The Chromosome Damage Hoax

By the mid-1960s, LSD was singled out as Public Enemy Number One by the mass media, which whipped America into a virtual frenzy over psychedelic drugs. It wasn't enough to convey the false impression that LSD probably caused permanent insanity; all of a sudden the press conjured up the frightening prospect of couples giving birth to some kind of octopus because acid had scrambled their chromosomes.

However, when the Army Chemical Corps ran in-house studies to assess the potential hazards of LSD "from a tissue or genetic stand-point, " it could not duplicate these findings. "Although human chromosome breaks have been reported by others, we found them much more frequently from caffeine and many other substances," stated Dr. Van Sim, chief of clinical research at Edgewood Arsenal during the 1960s and early 1970s. "We were unable to demonstrate any damage by LSD to any system used." But army officials never uttered a public peep while the so-called facts about LSD and chromosome damage were trumpeted over and over again by the mass media. Nor did the CIA attempt to set the record straight, even though the Agency had access to the same classified reports as Dr. Sim by virtue of a long-standing liaison between the CIA and the research and development staff at Edgewood.

The chromosome hoax had all the earmarks of a media-hyped disinformation campaign against psychedelic drugs. Hardly a day passed in the mid-1960s without yet another story about people freaking out and hurling themselves from windows while high on acid. At the same time, Timothy Leary and his cohorts kept churning out magical proclamations about mind expansion, groovy highs, and utopian prospects. ("Can the world live without LSD?" asked the East Village Other, an underground newspaper. Their answer, of course, was no.) The combination of dire warnings and ecstatic praise created a highly polarized atmosphere. LSD acquired the emotional and magnetic pull of the taboo, and as a result, more and more people decided to try the drug.

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An excerpt from Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press)
Copyright 1985 by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
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