LSD and the Law

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Chapter 4
LSD and the Law

LSD was once a legal drug studied for use in psychiatric patients, but its increasing abuse by a growing population of young people resulted in widespread concern and legislation outlawing LSD. As a result, making, selling, and using LSD have been illegal in the United States and most other industrialized countries for nearly four decades.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration have taken a strong stance on LSD manufacturing and use, including its use in therapy and for scientific research. Over the years, the battle against illegal LSD use has faced many obstacles. At the same time, the overall supply of LSD has remained relatively constant for nearly twenty-five years.

Another major problem began to emerge in the early 1960s. In 1963 Sandoz, the drug company that produced pharmaceutical LSD, let its patent rights for producing LSD expire. As a result, it no longer controlled LSD's legal production, which Sandoz had limited for use by the medical community. This change meant that anyone could legally manufacture and distribute the drug since neither the United States nor any other country had laws to control LSD. Soon various people began to manufacture LSD, and the drug began to be sold on the street.

LSD Is Made Illegal

The United States and other governments began to consider outlawing LSD as public concern grew over the increasing number of people who were taking the drug recreationally and without the supervision of a doctor. Concerns were magnified when hospitals began reporting that their staffs were treating more and more panic attack episodes and other side effects in young people who had taken the drug. Even Albert Hofmann, LSD's discoverer, was upset by its illegal use. Hofmann recalled, "Since my self-experiment had revealed LSD in its terrifying, demonic aspect, the last thing I could have expected was that this substance could ever find application as anything approaching a pleasure drug."42

As noted in a Life article, "At any rate, the genie of LSD, with all its tantalizing possibilities for good and evil, is out in the open."43 It did not take long for the government to try to put the genie back in the bottle. In 1966 Congress passed the Drug Abuse Control Amendment, which banned the individual manufacturing or sale of LSD and other similar hallucinogens. The law greatly restricted LSD by allowing only legitimate wholesale manufacturing, distribution, and use in research and medical situations. While illegal manufacturing and sale could be prosecuted, the law did not address personal possession of the drug. Personal use of LSD was still not punishable under the law as long as the individual was not making or selling the drug.

Social Views Impact Medical Research

The growing public outcry and government concerns over LSD use soon began to affect medical research of the drug. Before long, the FDA began to demand that LSD researchers halt their studies and return all their supplies of LSD. Some said the FDA was concerned for patient safety and was responding to those in the medical profession who believed the drug was potentially dangerous. Others believed that the use of LSD in therapy and research had to be banned to prevent people from thinking the drug was safe. In 1965 the FDA shut down numerous LSD research projects. The following year, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals halted LSD's distribution to the United States.

In 1966 congressional hearings were held to discuss the government's ban on LSD research. Some politicians argued that research with the drug should continue. Senator Robert Kennedy, for example, wondered how a drug that was considered so valuable six months earlier had suddenly become so despised. "Perhaps," Kennedy said, "we have lost sight of the fact that [LSD] can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly."44

Many researchers also spoke out against the government's growing restrictions on LSD research. Speaking before a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, LSD researcher Dr. Stephen Szara commented, "It is my belief that it would be most unfortunate if we were to permit undue hysteria to destroy a valuable tool of science, and evaporate an eventual hope for the many hopeless."45

Despite protests from some in the scientific community, the FDA and NIMH remained skeptical of LSD research and established the Psychotomimetic Advisory Committe in 1967 to review current research with the drug. Shortly afterward, the NIMH essentially halted all but a few of its own sponsored research projects involving LSD. This reduction in research stemmed from several factors, including concern for patient safety, a lack of strong scientific evidence that the drug was beneficial in any way, and increasing pressure from the government and the general public who saw the drug as dangerous.

The Controlled Substances Act

In 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. According to the DEA, this act serves as the legal foundation of the government's fight against the abuse of drugs and other substances. When the Controlled Substances Act was passed, it consolidated numerous laws regulating the manufacture and distribution of a variety of drugs, including LSD. It put all federally regulated substances into one of five schedules. This placement is based upon the substance's medicinal value, harmfulness, and potential for abuse or addiction.

Under the law, LSD was and continues to be placed in Schedule 1, which is reserved for what are believed to be the most dangerous drugs. LSD and all other Schedule 1 drugs have been defined as drugs that have a high potential for abuse. They are not accepted for medical use in the United States because they are believed to be potentially unsafe even under medical supervision. This classification restricted LSD research to nonhuman subjects unless a special approval was granted by the FDA.

While the United States took the lead in banning LSD, other countries soon followed. In 1971 the United Nations' Convention on Psychotropic Substances required all participating parties or nations to prohibit LSD, making it illegal in most of Europe. In 1974, the NIMH halted all research with the drug when a NIMH research task force declared that there were no medical benefits associated with LSD.

Obstacles in Stopping LSD Use

Although sanctioned supplies of LSD were difficult to obtain, the illegal manufacture and sale of the drug continued at a fast pace. For more than thirty years the DEA, formerly the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, has battled the illegal manufacture, sale, and use of LSD. Despite the DEA's efforts, the drug has continued to be used by high school and college students in virtually every state.

The DEA has noted that several factors play a role in the continued availability of LSD. Although large amounts of LSD have been seized by law enforcement over the years and numerous distributors have been arrested and imprisoned, most of those at the higher levels of illegal manufacturing have continued to evade capture. This is in part because discovering LSD manufacturing labs is so difficult. The labs are often makeshift and can be set up almost anywhere, from people's basements to old farm buildings. The labs do not stay in continuous production and are easily moved to different sites. As the DEA points out, "Few LSD laboratories have ever been seized in the United States because of infrequent and irregular production cycles."46

Capturing LSD dealers is also difficult. In a 1995 report, "LSD in the United States," the DEA noted that there were probably fewer than a dozen people responsible for manufacturing all of the LSD in the United States. Many of these people are thought to have been in the LSD business since the 1960s and are experienced in eluding law enforcement. The DEA further noted, "Drug Law enforcement officials have surmised that LSD chemists and top echelon traffickers form an insider's fraternity of sorts. They successfully have remained at large because there are so few of them."47

In addition to the relatively few and close-knit suppliers of LSD who manufacture the drug in large quantitites, the DEA must consider that the drug's distribution is different from that of most other drugs. Since LSD is lightweight and odorless, it is distributed in large quantities through mail-order sales via the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, and other mailing services. In this marketplace, the sellers are virtually unknown to the buyers, keeping the upper-level traffickers hidden from law enforcement investigations. The drug is also distributed through networks that have been established for many years and are difficult for undercover DEA agents to infiltrate.

Areas of Illegal Distribution and Sale

The DEA says that LSD production can be pinpointed to several areas in the United States. Over most of the four decades of illegal LSD use, the drug has been produced primarily in San Francisco, northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. The DEA believes that the San Francisco manufacturer ships liquid LSD throughout the United States. Once it reaches its destination, the LSD is applied to paper and sold on an individual basis. More recently, LSD production has also been found in the Midwest. In 2000 the DEA seized an LSD laboratory that was located in an old missile silo in Kansas. Over ninety pounds of the drug were confiscated.

For many years the DEA has also traced the sale of large quantities of LSD to distributors located at acid rock concerts, particularly those of the Grateful Dead. According to the DEA, the concerts are places where both large-scale and individual sales occur. Likewise, dealers have been targeted and arrested by undercover agents at raves.

LSD Penalties

Since LSD is illegal throughout the United States, anyone caught with any amount of LSD could possibly spend time in jail. State laws vary for simple possession and use of LSD. Simple possession means that the person possesses enough of a drug for personal use only and not for sale. In New Jersey and Utah, for example, simple possession of LSD could lead to a prison term of up to five years. In Utah the penalty could also include a fine of up to $5,000, and in New Jersey the fine could be up to $25,000. Other states may have much harsher penalties. In Louisiana, for example, someone arrested for possession of LSD could receive a prison sentence of up to ten years of hard labor.

DEA Agents Find Their Men

Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has long admitted to difficulty in making major LSD busts, the agency made its largest LSD lab seizure in 2000. DEA agents seized 90.86 pounds of LSD and a complete LSD lab in the bust. (In its entire history, the DEA has made only four seizures of complete LSD labs.) According to the DEA, the lab was discovered packed away in an abandoned missile silo in Wamego, Kansas. Two people were later arrested as they tried to move the illegal lab.

The DEA noted that the two men produced about 2.2 pounds of LSD every five weeks at a cost of less than one cent per dose. The single doses would then sell for as much as $10. During the men's trial, the DEA charged that they were among the highest-level LSD producers and traffickers in the country. The men were eventually found guilty of LSD production and trafficking. One of them received life imprisonment without parole and the other thirty years' imprisonment without parole. In a November 25, 2003, DEA news release, Special Agent in Charge William J. Renton Jr. noted:

These defendants were proven, by overwhelming evidence, to be responsible for the illicit manufacture of the majority of the LSD sold in this nation. The proof of the significance of these prosecutions and convictions lies in the fact that LSD availability in the United States was reduced by 95% in the two years following their arrest.

For the most part, however, law enforcement officials are interested in punishing the people who manufacture and sell LSD. Under federal law in the United States, trafficking of LSD is defined as possession of a minimum of one gram of LSD. Considering that LSD is extremely lightweight, one gram represents a considerable amount of the drug, about ten thousand doses. For a first offense involving the possession of one to nine grams of LSD, the penalty is five to forty years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million. A second offense has a minimum prison sentence of ten years to life and a fine of $10 million. These penalties essentially double for possession and trafficking of ten grams or more of LSD.

LSD and Mandatory Sentencing

Mandatory minimum sentences play an integral role in the sentencing of people convicted for LSD possession and trafficking. Mandatory minimum sentences standardize the amount of time a person must spend in prison for committing certain crimes. They were established by Congress in 1986 as a way to deter certain crimes by establishing harsher universal penalties. In the case of LSD and other drugs, sentencing is based on the amount of the drug involved.

Many in the federal government and law enforcement support mandatory minimum sentences for LSD and other drugs. Federal prosecutors contend that the harsh sentences are necessary because they provide law enforcement with a tool for breaking drug syndicates. For example, if people caught dealing LSD or other drugs know that they face a minimum sentence of at least five years, law enforcement can cut a deal with them to reduce their sentences. They might receive a reduced sentence by naming the people who are higher up in the drug-dealing organization.

Those who favor mandatory minimums see them as a fair punishment for people who break the law. In an interview on the Public Broadcasting Service show Frontline, former narcotics agent Bill Alden discussed mandatory minimums: "People violated the law with premeditation. It's not a crime of passion. You think about what you're going to do. You really need to think—I have to think about the consequences of my actions daily. I know that I'm accountable for what I do, and I have to calculate what I do based on that."48

Mandatory minimum supporters also are convinced that such laws help drive drug dealers from the streets and discourage people from getting into the business. Supporters observe that since mandatory minimums were put into effect, there has been a significant decrease in crime throughout the United States. Candace McCoy, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, has noted that the laws have succeeded: "They proved that politicians and the public could be rough and tough, and meant to be serious about stopping drugs."49

Arguments Against Mandatory Minimums

Many groups and people, including those within the justice system, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, have argued against mandatory minimums. One of the most common arguments is that mandatory minimum sentences give judges little leeway in considering individual circumstances. In the case of LSD, sentencing is based solely on the amount of the drug involved. As a result, a first-time offender could receive the same sentence as a career drug dealer.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit foundation, challenges penalties required by mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The organization notes that most people serving time in prison for drug offenses, including LSD, are low-level dealers selling small amounts of the drugs and not involved in the trafficking of large quantities. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, only 11 percent of people in federal prisons on drug charges are high-level drug traffickers.

FAMM has also pointed out that high-level dealers of LSD and other drugs are better able to make a deal to reduce their sentences because they are more likely than low-level dealers to know how the drug organization works and who is in charge. As a result, the low-level dealer, who does not have information that law enforcement wants, is not able to get a reduced sentence. According to FAMM, "Low-level defendants frequently serve longer sentences than those at the top of the drug trade."50

Michigan Repeals Mandatory Minimums

Some states are turning away from mandatory minimum sentencing for many crimes, including drug possession. On December 12, 2002, a majority of the Michigan Senate passed a historic package that eliminated most of the state's mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The Michigan move involved the passing of three sentencing reform bills that eliminate the ten-year minimum sentences and allow judges to sentence an offender for any time up to twenty years. The new law also enables drug offenders to become eligible for early parole, depending on a review board. In a news release issued by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), Michigan representative Bill McConico said:

This major step brings fairness back to the judicial system in Michigan. The overwhelming bipartisan support for this legislation shows it is not a partisan issue. We were able to unite Republicans, Democrats, prosecutors, judges and families in the common cause of sentencing justice. Now we can reunite families, reallocate resources and allow judges to do their job.

In the FAMM news release, David Morse, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, stated,

Michigan's prosecutors recognize that an effective drug policy is a combination of criminal justice strategies, readily available drug treatment programs, incarceration where appropriate, and prevention activities in schools, businesses, and homes. That is why we support a responsible approach to replacing the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes with sentences that are appropriate for the crime.

Some point to one case highlighted by Court TV as a prime example of the unfairness of mandatory minimums. A twenty-year-old college woman with no criminal record was sentenced to a long prison term after buying her boyfriend thirty paper sheets of LSD at a Grateful Dead concert. When the boyfriend was arrested, he cut a deal and turned his ex-girlfriend in. She was sentenced to ten years. Although the woman was eventually pardoned by President Bill Clinton prior to his leaving office in 2000, Court TV reporter Harriet Ryan pointed out that the woman was "hardly the type of drug kingpin the public imagined when congress passed popular mandatory minimums."51

The War on Drugs

Mandatory minimums for LSD are just one part of the "war on drugs." President Richard M. Nixon first used the term in 1972 to describe the government's various programs and efforts at stopping the sale and use of illegal drugs. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s created a cabinet position to help direct the war. The person who holds this position is referred to as the "drug czar."

The war on drugs is a complex set of government policies and actions that include law enforcement and legal penalties, campaigns designed to inform the public about the dangers of drugs, and efforts to stop the manufacture of illegal drugs in other countries and their entry into the United States. Proponents of the war on drugs believe that it can be effective in stopping illegal drug usage and particularly in preventing younger people from trying drugs.

Drug czar John P. Walters has testified before the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on the overall success of the war on drugs, declaring:

Our efforts to reduce substance abuse in America have been far-reaching and diverse. We are working with the nation's top scientists to make important breakthroughs in the field of addiction research; we are providing cutting-edge technology to the state and local public safety officers who are our first line of defense against drug traffickers; we are supporting community anti-drug coalitions in their grassroots efforts to prevent and reduce drug use in our cities and towns; and we are constantly improving the most comprehensive public health advertising campaign in history. The results of these efforts are paying off: National surveys show that youth drug use is at its lowest levels in nearly a decade.52

In 2002, then–drug czar Asa Hutchinson noted that the drug war has been successful in that overall drug use in the United States has been reduced by 50 percent over the last 20 years. Two years later, Walters and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson pointed to the 2003 Monitoring the Future survey as evidence that the war was having a positive effect. The survey showed that 400,000 fewer teens had used drugs from 2001 to 2003.

As for the effectiveness of the war on drugs in battling LSD use in particular, Walters noted in a message to the U.S. Congress, "Among teens, some drugs—such as LSD—have dropped to record low levels of use."53 The government attributed much of the reduction to media campaigns outlining the dangers of illegal drug use.

The War Debate

Since the war on drugs began, arrest rates and drug seizures have increased greatly. But over the years, the war on drugs has fostered a strong legal and government debate about its overall success. Many see the war as a failure, noting that it focuses more on law enforcement and apprehension of offenders than on prevention and treatment programs. According to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, "We must accept that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short-term benefits."54

Many people point out that arresting and sending drug users to prison is much more expensive than establishing programs to stop people from using drugs in the first place. In 1997 Barry McCaffrey, then the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, noted that the government allocates far more funds for law enforcement than for high school prevention programs: "We have more people in prison than any other country in the world. We are willing to spend $22,500 for every prisoner but we aren't willing to spend $2,000 on a high school kid at risk."55

In 2001 the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit analysis and advocacy organization, issued a report focusing on both New York and federal government drug laws. In their conclusion the authors stated, "The current criminal justice response to nonviolent drug offenders has proven to be ineffective, costly and disproportionately harsh." The report pointed out that nonprison drug treatment programs have been shown to be more effective and cost efficient in battling drug use but that "the prison-only approach remains the nation's primary response to its drug problem."56

Even some supporters of the war on drugs feel that it is not enough. For example, former narcotics agent Bill Alden noted during his Frontline interview that the government needed to have a larger commitment to fighting drugs than its war on drugs campaign. When asked what his experience as a narcotics agent had taught him about controlling illegal drug use, Alden said, "Ultimately, the biggest bang for the buck was in preventing it, and in providing the right information to kids, and working with kids, so that they would make the right decision and see the consequences of their behavior."57

New Campaign Focuses on Prevention

A recent decline in LSD use by young people is one example that the government has pointed to as evidence of the effectiveness of media information campaigns to stop drug abuse. On January 29, 2004, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced a new campaign to help stop youth drug use. According to the ONDCP, the initiative takes a new approach to reducing teen substance abuse by focusing on those closest to young drug users, namely their friends, peers, and parents. Called the Early Intervention Initiative, the campaign features television, newspaper, and radio ad campaigns. In an ONDCP news release, director John P. Walters noted:

We all have the responsibility to stop teen drug use. Parents have a major role to play in helping to stop drug use by their children. But we should not underestimate the power of peers to stop substance abuse among their friends. Early action by both friends and parents can help young people avoid the serious consequences that put their futures at risk.

According to the ONDCP, the Early Intervention Initiative also represents the next step in the agency's strategy of encouraging parental monitoring and involvement to prevent youth drug use. The campaign also features a Web site called that provides young people with information and news about drug use and how they can help friends who may be abusing drugs.

While the debate continues about punishment for LSD possession and sale, some in the scientific community are calling for the government to reconsider its laws concerning the study of LSD. They say that in addition to having possible medical benefits, LSD can lead to scientific insights into the human mind.