The U.S. Army Once Kept $1 Billion Worth of LSD in a Maryland Office for Some Reason

Lt. Col. James Ketchum, chief of the clinical research department at the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Arsenal, on September 23, 1969
Photo: Associated Press

James Ketchum, an Army psychiatrist who conducted controversial drug experiments on members of the U.S. military, died last month, on May 27, at the age of 87. And while Ketchum’s legacy is filled with plenty of weird and horrifying tales, there’s one story that should get more attention in the wake of his death.

Specifically, we should probably talk about the time that Ketchum found roughly $1 billion worth of LSD, enough to “intoxicate several hundred million people,” according to Ketchum, just sitting in his office—and the fact that it disappeared without explanation.

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Ketchum worked at the U.S. Army’s secluded Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland during the 1960s and will be forever remembered as the man who gave U.S. servicemen mind-altering substances like LSD to see how they would react. Ketchum’s experiments were conducted on an estimated 7,000 men from 1955 until 1975 using over 250 different substances. The experiments were part of a broader military effort during the first Cold War to understand how different chemicals might be used in warfare against the Soviet Union.

It’s not just the hypothetical use of powerful drugs against a foreign adversary that raised very serious concerns about Ketchum’s work. Ketchum was rightly criticized for conducting experiments on U.S. Army personnel who didn’t know what they were taking, and the Pentagon failed to provide safeguards to ensure that the servicemen received medical care after the trials.

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Ketchum wrote a memoir titled Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten: A Personal Story of Medical Testing of Army Volunteers, published in 2006, defending his actions, but the book also contains a bizarre anecdote that should raise a lot of questions. The story is buried at the end of the Washington Post’s obituary for Ketchum, published earlier this week.

From the Washington Post:

In his memoir, “Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten” (2006), Dr. Ketchum said that although he abstained from taking BZ, he was sometimes mystified by what he saw at Edgewood. One day, he said, he walked into his office to find a “large black steel barrel.” Inside were glass canisters filled with LSD — enough to intoxicate several hundred million people, by his estimate, and worth nearly $1 billion on the street.

Within a week, the barrel was gone. Dr. Ketchum said he never learned what it was for.

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But the Post’s summary of the event perhaps doesn’t do it justice. It’s worth quoting the book passage at length to accurately explain what we’re talking about.

From Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten: A Personal Story of Medical Testing of Army Volunteers, Ketchum writes:

Sometime during my second year as Department Chief, another very curious episode occurred. One Monday morning, I entered my office to find a large black steel barrel, resembling an oil drum, parked in the corner of the room. I assumed that there must have been a reason for somebody to put it there and probably not one that I needed to know, so I ignored it for a day or two.

On the second or third day, however, my curiosity overcame my discretion. Having neither asked for nor received any comment or explanation about the black drum, I decided to become Inspector Clouseau. After everyone had gone home, I carefully opened the hasp that held the retaining ring in place around the cover, and peered inside. Neatly labeled, tightly sealed glass canisters, looking like cookie jars, filled the entire drum. I cautiously took one out and examined it. According to the label, it contained approximately three pounds of pure EA 1729 (LSD)!

The next canister had a similar label, indicating about the same amount of EA 1729, expressed to a tenth of a milligram. The remaining canisters, perhaps a dozen or more, looked just like the first two, presumably with similar contents. For a moment, I considered indulging the temptation to remove a very small amount, and save it for some “future experiment.” However, I quickly dismissed this idea as being a good way to get in trouble, and not worth the risk. In addition, I knew it was wrong – another rather important consideration. So I replaced the top, re-fastened the hasp and thereafter dismissed the drum and its contents from my mind.

It was Friday, as I recall, when I came to work and found that the drum had vanished. Thirty or forty pounds of chemically pure LSD had spent a week in my office and had now disappeared with no comment from anyone, no receipt form and no other paper work! Enough LSD to intoxicate several hundred million people (by my estimate) had come and gone. I never received any explanation and never asked for one. I calculated, however, that if sold on the street in individual doses, the contents would have been worth close to a billion dollars!

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A later passage explains that this occurred maybe a year after the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. Since 2001 was released in the U.S. on April 3, 1968, it would seem that this bizarre incident with the LSD barrel took place sometime around 1969.

In fact, it was probably roughly around the same time that this Associated Press photo was taken by photographer Bob Daugherty:

Photo: AP
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From the AP description:

Dr. Seymour D. Silver, front, director of research labs at Edgewood, Md., Arsenal and his staff, from left, Col. Henry T. Uhrig, director of medical research labs; Col. Joseph R. Blair, deputy director for medical sciences, and Lt. Col. James Ketchum, chief of the clinical research department, pose in front of the buildings that make up the “Nerve Gas Capital of America,” Sept. 23, 1969. At this secluded old Army post are 70 human guinea pigs who are used to test chemical warfare weapons.

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What the hell was going on with this barrel of “chemically pure” LSD and why would Ketchum note that it could be used to intoxicate “several hundred million people”? We may never know. But given the history of U.S. government experiments with mind-control, from the CIA’s MKUltra to Ketchum’s own work, we can guess it wasn’t for anything fun.

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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog