9th February 2022
By Emily Ledger

To many people, the news that the US government and its various departments have been behind some questionable – and some may say, unethical – experiments over the years, is not really news at all. The US authorities have become known the world over for their apparent willingness to protect itself and its ideals at almost any cost – including the rights of its own citizens.

Costly wars (in both financial and human terms), government cover-ups, and controversial policies, exposed throughout the last century, have all contributed to this reputation.

But we aren’t here to talk about Watergate or the Iraq War – we are neither qualified nor willing to comment on such things so publicly. No, what we are going to talk about in this article is the amazing – and at times sickening – story of the US’s quest for mind control and its attempted development of a so-called ‘truth drug’.

In this first article, we will be focusing on the cannabis trials, carried out by several US authorities throughout the 20th century.

The Era of Human Experimentation

The ethics around human experimentation became a hot topic in the mid-1900s – largely due to the atrocities carried out during World War II. These inhumane experiments were not isolated to Nazi Germany and its trials on unwilling Jewish and other minority individuals.

Nonetheless, the initiation of the ‘Nuremberg Code‘ in 1947 introduced a new set of international guidelines designed to protect human test subjects around the world.

The basis of this code was simple: that researchers must obtain full and voluntary consent from all subjects (including having “sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision”); that experiments should yield fruitful results for the good of society that can be obtained in no other way;  and that researchers should not conduct tests where “serious harm” or death might occur, “except, perhaps” when the supervising doctors also serve as subjects. 

The Nuremberg Code has remained official US policy since 1947.

cannabis trials us history
Scientist in laboratory

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. Many US doctors and researchers essentially ignored many of these rules, with the belief that they applied to Nazi atrocities and not to the development of US medicine and the discovery of new methods for warfare.

While the use of cannabis in human trials may not be included in the most serious of these cases, it is important to note that many of the human subjects used in these trials were unaware of what was happening to them and were not offered post-care after the fact – arguably (and many people have argued) these experiments went against human rights and the rules set out in the Nuremberg Code.

The Cannabis Trials

Throughout the 20th century, a number of scientific trials have aimed to assess the potential of cannabis. While many of these trials have focused on the development of medicines and yet more to demonstrate the perceived harms of the drug, in this article we are looking at the weirder side of cannabis research from the last century.

Some of this research focused on the search for a ‘truth serum’; other trials contributed to what many of the researchers saw as a “noble cause”: to find an alternative to the use of bombs and guns that has historically caused horrific damage to populations and infrastructure around the world – particularly throughout World War II (at the time only just drawing to a close).

The OSS Cannabis trials

America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – had already tried and rejected mescaline as a potential so-called “truth drug”. A much more promising option according to their research, was cannabis…

In the Spring of 1943, the committee began to assess strains of cannabis with extremely concentrated amounts of THC as a potential option. Trials were carried out in which test subjects, handed over by the Manhattan Project (the Top Secret effort to build an atomic bomb), were administered a concentrated liquid form of cannabis. However, the findings of the trials were reportedly a significant disappointment to the researchers.

According to one man from the Manhattan Project: “It didn’t work the way we wanted. Apparently, the human system would not take it all at once orally. The subjects would lean over and vomit.” While one subject ended up in the hospital, the others hadn’t even gotten around to revealing their deepest, darkest secrets…

cannabis trials truth serum
Detective smokes cigarette

However, the researchers later moved on to trial the effects of inhaled cannabis through ‘cigarettes’, which proved to be much more effective. An infamous trial of the drug by a member of the OSS, George White, was considered largely successful after it was seen to be effective at “loosening the lips” of notorious New York gangster, August Del Gracio, and several suspected Communist soldiers.

According to files leaked in the 1970s – including first-hand reports from Colonel George White (named the White papers) – the THC-based drug was never deployed for action. It was, however, reportedly tested on a number of unwitting subjects at White’s New York apartment throughout the experimentation period. Colonel White reportedly later used LSD on unsuspecting individuals at the same residence.

In his own words, White concluded that it “was not a perfect ‘truth drug’ in the sense that its administration was followed immediately and automatically by the revelation of all the secrets which the subject wishes to keep to himself.

“Indeed, a careful evaluation of the psychological mechanisms involved leads to the conclusion that such a goal is beyond a reasonable expectation from any drug.”

The Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments

Another series of human experiments that aimed to assess the potential of THC and cannabis in ‘psychochemical warfare’ was the Edgewood Arsenal Drug experiments. Between at least 1948 and 1975, US Army researchers at the Edgewood Arsenal facility in Maryland recruited almost 5,000 soldiers to take part in their experiments.

These trials involved soldiers being exposed to several substances, including nerve agents and psychoactive drugs. The aim? To identify possible substances that could be useful in chemical warfare, whether for interrogation, defence, or incapacitation.

The ideal weapon that it was hoped would come from this research would be “one that leaves the infrastructure intact and the population manageable”. A synthetic analog of THC, named EA 2233, along with eight of its isolated isomers were eventually discontinued from research. However, James Ketchum, one of the senior researchers from Edgewood Arsenal, later wondered if one of the two isomers could have been an effective incapacitant.

According to Ketchum, isomers 2 and 4 possessed powerful postural hypotensive effects that prevented standing without fainting – a quality that “in an otherwise non-lethal compound, might be an ideal way to produce temporary inability to fight (or do much else) without toxicological danger to life.”

The Implications of the Government-Sanctioned Cannabis Trials

In earlier trials carried out at Edgewood, many volunteer soldiers (and scientists) were administered drugs, including LSD and THC, without their knowledge, and subsequently, their informed consent. While this practice was later phased out, aftercare and observation were also not considered.

As one article, published in the New Yorker puts it, “Little was known about the long-term effects of the experiments, and yet the volunteers, after a stay at the arsenal, were blindly pushed back into the Army at large, with no follow-up care.”

It is now impossible to know what effect – if any – the administration of EA2233 and other cannabis-based drugs may have had on the volunteers; however, it is important to recognise the shortcomings of these trials and the many others like them and the potential harm they may have had – both in the short- and long-term.

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