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The Sad Tale of Frank Olson, the U.S. Government’s Hallucinogen Fall Man

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Campaign manager for the Denver Psilocybin Initiative Kevin Matthews wears a mushroom necklace at an election watch party for a bill to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms.

In early May, Denver voted to become the first city in the United States to decriminalize psilocybin “magic mushrooms,” a favorite hallucinogen of the more cosmically minded Americans, and a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. With marijuana legalization sweeping the country, it’s likely that hallucinogens like psilocybin are among the safest recreational drugs that could follow suit.

But in the meantime, Denver’s decriminalization initiative marks an unusual moment in the U.S. government‘s failed war on drugs: The end of a 65-year smear campaign against a dead scientist by the name of Frank Olson, and the first signs of a renewed look at the science of—and related criminalization in response to—the dangers of hallucinogens.

In November of 1953, Olson—a brilliant Central Intelligence Agency biological warfare specialist operating at the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick in Maryland—plunged to his death from a window on the 10th floor of a New York City hotel. Olson had worked on biowarfare projects during the height of the Korean War, and for years after his dramatic death, the official explanation was suicide. Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Ruwet, Olson’s supervisor at Detrick, maintained that the researcher had ”fallen or jumped” in an ”accident” following a “fatal nervous breakdown,” per The New York Times Magazine.

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