William Leonard Pickard: the acid king & the war on drugs

By Dennis McDougal

Nineteen years ago on Election Day, 2000, the DEA arrested William Leonard Pickard at an abandoned Atlas missile silo in Wamego, Kansas. Federal agents nicknamed Pickard “the Acid King” for his role in allegedly making and distributing more LSD than any other chemist in America. A Topeka judge and jury agreed, handing down two life sentences in 2003, plus 20 additional years for good measure. There is no hope he will ever be paroled.

Leonard will celebrate his 74th birthday in Tucson Federal Prison next month. He hasn’t seen two of his three children for over a decade and rarely has visitors. He spent two of the last four weeks in lock down – a punitive security measure when there is prison-wide violence. Leonard describes his experience this way:

“I was in a 60 square foot cell with another. Meals were bologna and bread for seven days, tossed into the cell through a cuff port. I could sit, stand and walk three paces, turn, repeat.”

He’s seen men knifed to death more than once. One inmate was kicked into a coma while Leonard stood yards away, wondering if he was next. To date, his appeals have failed, but he spends his waking hours helping others with theirs.

“This week, I’m writing more Compassionate Release requests for elderly inmates who are functionally illiterate or so disabled as to preclude function. One is an older black man, well-regarded by others, who went from staring at his food to not coming out of his cell. Food is brought to him. He has terminal cancer.

“Another has so many medical problems it took an hour for me to list them all. Yet another is a chair-bound Serb with dementia, who thinks his deceased wife is calling him from a trench where she is being held by Nazis.

“Once the requests are presented to staff, they must act under the FSA. Of course, all are denied -- at least here, from what we see. But this year, perhaps 50 have been released in the entire system because many of the Bureau of Prisons denials are reversed by the district courts.

“That’s my life, and it's only Monday!”

You’ve probably figured out by now that Leonard Pickard is a friend of mine. Doesn’t mean he’s Mr. Clean Jeans or that he hasn’t crossed legal lines throughout his fascinating life. He’s been a neuroscientist, a chemist, a student, a teacher, a con man, an author and an international  diplomat. He holds an MA from Harvard’s Kennedy School and ran part of UCLA’s Drug Policy Analysis Program. He’s credited in a recently released Rand Corp. study with warning the State Department and the Food and Drug Administration of the current opioid pandemic 23 years ago in an address he delivered at the Harvard Faculty Club.

He may be the most notorious, but Leonard is just one of hundreds of men and women busted for the crime of making, selling or giving away psychedelic drugs – drugs that have never been definitively shown to kill anyone. The draconian Drug War invented by Richard Nixon and perpetuated by Ronald Reagan outlived them both, and continues to vilify the kind, the compassionate, the learned and the liberal.

How a brilliant scientific prodigy ultimately became Federal Prisoner #82687-011 is too voluminous, twisted and mind-boggling to cover in a blog post. For that, you’ll have to wait for publication of OPERATION WHITE RABBIT: LSD, the DEA and the Fate of the Acid King (Skyhorse Press) next spring.

But for now, it is worthwhile to do a little Googling. Start with www.freeleonardpickard.com 

[The First Step Act (FSA) is a law, signed on December 21, 2018, with provisions that impact Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmates and their families.]

Copyright 2019 by Dennis McDougal. All Rights Reserved.

Dennis McDougal is a journalist (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, TV Guide, etc.) is the bestselling author of twelve books, including most recently DYLAN: The Biography released by Turner Publishing in May of 2014. In a career dating to the 1970s, he has also authored hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and produced award-winning TV documentaries.

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