Ronald Hadley Stark: The Man Behind the LSD Curtain
"...revolutions are not won by enlisting the masses. Revolution is a science for the few who are competent to practice it. It depends on correct organisation and above all, on communications." -- Robert Heinlen
11/30/11 -- The curse of doing research out here in Weirdoland is that the really fascinating people are nearly impossible to do research on. For instance, when you're covertly running the world's largest LSD manufacturing and smuggling operation for the CIA, you're not going to be doing interviews in Newsweek or publishing an autobiography. That's precisely the problem with Ronald Hadley Stark, who is one of the most insane characters in the history of LSD -- and that's really saying something, don't you think?
This article has been updated considerably since I first published it. Stark's life story is beyond belief, so I think it's important to be meticulous. There are, no doubt, still hundreds of errors here.
For anyone unfamiliar with the tangle of political, scientific, cultural and covert forces behind spread of LSD, this article could get confusing. Ronald Stark is a central figure in David Black's book ACID: A Secret History of LSD, but the best overall introduction to this material would be Acid Dreams, by Lee & Shlain. It's short and very readable, laying out the overall history in clear terms. For more serious seekers, I highly recommend HP Albarelli's masterpiece, A Terrible Mistake, which is meticulously documented and considerably broader than mere LSD history.
Stark had been working with US intelligence agencies for at least 9 years by the time of his most infamous moment, a legendary meeting with the "hippie mafia" drug syndicate called The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. (no joke.) They were looking for a new supplier and Stark kicked off the meeting by showing them a kilogram of liquid LSD -- for US readers, that's 2.2 pounds of acid. Needless to say, his resume was persuasive. He claimed to have a dedicated lab in France, but it's his political philosophy that really makes Stark such an interesting character:
"He had a mission, he explained, to use LSD in order to facilitate the overthrow of the political systems of both the capitalist West and communist East by inducing altered states of consciousness in millions of people. Stark did not hide the fact that he was well connected in the world of covert politics."
The Brotherhood was sufficiently impressed to bring Ronald Stark into the fold, and what followed was the Golden Era of cheap, high-quality LSD. From 1969 through 1973, Stark and the Brotherhood dosed a generation and got away with it, too.
According to a figure quoted by everyone and verified by nobody, Stark made 20 kilograms of LSD in his career. Hippie lore generally gives Owsley Stanley the crown of the Acid King, but by Stanley's own estimates, his total production was a half kilogram. That might not sound like much -- but it adds up to over 5 million hits of acid. You can see why the Army and Navy were so interested in this compound: it is unusually powerful as drug molecules go.
Although the LSD story is closely associated with the Sandoz pharmaceutical corporation in Switzerland, most of the CIA's supply was actually domestic. Since at least 1954, the Eli Lilly Company was working under secret contract to keep the various MKNAOMI and ARTICHOKE research projects stocked up with magic mindfuck juice. The figures on their total LSD output are classified.
David Black: "Before clinching the deal with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, Stark had been making some contacts in England among the radical psychiatry movement of R.D. Laing and the Tavistock Institute."
Obviously this was a big money business, and organized crime involvement was inevitable. Since small batches of LSD have a literally exponential commercial profit margin, technical expertise was highly rewarded. Consider the case of Clyde Apperson, a specialist in quickly setting up a fully functional manufacturing lab just about anywhere. More importantly, he could take them down even faster. For set-up, Apperson would charge $100,000 in cash -- take downs were only $50,000. He was finally busted working in the infamous abandoned missile silo with William Leonard Pickard in 2000.
Everyone's always getting busted, though. The history of LSD is full of incredibly intelligent men making highly stupid decisions. Yet through it all, from Operation Julie to the Sand-Scully case, Ronald Stark just kept on trucking. He was a calculating cameo artist: always on the scene, never holding the bag.
Until he suddenly was: "Whatever game Stark was playing took an abrupt turn in February 1975 when Italian police received an anonymous phone call about a man selling drugs in a hotel in Bologna. A few days later at the Grand Hotel Baglioni they arrested a suspect in possession of 4,600 kilos of marijuana, morphine, and cocaine. The suspect carried a British passport bearing the name Mr. Terrence W. Abbott. Italian investigators soon discovered that "Mr. Abbott" was actually Ronald Stark."-- Source: Acid Dreams, pg. 213
Terrence W. Abbott was holding a genuine British passport, number 348489A, which was issued in 1973. The story of how he got it will never be told -- British intelligence refused to release his files. The FBI refused to share their files on him with the DEA's investigation, and the US State Department has actively interfered with many foreign attempts to extradite or prosecute Stark. The man led a charmed life.
