For a drug so heavily associated to peace movements, reefer has seen its fair share of war. But marijuana’s role in warfare could have been much more prominent had the U.S. military’s foray into marijuana testing proven more suitable to their plans. Imagine the bombs raining from planes but instead of dissolving into blasts of fire and shrapnel, the targets are enveloped in thick clouds of inescapable gas leaving them temporarily immobilized. This was the military’s vision of the most peaceful answer to biological warfare; a carefully engineered synthetic marijuana that effectively turned its targets to stone but never took a life. It definitely put a new spin on the term “flower power.”
Dr. Domino’s Red Oil
Quietly resting on the fact that the United States had never actually agreed to terms outlined in the Geneva Convention, the U.S. military devoted significant time, money, and effort into developing a chemical weapon that would save lives rather than take them. In the early 1950s, the focus fell on creating a synthetic form of weaponized cannabis in Dr. Edward Domino’s work with a prototype of cannabis concentrates. This concentrated hash oil was assigned the code EA 1476 but was nicknamed “Red Oil.” In line with the military’s vision of weaponizing marijuana, Red Oil’s effects were much more severe than a casual toke from a glass pipe.
Since Red Oil was not deemed ready for human experimentation, Domino initially found its subjects in dogs and the occasional monkey. His notes detailed fits of paranoia and what can only be assumed were sensory hallucinations as canines warily dodged shadows and rushed invisible assailants. But none of this was in line with the military’s proposed use of weaponized cannabis. Red Oil may not have seemed worth pursuing until Domino noted a pronounced lethargy in his test subjects with increased dosage ultimately resulting in waking immobilization. “You could step on their feet without any response,” Domino remarked of his test subjects. “It is an amazing effect and a reversible phenomenon.” Temporary debilitation fit in perfectly with the military’s goal but further testing needed to be conducted.
Marijuana Testing on Human Subjects
The military’s marijuana testing really started hitting its stride in the early ‘60s when Dr. James Ketchum took Domino’s research and began to spread the Red Oil experiments to G.I. volunteers. Like Domino, Ketchum answered directly to the military and therefore was stationed at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, known as the headquarters for the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. When under the influence of Red Oil, soldiers were reduced to smirking, snickering doppelgangers of their once stoic selves, unable to complete basic training tasks or answer simple questions without meandering, non-committal, or vague answers. The effects often stretched for hours. While the military was impressed with Red Oil’s ability to take the fight out of a highly trained soldier, they ultimately needed a weapon that could completely immobilize the enemy.
Further research into the properties of cannabis revealed that pure, undiluted THC weighed significantly less than the concentrated Red Oil, a factor that weighed heavily on the potency of a proposed attack. Thus Red Oil was jettisoned and a mixture known only as EA 2233 was born. Using spatial configurations of atoms that were advanced science for the time, Ketchum’s team of researchers created EA 2233 from 8 stereoisomers of THC. Eventually, these stereoisomers were simplified to a pair, further reducing weight while retaining potency. EA 2233 allowed Ketchum to accomplish more with less. Anywhere between 10 and 60 micrograms of EA 2233 per kilogram of body weight were capable of keeping a subject stoned for approximately 30 hours. The substance left soldiers virtually immobilized, either lacking the motivation or simply unable to defend themselves in the event of an attack.
However, when injected intravenously into a subject, EA 2233 took a potentially hazardous turn. The immobilization of the test subjects was much more thorough as evidenced by soldiers lacking the ability to stand without assistance. However, this was due to a dangerously severe drop in blood pressure that Ketchum’s team cautiously chose to avoid altogether.
Closing the Door on the THC Bomb
Eventually, the U.S. military suspended marijuana testing, finding it too ineffective and unpredictable to be viably used in chemical warfare. In 1975, the military publicly admitted to human experimentation with marijuana and LSD as a means of developing a debilitating chemical weapon. The controversial research secretly conducted at Edgewood Arsenal did have some success, albeit fleeting. Research led to the development of chemical ammunition, roughly the size of tennis balls, packed with a powder derived from a plant in the belladonnoid family. This ammunition was capable of sending its targets into a debilitative state of slumber for days. However, Ketchum attests that such chemical warfare was never conducted and the ammunition has since been destroyed.
The idea of warfare without casualties is alluring, especially in our current political atmosphere. While chemical warfare, even with weaponry as seemingly benign as “THC bombs”, is unethical, is the alternative really any better? As Ketchum himself stated, “Paradoxical as it may seem, one can use chemical warfare to spare lives, rather than extinguish them.” Perhaps with the legalization of cannabis and the eventual lift of the ban on marijuana testing and research, the military can return to examining whether THC can be used to put our country’s opponents in a less-than-permanent sleep.