DRCNet Response to the
Drug Enforcement Administration
LSD in the United States

LSD Trafficking

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 California’s 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 1960’s, a single group—securing significant amounts of ergotamine tartrate from Mexican and Costa Rican sources—emerged as the principal supplier of LSD in the United States. With the immobilization of this group in the early 1970’s, 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 United States.)

During the late 1970’s, virtually all LSD tablets analyzed by DEA’s 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 of—and probable distribution by—certain 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 basis.

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 manufacturers.

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 tour—making subsequent communication difficult—the 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 supply.

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 photocopying operations.

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 1960’s and early 1970’s, LSD potency generally ranged from 100 to 200 micrograms per dosage unit or higher. Analysis of exhibits during the late 1970’s indicated an average potency in the 30- to 50-microgram range. From the mid-1980’s to the present, LSD potency has remained considerably below levels reported during the 1960’s and early 1970’s 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 drug’s 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 1960’s and early 1970’s.

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.


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