July 29th, 2016
Convicted of making obscene amounts of LSD at a former nuclear missile silo, William Leonard Pickard—aka “The Acid King”—was sentenced to life without parole in the federal prison system in 2003.
Now 70 years old, Pickard is still steadfastly fighting this unjust and inhumane sentence, trying to regain his freedom. He’s doing so with the help of his exceptional intellectual arsenal. An alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, with degrees in chemistry and public policy, he was formerly a research associate in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, a fellow of the Interfaculty Initiative on Drugs and Addictions at Harvard, and deputy director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA.
In November 2000 the DEA raided the LSD lab inside Atlas E, the old nuclear missile silo in Wamego, Kansas, after a tip from an informant—the man who owned the silo, who was granted immunity by the prosecution in return for his testimony against Pickard.
The DEA reported that it had seized 91 pounds of acid, making it by far the largest LSD bust in US history. They also claimed that thanks to the arrests of Pickard and his co-defendent Clyde Apperson, arrests and ER visits involving LSD both dropped dramatically nationwide. The following charts are taken from the DEA’s website. (Their relevance and methodology are disputed by Pickard and many others; they are provided here merely as an illustration of the scale of the DEA’s claims.)
As often happens, reports grossly inflated the quantities seized. The actual weight of the acid from the silo turned out to be closer to half a pound. But still, it was one of the rare times that the DEA actually seized an intact, functioning LSD lab—and without making any comment on Pickard’s level of involvement, the operation was undoubtedly on a massive scale.
Even if Pickard was guilty—and even if you believe prison sentences are ever merited for drug-law violations—his sentence is disproportionate. In one of the few prior federal LSD lab seizures, also described as the “largest in history,” the chemists served sentences of only 18 months and seven years (US v. Sand and Scully, N.D. Cal. 1973).
As he winds his way through the courts, going through the slow-moving appeals process and awaiting his day of justice, Pickard has penned and published a book, The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments. It’s a journal of research interviews with an elite international group of six underground psychedelic chemists. It “explores a global entheogen system, discovering their practices leading to cognitive enhancement and, arguably, the next human form.”
I approached Pickard through a mutual contact, using the BOP email system. After a few questions from the Acid King about my purpose—for obvious reasons, there are aspects of his case he can’t discuss right now—he agreed to an interview.
When he called me from USP Tucson in Arizona I didn’t know what to expect. To someone who was involved in the LSD world like I was—I served 21 years in the feds for my own nonviolent, first-time drug-law violation—talking to Pickard is like talking to the President. Despite being locked up since 2000, Pickard is good-humored and curious, with a direct way of speaking. It was hard for me to believe that this cultured, educated man is serving life.
Seth Ferranti: What can you tell me about the situation in your case and where you stand in the legal process?
William Leonard Pickard: After 16 years of glacial litigation, and a thousand motions, we are making progress through Freedom of Information Act requests on documents that seem to be of quite unusual concern to the opposing party. There have been four consecutive reversals in the appellate courts, with renewed and intensive scrutiny of earlier proceedings, so that hope remains.
You have an extensive academic background that most prisoners don’t have. How do you get along with your fellow prisoners and what has surprised you about them?
While doing research in unstable regions abroad, amid the chaos, I found my way by noticing the instances of humanity. Captive populations are similar; courtesy and service to others is the only path.
Early on, it was a privilege each morning to teach reading to an illiterate black man in his forties. We laughed sometimes, but always yearned for our families. He struggled with Jack and Jill, and especially deciphering “the” and “them.” Because he could not read, he compensated by developing acute social senses, all beyond my own. Never before had he been praised for any small accomplishment. He hid Jack and Jill from his cellmate, so others would not ridicule him. I asked why he wanted to learn. He replied, “So I can read bedtime stories to my children.” How very brave he was.
Prisons are dense multi-culturally, with vastly different codes than the free world. In The Rose, I describe two circumambulations of the earth, encountering tribal markets and a toothless grandmother with only a tomato to sell, and babushkas with twigs for brooms, and Hmong children in gay head-cloths who never heard of America. Living now among prisoners of many nations, a few of the more colorful may remind one of Afghan militants, of tattooed war fighters.
Yet long-term prisoners, especially the nonviolent who may be captive for decades, somehow retain a certain dignity. In all these years, lost among the thousands, I have seen only one man cry.
What is The Rose of Paracelsus about? How long did it take you to write, and why did you write it?
The manuscript has quite a parallel to T.E. Lawrence’s 1919 autobiography. Returning from the Howetat tribes in Arabia, and after years of writing in a freezing, borrowed garret, Lawrence misplaced his immense, handwritten Seven Pillars of Wisdom at a London train station. He began again. The Rose was handwritten in two years, without notes and based on recollection, but seemed too trivial to honor the reader. I destroyed the work in minutes, then began again. It took another three years to compose, then a year to edit the 656 pages.
Some may consider it fiction. Perhaps it is a love poem to only one, overheard by many. Perhaps it is for those who wonder at the source of things, of the lives of those who must be clandestine. Yet the subjects who are interviewed, each known by a cryptonym and collectively as “The Six,” regard it as a record of the first senses and tentative abilities of the next human species.
How hard was it to get it published from prison?
The barrier is only that of pencil and paper and mind, a wall at first seemingly unscalable, but which opens into boundless freedom. Long-suffering friends and family took my hand, so that from a dark and buried corner thoughts and feelings suddenly gained wings.
In maximum-security there is, for most, no way out; the only voice that can be heard is from writing. In a ceaseless sea of noise, one develops tunnel hearing, and in that precious silence may bloom the thousand flowers.
The federal system encourages the writing of manuscripts, for which we are grateful, and bylines recently have been approved. A kind visitor, the esteemed poet and author Richard Shelton—Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona—listened to many readings of The Rose and guided me most carefully.
Prison writers may wish to recall future Nobelist Joseph Brodsky’s retort to a Soviet tribunal [which asked him]: “Who gave you permission to write?”
[He replied:] “I think that it … comes from God.”
You have long been associated with LSD and drugs of the mind. Can you explain your fascination and interest in psychedelics?
There is no fascination with drugs per se, but with the quality of mind. In The Rose, The Six remark that the ultimate gift is our natural mind, that to which one must always return—and venerate.
They said, in effect, that a mere substance dare not mimic its majesty.
But can mind-opening drugs help people to see things more clearly? Can they foster innovation?
For survival, we evolved as novelty-seeking creatures who can project alternative futures useful for hunter-gatherers. Insight, or self-reflection to “see things more clearly,” thus hardly is drug-dependent. Altered states and perceptions that disrupt linear thinking and are helpful to the creative process may be generated through a range of substance-free practices, or—according reports of users—through temporary employment of any substance, the most favored in the literature being the rare use of cannabis and psychedelics.
Kary Mullis reported his invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) as an outcome; the debatable DNA structural insight of Crick is another.
However, while one may, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, bring back pilgrims’ flowers from a far-off land—and find them very precious—how even more wonderful to consider that no phenomena are inaccessible to normal consciousness.
Do you think LSD helped create the Internet?
How tantalizing that the same era and locations—Cambridge, Palo Alto, San Francisco—hosted psychedelic phenomena and transformative cybernetics. Stanford physics and engineering, Aiken Lab at Harvard, the first Internet nodes, and especially Stanford Research Institute and Artificial Intelligence lab, all were synergetic with availability of soon-to-be controlled substances.
While causality may not be implied, certainly global awareness and communication, DARPA’s rudimentary email, Tim Berners-Lee’s hyperlinking, and Vint Cerf’s packet-switching, all occurred contemporaneously with society’s then-endemic experimentation with entheogens. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, his friend Larry Page, and Sergey Brin are the modern heirs. Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel.
I delight in the visionary physics being done: the X-prizes, the grand private awards for discoveries, the gauntlets thrown down by young billionaire thinkers and doers. Reminiscent of the British prize for determining the longitude of sailing ships, these goals for inventors will allow us to become more altruistic, creative, more human, more civilized.
Our time is of ultimate evolutionary consequence.
New drugs are being developed all the time. What influence do you think they will have on society?
The Six anticipate compounds that heighten learning and memory, but also libido. Dark-net commerce of untested research opioids, such as Upjohn’s U-47700 or W-18, already result in pandemic and lethal clusters. What of substances that promote dendritic sprouting by neurotrophic factors, inducing brain growth?
These chemical alternatives are technologies that may empower individuals but also pose threats, and increasingly so. In computer science, we have the specter of autonomous artificial intelligence, where machines handle complex tasks, advance drug design, and efficiently teach individuals, but also may independently out-think humanity. Stephen Hawking fears that AI could create weapons we won’t recognize.
The recent CRISPR gene insertions into human ova is a simple technique adaptable by IVF clinics in unregulated nations, and that could make heritable an enhanced cortical function. But CRISPR also easily allows rogue third-world actors to, as a fictive example, splice genes for Rift Valley fever into E. coli, a common bacterium.
Our future is both frightening and exhilarating.
Seth Ferranti was released in 2014 after serving 21 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. He blogs at gorillaconvict.com and his latest book, Gorilla Convict, is a compilation of his writings about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling. His recent pieces for The Influence include “Meet Three Ex-Drug War Prisoners Doing Amazing Things With Their Lives.” You can follow him on Twitter: @SethFerranti.