WATCH: When Royal Marines were given LSD

In one of the most bizarre moments in British military experimentation, Royal Marines were once given doses of the psychedelic drug LSD to test non-lethal forms of defence.

The tests were carried out with "volunteers" at Porton Down, one of the UK’s most secretive locations, today the home of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

In film footage of the 1964 experiment, which includes a comedy-like voiceover from a man with an old-fashioned English accent, the marines can be seen struggling to carry out simple military tasks.

The exercise descends into farce once the full effects of the LSD take their toll on the troops. And while it might be amusing to some to see such an experiment today, for others, the trials raise uncomfortable questions about a state's willingness to use members of the military to push the ethical boundaries of defence-based, scientific experimentation. 

Here is an examination of those contentious years of Porton Down's history, and a closer look at controversial experiments and their consequences for both the defence of the realm and the marines involved.

General view of a sign for Porton Down Science Campus in Wiltshire 150318 CREDIT PA
Porton Down is home to the MOD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Picture: PA.

What is LSD?

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD, is a psychedelic drug that can make a user experience intensified thoughts, emotions and even hallucinations. Commonly referred to as 'acid', it is usually sold as small squares of paper with emotive pictures, known as tabs or blotters.

Drugs' charity Frank says that "LSD trips can last several hours and be very intense." On its help site, it also says:

"It's a powerful hallucinogenic drug, which means you're likely to experience a distorted view of objects and reality if you take it. The experience of taking LSD is called tripping.

"When you take LSD, there's no way of knowing how you might feel or what kind of trip you're going to go on. And once you start tripping it's difficult to control the effects."

First synthesised in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann, its psychedelic properties were discovered five years later when Hoffmann accidentally swallowed an unknown quantity of the substance. 

Marine unable to carry out job while high on LSD
The effects of the LSD on the marines soon became evident. Picture: IWM.

Did the CIA use LSD? 

In the 1950s, the CIA purchased the entire world's supply and propagated its distribution to hospitals, clinics, prisons, and research centres via front organisations it secretly owned. The drug was tested on unwitting subjects ranging from CIA employees, soldiers and prisoners to sex workers and mentally ill patients during this period. The research programme, which was known as Project MKUltra, was revealed by a US Congressional-appointed commission in 1975 and was met with significant criticism. 

Why did Porton Down give LSD to Royal Marines?

It might seem strange today, but in the early years of the Cold War, there were uncertain ideas about what future conflicts might entail, especially regarding weapons. 

The Second World War had been halted using nuclear bombs – weapons that had only been made possible thanks to the enduring efforts of scientists. 

In this context, daring to look further afield in experimentation perhaps becomes a little more comprehensible. 

In the 1950s, rumours circulated that the Soviet Union was developing mind-controlling drugs that could, it was feared, render entire populations incapable of conducting simple tasks. In terms of defence, fears arose that soldiers could be targeted and might even turn their weapons on their own comrades. 

This led to scientific research into the effects of psychedelic drugs on the mind of humans, which ultimately drove Porton Down to experiment with LSD. One such investigation occurred in November 1964 and involved a platoon of Royal Marines. 

LSD image
LSD's full name is Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Pexels.

LSD and the Swinging Sixties

In the 1960s, youth countercultures emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, experimenting with LSD and its use recreationally. This tripping culture crossed into popular music, with rising celebrities of the decade frequently linked to the drug, including The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles. 

The Beatles' seminal album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured a song called Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – which some fans took to mean a coded reference to LSD, although John Lennon claimed the initials of the song's title was a mere coincidence.

What happened when the Royal Marines were given LSD?

A key aim in experimenting with LSD was, according to the Conservative government of the 1960s' Advisory Council on Scientific Research and Technical Development, to produce a "humane type of warfare". 

The idea was that by incapacitating enemy soldiers using non-lethal agents, killing enemy soldiers might not be necessary. This would, it was suggested, be beneficial in limiting the effect of collateral damage to civilians and property. 

This idea equated to field exercises at Porton Down involving LSD and troops. There were three exercises over four years: Moneybags, Recount and Short Change. 

The first exercise, Moneybags, occurred in 1964 and involved 17 members of 41 Royal Marine Commando. The experiment was filmed, the footage from which is today held by the Imperial War Museum. 

