The Sad Tale of Frank Olson, the U.S. Government’s Hallucinogen Fall Man
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.
But in 1977, the so-called Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA’s domestic activities revealed that several CIA and Army personnel, Olson included, were unwittingly dosed with LSD in a bottle of Cointreau as part of a test under the now-infamous MKUltra mind control program. After the accidental dosing, many ”developed serious side effects.” Olson in particular “exhibited symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia” after the experiment and told superiors he wanted out of the biowarfare business.
Olson was far from the only American forcibly dosed with LSD in the service of the CIA’s attempted weaponization of hallucinogens, but his long, strange trip ended just eight days after his dosage, on a New York sidewalk. But despite the revelations surrounding his demise in the 1970s, the U.S. government continued to blame Olson for his own death. Army officials claimed in the Rockefeller report that the scientist “may have had a history of emotional instability,” an indelible lie that had nearly destroyed Olson’s family over the subsequent years.
But more importantly, Olson wasn’t just an early, forgotten victim of the nascent War on Drugs, or even the subject of a sprawling government conspiracy as his son later alleged (and was detailed in the miniseries Wormwood). Even though LSD was outlawed in 1970— years before the report came out—under the Controlled Substances Act, the centerpiece of President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, the Rockefeller report made him an unwitting poster boy for the dangers of hallucinogens.
Hallucinogenic substances like LSD and psilocybin were placed strictly in the Schedule I category, defined as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” for the same reason as marijuana: as part of Nixon’s counter-counter-culture push to “[get] the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminaliz[e] both heavily, [so] we could disrupt those communities,” a former Nixon adviser told Harper’s.
Outside of marijuana and heroin, the emerging American cosmology of psychedelics was a prime target for Nixon’s Drug Enforcement Agency: As Tao Lin detailed in Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, the goal of listing LSD as a Schedule I drug was “to strongly convey that psychedelics were the most useless and destructive class of drugs.”
And that’s where Olson’s mysterious death became useful to the U.S. government—as a cautionary tale on LSD and magic mushrooms, an updated Reefer Madness for a generation of Flower Children. “Olson’s case was frequently, through the 1980s and 1990s, cited as an instance in which LSD led to psychosis and suicide,” explains Lin, “even in books reporting on the hellish details of MKUltra that the commission and hearing didn’t mention.” Those stories you hear of hallucinogen-addled fellow travelers losing their minds and engaging in abnormal, new-psychotic behavior? Most have their roots in Olson’s LSD-drenched plunge.
Years of recent studies have since vindicated Olson. While hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin can certainly introduce long-term psychological issues into individuals with existing underlying issues, they rarely trigger addictive behaviors and accidental overdoses, making them among the safest drugs in terms of outright risk. In 2018, an analysis by John Hopkins University researchers in Neuropharmacology even recommended reclassifying psilocybin itself from a Schedule I to a Schedule IV substance (on par with prescription sleeping pills) in order to capitalize on their potential medical applications, including treating alcoholism, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other issues.
But while there has been recent research it isn’t exactly cutting edge: The U.S. government has known this all along. Lin notes that a 1959 internal Army study found that “there has not been a single case of residual ill effect” recorded in the “prolific scientific literature” collected on years of LSD tests on thousands of soldiers: “Personal communication between U.S. Army Chemical Corps personnel and other researchers in this field have failed to disclose an authenticated instance of irreversible change being produced in normal humans by the drug.” A follow-up 1985 study authored by Jerome Jaffe, the so-called drug czar under Nixon, put it more simply: “In man, deaths attributable to direct effects of LSD are unknown.”
Denver’s mushroom legalization isn’t just a major milestone on the path to drug legalization in the U.S. It’s a governmental moment of clarity for a devoted scientist who was turned into a cautionary tale through no real fault of his own—and a body blow against the bygone boogeymen of drug-induced violence and criminality of a generation past.