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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 14th November 2013

There is very little in history that can be reckoned to be completely reliable. You have to bear in mind the underlying views of the historian concerned because that can lead to very different interpretations of the same event. A friend of mine has an extensive library of books about the Zulu Wars in South Africa and once showed me two diametrically opposed accounts of the same incident.

That means I’m going to be a little cautious about claiming that, finally, I am certain that the CIA were not involved in the outbreak of poisoning that occurred in Point St. Esprit in August 1951.

For many people the agent in that event was Claviceps purpurea, ergot fungus, in the flour used by the village baker but that doesn’t perfectly fit all the symptoms seen in the hundreds of people affected. My belief is that it was another fungus, Aspergillus fumigatus, and, if you follow that link, you’ll find a detailed discussion of why I think that the culprit.

I note;

‘In August 2010, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme in its 'Document' series about claims made by an American author that the CIA had adulterated the bread with LSD in order to research its potential as a weapon. In the face of evidence that pure LSD would not survive the temperatures at which bread is baked, the suggestion was made that it might have been added to each loaf after baking.’

Like so many things to do with secret organisations, denials by the organisation itself are seen as untrustworthy so the statements of the CIA that it was not involved tend to be ignored by those who want a more romantic explanation than poor quality control in a flour mill.

One of the items in today’s ‘DrugScope Daily’ email was a piece in the History Channel’s ‘Ask History’ section asking ‘Did the CIA secretly dose people with LSD?’ I left aside the idea that under Betteridge’s Law (Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’) the heading should end the discussion, and read on.

The piece is based on information about a project known as MKULTRA the CIA investigation into mind control. Declassified documents mean it is possible to precisely date the beginning of MKULTRA to April 13th 1953. That would seem to settle the question of whether a CIA experiment was involved in an incident nearly two years before the project started.

But it isn’t as easy as that. The CIA had shown interest in the question of whether the human brain can be controlled for some time before the matter was brought under a single project designation. Though most people were appalled at the revelations about the experiments carried out in Nazi camps during World War II there were certainly some who found the results of those experiments interesting. That could be seen as the starting point for diverse investigations that were, finally, brought together in 1953.

This could mean that part of the CIA was involved in Point St Esprit even though MKULTRA did not exist. The ‘Ask History’ piece, however, explains how initial experiments on LSD were conducted on unwitting prisoners, mental patients and others in the USA. The programme progressed with the establishment of CIA brothels in San Francisco where clients would be slipped a dose of LSD and then observed through two-way mirrors.

That is exactly how one would expect such a programme to proceed. Initial experiments close to home on a controlled group of subjects. Releasing LSD ‘in the wild’ in a foreign country would be a very long way down the road. And the unpredictability of the effects of LSD on different subjects showed that it was not suitable for widespread use and it was dropped from the CIA’s programme even before MKULTRA itself was brought to an end.

I began this piece with ‘There is very little in history that can be reckoned to be completely reliable’.  Though that is true, the reliability of the belief that the CIA was not involved in the Point St Esprit poisoning is about as complete as it is possible to be. 


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