"...the picture of Stark's activities began to broaden with the discovery of a vial of liquid and a cache of papers kept in a Rome bank deposit box. The vial was sent for forensic examination. The scientists reported back that they could not precisely identify the drug it contained. At best, they put it close to LSD. Perhaps it was the synthetic THC Stark had dreamt of creating; the papers included formulae for the synthesis. There were also plans for the bulk purchase of hemp seeds and calculations for shipments, investments and plant installation. Some of the papers went back to the Brotherhood days but they gave no details of his LSD operations after the Belgian episode. They did show that his range of interests in the drug world had expanded to include narcotics. There were details of the synthesis of cocaine." Source: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love
Stark's time in Italy is the strangest and bloodiest chapter of his odd history. Although most accounts frame his 1975 arrest as a "bust," one commentator who does not is worth mentioning here: Phillip Willan. His view of Stark is shaped not by LSD folklore, but through earnest journalism and research into the history of political terrorism in Italy. The Ronald Stark that Willan presents is not a drug lord getting taken down, so much as an intelligence asset deliberately changing venues.
Willan: "Stark's arrest in Italy was prompted by a mysterious phone call to the police and he seems quite happy to go to prison, where his time was gainfully employed in winning the confidence of captured Red Brigades leaders, given that he turned down the opportunity of bail in August 1978."
Stark was no mere snitch, though. He was actively setting up infrastructure, teaching the principles of operational security and preaching the virtues of the "cell" structure. "He also provided them with a cryptographic system for coded radio communications," Willan says, although it should be assumed that Stark was also passing that system on to his secret employers. Prison records show that he met with Italian police and intelligence agents many times while he was networking there. It was in Italy that a large part of Ronald Stark's operation collapsed into the visible world. The facts that emerged are an education in covert warfare and intelligence operations.
Some Heavy Dudes
"...his preferred to keep his range of contacts ignorant of each other's activities. Oftentimes he concealed the fact he was an American. His European associates were not privvy to his affairs in Africa, and those in Asia knew little about his work in the states. The brothers, for example, had no idea he was running a separate cocaine ring in the Bay Area." -- Acid Dreams, pg 250
Researching Roland Stark, I was reminded of people like Porter Goss, Henry Karl "Andijra" Puharich, or Barry Seal: it is unreal how much this guy got around. He stayed in close contact with the founders of "The Process Church of the Final Judgement," which is another hub in the Dark Network of occult history.
They began as a splinter group who broke ranks from Scientology, which meant they were waging spiritual war with L. Ron Hubbard from 1965 through 1974, which was a pretty bad year for "The Teacher," Robert DeGrimston. He was booted from his own cult and his wife divorced him on her journey to starting a successful chain of "Best Friends" animal shelters. (No joke.)
All of which sounds way more lurid than it was. Stark was ultimately a drug dealer so beyond being Very Interesting, his link with the Process Church doesn't imply any shared philosophy...and doesn't exclude it, either. The oddball sociologist William Sims Bainbridge studied the group for months, and he didn't exactly make it sound like a blood magick sacrifice: "there was no violence and no indiscriminate sex, but I found a remarkably aesthetic and intelligent alternative to conventional religion." Then again, the Solar Temple was full of wealthy and sophisticated people who held refined parties and had very high-level conversations right up until the mass murder, mass suicide thing.
(For considerably more detail on the Process, refer to the Bainbridge essay Social Construction from Within: Satan's Process.)
Timothy Leary was a perfect avatar for the Age of Horus: playful, brilliantly creative and blissfully unaware of the bad consequences he was unleashing. Although there is little evidence to tie Leary himself to the drug smuggling and merchandising activities of the Brotherhood, there is no question he quickly became the spiritual center of the group. For what it's worth, Leary himself downplayed their significance:
LEARY: "The whole concept of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love is like a bogeyman invented by the narcs. The brotherhood was about eight surfer kids from Southern California, Laguna Beach, who took the LSD, and they practiced the religion of the worship of nature, and they'd go into the mountains. But they were not bigshots at all. None of them ever drove anything better than a VW bus. They were just kind of in it for the spiritual thrill."
Maybe so -- but probably not. In September 1970, Leary escaped from prison in a complicated deal exposing just how serious the Brotherhood network had become. Money from Ronald Stark was paid to the Weather Underground, which is the precise point where the "hippie mafia" became connected to actual hippie terrorists. Leary himself wound up in Algeria under the (very) armed watch of Eldridge Cleaver, himself in exile. A year later, Leary and his wife were in Switzerland, living under the protection of the arms dealer Michel Hauchard. For a story about spiritual thrills, there's definitely a lot of guns involved here.
At one point, though, maybe the Brotherhood really was just a group of hippies with a couple trunks full of weed. The Weather Underground were harmless student activists for awhile, too. Once Stark was brought into the Brotherhood, he quickly took change of the entire operation, establishing secure shipments and managing every aspect of their finances. "Stark warned them that buying real estate openly, as they had done, was much too risky -- but his lawyers could remedy the situation by hiding ownership in a maze of shell companies."
This is a repeated pattern in Stark's operations: he is always ready to create an organization where none exists. After Owsley got busted and the Brotherhood went international, many of the original bay area chemists got wise to what Stark was really doing. "We were definitely very gullible in believing the stuff he told us," as poor Tim Scully would later observe.
The Brotherhood got plugged into Stark's global underground very quickly: massive marijuana imports from the Middle East, shadow bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, and he was somehow micro-managing everything. Once he had flooded the West Coast with Afghan weed, Stark turned his attention to New York City, which was completely unprepared for the sheer quantity the Brotherhood supplied. From distribution to organizing street-level dealers, Stark was there, establishing Ordo Ab Chao is his own specific way.
Skilluminati readers may already be familiar with Mr. Nice, the Welsh arms trader and Hashish entrepreneur who paved the pipeline that brought Afghanistan's finest exports into the hands of hippies and other connoisseurs all around the world. His real name is Howard Marks and his pioneering work in cultural exchange was the foundation for everything from the Cannabis Cup to Afghanistan's ongoing civil war, although of course neither was actually Howard's fault. Unlike Stark, he's made a modest living telling colorful and contrite stories of his drug dealing days. Part of the Mr. Nice gig, of course, is that he swears he's never used violence or trafficked in "hard drugs" -- which was probably an even bigger factor in his early retirement than getting busted by the DEA. Afghanistan, of course, got very heavy very quick and Mr. Nice was steamrolled out of the picture in short order.
Howard Marks was very much a hippie. Ronald Stark was something else altogether.
Most of what's known about Ronald Stark today is through an Italian magistrate named Giorgio Floridia, who released Stark from Italian prison in 1979. After Stark had gotten himself caught in 1975, he busied himself trying to convince anyone and everyone that he was operating with the blessings of the United States government. Four years later, he finally managed to persuade Floridia, who cited "an impressive series of scrupulously enumerated proofs" that Stark had given him.
At his appeals trial Stark changed identities once again, this time passing himself off as "Khouri Ali," a radical Palestinian. In fluent Arabic he spelled out the details of his autobiography, explaining that he was part of an international terrorist organization headquartered in Lebanon, called "Group 14." Stark's appeal failed, and he was sent back to jail.
But Italian police took a renewed interest in his case after they captured Enrique Paghera, another terrorist leader who knew Stark. At the time of his arrest Paghera was holding a hand-drawn map of a PLO camp in Lebanon. The map, Paghera confessed, had come from Stark, who also provided a coded letter of introduction. The objective, according to Paghera, was to forge a link with a terrorist organization that was planning to attack embassies.
Floridia also claims Stark worked for the Defense Department from 1960 on, and recieved paychecks from Fort Lee, in New Jersey. It is worth considering that Stark might have exaggerated his role and connections, and even fabricated evidence, in presenting his case to the magistrate who was in a position to free him. Either way, it worked. Stark was released on parole....and disappeared days later.
In terms of Floridia's motivation, it's worth considering the fate of the guy who came before him:
In June 1978 a Bologna magistrate, Graziano Gori, was assigned to investigate Stark and his astounding web of associates. A few weeks later, Gori was killed in a car wreck.
That, of course, might be the most "impressive proof" of all.
Somehow Not the End
Ronald Stark turned up in Holland in 1982. There's not a lot of published details, but it clearly involves 16 kilos of hasish and a Lebanese cover identity. He was busted en route to New York City. He got deported the next year and apparently died in custody -- because when Italy requested that he be extradited on terrorism charges, the US replied with a copy of Stark's death certificate.
(You guessed it -- "heart attack.")
His paper trail comes to an end here, although the reader can be forgiven for assuming his crusade continued covertly. There was certainly no retirement for a man like Stark. His mission was too important, too huge for a mere career.
...but then again, what was his mission, after all? Is it a mistake to place any stock in what he told the Brotherhood of Eternal Love? Perhaps not. Although Ronald Hadley Stark was many things to many people, the sole constant that emerges is Revolution. From the Weather Underground to the Red Brigades, from the PLO to the IRA, Stark was consistently moving in circles where the overthrow of government and the liberation of the people were central themes...circles that today would be considered "Terrorist." Certainly, Stark manipulated and lied to his contacts every step of the way, and it's safe to assume the speeches he gave to the Palestinians and Italians were much different from the picture he was painting in 1969 for the Brotherhood.
It's worth revisiting, though: "...in order to facilitate the overthrow of the political systems of both the capitalist West and communist East by inducing altered states of consciousness in millions of people." Now, Hadley's chosen network makes it pretty clear that he viewed automatic rifles and firebombs as equally valid tools for "inducing altered states of consciousness," and it's unlikely that a realist like Stark honestly believed that LSD was going amount to much more than a profitable business. Setting that aside, overthrowing both capitalism and communism sounds like an authentic statement of Stark's overall goals, or at least one that fits his sketchy and fast-moving modus operandi.
Stark was an infiltrator, creating back channels for communication between intelligence and police agencies and the underground movements that were trying to fight them. The fact he was so successful and so prolific is what makes him a remarkable character. Throughout his documented life, Stark is relentlessly working with, for and against dozens of competing players. He travels constantly, juggles multiple identities and stays actively involved in multiple conflicts simultaneously.
Looking over his strange, tangled career, it's hard to avoid thinking that LSD was really not the point. The single biggest producer of raw LSD the world has ever known was not a True Believer, he was just passing through on his way to bigger and better things. His work for US intelligence agencies had less to do with blowing minds than establishing connections. Vast quantities of acid was perhaps more of a bona fide, a calling card to establish himself as a legitimate criminal figure.
Which brings us, finally, full circle.
A Harsh Mistress
In 1966, Putnam & Sons published a new novel from Robert Heinlein named The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The plot concerns a worker's revolution on a Lunar colony, organized by a small group of people with considerable assistance from a self-aware supercomputer that controls the colony's infrastructure. Written in a distinctively abbreviated "Moonspeak," the book goes into remarkable detail about secure, secret communication networks. Stark was seldom without a copy and spoke highly of it around the world. Perhaps the closest we can ultimately get to unraveling his motives and beliefs is within the pages of a sci-fi story, rather than the life he left behind.
It's impossible to write about the character of Ronald Stark without discussing the character of Professor Bernardo de la Paz. As the brains behind the Lunar revolution, the Professor has several extensive monologues about the design principles behind covert operations. "Revolution," the Prof says, "is an art I pursue, rather than a goal I expect to achieve."
The end of the novel is pure Chinatown. The revolution gets subverted like revolutions always do, and Heinlein was really writing a love song about The Frontier itself. Revolution is the flame that extinguishes itself, for simple and practical reasons: "Every new member made it that much more likely that you would be betrayed," as the Prof puts it.
"Organization must be no larger than necessary -- never recruit anyone merely because he wants to join. As to basic structure, a revolution starts as a conspiracy; therefore structure is small, secret and organized as to minimize damage by betrayal -- since there are always betrayals. One solution is the cell system and so far nothing better has been invented."
The Professor goes on to propose a mandala of three-member cells, all reporting through a single Leader node back towards the center. This compartmentalized approach allows the founders to both monopolize information flow and insulate themselves against exposure. The concept is simple and effective, and it has been proven here in the real world for decades, from terrorist networks to intelligence agencies to evangelical Christians. It is staggering to think of how much Ronald Stark was connected to, assuming he rigorously pursued the Professor's blueprint, as Art for Art's sake. It is sobering to realize that the long, wide trail of covert history I've outlined here was just a couple of cells that got busted, part of a larger picture that is gone completely here in 2010.
His greatest achievements were the successful conspiracies, the completed operations that will never get traced back to his careful planning and constant hard work. There are too many huge gaps and unanswered questions to leave much doubt that Ronald Hadley Stark had a very impressive batting average. He was in a line of work where invisibility is the goal, and his true legacy is hiding behind headlines we will never understand, out here in the herd.
pg 77 "Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges, terror. I hope you will forgive me if I say that, up to now, it has been done clumsily."
Sorry, no LSD recipes here. Handy safety test: if you need to google the instructions, you're not qualified to perform them. Don't play with fire, kids.
Be sure to check out the Cult of the Dead Cow's review of Acid: A New Secret History of LSD" -- full of further information on Stark.
The always-excellent Gary Lachman offers a sober and detailed take on The Process Church.
If you want to learn more about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, that's good: you should. There's an outstanding book on the subject, predictably titled The Brotherhood of Eternal Love I recently read a new book on the subject, Orange Sunshine, which wasn't nearly as good.
Finally, for deep background on WTF Ronald Hadley Stark was doing in Italy during those mysterious final years of his life, Philip Willan's book is essential: "Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy ."