The DEA has claimed that Pickard's arrest led to a 95% drop in the availability of LSD in the US in the two years following the arrest, although this claim is refuted by Pickard and others.
Prior to his arrest, Pickard was deputy director of University of California, Los Angeles' Drug Policy Research Program. He came from a well-to-do family; his father was a lawyer and his mother was a fungal disease expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In high school, he was an honors student, played basketball, and was named "most intellectual." He earned a scholarship to Princeton University, but dropped out after one term, instead preferring to hang out at Greenwich Village jazz clubs. In 1971, he got a job as a research manager at University of California, Berkeley, Department of Bacteriology and Immunology, a job he held until 1974. From this year, his academic resume begins a 20-year gap.
It is reported by acid historian Mark McCloud that Pickard worked with a group of LSD traffickers, known as the Clear Light System, in the 1960s. Pickard is said to have contributed to LSD chemist Nicholas Sand's legal fund following Sand's arrest in 1972. Pickard also reportedly had a background manufacturing the drug MDA.
In December 1988, a neighbor reported a strange chemical odor coming from an architectural shop at a Mountain View, California industrial park. Federal agents arrived to find 200,000 doses of LSD and William Pickard inside. Pickard was charged with manufacturing LSD and served five years in prison.
By 1994, Pickard had enrolled at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Here he focused on drug abuse in the former Soviet Union, where he theorized the booming black market and many unemployed chemists could lead to a flood of the drug market.
It is not known where Pickard produced LSD for the very first time. His first arrest for manufacturing LSD came on December 28, 1988 in Mountain View, California. The laboratory was contained inside a trailer that had been moved into a warehouse. It contained state-of-the-art equipment, including a roto-evaporator, heating mantles and a pill press. He was producing kilogram quantities of LSD and putting them onto windowpane, microdot, and blotter forms. He spent time in prison for this and became a Buddhist while inside.
Pickard had laboratories in a number of different locations. Pickard never liked to stay at one location more than two years so as not to draw attention to himself. In early 1996 the lab was located in Oregon; it was subsequently moved to Aspen, Colorado in late 1996. From September 1997 to September 1999 the laboratory was located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He liked the Santa Fe location for a number of reasons; his overhead costs were lower and the precursor source was closer. Also he liked the fact there was virtually no humidity, which can affect the production of LSD. All of the laboratories are alleged to have produced a kilogram of LSD approximately every five weeks. Skinner became involved with Pickard and Apperson in February 1998. It is rumored that Pickard and Skinner were introduced to each other in a somewhat formal gathering of various LSD dealers and chemists. The meeting is said to have taken place in Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl's old house, where Skinner was allegedly then living.
One of his main customers was a man named "Petaluma Al" from Petaluma, California. Pickard would always arrange for the produced LSD to be transported to the Denver, Colorado or Boulder, Colorado area to be mailed or picked up so that Petaluma Al would never know where the laboratory was located. Most of Petaluma Al's customers were overseas customers in Europe, which meant that in addition to millions of dollars in United States currency, Pickard also handled millions in Dutch guilders and Canadian bank notes. He preferred to deal in ƒ1000 notes or Canadian $1000 notes (discontinued since 2000 in Canada) because it meant less bulk cash to have on hand. He required his distributors to convert all lower currencies into $50 or $100 notes at the least so as not to cause problems.
Although Skinner and Pickard were arrested moving the laboratory from the Atlas-E silo location, they never actually produced LSD at this site. The laboratory had been moved there without Pickard or Apperson's knowledge by the government's informant, Gordon Todd Skinner. When Pickard arrived back in town and learned that Skinner had moved the lab there, they immediately began preparations to move it. Unknown to them, Skinner had begun cooperating with the DEA and had already allowed them to go inside the property to look around. Based on what they saw during this showing, they applied for a search warrant, which was subsequently signed by a federal judge. Apperson drove the Ryder rental truck with the laboratory in it and Pickard followed in a Buick LeSabre; they had walkie-talkies to maintain communication. The DEA had a Kansas Highway Patrol car pull them over to not arouse suspicion; however, they immediately recognized something was wrong and Pickard, being a marathon runner, took off into the woods on foot and was not captured until the next day.
Authorities found less than six ounces of ergotamine tartrate during the arrest. However, they claim they normally produced up to a kilogram of LSD every five weeks. The DEA estimates this would produce approximately 10 million 100 µg doses. Although the DEA claims this would be worth $40 million on the street Pickard did not sell anywhere near the "street" or retail level. Government informant Skinner testified Petaluma Al and the largest wholesale customers of Pickard paid 29.75¢ (or a little under 30¢) per 100 µg dose, which would put the cost at around $2.97 million for a kilogram of LSD.
Clyde Apperson was Pickard's partner and was reportedly a skilled chemist, but his role was mainly in the setup and take-down of the laboratory. He was allegedly paid $100,000 for assembling and $50,000 for packing away the lab. Apperson reportedly manufactured synthetic mescaline. When authorities searched his Sunnyvale, California home they found five drums of precursor chemicals needed to manufacture synthetic mescaline.
Both Pickard and Apperson were eventually found guilty at trial of conspiring to manufacture, distribute and dispense ten grams or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); Pickard received two life sentences, while Apperson received 30 years imprisonment.
Pickard, currently 71 years old, is serving out his sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary at Tucson, Arizona.
According to court testimony, Pickard's lab produced up to a kilogram of LSD approximately every five weeks for short periods. Despite criticism for their methodology, the DEA contends that following their arrest there was a 95% drop in the availability of LSD in the US in the two years following the arrest. Pickard himself has long denied these claims. In his 2007 paper "International LSD Prevalence — Factors Affecting Proliferation and Control", Pickard suggests that since the 1960s LSD production has always been de-centralized. As to a turn-of-the-century decline in availability due to his own arrest, Pickard highlights the fact that LSD availability had been on the decline since 1996, a fact which he correlates in part with the exponential growth of availability and demand for MDMA and other hallucinogenic drugs. The actual quantity of LSD seized by the DEA remains unclear, with figures ranging from 198.9 grams to 41.3 kilograms.
The turn-of-the-century "acid drought" was likely due to a number of factors, perhaps including but not limited to the arrest of Pickard. According to Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, additional factors included the 1996 arrest of longtime LSD chemist Nicholas Sand and the death of "Dealer McDope", an important but mysterious man involved in the illicit sale of LSD precursor materials. Grateful Dead concerts provided a primary distribution network for LSD, and this network dissolved when the Grateful Dead stopped touring in 1995.
Currently serving his two life sentences at the U.S. Penitentiary at Tucson, Arizona, Pickard continues to conduct research, write, and advocate for psychedelics. The website "Free William Leonard Pickard" posts regular updates about his activities. In 2015 he published a novel The Rose of Paracelsus.
Discussing his imprisonment with Seth Ferranti, Pickard remarked: "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.... 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."
Highlighting this sense of dignity, Pickard described to Ferranti the process of teaching a fellow inmate how to read: "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 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."
Pickard's 2008 paper "International LSD Prevalence — Factors Affecting Proliferation and Control" questions the validity of law enforcement reports about LSD manufacturing, and discusses the civil liberties threats posed by the DEA's NADDIS database system.
In 2011 Pickard authored an overview of the NADDIS system entitled "DEA's NADDIS System: A Guide for Attorneys, the Courts, and Researchers".
In 2015 Pickard published The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments, a 656-page book that blends fiction and nonfiction. The book centers around six chemists in an international drug organization. Writing while incarcerated, Pickard wrote the entire book with pencil and paper. In an interview with Seth Ferranti, Pickard recounted: "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."