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The Chemist and the Conman vs. the DEA

Like other subcultures, the LSD subculture has its legends. They include the chemists, the shamans, the fuckups, and many others. Among the names in this pantheon are the chemists Albert Hoffman, Augustus Owsley Bear Stanley, Nicholas Sands, and Tim Scully. The shamans and fuckups included the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. Other figures included the likes of financier Billy Hitchcock, mystery man/weirdo Ron Stark, and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. These names and the person who held them intertwined and intermingled in the myths and stories of psychedelia folklore. Back in my days of acid tests and psychedelic voyaging, I knew the stories, met some of the principals and heard the news about busts, new analogs of various psychedelic molecules, and the like.

Almost twenty years later in the late 1980s, my voyages were few, but I stayed in the loop checking in with friends at concerts and via the mails. LSD was still being made and distributed, maybe in greater quantity than ever before. In the 1990s, I began to hear about a couple guys who were making LSD in a former missile silo in Kansas. This was after the Cold War was over and many of us were hopeful that money spent on war would be diverted to making life better on planet earth. When it came to this so-called peace dividend and converting the destructive science of war into the potential the science of psychedelics represented; a converted missile silo was an almost too-perfect metaphor.

As it turned out, there would be no peace dividend—those invested in the science and waging of war were not going to give up their allegiance to Moloch and his destructive force. As for the LSD manufacturing in that Kansas missile silo, the demons of greed, envy and pride would combine with a lust for money to create a story of police, millions of dollars, millions of LSD doses, and betrayal. All of which was fueled by the psychedelic haze that becomes part of the body chemistry of those who synthesize LSD and other psychedelics for a living.

This is the tale told by Dennis McDougal in his most recent book titled Operation White Rabbit: LSD, DEA, and the Fate of the Acid King. As implied by the title, this book is about the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) multi-year operation to shut down the LSD manufacturing operation of longtime psychedelic chemist (William) Leonard Pickard and his financial backer/con man Todd Skinner. Just like the EA borrowed the name of the Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 song “White Rabbit” calling on its listeners to “feed their head,” McDougal uses lyrics from the song to title each of the book’s sections. Of course, the Jefferson Airplane named their song after the now-you-see-him now-you-don’t character of the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s tales Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Operation White Rabbit opens with a sketch of one of the author’s visits to Pickard in the maximum-security federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. The author then summarizes Pickard’s childhood and early life. Like so many of these tales about modern day outlaws, Pickard’s early years were not exactly conventional, but they certainly were not that unusual for a young white male in post-World War Two USA. He was a bit of a savant when it came to chemistry and certain other sciences—a situation that put him on a path towards scientific stardom. However, like many of the other LSD legends mentioned above, conventional life and goals became secondary once he had imbibed the elixir LSD-25. That experience would provide Pickard with his mission—to distribute as much LSD as possible in his lifetime in order to save the human race from itself.

In his early years of psychedelic manufacture, Pickard found himself apprenticed to chemists already famous for the quality of their product. These individuals included Tim Scully and Nick Sands—two chemists most famous for the orange tablets known as Orange Sunshine. He studied the formulas of Owsley and those around him, while also working with various research scientists who could legally manufacture and try various mood modifiers that were illegal for everyone else to possess. After Owsley retired from the business and the Orange Sunshine makers went to prison, Pickard was one of a few US chemists still making LSD. At the same time, he became an advisor to various academic think tanks focusing on the drug problem in the United States. These think tanks worked with the US government, the United Nations, and private entities like the Rand Corporation. Pickard’s focus for the agencies seemed to be on narcotics and other addictive substances. In fact, he was one of the first researchers to raise an alarm about the deadly potential fentanyl represented.

At the same time, Pickard was manufacturing lots of LSD. After working with a few different hucksters, trust funders and other money sources, he ran into a Midwesterner with an oversized ego, a con-man’s bluster, and an apparent source of constant cash. This fellow’s name was Gordon Todd Skinner. This partnership would be full of quarrels, mistrust, extravagant living and money. Lots of money. And lots of LSD. It would also end up being Pickard’s downfall, in large part because of Skinner’s treachery. In other words, when Skinner’s back was up against the wall because of his reckless, even maniacal behavior, he called up the DEA and turned against his partner Pickard. In a case that might never have been made for lack of evidence, Todd Skinner snitched on his partner in exchange for an almost total immunity. Pickard never suspected his partner of snitching until it was too late. He ended up getting two life sentences in the federal prison system. Although the claims made by the DEA about Pickard’s abilities and production levels are exaggerated, it seems reasonable to guess that Pickard manufactured millions and millions of hits of LSD during his career. That in itself is a notable contribution to the human experience.

Dennis McDougal has crafted a fine story with this text. It moves at a measured pace, telling a fantastic tale in a manner that keeps the reader interested and entertained. Operation White Rabbit is a tale that combines a bit of cops-and-robbers with psychedelic spirituality, classic American hucksterism with a missionary’s faith. Furthermore, it is a drama of a showdown between a mystic’s desire to go beyond the third dimension and a drug warrior’s determination to save the world from the uncertain territories of the human mind. This book is certainly a worthy addition to the legends of the subculture mentioned at the beginning of this review.

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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