Hey, Wait A Minute

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?

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.)

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

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.

When and where did the DEA seize the 91 pounds of LSD?

The DoJ/DEA press release attributes the number to U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren, and states that he got them from “court testimony.” According to Agent Nichols, the prosecution testified at trial that 41.3 kilograms (approximately 91 pounds) of a substance containing a detectable amount of LSD were found in the silo during the search.

This is a far cry from seizing 91 pounds of LSD—or even detecting 91 pounds of LSD. What the government is really saying is that its forensic chemists detected LSD in samples taken from containers during the search, and that the contents of the containers weighed an estimated 91 pounds. How much LSD did the forensic chemists find? At Pickard’s Nov. 20, 2003, sentencing hearing, DEA forensic chemist McKibben testified that “The actual amount of all the exhibits containing LSD was 198.9 grams of LSD,” or about 7 ounces of LSD.

Yet the government doesn’t seem to have actually seized 198.9 grams of LSD in the bust. From the wording of court documents and correspondence with Agent Nichols, the 198.9 gram figure appears to be a forensic estimate based on the concentrations of LSD found in the samples taken during searches. That is, 91 pounds of LSD-positive material were sampled and, working backward from the concentrations, the DEA calculated an actual 198.9 grams of LSD in the 91-pound lot.

The office of U.S. Attorney Eric Melgren cooperated in the reporting of this story by allowing Agent Nichols to be interviewed. But when asked direct questions about the validity of Melgren’s 91-pound press release claim, the office demurred. It would neither defend the number nor abandon it. A Melgrin spokesman stated, “We’ve given you all the information we can on this subject.”

None of this is to suggest that the owners of the missile silo lab weren’t in the LSD business. What is clear is that the government continues to stand by a 91-pound LSD seizure that didn’t happen.

Not everybody in the government is on the same page about how much LSD was seized. On Feb. 10, 2005, “drug czar” John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. Walters’ testimony, like Tandy’s, was part of a budget hearing. He said:

On LSD we certainly disrupted the supply because we took down a major distributor who had, in abandoned missile silos, had made or had material to make 25 million doses.

Only 25 million hits? Even at 50 micrograms a hit, that’s only 1.25 kilograms, still about 88 pounds short of 91. Did the Department of Justice and the DEA neglect to send the drug czar a copy of their press release?

Correction, March 17: The original version of this article stated that 10 million hits of acid was enough to dose the nations of Chile and Uruguay once. About 20 million people live in those two countries, so the article erred by a factor of two. The sentence has been rewritten to state that 10 million hits of acid could dose the nation of Cuba about once. (Cuba’s population is about 11 million.) Return to the corrected sentence.