On Nov. 6, 2000, William Pickard was arrested near Wamego, Kansas, while trying to move a psychedelic manufacturing laboratory that had been hidden in a former Atlas missile silo to another location. Authorities said he was the main source of LSD in the 1990s, and that the arrest stopped or interrupted the flow of psychedelics in the US for years. Pickard was sentenced to two life terms in federal prison after his partner, Gordon Skinner, who owned the lab, turned informant and led the FBI to Pickard and another partner.
The story is the opening event in “Operation White Rabbit: LSD, the DEA and the Fate of the Acid King” (Skyhorse Publishing), a new book by Dennis McDougal that continues the long, strange trip of the psychonauts — those who have been making and supplying chemical substances to Americans since Congress passed the Drug Abuse Control Amendment restricting manufacturing in 1966.
Psychedelics are all over the news these days. Headlines proclaim that LSD, MDMA (or Ecstasy) and ayahuasca plants are helping patients deal with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Universities fund clinical trials and host seminars on psychedelic-inspired medicines as the market continues to expand.
States and municipalities are reconsidering whether possessing or using any drug should be a criminal offense.
The use of microdosing — or taking a tiny amount on a regular basis — is on the rise. And psychedelics have no political boundaries. Just this month, an advocate was arrested during the attempted coup at the US Capitol.
There’s even a word — entheogen — to describe plant-based drugs that produce other states of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.
That hasn’t been the case for more than a half century. Not that people weren’t using psychedelics, just that it’s been outside the law to create such substances, so it’s been an underground phenomenon. But as we know, if there is a market, someone will step up and try to fill it. It’s the American way, after all.
“Even in a full-body jumpsuit and respirator, investigator Max Hauser collapsed inside the trailer”McDougal writes
Which brings us to the psychonauts. Misfits of a sort, almost all white, many brilliant in one way or another, and each with an affinity for entheogens, an inner directive to get them out to the world and the chemistry and/or criminal chops and contacts to make that happen. Many Americans have had their “acid period,” but these folks never came out of it.
Many psychonaut stories were gathered by author Jesse Jarnow in “Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,” (2016), which proffers heady tales of graffiti artists, disciples of the Grateful Dead and Phish, entrepreneurs and criminals being pursued by mostly inept federal government agents that have kept mind drugs available to those who really want them. It is an exhausting, sometimes comic tale of brain-trust idiots pursued by FBI Keystone Cops, and that story continues with the release of “Operation White Rabbit.”
A Laboratory Drug
LSD was first created by researcher Albert Hoffman in 1943, and the chemist, after ingesting his own substance — first by accident, then by design — learned of its mind-altering characteristics. Hoffman synthesized mushrooms and psilocybin and spent the rest of his life writing extensively on the subject, including a book titled “LSD: My Problem Child,” about how his accidental discovery might be used. At this point, laboratory drugs were only being researched for medical possibilities. Never, Hoffman once said, did he think LSD would become a pleasure drug.
But it did. The most famous early adherent was Owsley Stanley, who more than 50 years after his heyday is still revered in the psychonaut community for the purity of his concoctions and his association with the Grateful Dead. “Head” also tells the stories of Nick Sand and Tim Scully, followers of Stanley who created the popular “Orange Sunshine” acid.
And, of course, there was Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass), who began doing research on psychedelic drugs at Harvard in the early 1960s before Leary’s story devolved into an almost comic, surreal tale of prison escapes, living with Black Panthers abroad and becoming a government informant himself. Despite the circus-like atmosphere around Leary, his notoriety created a buzz and gave incentive to disciples eager to carry on the tradition.
William Leonard Pickard was one of those devotees, and his story involves clandestine, mobile laboratories, traveling around the world for the materials necessary to synthesize drugs, expensive habits, sinister connections with spurious people, unintended massive overdoses, and large amounts of money being transferred between an assortment of petty criminals and psychonaut advocates.
The Acid King
Pickard was born into wealth, and after coming across psychedelics considered himself the heir to Leary and the person who would introduce LSD to the masses. He was a busy guy. While manufacturing drugs secretly, he was also deputy director, through the University of California Los Angeles’s Drug Policy Research Program.
“He was, in a way, part of the love generation,” Mark Downie, founding publisher of Mother Jones, said. “He really believed that LSD and its derivatives could produce a better culture.”
Legend has it that Pickard and Skinner met at the former California home of Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl. As Jarnow relates in “Head,” whether Pickard was there or not, he was active in the psychedelic underground, probably dating to the 1960s. And he hoped to learn his lessons from the original psychonauts, most of whom were in prison.
“The half dozen chemists to whom Leonard attached himself descended from a different tradition,” McDougal writes, “parallel to that of Nick Sand and Tim Scully, Dr. Leary and the Bear, but with zero publicity.”
That worked for a while. He was busted a few times, but nothing stuck until December 1988 when Pickard was arrested in a California industrial park with 200,000 doses of LSD, which netted him a five-year jail term. He became a Buddhist in prison, and upon release in 1993 began working at Harvard University where he researched drug use in the Soviet Union and the proliferation of chemical drugs being created in covert laboratories, among them fentanyl, which Pickard warned, to no avail, was particularly dangerous.
But he never stopped making entheogens, which finally led to the Kansas bust. And, incredibly, in July 2020, after serving 17 years in federal prison, he was released, due to his age, 75, and his positive contributions to research. His interviews with McDougal form at least part of “Operation White Rabbit,” the name of the operation created to catch Pickard and his associates.
“He was, in a way, part of the love generation”Mark Downie
Skinner — a small-time criminal and entheogen enthusiast whom one author refers to as “the guy who put psycho in psychonaut” — was later arrested by authorities and is now serving a prison sentence for torturing a man who had an affair with his wife.
The FBI’s involvement has a Keystone Cops quality of its own. Skinner duped the investigating agents, Karl Nichols and Roger Hanzlik, who didn’t know anything of his other criminal activities. To cover the money mistakenly spent on Skinner as an informant, the FBI claimed that it found 91 pounds of LSD in the missile silo. It was actually closer to half a pound. And the DEA also falsely claimed that the acid supply in the US dropped by 95 percent in the next two years because of its diligence. And it turned out that Pickard never made LSD or any other drugs at the missile silo location — he was just moving the lab to another location.
Making psychedelics is risky. Whenever Pickard was busted, he warned police that they would be entering an LSD lab and that anyone messing around in there without proper equipment might be subject to an undesirable outcome.
Agents should probably have paid more attention to the warning.
“Even in a full-body jumpsuit and respirator, investigator Max Hauser collapsed inside the trailer,” McDougal writes. “Hauser had nicked his neck in the lab that morning, and enough vapor filtered through a slit in his protective gear to send him reeling.”
He was hospitalized in delirium, and McDougal relates: “for months thereafter, he suffered terrifying mood swings — anxiety to depression, then back again. Interviewed 20 years later, he maintained that he still bore scars from the episode.”
Later, Pickard himself accidentally overdosed, which incapacitated him for awhile and led others to believe it helped lead to his decline and arrest.
It’s encouraging that we are finally as a nation waking up to the fact that drug use should not be considered a criminal offense in itself and that mind-altering drugs should be studied for use in mental-health situations. But until we take those two concepts seriously, there will always be psychonauts.