U.S. Department of Justice
Drug Enforcement Administration
LSD in the United States
Illegal LSD Production
LSD has been manufactured illegally since the 1960’s. A limited number of chemists,
probably less than a dozen, are believed to be manufacturing nearly all of the
LSD available in the United States. Some of these manufacturers probably have
been operating since the 1960’s.
LSD manufacturers and traffickers can be separated into two groups. The first,
located in northern California, is composed of chemists (commonly referred to
as “cooks”) and traffickers who work together in close association; typically,
they are major producers capable of distributing LSD nationwide. The second
group is made up of independent producers who, operating on a comparatively
limited scale, can be found throughout the country. As a group, independent
producers pose much less of a threat than the northern California group inasmuch
as their production is intended for local consumption only.
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. Their exclusivity is not surprising
given that LSD synthesis is a difficult process to master. Although cooks need
not be formally trained chemists, they must adhere to precise and complex production
procedures. In instances where the cook is not a chemist, the production recipe
most likely was passed on by personal instruction from a formally trained chemist.
Further supporting the premise that most LSD manufacture is the work of a small
fraternity of chemists, virtually all the LSD seized during the 1980’s was of
consistently high purity and sold in relatively uniform dosages of 20 to 80
LSD commonly is produced from lysergic acid, which is made from ergotamine tartrate,
a substance derived from an ergot fungus on rye, or from lysergic acid amide,
a chemical found in morning glory seeds. Although theoretically possible, manufacture
of LSD from morning glory seeds is not economically feasible and these seeds
never have been found to be a successful starting material for LSD production.
Lysergic acid and lysergic acid amide are both classified in Schedule III of
the Controlled Substances Act. Ergotamine tartrate is regulated under the Chemical
Diversion and Trafficking Act.
Ergotamine tartrate is not readily available in the United States, and its purchase
by other than established pharmaceutical firms is suspect. Therefore, ergotamine
tartrate used in clandestine LSD laboratories is believed to be acquired from
sources located abroad, most likely Europe, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Africa.11 The difficulty in acquiring ergotamine tartrate may
limit the number of independent LSD manufacturers. By contrast, illicit manufacture
of methamphetamine and phencyclidine is comparatively more prevelant in the
United States because, in part, precursor chemicals can be procured easily.
Only a small amount of ergotamine tartrate is required to produce LSD in large
batches. For example, 25 kilograms of ergotamine tartrate can produce 5 or 6
kilograms of pure LSD crystal that, under ideal circumstances, could be processed
into 100 million dosage units, more than enough to meet what is believed to
be the entire annual U.S. demand for the hallucinogen. LSD manufacturers need
only import a small quantity of the substance and, thus, enjoy the advantages
of ease of concealment and transport not available to traffickers of other illegal
drugs, primarily marijuana and cocaine.
Cooking LSD is time consuming; it takes from 2 to 3 days to produce 1 to 4 ounces
of crystal. Consequently, it is believed that LSD usually is not produced in
large quantities, but rather in a series of small batches. Production of LSD
in small batches also minimizes the loss of precursor chemicals should they
become contaminated during the synthesis process.
LSD crystal produced clandestinely can be as much as 95- to 100-percent pure.
At this purity—and assuming optimum conditions during dilution and application
to paper—1 gram of crystal could produce 20,000 dosage units of LSD. However,
analysis of LSD crystal seized in California over the past 3 years revealed
an average purity of only 62 percent. Moreover, LSD degrades quickly when exposed
to heat, light, and air and is most susceptible to degradation during the application
process and once it is in paper form. As a result, under less than optimal,
real-life conditions, actual yields are significantly below the theoretically
possible yield: 1 gram of LSD crystal genarally yields 10,000 dosage units of
LSD, or approximately 10 million dosage units per kilogram.
Over the past 30 years, the traditional dilution factor for manufacturing LSD
has been 10,000 doses per 1 gram of crystal. Therefore, dosage units yielded
from high-purity (95- to 100-percent pure) LSD crystal would contain 100 micrograms.
However, dosages currently seen contain closer to 50 micrograms. This discrepancy
stems in part from production impurities: during the sythesis process, manufacturers
generally fail to perform a final “clean-up” step to remove by-products, thereby
lowering the crystal’s purity. Further, though average purity of tested LSD
crystal samples is, as noted, 62 percent, the average potency of doses analyzed
is approximately 50 micrograms rather than 62 micrograms, as would be expected.
The diminished potency can be attributed to distributors who, when applying
the crystal to paper, often “cheat” by diluting 1 gram of crystal to produce
up to 15,000 or more dosage units.
Pure, high-potency LSD is a clear or white, odorless crystalline material that
is soluble in water. It is mixed with binding agents, such as spray-dried skim
milk, for producing tablets or is dissolved and diluted in a solvent for application
onto paper or other materials. Variations in the manufacturing process or the
presence of precursors or by-products can cause LSD to range in from clear
or white, in its purest form, to tan or even black, indicating poor quality
or degradation. To mask product difficiencies, distributors often apply LSD
to off-white, tan, or yellow paper to disguise dis ation.
At the highest levels of the traffic, where LSD crystal is purchased in gram
or multigram quantities from wholesale sources of supply, it rarely is diluted
with adulterants, a common practice with cocaine, heroin, and other illicit
drugs. However, to prepare the crystal for production in retail dosage units,
it must be diluted with binding agents or dissolved and diluted in liquids.
The dilution of LSD crystal typically follows a standard, predetermined recipe
to ensure uniformity of the final product. Excessive dilution yields less potent
dosage units that soon become unmarketable.
LSD crystal usually is converted into tablet form (“microdots” that are 3/32
inch or smaller in diameter), thin squares of gelatin (“window panes”), or applied
to sheets of prepared paper (blotter paper—initially used as a medium—has been
replaced by a variety of paper types). LSD most frequently is encountered in
paper form, still commonly referred to as blotter paper or blotter acid. It
consists of sheets of paper soaked in or otherwise impregnated with LSD. Often
these sheets are covered with ful designs or artwork and are usually perforated
into one-quarter inch square, individual dosage units.