This essay is featured in Andy Roberts’ collection Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia (2016)
When chemist Albert Hofmann’s accidental alchemy created LSD, a.k.a acid, in 1938 he unleashed on the world a drug so powerful that it had the power to permanently change lives and alter the individuals’ core beliefs about the nature of reality. Literally millions of minds were blown and the cultural landscape was never the same again.
One of the many cultural side effects of LSD was its ability to generate some really great urban legends. For instance, one rumour has it that if you take LSD two (or is it seven) times, you are legally insane! Another, stemming from a 1967 newspaper article, holds that LSD will make you stare at the sun until you go blind. This was swiftly proved to be a hoax, but the legend lives on for mothers and journalists to frighten the young and the paranoid. You want more? Well, everyone knows that dealers hand out LSD-laced tattoos drenched with LSD to children to get them hooked, don’t they? Sure they do, dealers just love giving drugs away to people who will freak out and end up in hospital surrounded by police wanting to know their source!. And of course taking LSD affects your genes and so it causes deformed babies (where? Have you met anyone deformed by their parents’ LSD use?). Not to mention its propensity to drive babysitters to put babies in microwaves. And so on, each tale less evidenced and more lurid that the last, each heavily freighted with the barely subliminal message that LSD is bad medicine.
But of all the fortean fables associated with acid the ‘LSD in the water supply’ urban legend is by far the most potent and long lived. And, unlike the rest of them, this one has at least some basis in reality. The legend comes in many forms, but the basic premise is that various individuals and groups, (invariably framed by the media as political or psychedelic terrorists), have conspired to introduce LSD into the water supply, usually by dumping huge quantities in reservoirs. Society’s fear is that the dramatic effect of LSD on the masses will result in a disoriented and incapacitated population who are rich pickings for invasion, mind control or simply as a vivid demonstration of the drug’s power over ‘straight’ society by enemies of the state.
Over the past fifty years the legend has manifested often, appearing in newspapers, magazines, books, films and TV shows. The idea sounds vaguely plausible, but is it? Has it ever happened, and if not just how did the story grow into an urban legend?
All legends have their genesis in at least a grain of truth and in this case the origin of the LSD in the water tale appears to lie deep in the archives of the CIA and their fascination with the drug as a possible mind control weapon. The effects of LSD were first noticed in 1943 by its discoverer, Dr Albert Hofmann and within a few years the CIA had begun to experiment with it in their search for a truth drug.
The psychedelic water saga had its genesis at the height of the Cold War in 1953, when the intelligence agency approached Dr. Nick Bercel, a Los Angeles psychiatrist working with LSD in a psychotherapeutic context. After querying him as to the possible consequences if the Russians were to put LSD in the water supply of a large American city, the spooks demanded Bercel calculate how much LSD would be needed to dose Los Angeles’ water supply with LSD.
Of course, this immediately begs the question why the CIA, who were at the time experimenting with and had considerable knowledge of LSD, couldn’t work this out for themselves? But we’ll let that question pass, for inconsistency and anomaly are essential ingredients in the alchemy of any urban legend.
Bercel dissolved some LSD in a glass of chlorinated water, which promptly neutralised the psychedelic, leading him to tell the CIA the notion was pointless and not worth pursuing. The spooks were unconvinced, allegedly designing another version of LSD that was not neutralised by chlorine. Yet although the experiment had failed, the idea that LSD could be used to mass-dose the population had been created and though scientific opinion was against it the idea, at the very least, was just too powerful to give up and started to take on a life of its own.
The CIA became obsessed with the idea. One formerly secret document concluded that even if the notion of contaminating an entire city’s water supply was out of the question there were still other micro-possibilities. For instance, one CIA document noted, ‘If the concept of contaminating a city’s water supply seems, or in actual fact, is found to be far-fetched (this is by no means certain), there is still the possibility of contaminating, say, the water supply of a bomber base or, more easily still, that of a battleship…. Our current work contains the strong suggestion that LSD-25 will produce hysteria (unaccountable laughing, anxiety, terror)…. It requires little imagination to realize what the consequences might be if a battleship’s crew were so affected.’
The CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS) was also very interested in the possible manipulation of a city by introducing LSD into the water supply. In John Marks’ classic spook chronicle The Search for the Manchurian Candidate he recalls a member of the TSS saying, ‘We thought about the possibility of putting some in a city water supply and having the citizens wander around in a more or less happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves.’
The idea received another boost in 1958 when the chief officer of the US Army’s Chemical Corps, Major General William Casey, declared that psychedelic compounds were an ideal way of dealing with the enemy. Casey logically argued that spiking a city’s water supply with LSD was a much simpler, humane and cost effective method of taking control of a populace than the effect on life and limb of simply bombing it into submission. And, of course, dosing the entire population had the added advantage for capitalism that buildings and infrastructure remained intact. When the electric citizens came down from their trip they could be ordered straight back to work for their new leaders, already part programmed and timid and submissive from the terrifying ordeal they had been through.
Creasy told This Week magazine in May 1959, ‘I do not contend that driving people crazy even for a few hours is a pleasant prospect. But warfare is never pleasant… would you rather be temporarily deranged… by a chemical agent, or burned alive…?’ Creasy’s suggestion was never taken up, but Timothy Leary, soon to become the poster boy for LSD evangelism, took the idea and gave it a twist. In a 1962 article published in the Journal of Atomic Sciences, he suggested the US government should plan ahead for such an eventuality by dosing their own water supplies, thus preparing citizens for psychedelic attack by the Communists!
Another early source of the legend is the British Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) investigation of LSD. In the early 1960s, the newly created MoD was testing LSD on troops at Porton Down in Wiltshire. One of their ambitions was to develop an LSD delivery system so the drug could be used as a battlefield incapacitant, destroying the fighting spirit of any opponent and rendering their strategy and attack in disarray. There is no direct evidence to suggest the MOD looked at putting LSD in water supplies although they briefly discussed dispersing it on the battlefield in vapour form. The MOD soon abandoned the idea when they realised the effects of LSD on large numbers of people was not predictable and therefore not controllable.
Neither the CIA nor the MOD’s speculations about dosing water supplies appear to have progressed much further than the brainstorming stage. But word of the speculation had spread and rumour seeped out into the general population, acting as a base from which the scare story of LSD in the water supply grew. The idea of LSD as a mind-controlling water contaminant had now entered the Petrie dish of modern media culture it was only a matter of time before the public picked up on it. And the first known reference to the mass use of LSD by elements outside of an Intelligence Agency or military context occurred in a British magazine.
Prior to 1966, there had been virtually no media interest in LSD in Britain. Although use of the drug was widespread among the young and hip it was as yet still a truly underground scene. This situation changed quickly and forever on 19 March 1966 when quintessential swinging London magazine, London Life, ran an interview with Desmond O’Brien, co-founder (with Michael Hollingshead) of Chelsea’s World Psychedelic Centre.
Titled ‘The Drug That Could Become a Social Peril’, the article opened with O’Brien rather unwisely introducing himself as ‘Mr. LSD’ and claiming that anyone could take control of London in under eight hours by putting LSD in the water system. London Life speculated further by quoting Dr. Donald Johnson, former MP for Carlisle, who confidently asserted, ‘It is quite feasible that LSD could be used to take over a city or even a country. I agree if it were put into reservoirs, it would disable people sufficiently for an enemy to take control.’
This brief, but ill-advised, mention of LSD as a psychedelic contaminant thus entered into the media’s consciousness and began to spread, becoming a counter culture virus and a media bête-noir on both sides of the Atlantic within months.
