WHO'S GOT THE ACID?
These Days, Almost Nobody.
Researchers at the University of Michigan started tracking the illicit drug
habits of America's high-schoolers in 1975. Despite the inherent difficulty
of conducting such surveys--kids are excellent liars and exaggerators--the
Michigan team has established "Monitoring the Future" as the most reliable
guide to drug-use trends in the United States.
MTF has documented the rise and decline of many drugs, but lead researcher
Dr. Lloyd Johnston says the group has never seen such a dramatic drop in
the use of an established illicit drug as they're seeing now with LSD. In
both the 2000 and 2001 surveys, 6.6 percent of high-school seniors reported
that they'd used LSD in the previous year. In 2002, the figure dropped to
3.5 percent. And in the most recent survey, from 2003, only 1.9 percent of
high-school seniors claim to have dropped acid. (The standard error for
this LSD survey is 0.25 percentage points.)
Evidence of acid's decline can be found practically everywhere you look: in
the number of emergency room mentions of the drug; in an ongoing federal
survey of drug use; in a huge drop in federal arrests; and in anecdotal
reports from the field that the once ubiquitous psychedelic is exceedingly
difficult to score. In major cities and college towns where LSD was once
plentiful, it can't be had at all.
University of Maryland professor Peter Reuter, a leading drug-policy
expert, is flabbergasted by the new LSD data.
"We have literally never seen anything like this," Reuter says. "This isn't
a trend. This is an event."
Obviously, the LSD market isn't as easy to understand as, say, the coffee
bean market because criminal sanctions against LSD's manufacture, sale,
possession, and use drive most of the useful data underground. But while
our knowledge of the LSD market may be imperfect, a variety of available
yardsticks, such as the MTF survey, give us some sense of its workings.
For instance, data from the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network, which
charts emergency room data in 21 major cities, second MTF's LSD surveys.
DAWN, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, isn't a
scientific survey: It merely records the "mentions" of drugs by patients
entering emergency rooms. (For instance, if you visited the ER with a
broken finger, and they asked if you were on drugs, and you said, "Yes,
LSD," you'd go down as an LSD mention, even if you were fibbing. If you
answered, "Yes, LSD and pot," they'd record both drug mentions.) But DAWN
data is still a good rough measure of drug use. Between 1995 and 2000, LSD
mentions remained relatively stable, hovering around 2,500 during each
six-month period. But in the second half of 2001, DAWN's LSD mentions
dropped below 1,000 for the first time. In the next six-month period,
mentions fell below 500.
DAWN Project Director Dr. Judy Ball says what's unique about the LSD
findings is that they show a consistent decline in every metropolitan area
measured, not just common regional fluctuations.
Another HHS initiative started surveying LSD use in the general population
in 1965. It now does business as the National Survey on Drug Use and
Health, and the most recent results register a decline among 18- to
25-year-olds who say they have ever used the drug (16.6 percent to 15.9
percent). In the 12 to 17 range, use fell from 3.3 percent to 2.7 percent.
NSDUH changed its methodology for the most recent survey in such a way that
had LSD use stayed constant, the survey should have shown an uptick in use.
This means the decline in LSD use is greater than the NSDUH numbers reflect.
Nobody collects national arrest data for LSD cases, but federal arrests for
LSD trafficking and possession have tumbled in recent years. The Drug
Enforcement Administration recorded 203 arrests in FY2000, 95 in FY2001, 41
in FY2002, and 19 in FY2003. In the first quarter of 2004, the feds have
arrested only three people on LSD charges. In the LSD haven of San
Francisco, the DEA recorded 20 arrests in 2000 versus zero in 2002,
according to DEA Special Agent Richard Meyer of the agency's San Francisco
One possible explanation for the decline could be changed attitudes about
LSD. But MTF's Johnston says a shift in drug habits is "generally
explainable by the disapproval or risk data, but in this case we didn't
have that." Indeed, the perceived risk and disapproval rates for LSD among
the MTF population have dropped steadily since 1975.
So what explains the LSD drought? The best explanation is a bust, a really
big bust. The DEA claims it reduced the LSD supply by "95 percent" with two
arrests in rural Kansas in November 2000. Clyde Apperson and William
Leonard Pickard were charged with and eventually convicted of possession
and conspiracy to distribute LSD. According to court testimony, the DEA
seized the largest operable LSD laboratory in agency history, as well as 91
pounds of LSD and precursor compounds for the potential manufacture of
nearly 27 pounds more. If you define a dose of LSD as 100 micrograms,
Apperson and Pickard had around 400 million hits in stock. At the more
common dosage level of 20 micrograms, the two were sitting on 2 billion
hits. Apperson got 30 years in prison, and Pickard got two life sentences.
The Kansas bust marked the third time in four years that the DEA had
arrested Apperson and Pickard on LSD lab charges.
The LSD market took an earlier blow in 1995, when Grateful Dead frontman
Jerry Garcia died and the band stopped touring. For 30 years, Dead tours
were essential in keeping many LSD users and dealers connected, a
correlation confirmed by the DEA in a divisional field assessment from the
mid-'90s. The spring following Garcia's death (the season the MTF surveys
are administered), annual LSD use among 12th-graders peaked at 8.8 percent
and began their slide. Phish picked up part of the Dead's fan base--and
presumably vestiges of the LSD delivery system. At the end of 2000, Phish
stopped touring as well, and perhaps not coincidentally, the MTF numbers
for LSD began to plummet.
Where have all the acid-eaters gone? MTF records a stable interest in
"hallucinogens other than LSD"--the hallucinogen usually being psychoactive
mushrooms--since the 2000 decline of acid. DAWN shows the same trend under
the "miscellaneous hallucinogens" category. (Over the same period, use of
both ecstasy and methamphetamine dropped in the MTF survey.) In other
words, the decline in LSD use doesn't look like a demand-side phenomena:
The cultural hunger for a substance that lets you hold affordable
conversations with God, watch walls melt, breathe colors, and explore your
psyche remains unsated.
When declining supply intersects with unchanged demand, an increase in
price usually occurs--this seems to be the case with LSD. While the DEA
does not release price information for LSD, many acid aficionados say its
once-steady price of $5 a hit now ranges as high as $20, and that's when
the drug is available. Another market change: In 1995, one could easily
purchase several sheets of 100 hits at selected rock concerts, but buying
more than 10 doses at a time today is difficult.
Historically, illicit LSD production has been dominated by just a few
operators, so if Apperson and Pickard were the United States' major LSD
suppliers, taking them down may well have caused this major disruption.
They won't be easily replaced. Synthesizing LSD is much more difficult than
brewing methamphetamine, PCP, or even ecstasy. Also, LSD manufacture
demands precision chemistry and difficult-to-obtain precursor chemicals
that these other drugs don't.
How permanent is the acid drought? The history of drug prohibition
indicates that the government can upset supply and demand at the margins.
It can drive one drug into scarcity only to see users substitute it with
another. But it never eliminates the market for drugs altogether. As the
drug war enters its second century, LSD appears to be in retreat. But never
bet against a comeback.