Union, took his first acid trip. He had been fascinated by psychedelic drugs since reading about them as a student at Brooklyn College and had experimented with mescaline and peyote. Now, at a retreat run by friends in Putnam County, N.Y., he took his first dose of LSD, still legal at the time.
Sitting naked in the lotus position, before a crackling fire, he surrendered to the experience. A sensation of peace and joy washed over him. Then he felt himself transported to the far reaches of the cosmos.
“I was floating in this immense black space,” he recalled in the documentary “The Sunshine Makers,” released in 2015. “I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ And suddenly a voice came through my body, and it said, ‘Your job on this planet is to make psychedelics and turn on the world.’ ”
Like Moses receiving the tablets, Mr. Sand took this commandment to heart. After being trained by the lab partner of Owsley Stanley, America’s premier LSD chemist, he set about producing vast quantities of the purest LSD on the market. His most celebrated product, known as Orange Sunshine for the color of the tablets it came in, became a signature drug of the late 1960s.
To kick things off, here’s a short film from the National Archives’ record group for the U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare Program titled, “Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching.”
The Army had a few periods of experimenting with LSD and other drugs. While not secret, these tests are not as well-known as some of the similar LSD tests conducted by the CIA, such as MK-ULTRA and Operation Paperclip, where the U.S. government recruited former Nazi scientists.
This test, circa 1958, was conducted at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland and was part of a Chemical Corps program that sought effective psychochemical incapacitants, to be delivered in aerosol form. Apparently, President Eisenhower was enthusiastic about the program and its possibilities.
In the end, LSD proved to be problematic — it was too expensive, it was unstable once airborne, and there were patent complications — but the program did lead to Agent BZ, which was weaponized but never used in combat.
I came across this film while working on a documentary on the history of biological warfare, a project that yielded a number of films and photos that were kind of tough to get my head around, some for their abject cruelty, some for their surrealism. I’ll share a few of them in the coming months, along with other odd film clips, forgotten history and surprisingly beautiful images from archival holdings around the country.
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear …