The numbers touted by the government in its big LSD bust just don't add up.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
March 14 2005 6:10 PM

The 91-Pound Acid Trip

The numbers touted by the government in its big LSD bust just don't add up.

How much acid is that?
How much acid is that?

On Nov. 25, 2003, a federal judge sentenced Leonard Pickard and Clyde Apperson to life and 30 years, respectively, for one count each of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute more than 10 grams of LSD and one count each of possession with the intent to distribute more than 10 grams of LSD. That afternoon, the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration celebrated the sentencing with a press release describing the bust in the case as the "Largest LSD Lab Seizure in DEA History."

Almost 91 pounds of LSD had been seized in the case, the release stated. Many newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Reno Gazette-Journal, the Oakland Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Associated Press repeated the poundage number verbatim. Slate published it, too, in an April 2004 article that I wrote, "Who’s Got the Acid?" DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy repeated the 91-pound figure in congressional testimony one year ago during an appropriations hearing. (Click here for Tandy's testimony.)

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How many hits of acid is that? The usual dose of LSD has fallen to about 20 micrograms in recent years, so at that dosage level, Pickard and Apperson possessed 2 billion hits of acid—enough to give every person in the Western Hemisphere two doses and still have 250 million hits left over. As I wrote in my original Slate article, 91 pounds of LSD would be worth between $2 billion and $10 billion on the street.

Leonard Pickard
Leonard Pickard

But how real is the 91-pound number? After I quoted the figure in my Slate piece, I received a letter from Pickard, and his jail-cell note inspired me to re-interview my sources and consult the relevant court testimony to verify the government's claims. Based on my inquiries and official testimony, I've concluded that the drug operation the DEA broke up had less than a half-pound of LSD on hand, enough to make only 10 million hits of 20-microgram acid. Instead of turning on both North America and South America twice, they could have dosed Cuba about once. *

The press release derived its 91-pound estimate on the data collected during an Oct. 31, 2000, "sneak and peek" search of a suspected LSD operation in a retired missile silo near Wamego, Kan. (In a "sneak and peek" search, a judge authorizes law enforcement to conduct their search without the knowledge of the property owner.) According to court testimony and an interview with DEA Special Agent Karl Nichols, who worked on the case and was present during the search, agents found an "operable lab."

The agents obtained between 15 and 20 samples of materials during the search, says Nichols. A DEA forensic laboratory found detectable amounts of LSD or LSD-related chemicals in some of them, according to Agent Nichols and testimony given by DEA forensic chemist Timothy McKibben in the trial. The press release further states that LSD precursor chemicals sufficient to "create an additional 12.4 kilograms" or 27.28 pounds of LSD were captured.

"We found LSD, we found iso-LSD, we found all the equipment, the chemicals. Basically, we found everything," Nichols says.

A couple days after the search, agents watched from a surveillance point as Pickard dumped vast amounts of liquidmaterial onto the ground outside the silo, according to Nichols and court testimony. The agents did not intercede or make their presence known. On Nov. 6, they finally closed in on Pickard and Apperson as the two loaded equipment from the silo into a Ryder truck and a silver Buick and drove off. They apprehended Apperson, who was driving the truck, but Pickard, piloting the Buick, took off on foot and outran several agents half his age.

"We didn't know beforehand that Pickard was a marathon runner," Agent Nichols says.

Agents seized empty containers in the vehicles and in the silo. The next day, a local farmer spotted Pickard and turned him in.