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Acid House 

Wednesday, Aug 30 1995

"These are symbols of a secret society," says Mark McCloud, gesturing to the scores of LSD blotter paper hanging in the living room of his Victorian home in the Mission.

"And I am the mule that has dragged the cultural evidence to town."

The variety and beauty of McCloud's blotters are stunning. There, mounted under glass in an elegant frame, is one depicting Ganesha, the elephant- headed god of Hinduism. Over there, pink flying saucers. The peace dove. More blotters just this side of the pile of guitar cases and the Hohner bass. And still more between the "CY KDLC" California license plate and the Macintosh whose screen saver continually etches a psychedelic chiaroscuro: Mr. and Mrs. Dancing Test Tube; the zodiac; the eye in the pyramid; and poster and cartoon images appropriated from Stanley Mouse, Spain Rodriguez, and R. Crumb, as well as Walt Disney.

"There's an aesthetic governing each effort," the 41-year-old McCloud says, but he laughs and shakes his head as he hoists framed blotters emblazoned with the Ozzy Osbourne logo.

"What kind of state of mind do you have to be in to take a hit of Ozzy Osbourne?!"

The more relevant question is, "What sort of state of mind do you have to be in to welcome a reporter into your living room and share with him your clandestine trove from the underground?" Actually, says McCloud, there is little if any legal risk in possessing these papers. Exposure to sunlight and heat has destroyed the illegal drug in every one of the blotters that he displays, reducing the LSD to an inert and legal compound.

"Try to eat these," he says of his mounted samples, "and you choke on the frames."

McCloud's collection of 250 different blotters, meticulously assembled over the last 20 years, comprises a psychedelic Smithsonian exhibit -- a document of the Age of Acid that reveals the artistic strivings of the marketers of the quintessential drug.

It's a collection freighted with controversy, as one critic noted in 1987. " The intense emotions surrounding LSD make it forever difficult to objectively judge the artistic merit of these prints, and the way in which we see this drug in the future could well determine whether this collection ends up in a church, a museum, or a garbage can," wrote Carlo McCormick.

The earliest clandestine LSD was dolloped on sugar cubes or impregnated in tablets or capsules, say authorities at the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory, which maintains an archive of hundreds of unique LSD samples for forensic purposes. It wasn't until the very late '60s and early '70s that other, more imaginative mediums were devised to ferry the drug. According to anecdotal sources and the less-than- authoritative High Times Encyclopedia of Recreational Drugs, Crumb's cartoon character Mr. Natural was among the initial blotter paper designs. (Some acidheads say they ate their first dose of Mr. Natural in the very early '70s. ) Mr. Natural quickly begat new blotters, as artists pinched images from the religious pantheon, from pop culture, and from fine art. Some even devised original artworks to market their acid.

Although 95 percent of all acid the DEA and McCloud encounter today is in blotter form, other varieties are vended. "Microdot" pills, which are slightly larger than a poppy seed and were popular in the late '60s, are still sold. So is "windowpane," clear or colored pharmaceutical gel imbrued with LSD, a concoction that appeared in the early '70s. (McCloud also collects the gels, some of which are pyramidal in shape and "better appreciated as sculpture," he says.)

McCloud, who emigrated from Argentina when he was 8, traces his curatorial enthusiasm to high school at the Webb School for Gentlemen, a Claremont, Calif., boarding school. One day, a narcotics officer visited Webb to give an anti-drug talk, and supplemented his sermon with the visual aid of a comprehensive drug collection.

"There were all these little bundles and syringes and pipes arranged in this vitrine," he says. "I said, 'Wow, pretty weird.' "

At the time, McCloud was an enthusiastic coin collector, and the narc's stash-in-a-glass-box planted the seed for the collection the aspiring artist would start in 1975, just a few years later, as the festively printed blotters proliferated on the street.

"I had collected blotters before, but 1975 was the first conscious effort to preserve it. The collection lived in the refrigerator for the first eight years -- for a long time I didn't know which way it was going to go," McCloud says. "I can't tell you how many collections I ended up munching."

Although the art of blotter has evolved over the decades to make statements political (the FBI seal) and religious (the mandala), the "industry" has settled on something close to a standard in size and potency. According to the DEA, most full sheets of acid measure 8 1/2 inches wide by about 11 inches tall and are perforated into 1,000 quarter-inch by quarter-inch squares (25 by 40). The average dose is 30 to 50 micrograms per blotter, although the DEA sees blotters that contain as much as 85 micrograms of LSD, as few as 14 micrograms, or no drug at all.

Deliberately vague about the origins of his specimens, McCloud says acquaintances sometimes give him samples of acid that they've owned for years and never gotten around to taking. He also says that he's made connections with the artists who design the blotters and the chemists who synthesize the drug. If that's true, McCloud has done a better job of penetrating the acid underground than the government, whose efforts over the years to topple the LSD trade have been futile. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on surveillance and enforcement, establishing a nationwide network of informants, monitoring the drug's precursor chemicals (ergotamine tartrate and lysergic monohydrate), and conducting a decades-long drug-education campaign that some say exaggerates the dangers of moderate LSD use, the government has utterly failed to curb makers and users. A full two decades have elapsed since the DEA or any other law enforcement agency has made a significant bust of an LSD lab; most arrests have been of middlemen and retailers.

About The Author

Jack Shafer


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