The Great LSD Conspiracy

Quit Marijuana The Complete Guide

New Treatment for Cannabis Dependence

Get Instant Access

While Leary was in the slammer, his erstwhile patron Billy Hitch-cock got tangled in a legal mess of his own making. It had taken almost four years for the government to gather enough evidence to indict the young Mellon heir for income tax evasion. He also faced charges stemming from stock market malpractice. A lengthy jail term seemed almost certain unless he struck a bargain with the authorities. He called Tim Scully, who had dropped out of the acid business a few years ago, and explained the situation. Would Scully also be willing to make a deal and possibly save his own skin? Certainly not. Hitchcock was on his own. In March 1973 he surrendered at a federal attorney's office in New York and offered to talk about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in exchange for leniency.

The following month Hitchcock was in San Francisco testifying before a grand jury on the Brotherhood LSD conspiracy. He told everything he knew, naming all the key figures he had associated with in the drug trade over the years. He also identified the Swiss and Bahamian banks that had been used to launder drug profits. This information was just what the jury needed to indict Scully and his onetime partner, Nick Sand, who'd been apprehended earlier that year at an underground drug lab in Saint Louis. In the coming months both would stand trial for manufacturing and distributing LSD.

While the prosecution was preparing its case against Sand and Scully/ DEA officials appeared before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee and outlined the dimensions of the Brotherhood conspiracy. "In many ways," said DEA director John Bartels, "the evolution of the drug trafficking activities of the members of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love is a tragic illustration of the cynicism into which the youthful drug revolution of the mid-1960's has fallen."

At its peak the organization had approximately three thousand members, according to the DEA, and it operated "in a virtually untouchable manner" until 1971, when federal and state officials began their investigation. Since then, the senators were told, the Brotherhood inquiry had resulted in the arrest of over a hundred individuals, including Timothy Leary, who was inaccurately described as the group's founder. Four LSD factories had been seized, along with thirty-five hundred grams of acid in powdered form (equivalent to fourteen million dosages), a pill press, six hashish oil facilities, 546 acres of property in Southern California, and sizable quantities of marijuana, cocaine, peyote and amphetamine. In addition $1,800,000 in cash had either been seized or located in foreign banks. DEA officials concluded with a pitch for a budget increase, and Congress dutifully obliged.

The case against the Brotherhood acid chemists came to trial in San Francisco in November 1973 and lasted thirty-nine days. The trial pitted Billy Hitchcock against his former colleagues, Sand and Scully, who were accused of being the largest suppliers of LSD in the US during the late 19603. Since Hitchcock had already been granted immunity, the defense strategy was to pin all the blame on him, portraying him as the "Mr. Big" who single-handedly directed the entire acid operation. Hitchcock, for his part, tried to walk a fine line, giving just enough information to satisfy the prosecution, but not enough to convict the defendants. (He even put up money for Scully's legal fees.) The publicity generated by the trial crystallized in a sensational Village Voice article by Mary Jo Worth, "The Acid Profiteers." The article depicted Leary as a Madison Avenue huckster who was a front for Hitchcock's money. The whole psychedelic movement, according to Worth, was nothing more than a scam perpetrated by a profit-hungry clique.

But this was not the impression given by Sand and Scully during the trial. Both of them came off as remarkably idealistic fellows who got involved in the drug trade from altruistic motives. When Sand was arrested, the police discovered papers containing formulas for over a hundred psychedelic compounds unknown to the general public. He and Scully claimed the drug they produced was not LSD-25 but a related compound known as ALD-52, which was not illegal simply because the narcs had never heard of it. Ingenuity, however, was not a plausible defense, and it failed to sway the jury.

Hitchcock was not a particularly strong witness at the San Francisco trial. He acknowledged that his own drug usage had been extensive, and he listed all the substances he had experimented with over the years, including LSD and heroin. Mr. Billy had already pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and violation of SEC regulations, but he had not yet been sentenced for these charges. The defense contended that Hitchcock had been promised leniency in his other cases if he lied in this one. Although he admitted that he had perjured himself four times during Internal Revenue and SEC investigations and before a federal grand jury, his testimony was deemed reliable enough to send both of the defendants to the pen. Scully got twenty years, Sand got fifteen, while Hitchcock received a five-year suspended sentence, a $20,000 fine, and a ceremonial slap on the wrist.

Sand jumped bail and disappeared while out on appeal, leaving Scully to fend for himself. Scully's lawyers argued for a mistrial but lost. While in federal prison on McNeil Island, Washington State, he became a model inmate, designing a computer system for the staff and biofeedback equipment to help drug addicts and the handicapped. This helped him win an early parole in 1979. Shortly before his release from prison Scully was named Man of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Washington for his scientific innovations.

As it turned out, Scully served a longer jail term than any other person associated with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. At least twenty members of the Brotherhood chose the fugitive route while drug charges were pending against them. One of those who vanished was Ronald Stark, the mysterious entrepreneur who had assumed a commanding role in the illicit acid trade. In November 1972 a team of IRS and BNDD agents visited his drug lab in Brussels, but Stark was nowhere to be found. He was later indicted—but never prosecuted—as a co-conspirator in the Sand-Scully case.

The fact that Stark was wanted on a drug rap in the US hardly put a damper on his international escapades. He spent much of his time in Italy during the 1970S, cavorting with Sicilian Mafiosi, secret service officials, and political extremists of the far left and far right. Stark's antics took him far afield. Occasionally he traveled to the Baalbek region of Lebanon, where he negotiated with a Shiite Muslim sect for shiploads of hashish. Stark claimed to be a business representative of Imam Moussa Sadr, a powerful Shiite warlord who controlled vast hashish plantations and a private army of 6,000 men. The area under his dominion was said to include training camps used by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other terrorist groups.

Back in Italy, Stark rented a small apartment in Florence. But he rarely stayed there, preferring the posh hotels of Rome, Milan, Bologna and other cities. By day he carried on as a smooth and successful businessman. At night he donned a pair of faded blue jeans and a work shirt and mingled with student radicals and other extremists. Moving in left-wing circles was nothing new for Ronald Stark. He had a knack for popping up wherever trouble was brewing. An American expatriate bumped into him on the streets of Paris during the peak of the Sorbonne uprising in 1968. In London he frequented the clubs and bars that were hangouts for dissident elements, and he made his first appearance in Milan during the "hot autumn" of 1969, when massive student demonstrations and labor strikes nearly paralyzed Italy. Furthermore, Stark was tight with the Brotherhood leaders who contributed money to the Weather Underground for Timothy Leary's prison escape.

Whatever game Stark was playing took an abrupt turn in February 1975 when Italian police received an anonymous phone call about a man selling drugs in a hotel in Bologna. A few days later at the Grand Hotel Baglioni they arrested a suspect in possession of 4,600 kilos of marijuana, morphine, and cocaine. The suspect carried a British passport bearing the name Mr. Terrence W. Abbott. Italian investigators soon discovered that "Mr. Abbott" was actually Ronald Stark. Among his belongings was the key to a safe deposit box in Rome that contained documents on the manufacture of LSD and a synthetic version of cocaine. There was also a vial of liquid that scientists could not precisely identify (they figured it was something like LSD). Other items seized by police included letters from a certain Charles C. Adams written on stationery with the letterhead of the American embassy in London. The messages from Adams, a foreign service officer, began with a confidential "Dear Ron," and were addressed to Stark's drug laboratory in Brussels, which had been raided in the fall of 1972 by a team of American agents.

If Stark's contacts with American embassy personnel were difficult to fathom, then his association with some of Italy's most notorious terrorists was equally curious. In the spring of 1976, while he was being held in Don Bosco prison in Pisa, Stark befriended Renato Curcio, a top leader of the Red Brigades that had stalked Italy since the early 1970S. Curcio and his radical cohorts apparently had no idea that Stark was an American when they took him into their confidence. As soon as he succeeded in penetrating the underground terrorist network, Stark asked prison officials to arrange a meeting with the chief prosecutor of Pisa. He said that Curcio had told him of a plot to assassinate Judge Francesco Coco of Genoa, who was scheduled to preside over a trial of fifty Red Brigadesmen. There was also talk of abducting a prominent Italian politician who lived in Rome. In June 1976 Judge Coco was murdered, just as Stark predicted. (Aldo Moro, five times Italy's premier, may have been the other victim. Stark's name would later surface in connection with the Moro kidnapping and execution.)

Transferred to a jail in Bologna, Stark continued to expand his terrorist contacts. During this period he received a steady flow of visitors from the British and American consulates. (Curiously, the US government never pressed for his extradition, even though he was wanted on drug charges related to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.) Stark also communicated on a regular basis with representatives of the Libyan diplomatic corps and had a series of meetings with Italian secret service personnel. Documents show that he was in direct contact with General Vito Miceli, who received $800/000 from the CIA during the early 1970S while serving as chief of Italian military intelligence. Miceli was later implicated in a series of neo-fascist coup attempts in Italy.

It was quite a juggling act, to be sure, and a judge in Bologna eventually sentenced Stark to fourteen years' imprisonment and a $60,000 fine for drug trafficking. At his appeals trial Stark changed identities once again, this time passing himself off as "Khouri AN," a radical Palestinian. In fluent Arabic he spelled out the details of his autobiography, explaining that he was part of an international terrorist organization headquartered in Lebanon, called "Group 14." Stark's appeal failed, and he was sent back to jail. But Italian police took a renewed interest in his case after they captured Enrique Paghera, another terrorist leader who knew Stark. At the time of his arrest Paghera was holding a hand-drawn map of a PLO camp in Lebanon. The map, Paghera confessed, had come from Stark, who also provided a coded letter of introduction. The objective, according to Paghera, was to forge a link with a terrorist organization that was planning to attack embassies.

In June 1978 Graziano Gori, a magistrate in Bologna, was assigned to investigate and clarify Stark's ties to the US, the Arabs, Italian terrorists, and other mysteries. A few weeks later Gori was killed in a car accident. The Italian government subsequently charged Stark with "armed banditry" for his role in aiding and abetting terrorist activities. But he never stood trial on these charges. True to form, Stark dropped out of sight shortly after he was released from prison in April 1979 on orders from Judge Giorgio Floridia in Bologna. The judge's decision was extraordinary: he released Stark because of "an impressive series of scrupulously enumerated proofs" that Stark was actually a CIA agent. "Many circumstances suggest that from 1960 onwards Stark belonged to the American secret services," Floridia stated.

The facts about Ronald Stark raise more questions than they answer. Was he a CIA operative throughout his drug dealing days? Or was the espionage link merely the work of a brilliant con artist who played both ends off the middle to his own advantage? An Italian parliamentary commission recently issued a lengthy report on domestic terrorism that included a section called "The Case of Ronald Stark." The commission asserted that Stark was an adventurer who was used by the CIA. But proof as to exactly when his espionage exploits began is hard to pin down. If Stark was connected to the CIA from 1960 on, as Judge Floridia suggested, then the entire Brotherhood operation, with its far-flung smuggling and financial networks, must be reinterpreted. "It could have been that he was employed by an American intelligence agency that wanted to see more psychedelic drugs on the street," Scully acknowledged. "Then again, he might have tricked the CIA, just like he fooled everyone else."

Reflecting upon the sixties, a surprising number of counterculture veterans endorsed the notion that the CIA disseminated street acid en masse so as to deflate the political potency of the youth rebellion. "LSD makes people less competent," contends William Burroughs. "You can see their motivation for turning people on. Very often it's not necessary to give it more than just a little push. Make it available and the news media takes it up, and there it is. They don't have to stick their necks out very much."

Burroughs was one of the first to suspect that the acid craze of the 1960s might have been a manipulated phenomenon—an opinion shared by John Sinclair, the former White Panther leader who once sang the praises of LSD as a revolutionary drug. "It makes perfect sense to me," Sinclair stated. "We thought at the time that as a result of our LSD-inspired activities great things would happen. And, of course, it didn't They were up there moving that shit around. Down on the street, nobody knew what was going on."

Even Ken Kesey, who still views LSD in a positive light, would not dismiss the possibility that the CIA might have meddled in the drug scene. "Could have been," Kesey admitted. "But, then again, they were giving us the cream, and once you've seen the cream, you know how good it is. And once you know how good it is, you know they can never take it away from you. They can never take that strength away."

Nearly a decade before Kesey was introduced to psychedelics as part of a government-funded drug study in Palo Alto, the CIA embarked upon a major effort to develop LSD into an effective mind control weapon. The CIA's behavior modification programs were geared toward domestic as well as foreign populations; targets included selected individuals and large groups of people. But in what way could LSD be utilized to manipulate an individual, let alone a subculture or a social movement? LSD is not a habit-forming substance like heroin, which transforms whole communities and turns urban slums into terrains of human bondage. Whereas opiates elicit a predictable response, both pharmacologically and socially, this is not necessarily the case with psychedelics. The efficacy of acid as an instrument of social control is therefore a rather tenuous proposition.

