Who's got the acid?

The conventional wisdom debunked.
April 1 2004 1:38 PM

Who's Got the Acid?

These days, almost nobody.

(Continued from Page 1)

One possible explanation for the decline could be changed attitudes about LSD. But MTF's Johnston says a shift in drug habits is "generally explainable by the disapproval or risk data, but in this case we didn't have that." Indeed, the perceived risk and disapproval rates for LSD among the MTF population have dropped steadily since 1975.

So what explains the LSD drought? The best explanation is a bust, a really big bust. The DEA claims it reduced the LSD supply by "95 percent" with two arrests in rural Kansas in November 2000. Clyde Apperson and William Leonard Pickard were charged with and eventually convicted of possession and conspiracy to distribute LSD. According to court testimony, the DEA seized the largest operable LSD laboratory in agency history, as well as 91 pounds of LSD and precursor compounds for the potential manufacture of nearly 27 pounds more. [Addendum, March 21:The 91-pound figure appears to be a myth of the government's making. See this follow-up story.] If you define a dose of LSD as 100 micrograms, Apperson and Pickard had around 400 million hits in stock. At the more common dosage level of 20 micrograms, the two were sitting on 2 billion hits. Apperson got 30 years in prison, and Pickard got two life sentences. The Kansas bust marked the third time in four years that the DEA had arrested Apperson andPickard on LSD lab charges.

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The LSD market took an earlier blow in 1995, when Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia died and the band stopped touring. For 30 years, Dead tours were essential in keeping many LSD users and dealers connected, a correlation confirmed by the DEA in a divisional field assessment from the mid-'90s. The spring following Garcia's death (the season the MTF surveys are administered), annual LSD use among 12th-graders peaked at 8.8 percent and began their slide. Phish picked up part of the Dead's fan base—and presumably vestiges of the LSD delivery system. At the end of 2000, Phish stopped touring as well, and perhaps not coincidentally, the MTF numbers for LSD began to plummet.

Where have all the acid-eaters gone? MTF records a stable interest in "hallucinogens other than LSD"—the hallucinogen usually being psychoactive mushrooms—since the 2000 decline of acid. DAWN shows the same trend under the "miscellaneous hallucinogens" category. (Over the same period, use of both ecstasy and methamphetamine dropped in the MTF survey.) In other words, the decline in LSD use doesn't look like a demand-side phenomena: The cultural hunger for a substance that lets you hold affordable conversations with God, watch walls melt, breathe colors, and explore your psyche remains unsated.

When declining supply intersects with unchanged demand, an increase in price usually occurs—this seems to be the case with LSD. While the DEA does not release price information for LSD, many acid aficionados say its once-steady price of $5 a hit now ranges as high as $20, and that's when the drug is available. Another market change: In 1995, one could easily purchase several sheets of 100 hits at selected rock concerts, but buying more than 10 doses at a time today is difficult.

Historically, illicit LSD production has been dominated by just a few operators, so if Apperson and Pickard were the United States' major LSD suppliers, taking them down may well have caused this major disruption. They won't be easily replaced. Synthesizing LSD is much more difficult than brewing methamphetamine, PCP, or even ecstasy. Also, LSD manufacture demands precision chemistry and difficult-to-obtain precursor chemicals that these other drugs don't.

How permanent is the acid drought? The history of drug prohibition indicates that the government can upset supply and demand at the margins. It can drive one drug into scarcity only to see users substitute it with another. But it never eliminates the market for drugs altogether. As the drug war enters its second century, LSD appears to be in retreat. But never bet against a comeback.

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