The film begins with a stereotypically old-fashioned English commentator telling us that "in order to test the effects of an incapacitating drug under field conditions, a simple exercise was devised based on the internal security problems met by our forces during the EOKA campaign in Cyprus.

"Seventeen marine volunteers were orgainsed into a troop of two sections with a headquarters element. The troop was given the task of capturing as many terrorists as possible, and of locating some stores which had been hidden in defined areas."

He says that LSD was unknowingly administered to the men via cups of water before the exercise.

"Unknown to the troops, the drug was added to the water." 

Later, the film depicts some of the consequences of psychedelic drugs on the men in the field. We are told that, initially, the troops can continue to exert physical activity and that their awareness of the positions of a simulated enemy is only marginally affected. 

However, as more time passes, the impact on the Royal Marines becomes more pronounced.

"[The men] no longer take cover," the voice tells us, "They relax and begin to giggle. At this time, one man is more severely affected that the others losing all contact with reality, dropping his rifle and becoming unable to take any part in the operation. In fact, he has to be withdrawn from the exercise a few minutes later."

Matching the frank observations of the commentator, the black and white footage shows the young marine being escorted off the exercise by a group of non-uniformed observers. 

Interestingly, the manoeuvres can proceed, although the men are increasingly finding their perceptions of reality impacted by the LSD. After some time, the commander's perseverance finally ends when he concludes his command has been lost. This culminates with one of the men inexplicably climbing a tree. The officer radios in:

"I am wiped out as an attacking force."

Perhaps the most concerning moments of the 17-minute film appear once the exercise is deemed over. We see the men transported to a hospital ward to recover. Mostly, the marines are seen laughing while they steadily recover from the effects of LSD. 

However, one of the troops' recovery is less straightforward. This Marine is seen panicked while an official attempts to reassure him. The commentator explains that he is experiencing the "most severe reaction to the drug", adding:

"For three hours he was completed devoid from reality. And even now, three and a half hours after the administration of the drugs, he does not know what he is doing, or where he is. He cannot respond in any way to the people around him."

In an unnerving few moments, the Royal Marine repeatedly states: "I am not going to die" and "I am going to die for my country." 

marines high on LSD
Seventy minutes after the administration of the drug, the Platoon Commander resigned his troops as an effective fighting forces. They had become too ineffective to control. Picture: IWM.

What was the outcome of Royal Marines trialling LSD?

The film detailing the activities of Moneybags advises caution against jumping to conclusions as to how soon a weapon could be readied for use on operations. It describes issues around LSD's stowage, delivery as armament and costs. 

However, there is an optimistic tone to the written information that appears onscreen at the film's end. It concludes by saying:

"[LSD] is regarded in the light of present knowledge as one of the drugs which merits more detailed examination and testing."

The reality was something different. By the conclusion of the trials involving LSD and members of the Armed Forces in 1968, the Chemical Defence Advisory Board declared the idea of using the drug as a weapon was "more magical than scientific."

A Royal Marine involved with the LSD trial suffered adverse effects for hours after the exercise. Picture: IWM.
A Royal Marine involved with the LSD trial suffered adverse effects for hours after the exercise. Picture: IWM.

Did any other tests take place using LSD?

Before the three trials of the 1960s, Porton Down experimented with LSD in the 1950s. However, this period of experimentation has been met with scrutiny. In 2006, three ex-servicemen received compensation from the Ministry of Defence. The pay-outs related to being administered LSD without consent.

The men claimed to have been informed that their cooperation was to help find a cure for the common cold, but instead, they were given the hallucinogen "and some volunteers had terrifying hallucinations," the BBC reported. 

Speaking in a 2006 interview, one of the men, Don Webb, who at the time of the experiment was a 19-year-old Airman in the RAF, said that he felt the pay-out was awarded "grudgingly." He added:

"They stick to the old maxim: never apologise, never explain. But I think in this case they have decided to pay some money. I think that is as near to an apology or an explanation I'll get."

The BBC reported the "research was carried out after British and American governments thought the Soviet Union had developed a 'truth drug' which could compel spies and servicemen to yield up important secrets."

In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said that it did not make any admission of liability in respect of the settlements, adding:

"The Ministry of Defence is very grateful to all those whose participation in studies at Porton Down made possible the research to provide safe and effective protection for UK Armed Forces."

Cover video: 'A TRIAL OF AN INCAPACITATING DRUG'. Source: © IWM (MGH 4464).

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