Evolution of Illicit LSD Trafficking
Throughout the history of LSD trafficking, supplies have mirrored the demand for the drug.
The illicit drug market has never experienced a serious shortage or glut of LSD and the
overall supply of the drug has remained relatively constant since 1980. Over the years,
investigations throughout the country have established that LSD sources of supply are
located primarily in northern Californias San Francisco Bay area.
Initially, LSD was supplied by small groups that obtained limited quantities of ergotamine
tartrate on the commercial market. By the end of the 1960s, a single
groupsecuring significant amounts of ergotamine tartrate from Mexican and Costa
Rican sourcesemerged as the principal supplier of LSD in the United States. With the
immobilization of this group in the early 1970s, another organization took over as
the principal source of supply, purchasing virtually all of its ergotamine tartrate
through front companies from legitimate domestic suppliers. The neutralization of this
organization wiped out the large-scale production and distribution of LSD within the
United States. Immediately following this drug law enforcement effort, the number of LSD
dosage unit removals from the illicit drug market decreased dramatically.
By 1976, however, another organization, centered in the San Francisco Bay area, had
assumed the primary role in the production and distribution of LSD. The organization
operated at least one clandestine laboratory in northern California and was believed to
have managed virtually the entire LSD market through its control over the illicit
importation of ergotamine tartrate and through its franchising of LSD production rights.
Ergotamine tartrate was secured, indirectly, from legitimate European chemical firms: the
firms supplied the precursor to European criminal organizations that, in turn, smuggled it
through American middlemen to the San Francisco organization. (Since 1976, there have been
no known significant diversions of ergotamine tartrate from legitimate sources in the
During the late 1970s, virtually all LSD tablets analyzed by DEAs Special
Testing and Research Laboratory exhibited the same chemical composition and a roughly
proportional presence of diluents. The finding suggests a possibility that a single
organization manufactured the raw granulated material used in LSD tablet presses
nationwide. More probably, however, the analyses indicate that LSD crystal cooks merely
have passed on a single recipe for producing the tablets.
Due to the variety of shapes and sizes seen among seized tablets, it would seem that
sizable amounts of the LSD crystal were distributed to specific tablet press operators.
Press operators changed tablet punches and metal dies partly as a security measure and
partly due to extreme wear on the non-case-hardened steel dies.
The San Francisco organization also shipped LSD in liquid form to individual conversion
operations located in areas in the United States where LSD demand was greatest and to
foreign, primarily English-speaking, nations. The LSD liquid was applied to paper either
by using syringes to dispense LSD onto individual paper squares or by immersing sheets of
paper squares in a less concentrated LSD liquid solution.
Paper emerged as the most popular means of distributing LSD. Paper distribution does not
entail use of expensive pill presses. Also, pill press operations require a higher level
of skill and security than paper application operations. The paper squares and sheets are
easy to conceal and transport. Unique designs can be applied to the paper to make the drug
more appealing to young users and to serve as brand identification. The paper designs also
can be changed regularly to stimulate demand. Unlike the administration of other drugs,
particularly the injection of heroin, the method of LSD ingestion (oral) is unobtrusive.
In addition, the paper dosages are not readily associated by users with drugs or medicine,
allowing the sellers to portray it as natural or unlike other drugs. Moreover,
the noncommercial social philosophy of the environment surrounding LSD use and sales
makes it difficult for young people to view LSD as a dangerous drug.12
In contrast to the trafficking of other drugs, in which profit is the sole motivating
factor, LSD trafficking has assumed an ideological or crusading aspect. The influence
ofand probable distribution bycertain psychedelic generation gurus has created
a secretiveness and marketing mystique unique to LSD, particularly at the higher echelons
of the traffic. Their belief in the beneficent properties of LSD has been, over the years,
as strong a motivating factor in the production and distribution of the drug as the
profits to be made from its sale.
Large amounts of LSD have been seized by drug law enforcement authorities during the last
several years, and numerous distributors have been arrested and convicted. Those at the
upper echelon, however, continue to evade the law. These individuals appear to run an
efficient and profitable operation that is difficult to penetrate.
Current Trafficking and Distribution
DEA reporting indicates that LSD is available in at least retail quantities in virtually
every State in the United States and that availability is increasing in a number of
States. More than half of all DEA field divisions report increased availability of LSD
within their respective jurisdictions, and the remaining field divisions report that LSD
is readily available. Northern California appears to be the source of supply for most of
the LSD available in the United States.
At the wholesale production and trafficking level, LSD is controlled tightly by
California-based organizations that have operated with relative impunity for almost 20
years. Reporting also indicates that an increasing number of individuals or groups
nationwide are manufacturing and distributing LSD, or attempting to do so, on a limited
LSD traffickers sometimes supply or front consignments of LSD to distributors
who have established an acceptable level of reliability; the traffickers are reimbursed
once the LSD has been sold. For the most part, however, payment for consignments of LSD is
made in advance by wire through Western Union or by postal money orders. Upon receipt of
payment, LSD is shipped to the distributor. At the retail level, LSD is sold strictly on a
cash-and-carry basis. Money laundering is not conducted on a sophisticated level, except
by LSD traffickers with international connections.
Investigative intelligence reveals that major trafficking organizations are attempting to
boost LSD sales through the extension of credit, especially to mid-level distributors and
occasionally to low-level sellers. This suggests that competition at the highest levels of
the traffic is increasing, possibly due to an increase in the number of LSD crystal
LSD traffickers have adapted their tactics to circumvent the mandatory minimum sentencing
guidelines. For instance, an investigation in California revealed that one trafficker was
unwilling to conduct transactions in excess of 9 grams of LSD crystal because the
threshold of 10 grams triggers the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
LSD usually is transported in two ways from the San Francisco Bay area. First, overnight
delivery services, including express mail, Federal Express, and DHL, are used extensively
to transport large amounts of LSD throughout the United States. Second, LSD is shipped to
major distributors in cities that host concerts of the Grateful Dead band. The
concerts are used as a forum for large-scale LSD distribution, as well as low-level or
retail sales. In addition, intelligence reveals that major transactions also are
consummated at these events. Local police agencies have consistently reported that LSD use
and arrests rise significantly prior to the concerts and persist for a period after the
band leaves town.
Traditionally, retail-level LSD distribution networks in the United States have been
comprised of individuals who have known each other through long association and common
interests. This has facilitated not only hand-to-hand sales of the drug, but a
proliferation of mail order sales.
Distribution of LSD usually occurs in one of three ways. First, an individual attends a
rock concert, meets a source of supply, and exchanges telephone numbers. Typically, these
purchases are for retail quantities of up to 100 doses. Second, individuals, who decide to
continue distributing, call the source for additional amounts. Usually, the source has
either continued on the concert tour or has returned home, which frequently is in northern
California. If the source intends to stay on the tourmaking subsequent communication
difficultthe telephone number of an associate is provided for future orders. After
the initial purchase, almost all transactions are made via the public and private mail
systems. (Payments to a source of supply usually are made through legitimate money wiring
services.) Third, some distributors travel directly to California to meet sources of
The mail system is the primary means used to ship wholesale quantities of LSD to
distributors located nationwide. Reporting indicates that shipment methods used to
transport both large and small quantities of LSD are often similar. LSD frequently is
concealed in greeting cards, in cassette tapes, or in articles of clothing that are mailed
to a post office box established by the recipient. This post office box usually is listed
under a fictitious name or business. Normally, no return address is provided on the
package or envelope.
LSD is sold in several forms, including crystal, liquid, tablets, gelatin, or applied to
sheets of paper or sugar cubes. At the highest levels of the traffic, LSD is sold in
crystal form. LSD in liquid form is destined for transfer to a paper medium, and commonly
is associated with mid-level distribution. At the retail level, the vast majority of
dosage units are in the paper form, although tablets can be purchased in several areas.
LSD, when diluted and applied to paper, begins to degrade quickly, necessitating a high
rate of product turnover. As a result, stash houses containing large
quantities of the drug, common in the traffic of cocaine and marijuana, seldom are
encountered by drug law enforcement authorities.
LSD liquid and crystal generally are sold in plastic film canisters or, occasionally, in
small, opaque plastic bottles to prevent oxidation, which turns the LSD darker than the
preferred white or off-white color.
LSD in crystal or liquid form is applied to sheets of paper by traffickers who operate
clandestine conversion laboratories located in the San Francisco Bay area or by
distributors in mobile conversion laboratories. These conversion laboratories can be
erected quickly and efficiently almost anywhere, usually in hotel or motel rooms in cities
where rock concerts are scheduled or in recreational vehicles that follow certain rock
bands on their concert tours, most notably the Grateful Dead Band.13
Sheets of paper usually are prepared with colorful designs or artwork of many different
characters or images. The designs often are applied commercially by printing companies
using off-set lithography, screen printing, or silk screening. Photocopiers also can be
used to reproduce distinctive designs onto sheets effectively. Otherwise, the designs can
be applied by rubber stamps or hand-drawn.
The sheets are perforated to create small squares which represent a single dosage unit or
hit, isolating one design per dosage unit or several designs per sheet. Some
LSD paper samples contain only one elaborate design per sheet. Major traffickers use
methods developed in the printing industry to perforate the paper sheets. However, smaller
operations may employ cruder methods, such as razor blades, pizza cutters, or sewing tools
(e.g., the Dritz pattern marking wheel). The sheets then are ready for the
application of liquid LSD.
The printed sheets are dipped into shallow pans containing LSD crystal dissolved in
methanol, ethanol, or other solvent (water can be used; however, its slower evaporation
rate increases the likelihood of degradation) and then are laid out or hung up to dry. The
printing inks generally are insoluble in the solvents to ensure that the image does not
run. Because this production procedure is inexact, the potency of LSD can vary from sheet
to sheet and even from square to square.
The LSD application process is performed in this order to minimize loss of product. If the
LSD is applied to the sheets prior to adding the designs, the bloated sheets of paper
could jam printing or photocopying machines, wasting the valuable drug-soaked paper. In
addition, there is a certain amount of waste inherent in commercial printing or
Once the paper sheets are printed, perforated, and impregnated with LSD, they are ready
for distribution. The traffickers often communicate with local contacts to establish
distribution outlets for the drug.
LSD is relatively inexpensive. The average price is approximately $5 per retail dosage
unit and less than $1 per dosage unit in wholesale lots of 1,000 or more. When compared
with marijuana, which sells for $40 to $450 per ounce, LSD is perceived by many drug users
as a bargain, especially considering the duration of its effects, which, in higher doses,
can persist for up to 12 hours. Although LSD prices have fluctuated nationally during the
past several years, overall prices remain relatively low.
The low cost of LSD has given rise to incidents where the drug is misrepresented as
another illicit drug of abuse. While a small amount of liquid LSD will yield a certain
number of individual dosage units for sale at from $1 to $10 each, the same amount of
liquid can be applied to other substances and sold at significantly higher prices. For
example, LSD can be applied to gourmet mushrooms to create ersatz psilocybin mushrooms
that sell for $30 to $350 per ounce. It also can be applied to tablets and sold as 3,4
methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) for $8 to $25 per dosage unit. This versatility
allows the distributor to offer a variety of drugs for sale and provides him with the
potential for increased profits.
LSD potency or strength is measured in micrograms. In the 1960s and early
1970s, LSD potency generally ranged from 100 to 200 micrograms per dosage unit or
higher. Analysis of exhibits during the late 1970s indicated an average potency in
the 30- to 50-microgram range. From the mid-1980s to the present, LSD potency has
remained considerably below levels reported during the 1960s and early 1970s
and generally has been in the range of 20 to 80 micrograms per dosage unit. As a result of
this comparatively low dosage level, many users perceive LSD as safe, thus
enhancing the drugs attractiveness.
The production of lower potency LSD was a conscious marketing ploy passed down from an
older generation of producers for two primary reasons. First, producing lower potency
doses meant that the same volume of LSD liquid or crystal could be diluted into a larger
number of dosage units, thereby boosting profits significantly. Second, lower potency
doses yield fewer adverse reactions on the scale of those seen during the 1960s and
Lower potency doses probably have accounted for the relatively few LSD-related emergency
room incidents noted during the past several years. However, there are several reasons why
these incidents still occur. For example, users who seek a more intense hallucinogenic
experience merely consume multiple dosage units at once. In addition, novices who are
unaware that the effects of LSD may take up to 1 hour to develop are tempted to ingest
additional dosage units and unwittingly increase the size of the dosage consumed.