The CIA came to terms with this fundamental truth about LSD only after years of intense experimentation. At first CIA researchers viewed LSD as a substance that produced a specific reaction (anxiety), but subsequent studies revealed that "set and setting" were important factors in determining its effects. This finding made the drug less reliable as a cloak-and-dagger weapon, and the CIA utilized LSD in actual operations—as an aid to interrogation and a discrediting agent—only on a limited basis during the Cold War. By the mid-1960s the Agency had virtually phased out its in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ and related derivatives, which were shown to be more effective as incapacitants. But that did not mean the CIA had lost all interest in LSD. Instead the emphasis shifted to broader questions related to the social and political impact of the drug. A number of CLA-connected think tanks began to examine the relationship between the grassroots psychedelic scene and the New Left.

An accurate investigation would have shown that sizable amounts of street acid first appeared around college campuses and bohemian enclaves in 1965. This was an exceptionally creative period marked by a new assertiveness among young people. LSD accentuated a spirit of rebellion and helped to catalyze the expectations of many onto greatly expanded vistas. The social environment in which drugs were taken fostered an outlaw consciousness that was intrinsic to the development of the entire youth culture, while the use of drugs encouraged a generalizing of discontent that had significant political ramifications. The very expression of youth revolt was influenced and enhanced by the chemical mind-changers. LSD and marijuana formed the armature of a many-sided rebellion whose tentacles reached to the heights of ego-dissolving delirium, a rebellion as much concerned with the sexual and spiritual as with anything traditionally political. It was a moment of great anticipation, and those who marched in that great Dionysian rap dance were confident that if they put their feet down on history, then history would surely budge.

But the mood had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and the political fortunes of the New Left quickly plummeted. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which involved covert intervention by the CIA, FBI, and other spy agencies. The internecine conflicts that tore the Movement apart were fomented in part by government subversion. But such interference would have been far less effective if not for the innate vulnerability of the New Left, which emphasized both individual and social transformation as if they were two faces of an integral cultural transition, a rite of passage between a death and a difficult birth. "We had come to a curious place together, all of us," recalls Michael Rossman.

As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials: the organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought.

An autopsy of the youth movement would show that death resulted from a variety of ills, some self-inflicted, others induced from without. There was the paramilitary bug that came in like the plague after Chicago, a bug transmitted by provocateurs and other government geeks who were welcomed by the Movement's own incendiaries. A vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent ensued, while domestic violence played on the TV news as a nightly counterpoint to the appalling horror of Vietnam. It was the war, more than anything else, that drove activists to the brink of desperation. If not for the war, the legions of antiauthoritarian youth would never have endured the totalitarian style of the dogmatic crazies and the militant crazies who combined to blow the whole thing apart.

"What subverted the sixties decade," according to Murray Book-chin, "was precisely the percolation of traditional radical myths, political styles, a sense of urgency, and above all, a heightened metabolism so destructive in its effects that it loosened the very roots of 'the movement' even as it fostered its rank growth." In this respect the widespread use of LSD contributed significantly to the demise of the New Left, for it heightened the metabolism of the body politic and accelerated all the changes going on—positive and negative, in all their contradictions. In its hyped-up condition the New Left managed to dethrone one president and prevent another from unleashing a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. These were mighty accomplishments, to be sure, but the Movement burnt itself out in the process. It never mastered its own intensity; nor could it stay the course and keep on a sensible political track.

During the intoxicating moments of the late 1960s, many radicals felt they were on the verge of a cataclysmic upheaval, an imminent break, a total revolution. In their dream world apocalypse was never far away. The delusions of grandeur they entertained were amplified by psychedelic drugs to the point that some felt themselves invested with magical powers. They wanted to change the world immediately—or at least as fast as LSD could change a person's consciousness. By magnifying the impulse toward revolutionism out of context, acid sped up the process by which the Movement became unglued. Even activists who never took an LSD trip were affected by this process.

The use of LSD among young people in the US reached a peak in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA initiated a series of covert operations designed to disrupt, discredit, and neutralize the New Left. Was this merely a historical coincidence, or did the Agency actually take steps to promote the illicit acid trade? Not surprisingly, CIA spokesmen dismiss such a notion out of hand. "We do not target American citizens," former CIA director Richard Helms told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1971. "The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we who lead the CIA are honorable men, devoted to the nation's service."

Helms' reassurances are hardly comforting in light of his own role as the prime instigator of Operation MK-ULTRA, which utilized unwitting Americans as guinea pigs for testing LSD and other mind-altering substances. During Helms's tenure as CIA director, the Agency conducted a massive illegal domestic campaign against the antiwar movement and other dissident elements in the US. The New Left was in a shambles when Helms retired from the Agency in 1973. Most of the official records pertaining to the CIA's drug and mind control projects were summarily destroyed on orders from Helms shortly before his departure. The files were shredded, according to Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, chief of the CIA's Technical Services Staff, because of "a burgeoning paper problem." Lost in the process were numerous documents concerning the operational employment of hallucinogenic drugs, including all existing copies of a classified CIA manual titled "LSD: Some Un-Psychedelic Implications."

What was Helms trying to hide? The wholesale destruction of these memoranda suggests there may have been a lot more to the CIA's LSD program than the revelations that came to light during the post-Watergate housecleaning of the mid-1970s. Of course, it's highly improbable that the CIA would ever have drawn up a "smoking gun" document describing the details of a plot to dump millions of hits of acid on the black market. Nor is it likely that the Agency anticipated the catalytic impact of LSD and its disruptive effect on the youth movement. The CIA is not an omniscient, monolithic organization, and there's no hard evidence that it engineered a great LSD conspiracy. (As in most conspiracy theories, such a scenario vastly overestimates the sophistication of the alleged perpetrator.) If anything, it seems that a social phenomenon as complex and multifaceted as the psychedelic subculture was beyond the control of any single person or entity.

But there's still the puzzling saga of Ronald Stark, which begs for some kind of explanation. How does one distinguish between an international confidence trickster and a deep-cover spy when both professions are based on pretense and deception? Stark was a man who thrived in a clandestine netherworld where "facts are wiped out by artifacts," as Norman Mailer wrote of the espionage meta-physic, and "every truth is obliged to live in its denial." He appeared on the psychedelic scene like a meteor and produced more acid than any other underground source from 1969 through 1972. While pursuing his exploits as an LSD chemist, he communicated on a regular basis with American embassy personnel, and on numerous occasions he hinted of ties with the intelligence community. At one point he told an associate that he shut down his LSD laboratory in France on a tip from the CIA. He also haunted the radical fringes of Paris, London, and Milan during the heyday of the youth rebellion.

What does it all mean? Was Stark a hired provocateur or a fanatical guerrilla capable of reconciling bombs and LSD? When did the CIA learn of his role as a drug dealer, and was his activity tolerated because he passed information on the counterculture and the radical left to the Agency?* Although it is highly improbable that the CIA would have gotten involved in trafficking street acid as a matter of policy, it's not at all certain that stopping the flow of black market LSD was a particular priority either. Perhaps the best explanation is that certain CIA officials were willing to condone Stark's exploits in the drug trade as long as he functioned as an informant.

Stark's name surfaced once again in 1982 when he was arrested in Holland on charges of trafficking hashish, cocaine, and heroin. The following year he was deported without fanfare to the United States, where he was still wanted on drug charges stemming from the Brotherhood of Eternal Love conspiracy case. The entire matter was handled so discreetly that the press never learned of his return. Stark spent a few months in a San Francisco jail until charges were dropped by the US Justice Department, which claimed that too many years had passed to prosecute the case. In December 1984 he died of a heart attack, leaving others to ponder his ambiguous legacy.

Above all Ronald Stark remains an extraordinary international enigma. "A genius, but a tortured soul"—that was how an Italian magistrate described him. Even if he was never anything more than a brilliant private operator, his remarkable career illustrates the tangled web of espionage, crime, and extremist politics that is so much a part of the secret history of LSD—a story as wild and perplexing as the drug itself. Indeed, as Hunter Thompson wrote, "History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."

* The CIA's continuing interest in the illicit drug trade is indicated in a once-classified document dated March 24, 1969—a few months before Stark joined the Brotherhood. The document refers to the CIA's liaison with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs: "It appears that the activities of the BNDD, ongoing and planned, could under the appropriate arrangements provide valuable information to the Agency in new drug effects, drug abuse and drug traffic areas. For this reason they will be followed very closely."

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Art Of Cold Reading

The Art Of Cold Reading

Today I'm going to teach you a fundamental Mentalism technique known as 'cold reading'. Cold reading is a technique employed by mentalists and charlatans and by charlatan I refer to psychics, mediums, fortune tellers or anyone that claims false abilities that is used to give the illusion that the person has some form of super natural power.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment