You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Outlaw Chemists Who Deserve a Cut of the Psychedelic Gold Rush

They seeded medical breakthroughs and emerging markets. Now expunge their criminal records and let them go legit.

A mugshot of William Leonard Pickard
Courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration
A mugshot of William Leonard Pickard

On November 6, 2000, Kansas Highway Patrolmen pulled over a rented Buick LeSabre on what seemed like a routine traffic stop. That was until the driver, 58-year-old William Leonard Pickard, bolted from the scene on foot, escaping into the woods of rural Kansas. Searching the Buick, the police found, among other seemingly incriminating literature, a government-issued guide on controlled substances and a brochure titled “How to Escape Federal Prison Camp.” More crucially, in a Ryder van accompanying the rented LeSabre, the cops found a packed-up LSD lab.

The authorities spared no expense chasing down the LeSabre’s fleet-footed driver. As Dennis McDougal describes the overnight manhunt in Operation White Rabbit, his recent biography of Pickard, the cops set up a dragnet, combed local cornfields, dispatched packs of bloodhounds, and called in police helicopters mounted with infrared scanners. By morning, Pickard had been successfully sniffed out. He was found sleeping in a pickup belonging to a local farmer, who had dutifully telephoned the sheriff’s office.

It was hailed as the biggest LSD bust in American history, with local police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents recovering more than 40 kilograms of LSD and its chemical precursors. That would have been enough to produce nearly 400 million doses, with an approximate street value exceeding $8 billion. Pickard was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. In July 2020, he was released on compassionate grounds, after serving 17 years. Pickard—who has been dubbed America’s “Acid King,” just one in a long line of manufacturers to wear the crown—emerged from prison amid a new renaissance in psychedelics, in which drugs such as LSD are being reevaluated in light of their newfound efficacy in aiding everything from end-of-life anxiety to intractable depression.

Recently, California state Senator Scott Wiener introduced legislation to decriminalize the use and possession of a spate of psychedelic drugs, LSD among them. His bill follows on the heels of recent rulings in Oakland, Denver, Santa Cruz, and Washington, D.C., as well as Oregon’s recent statewide initiative to fully legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use. Wiener’s new measure, Senate Bill 519, would also expunge the criminal records of anyone who had previously been busted using or possessing psychedelic drugs. For the underground chemists who used to operate on the fringes of the law to ply their trade in the psychedelic industry, that’s a very good thing.

For decades, people like William Pickard toiled in obscurity. A class of criminalized eggheads, these “clandestine chemists” worked out of dingy basements and underground bunkers, flooding the underground with substances like LSD and MDMA. These drugs were highly prized for their ability to catalyze everything from all-night dance parties to the contemplation of the mind’s inner mysteries. Now, they constitute a new frontier of mental health research and treatment. Researchers at NYU and Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University have found that trips spurred by psilocybin (the active psychedelic in “magic mushrooms”) can reduce anxiety and existential distress in patients suffering from terminal illnesses. In Canada, a group of therapists have received legal exemptions to administer psilocybin and guide such trips. Similar trials involving LSD and MDMA are currently ongoing.

That medical science has made these recent clinical breakthroughs doesn’t seem to matter where the law is concerned; the legitimacy lent by these scientific findings are not reflected in the current legal and enforcement landscape. Many psychedelics remain categorized under Schedule I of the DEA’s Controlled Substances Act, meaning that, among other supposed dangers, they possess “no currently accepted medical use.”

Such evaluations no longer hold water. In September 2020, just a few months after Pickard’s release from prison, the U.K.-based psychedelic medicine concern Compass Pathways went public, with its shares valued in excess of $1 billion. Psychedelics aren’t just an exciting development in psychopharmacology. They’re a big, and increasingly mainstream, business. Market forecasts suggest that the psychedelic drugs sector will reach nearly $7 billion in overall market value by 2027. Not quite Leonard Pickard levels, but impressive nonetheless. (It is, perhaps, even more astounding, and a little surreal, that there are now official, market forecasts for psychedelic drugs.) People like Pickard deserve a chance to capitalize on this boom.

To some true believers, the emerging field of “psychedelic capital” can seem bafflingly oxymoronic. Or at least a bit icky. After all, these drugs saw their last cultural saturation point in the America of the 1960s, during which time they were broadly associated with the loose hippie ethos of free love, protest, and, well, anti-capitalist activism. But unfettered capitalism has always guided clandestine chemistry. Owsley Stanley, a prodigious manufacturer whose LSD flooded the west coast in the mid-’60s, was memorialized by the Grateful Dead in their song “Alice D. Millionaire”—a pun on his status as perhaps the world’s first “LSD millionaire.” (Stanley also reinvested the lucre of his psychedelic empire in the emerging counterculture, underwriting rock groups and donating 75 turkeys to 1967’s Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, feeding the hungry tribes of like-minded longhairs.)

These days, psychedelics are attracting a more conventional breed of capitalists, who ditch the turquoise necklaces and fringed leather jackets for tailored suits and form-fitting, Tech Guy–issue black T-shirts. Many of these funders are pivoting from Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurism to seed America’s newly revived psychedelic future. Take investor, author, and podcaster Tim Ferriss, who has personally bankrolled psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins University and London’s Imperial College. Or JR Rahn, co-founder of psychedelic medicine outfit MindMed, who comes to the space as a veteran of Uber’s operations. Compass Pathways is backed, in part, by Peter Thiel.

The matter of whether early investors and big-name players stand to profit from the renewed interest in psychedelic drugs is foregone. They are already profiting. The question now is: Who else deserves to profit?

Part of the irony of current drug laws is that we only really know about the class of clandestine chemists who have been busted, and whose sentencing frees them to talk openly about their work, which is now shaping the future of psychedelics, because they got prosecuted in the first place. A whole class of geniuses and wild eccentrics remain largely unknown, their lives and work shrouded by a secrecy and surreptitiousness that, while necessary given the current status of drug laws, feels nonetheless unfair, and a little old-fashioned. The mind reels contemplating all the Pickards, Stanleys, and Alexander Shulgins (the former Dow chemist who popularized MDMA in the 1970s) lighting upon novel chemical synthetics in the underground. Such new compounds may well constitute the forefront of psychedelic medicine. Compass Pathways recently launched a Drug Discovery Center at Philadelphia’s University of Sciences, where lead researcher Jason Wallach claims to have already synthesized 100 new serotonergic compounds.

Some of the cloak-and-dagger chemists are already entering the legal market, albeit while exhibiting understandable reticence about disclosing their criminal history. Outing oneself as an ex-con or former underground drug cook still carries reputational risks when it comes to, say, securing seed capital for a budding “neuropharmaceutical” concern. Decriminalizing their activities would not only erase their records but help relax the lingering stigma around their work, both past and present.

Decriminalization offers an opportunity to ease tensions between the illicit, underground market and the more respectable, modern landscape, by making the shadowy figures of the former active stakeholders in the latter. There may be a certain nostalgia in romancing these foxy fugitive druggists, stubbornly bird-dogged by jackbooted DEA agents, crisscrossing the sleepy byways of middle America in rented trucks crammed full of well-used chemistry equipment. But the more pragmatic way forward—for the science and business of psychedelics, if not the outlaw culture of psychedelia—would be to ameliorate these tensions, by offering clandestine chemists a path toward legitimacy. Those who might simply prefer to operate outside the system, for whatever ideological reasons, can continue doing so.

Expunging criminal records offers those whose mastery of novel synthetics was honed in secret, in the shadows of America’s ongoing drug war, a future in the industry they birthed. Offering these figures a path into the legitimate market, by virtue of erasing their criminal stigma and generally validating their work, is the only ethical path toward something like reparations. It’s also just good business. What psychedelic medicine start-up wouldn’t want to benefit from the hard-won know-how of the brilliant chemists who cooked up these compounds in massive quantities, and often under extreme duress?

California has already proven itself a leader in terms of redressing the worst offenses of the war on drugs. When cannabis was legalized statewide in 2016, Oakland offered a chance for those with pot-related convictions to have an entrée into the legal dispensary market, via its Equity Permit Program. The cannabis decriminalization bill recently enacted in Illinois offers those who bore “disproportionate shares of the social and fiscal costs of the War on Drugs” to have a “dramatic leg up in the race for dispensary and grow-shop licenses” in the state. Psychedelics should follow a similar route. Not just in California, but everywhere. Rethinking the supposed evils of heavy-duty hallucinogens in light of this recent spate of medical gains can also set further precedent for drug reform. If LSD—long considered a kind of paisley boogeyman—can be reframed in light of its positive societal impact, then we can facilitate a more generalized, serious-minded consideration of America’s attitudes toward controlled substances, and its seemingly endless drug war.

Equity, togetherness, the contemplation of alternative realities, maybe even a free turkey or two: Isn’t that what the future of psychedelics, and psychedelic capitalism, should be about?