‘One elephant given 0.297 g of LSD died after a few minutes. The weight of this animal was determined to be 5,000 kg, which corresponds to a lethal dose of 0.06 mg/kg (0.06 thousandths of a gram per kilogram of bodyweight).’

I recently discovered that Albert Hofmann’s above reference to LSD toxicity in an elephant is open to debate. In his illuminating 2012 book, The Psychedelic Renaissance – Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st century Psychiatry and Society, Dr Ben Sessa throws new light on numerous psychedelic stories, not least in The Tragic Tale of Tusko the Elephant…

‘In 1962, Dr. Louis Jolyon ‘Jolly’ West, working with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA programme, trying to develop LSD as a truth serum, injected the pride of Oklahoma’s Zoo, a large male elephant called Tusko, with 297mg of LSD using a dart rifle. This barbarous act prompted an unremitting epileptic seizure in the elephant and he died an hour and a half later. Although this incident would imply that Tusko was killed by a toxic dose of LSD, now considered over 300 times higher than an appropriate dose for his weight, it subsequently transpired that West had also pumped the animal with formidable quantities of phenobarbitone and chlorpromazine, leading to speculation that the death was attributable to heavy sedative drugs, not LSD itself.’

In his own account of the incident, published in Science magazine in 1962, West refers to administering 2800 mg of the antipsychotic promazine hydrochloride over 11 minutes, some 20 minutes after the LSD dose. Critics of the experiment highlighted the fact that West and his colleagues scaled up the LSD dose according to body rather than brain weight. Unbelievably, in a brazen attempt to prove that Tusko died from huge doses of barbiturates and not LSD, Ronald K Siegel of UCLA subsequently repeated the experiment on two other elephants, mixing equivalent amounts of LSD with their drinking water. Neither elephant died, or even showed signs of distress, although ‘both behaved strangely for a number of hours.’

As well as playing a prominent role in MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s infamous foray into mind control and experiments with LSD as a truth serum, West himself was also renowned for performing Jack Ruby’s psychiatric evaluation and for his focus on the role of drugs within cults and brainwashing. He died in 1999, purportedly from cancer but in reality, as documented in a book published by his son ten years later, due to assisted suicide with prescription medicines.

To find out more about the therapeutic properties of LSD check out Neurons to Nirvanathe definite documentary on Psychedelic Medicines.


Rory Spowers (12 Posts)

Rory Spowers is a writer, researcher, campaigner and filmmaker, based in Ibiza, Spain. His books include the critically acclaimed Rising Tides which has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Naomi Klein's No Logo, as a 'wake-up call to action'.