Illegal LSD Production
LSD has been manufactured illegally since the 1960s. A limited number of chemists,
probably less than a dozen, are believed to be manufacturing nearly all of the LSD
available in the United States. Some of these manufacturers probably have been operating
since the 1960s.
LSD manufacturers and traffickers can be separated into two groups. The first, located in
northern California, is composed of chemists (commonly referred to as cooks)
and traffickers who work together in close association; typically, they are major
producers capable of distributing LSD nationwide. The second group is made up of
independent producers who, operating on a comparatively limited scale, can be found
throughout the country. As a group, independent producers pose much less of a threat than
the northern California group inasmuch as their production is intended for local
Drug law enforcement officials have surmised that LSD chemists and top echelon traffickers
form an insiders fraternity of sorts. They successfully have remained at large
because there are so few of them. Their exclusivity is not surprising given that LSD
synthesis is a difficult process to master. Although cooks need not be formally trained
chemists, they must adhere to precise and complex production procedures. In instances
where the cook is not a chemist, the production recipe most likely was passed on by
personal instruction from a formally trained chemist. Further supporting the premise that
most LSD manufacture is the work of a small fraternity of chemists, virtually all the LSD
seized during the 1980s was of consistently high purity and sold in relatively
uniform dosages of 20 to 80 micrograms.
LSD commonly is produced from lysergic acid, which is made from ergotamine tartrate, a
substance derived from an ergot fungus on rye, or from lysergic acid amide, a chemical
found in morning glory seeds. Although theoretically possible, manufacture of LSD from
morning glory seeds is not economically feasible and these seeds never have been found to
be a successful starting material for LSD production. Lysergic acid and lysergic acid
amide are both classified in Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. Ergotamine
tartrate is regulated under the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act.
Ergotamine tartrate is not readily available in the United States, and its purchase by
other than established pharmaceutical firms is suspect. Therefore, ergotamine tartrate
used in clandestine LSD laboratories is believed to be acquired from sources located
abroad, most likely Europe, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Africa.11 The difficulty in acquiring
ergotamine tartrate may limit the number of independent LSD manufacturers. By contrast,
illicit manufacture of methamphetamine and phencyclidine is comparatively more prevelant
in the United States because, in part, precursor chemicals can be procured easily.
Only a small amount of ergotamine tartrate is required to produce LSD in large batches.
For example, 25 kilograms of ergotamine tartrate can produce 5 or 6 kilograms of pure LSD
crystal that, under ideal circumstances, could be processed into 100 million dosage units,
more than enough to meet what is believed to be the entire annual U.S. demand for the
hallucinogen. LSD manufacturers need only import a small quantity of the substance and,
thus, enjoy the advantages of ease of concealment and transport not available to
traffickers of other illegal drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine.
Cooking LSD is time consuming; it takes from 2 to 3 days to produce 1 to 4 ounces of
crystal. Consequently, it is believed that LSD usually is not produced in large
quantities, but rather in a series of small batches. Production of LSD in small batches
also minimizes the loss of precursor chemicals should they become contaminated during the
LSD crystal produced clandestinely can be as much as 95- to 100-percent pure. At this
purityand assuming optimum conditions during dilution and application to
paper1 gram of crystal could produce 20,000 dosage units of LSD. However, analysis
of LSD crystal seized in California over the past 3 years revealed an average purity of
only 62 percent. Moreover, LSD degrades quickly when exposed to heat, light, and air and
is most susceptible to degradation during the application process and once it is in paper
form. As a result, under less than optimal, real-life conditions, actual yields are
significantly below the theoretically possible yield: 1 gram of LSD crystal genarally
yields 10,000 dosage units of LSD, or approximately 10 million dosage units per kilogram.
Over the past 30 years, the traditional dilution factor for manufacturing LSD has been
10,000 doses per 1 gram of crystal. Therefore, dosage units yielded from high-purity (95-
to 100-percent pure) LSD crystal would contain 100 micrograms. However, dosages currently
seen contain closer to 50 micrograms. This discrepancy stems in part from production
impurities: during the sythesis process, manufacturers generally fail to perform a final
clean-up step to remove by-products, thereby lowering the crystals
purity. Further, though average purity of tested LSD crystal samples is, as noted, 62
percent, the average potency of doses analyzed is approximately 50 micrograms rather than
62 micrograms, as would be expected. The diminished potency can be attributed to
distributors who, when applying the crystal to paper, often cheat by diluting
1 gram of crystal to produce up to 15,000 or more dosage units.
Pure, high-potency LSD is a clear or white, odorless crystalline material that is soluble
in water. It is mixed with binding agents, such as spray-dried skim milk, for producing
tablets or is dissolved and diluted in a solvent for application onto paper or other
materials. Variations in the manufacturing process or the presence of precursors or
by-products can cause LSD to range in color from clear or white, in its purest form, to
tan or even black, indicating poor quality or degradation. To mask product difficiencies,
distributors often apply LSD to off-white, tan, or yellow paper to disguise discoloration.
At the highest levels of the traffic, where LSD crystal is purchased in gram or multigram
quantities from wholesale sources of supply, it rarely is diluted with adulterants, a
common practice with cocaine, heroin, and other illicit drugs. However, to prepare the
crystal for production in retail dosage units, it must be diluted with binding agents or
dissolved and diluted in liquids. The dilution of LSD crystal typically follows a
standard, predetermined recipe to ensure uniformity of the final product. Excessive
dilution yields less potent dosage units that soon become unmarketable.
LSD crystal usually is converted into tablet form (microdots that are 3/32
inch or smaller in diameter), thin squares of gelatin (window panes), or
applied to sheets of prepared paper (blotter paperinitially used as a
mediumhas been replaced by a variety of paper types). LSD most frequently is
encountered in paper form, still commonly referred to as blotter paper or blotter acid. It
consists of sheets of paper soaked in or otherwise impregnated with LSD. Often these
sheets are covered with colorful designs or artwork and are usually perforated into
one-quarter inch square, individual dosage units.