In America, the media-led moral panic about LSD hit fever pitch in the latter half of the Sixties and there was a genuine fear among the political establishment that unchecked use of the drug could overthrow the cherished American way of life. Psychedelic activists, both serious and of the merry prankster variety abounded. They were re-cast by media and law enforcement agencies as terrorists, hell bent on indiscriminately bending minds with the devil-drug no one really understood. Suddenly, LSD seemed to be everywhere; at parties, on campus, at suburban barbeques, even in the workplace, slowly and insidiously changing peoples’ consciousness, telling them that things were not as they appeared. ‘What if’, pontificated Mom and Pop, ‘what if these freaks manage to get us all to take it? We’ll all become like them.’ There goes the neighbourhood!
The November 1966 edition of Vue, ran one of the many scare stories published about LSD that year, ‘Why They Had to Outlaw LSD’. In a round up of the drug’s effects writer W.H.Carr, clearly having taken a huge dose of disinformation, noted, ‘A few ounces of it, dumped in the water supply of a major city, could shake up millions.’ This paranoia, now firmly entrenched in the minds of Mr & Mrs America wasn’t lost on some elements of the counter culture, who decided to use it to their own advantage in the escalating war between hip and straight society.
In June 1967, during a federal investigation into organised crime, the motives of the Neo-American Church, founded by Art Kleps, a former associate of Tim Leary, were called into question. Dr. James L. Goddard, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, gave damning testimony in Washington before the House subcommittee. He quoted Neo-American Church publications that stated they believed in the psychedelic assassination of politicians and the placing of LSD in city water supplies should the Church be suppressed. Goddard also read from a document that said that if the Church was attacked in any way, it would fight back with psychedelic weapons such as ‘clouds of dust sprayed over cities and LSD in the water supply.’
Scary stuff and just what the straight suburban masses feared. But Goddard had failed to realise that the Neo American Church were acid surrealists, psychedelic pranksters for whom the idea of acid in the water supply was almost as powerful as the real thing. They had no intention of carrying out their plan but knew it would freak the straights out!
Abbie Hoffman, another self-confessed acid prankster and ‘Yipee,’ probably generated the most notorious instance of the LSD in the water legend. Besides being an acid-head, Hoffman was also very active in left wing politics, a somewhat dour movement, to which he brought humour and surreality. During the run up to the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, Hoffman was in daily contact with the media, trying to get them to take him seriously, but at the same time using acid prankster techniques to get headlines.
Hoffman recalls, ‘There was a point when we announced to the press that if they fucked with us we were going to put LSD in the drinking water’. The reaction to this threat was dramatic and the story was heavily covered on TV and in the papers, with thousands of National Guardsmen being posted to guard the reservoirs against hippies. This particular version of the legend took on an interesting twist when Hoffman said, ‘…we’re negotiating with the Deputy Mayor behind the scenes and I said, ‘Why can’t we work this out? To show my good faith, I’ll tell you that you can take all your soldiers away, because it’s chemically impossible to put LSD in the water supply—LSD simply doesn’t dissolve that readily.’
Time magazine wryly noted how easily Chicago’s political administration had fallen for the scam, hook, line and sinker, ‘Mayor Richard Daley and his police and military aides appeared to accept at face value all of the fiery statements made by the demonstration leaders. Chicago’s newspapers repeatedly listed diabolical threats aimed at the city, ranging from burning Chicago down by flooding the sewers with gasoline, to dumping LSD in the water supply, to having 10,000 nude bodies float on Lake Michigan.’
The Deputy Mayor was now caught between a rock and a hard place. ‘I know it can’t happen’, he agreed, immediately contradicting himself by saying ‘but we can’t take any chances anyway.’ The acid in the water myth had now gone beyond reality and common sense and could not be stopped, even in the knowledge that it was not even chemically viable to dose large numbers of people in this way. As LSD evangelist Tim Leary once said, ‘LSD is the drug with the most unusual emotional and psychological effects when compared to any other drug. Because just the idea of the drug is enough to cause terror among those who have never even taken it!’
Hoffman also recommended that the Deputy Mayor check with the chemistry department at the university to double check whether it was possible to dose a reservoir with LSD. The politician replied that he had already asked the scientists on his staff who had told him it could not be done. Nevertheless, such was the paranoia surrounding LSD that the Deputy Mayor was concerned that Hoffman might be using ‘better scientists’ and thus on such shaky reasoning were the National Guard despatched to prevent hippies pouring LSD into the water system.
Abbie’s brother Jack commented, ‘He had people convinced, actually convinced, he was going to drop LSD in the Chicago reservoir and get the whole city tripping. Can you imagine believing that? It would have taken dump trucks full of LSD to have any impact, but Abbie was so convincing he had them eating out of his hand.’
Sadly even some of the more serious elements of the hippie community began to fall for their own psychedelic confidence trick, further fuelling the acid in the water legend. Political activist Mary Sue Planck recalls ‘Well, I had heard people talking about putting LSD in the water in Washington DC, and in other places too. Anytime let’s say a politician was coming to town to speak somewhere people would fantasize about going down there and dumping a few hundred hits, or a few thousand hits…’
Hippie exploitation books and films were all the rage in the late 1960s and the LSD in the water legend was a godsend to them. 1968’s Wild in the Streets was a satire featuring a rock star who is elected as President when the voting age is lowered to 15. In what must have been a very real fear for many Americans at the time, he sets up concentration camps for everyone over 35 and yes, you guessed it, dumps LSD into the Washington D.C. water supply! Deanne Louis Romana’s The Town that Took a Trip had the strap line, ‘In Eden everybody’s thirsty and the water supply is full of LSD!’
Robert Siffert’s 1969 novel The Polluters dealt with the subject in some depth. ‘‘We decided.’ The boy ran on, ‘that the only thing to do was to get this society back to reality was to shock it into a sense of awareness of the now…We’ve expanded their minds…We got together with others who knew the score …We got the chemistry students the engineering drop-outs…we picked out the biggest centres of the establishment in the country. We found a way to get into the public waterworks in each city…he grinned at Stan. ‘Acid!’ “’Acid?’ asked Stan. “’ LSD, man, the greatest boon to mankind!’” LSD was now so infamous and feared that the entertainment media had to invent something even stronger.
In the 1969 episode, Is This Trip Necessary, the popular spoof secret agent series Get Smart saw evil scientist Jarvis Pim (Vincent Price) threatening to spike Washington DC’s water supply with a psychedelic even stronger than LSD!
But if straight culture had fallen for the myth it seemed that the counter culture had done so too. In 1973, Michael Hollingshead, the maverick Englishman who had turned Tim Leary on to LSD in 1961, published his autobiography. It seemed that the usually perceptive Hollingshead had fallen hook, line and sinker for the LSD in the water legend. What had started out as right wing paranoia from Major William Creasy had been adopted as a possible truth by Hollingshead and psychedelic luminaries, Timothy Leary, George Litwin, Gunther Weil and Richard Alpert who jointly signed this statement.
‘If an enemy does drop LSD in the water supply and if you are accurately informed and prepared, then you have two choices. If you have the time and inclination you should sit back and enjoy the most exciting education experience of your life (you might be forever grateful to the saboteur).’
As is the way of Urban Legends, they wax and wane. The 1970s saw rumour go underground for a while as LSD use became less of a novelty. Then, in 1978, after years of surveillance and infiltration, the police finally cracked the UK LSD manufacturing and distribution ring known in Operation Julie. There was a media free-for-all and every acid myth known to man was trotted out to scare the public. During the sentencing of the primary conspirators in early 1978, the Daily Mirror rushed into print with front-page headlines trumpeting, We’ll Blow a Million Minds! ‘An entire city stoned on a nightmare drug – that was the crazy ambition of the masterminds behind the world’s biggest LSD factory. They planned to blow a million minds simultaneously by pouring pure LSD in to the reservoirs serving Birmingham’. Despite the headline filling most of the front page, other than those few sentences, nothing more was heard of the dastardly plot which was, of course, non existent.
Dick Tracy, in his highly critical piece on Operation Julie for the New Musical Express, quoted the Mirror, adding ‘The water supply story can be traced back in the media to at least the mid-’60s and probably before. I have had personal experience of this while working in the information caravan at one of the large Isle of Wight festivals, when I heard an almost identical story being dictated over the phone by a Mirror reporter. It wasn’t true then, either’.
From fiction to fact and back again the acid in the water supply legend found a home in Ken Chowder’s 1985 novel Jadis, ’It was absurd how easy it was to invade the lives of others: put mercury in the oranges, cyanide in the Tylenol, LSD in the reservoirs; shoot the pope, shoot the president, shoot Sadat, shoot down the Korean plane, invade Grenada; all too easy.’
Except, as we are seeing, it’s not ‘all too easy’ to put LSD in the reservoirs. The idea is great, many people talked about doing it, even more feared the possibility, but there is no evidence anyone ever tried to make it a reality. But the fear certainly was.
Homer Loves Flanders, a 1994 episode of The Simpsons saw Shelbyville dosing rival town Springfield’s water supply with LSD. This leads Homer’s wife Marge to drinking the tap water and commenting, ‘Oooh, the walls are melting’. Even in a show like The Simpsons, which has more drug references than any other TV show the myth of LSD in the water was still so potent that executives from the Fox Network tried to prevent this show from airing.
Probably the most recent example of the LSD in the water myth was cleverly embedded in the script of Torchwood, a Dr Who TV spin off series. In the episode called Everything Changes (broadcast in 2006) Captain Jack Harkness queries what evidence it would take before people accept the presence of the Cybermen. The character playing Gwen Cooper retorts, ‘My boyfriend says it’s like a sort of terrorism. Like they put drugs in the water supply. Psychotropic drugs, causing mass hallucinations and stuff.’
So, much rumour and speculation about LSD in the water supply, but could there really be any truth behind the claims? Well, of course it could happen, people could put LSD in a water supply such as a reservoir but would it have any effect? I consulted a retired LSD chemist, who commented:
‘I did a quick calculation which might help. Assuming that the drinker drank 1/2 pint of water, and needed 100 micrograms, then you would need 1kg of pure LSD for every million gallons in the reservoir. That’s not counting any decay from sunlight, heat or chlorine in the system.’
As an example the Elan Valley reservoir system in Wales, built to provide the city of Birmingham with its water supply, holds 100,000 mega litres. Using the LSD chemists calculations it would require astronomical quantities of acid, unrealistic and unfeasible to manufacture, to even begin to effectively contaminate the water supply for Birmingham.
The problems multiply further. Only a tiny amount of water in a reservoir is actually drunk neat – the majority is boiled or used in cooking or other domestic processes such as washing up, lavatory flushing, gardening etc., all of which would destroy the psychoactive component of the LSD. So the idea, while theoretically possible, if a wide range of variables could be stabilised, is really a non-starter. Why then has it had such a hard to kill existence, constantly re-appearing in slightly different forms each year?
The answer is that fear lies at the heart of this particular urban legend. Fear of LSD, fear of losing one’s mind. Fear that a sub culture who wishes to overthrow the existing order might employ LSD to disrupt commerce and ‘ordinary’ life. The idea that psychedelic terrorists would tamper with the water supply adds an extra frisson of terror to this urban legend. Water is fundamental to us as individuals, we can’t avoid drinking it in some form and we trust implicitly that what comes out of the tap is safe.
So, next time you hear some raddled old hippy banging on about how the psychedelic revolution could happen if the entire water system could be dosed with acid raise a glass of tap water to him and laugh. You are safe. Or are you…?
Bio: Andy Roberts is an historian of Britain’s LSD psychedelic culture and author of Albion Dreaming: A Social History of LSD in Britain (Marshall Cavendish 2008, 2012). His other research interests include, listening to music, hill walking, beach combing, reading, landscapes and their mysteries, natural history and paranormal phenomena. Musically, he has been severely influenced and affected by the Grateful Dead and the Incredible String Band among a host of others. He first fell down the rabbit hole in 1972 and has been exploring the labyrinth of passages ever since. His views on the psychedelic experience are (basically) – You take a psychedelic and you get high. What happens after that is largely the result of dosage, set and setting.