Mar 22, 2013

October 1966: Owsley Stanley, LSD Millionaire


Los Angeles
He sped up to the bank of Sunset boulevard on a red motorcycle, screeched to a halt and hopped off.
Then he strode into the bank, clad in boots, black leather jacket, jeans and a white crash helmet. He wasn't the genteel client the bank was used to.
But he had important business.
It came cascading down in a pile of dirty, crumpled bills at the teller's counter. From under his helmet, out of his shirt pockets and finally from his boots he pulled the bills - mostly ones and $5 bills but occasionally a $10 bill - as he built a heaping pile of currency.

"Would you change it into 100s?" he asked the startled teller.
He walked from the bank and remounted his motorcycle, but soon came rushing back in a panic.
In his pocket were 250 crisp new $100 bills.
By accident he had also pocketed a wad of the bank's money.
Bank officials were on the phone calling police when he returned it.
Augustus Owsley Stanley III wanted no contact with the law.
It would have meant questions on the source of Stanley's wealth.

In a year, it was to make Stanley a millionaire - at the age of 31. And it would call for not one criminal act.
For Stanley, known more often simply as Owsley, was the West Coast's major manufacturer and supplier of LSD.
It was lucrative business, but it supplied more than money.
Owsley was a big man among the growing army of "acid heads" and recognition was something he always had sought.
As a student at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Va. he got it by trading on the name of his grandfather, a former Kentucky governor.

On the West Coast though, he came into his own as "Mr. LSD." Any time he appeared at a public gathering of the acid set, he could count on a round of applause.
In the San Francisco area, where he was more widely known, it often would be a standing ovation.
Although he is known to thousands, even Owsley's close friends and associates do not know his complete name or his origins. But information has begun to trickle out.
On a new Capitol Records documentary LP entitled "LSD," his name, truncated to Owsley Stanley, appears on the record jacket as the sponsor of The Grateful Dead, a way-out rock 'n' roll group supplying the background music.
The dialogue involves him even more.

After the narrator comments on a chemist who made $1 million on LSD, users recorded at an acid party are heard talking about their supplier. The dialogue goes like this.
"Owsley makes great acid."
Muffled inaudible reply. "Owsley really knows how to make acid."
Another inaudible reply. "So that - so that all the impurities are taken out."
"Owsley really has dynamite. Righteous acid."
Police have complete dossiers on Owsley and his operations have been detailed before both a California legislative committee and a committee of the United States Senate, but in both cases his identity was not revealed.

The testimony, and Stanley's operations, took place before passage of Federal and State laws outlawing traffic in LSD. His actions were not illegal.
What kind of a man is he?
By reputation, he is a drifter, a dapper ladies' man and a professional student.
One of his two ex-wives calls him "just a little boy afraid to grow up - a Peter Pan."
Stanley attended the University of Virginia, Los Angeles City College and the University of California at Berkeley, but at each institution barely squeezed in.
In June 1956 he entered the Air Force and served honorably at Edwards Air Force Base until his discharge a year and a half later. During his tour he developed electronics skills which later opened the door to a dozen broadcasting and engineering jobs.

He held few of them more than two or three months. Most of the time he drew unemployment checks.
In 1963 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and enrolled at Berkeley. He lasted one semester, then dropped out with bad grades.
But there he met a 21-year-old coed who became his girlfriend and later, police suspect, invaluable lab assistant.
Stanley in all his academic meanderings never took a course in chemistry.
His girlfriend Melissa, however, had majored in chemistry and apparently had the skill to master the complicated process involved in the manufacture of LSD.
The two of them dropped out of the university and rented quarters behind a vacant store in Berkeley, where Stanley set up a makeshift lab in the bathroom.
Soon information that Methedrine was being sold to teenagers at the store reached police and they got a warrant and raided it on February 27, 1965.
But the raid was premature. Nine bottles of a drug assumed to be illegal Methedrine which was confiscated along with the lab equipment later proved to be one step shy of the completed product. The charges were dropped.
Stanley then obtained a court order and forced the State to return his laboratory equipment, and he and Melissa left town.

By April they showed up at his family home in Alexandria but it was a wasted trip.
"He was only four miles away but we spoke over the phone," his father, a well-placed government official, recalled. "He got mad at me, tried to tell me booze is worse than drugs.
"I told him to wash his hands and come back and talk to me about it. I wouldn't see him."
It apparently was one of a series of blowups between Stanley, who left home at the age of 18, and his father, who said [his son is] emotionally unbalanced but has a brilliant mind.

Stanley left and landed in Los Angeles. The same month he made his first buy of lysergic acid from Cyclo Chemical Corp. Lysergic acid is the basic ingredient of LSD.
Before he was through he had bought 500 grams from Cyclo Chemical Corp and about [X00] grams from International Chemical and Nuclear Corp.
The purchases were not illegal but Stanley was required to sign affidavits that it was for research.
Later [the] president of International Chemical became suspicious and cut Stanley off. But Stanley apparently already had a sufficient supply.
"We didn't cut him off," said Dr. Herman Plant, president at Cyclo. "We filled one order for 500 grams and he never placed another."

Invoices for the purchases, made out to Bear Research Group, were submitted to a Senate committee before which Captain Alfred W. Trembly, Los Angeles Police Department Narcotics [testified in] May.
[illegible paragraph]
...did not [name] Stanley but said he knew that in March, April and May 1965 he had manufactured and wholesaled LSD from a laboratory at his home at 2205 Lafler Road overlooking the campus of California State College at Los Angeles.
Trembly said Stanley paid $20,000 in new $100 bills for the 500 grams of lysergic acid he brought from Cyclo Chemical.

[illegible paragraph]
...order from Portland, Ore. [which was] found in Stanley's trashcan.
Addressed to Owsley, it asked for a shipment of [X] LSD capsules and included a [hello] to Melissa.
With the lysergic acid he bought, Stanley had the potential to manufacture at least [15] million and perhaps many more doses of LSD, which was selling on the streets at around $5 a dose.
Some of Stanley's acquaintances say he turned out ten million [black] aspirin-sized tablets which later became his trademark.

Some were imprinted with symbols, in one case the [image] of Batman, signifying the strength of the tablet.
Eventually he moved back to the Bay Area, which became the center of the LSD craze.
For a while he took a rock 'n' roll group under his wing and allowed them to practice at his cottage behind a dilipidated apartment house on Berkeley way in Berkeley.
But the neighbors complained and he stopped.
In May, Federal laws became effective and Stanley dropped from sight. Police say they don't know where he is and wonder if he is still in business.
One officer said he doubted it. "With all that money, why should he take the chance?"

(by George Reasons, from the San Francisco Chronicle, October 5 1966)

Thanks to Corry at Lost Live Dead

* * *

(The following article, from 1968, draws heavily on the Chronicle article above, and adds some updates.) 


SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. - Millionare Augustus Owsley Stanley III, revered among hippies as the "King of Acid," finally has run into big, big trouble with the federal narcotics boys.
After a year-long investigations, agents raided a two-story home in suburban Orinda, picked up Stanley, his girl friend, and three others.
They said they found a sophisticated chemical laboratory and enough LSD to make more than 200 pills - which at $5 a copy would mean an easy $10 million.

Now they are trying to get an indictment for illegal manufacture of controlled drugs, which could mean some years behind bars for Stanley, if he is convicted.
This would be a sharp turn of fate for the 22-year-old  grandson and namesake of a distinguished U.S. senator from Kentucky. Up to now he has been able to get away from his few brushes with the law with only a reprimand, or at the most a fine and suspended sentence.
And usually he has been able to stay entirely out of the hands of the law.

Even among his most ardent admirers in Hippie Heaven, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, he's a mystery man. Few of his associates know his full name, or his strange history. He has tried to guard his identity.
His story has been told in detail to a committee of the California Legislature and to a committee of the U.S. Senate. In each case his identity was not revealed. The story helped prod both committees into recommending passage of a law making LSD (called "acid") illegal.
Before that came about, in April, 1966, Stanley turned out millions of his blue, aspirin-sized tablets, some imprinted with symbols like Batman, to indicate their strength.

In one documented purchase alone, Stanley bought 500 grams of lysergic acid, the basic stuff of the LSD pill, from a chemical company for $20,000 paid for in $100 bills. That's enough acid to make 1,500,000 doses, which sell on the street for about $5 a dose.
On the west coast, Stanley became known as "Mr. LSD." Whenever he showed up at a gathering of acid heads, he would be sure to get a round of applause.
He sponsored a way-out rock 'n' roll group, the Grateful Dead, which later had a run-in with the law over narcotics. That group supplied the background music for a Capitol Records documentary long-playing record entitled "LSD."

In the record, a narrator comments on a chemist who made a million on LSD. Users, recorded at an acid party, are heard commenting, like this --
"Owsley makes great acid...Owsley really knows how to make that all the impurities are taken out...Owsley really has dynamite. Righteous..."
One day he drove up to a bank on Sunset Boulevard, the hippie district in Los Angeles, [and] dumped a pile of dirty, crumpled bills at a teller's counter -- mostly ones and fives and an occasional $10. He asked that it all be changed into bigger new bills.
While picking up his own $25,000, he also accidentally picked up a stack of the bank's own money, and he rushed back in a few minutes to return it, even as bank officials were on the phone calling police.
He wanted no contact with the law which would ask him questions about where he got his money.

Who is Stanley and where did he come from?
He's the son of a well-placed government official who lives in Alexandria, Va. He left home at 18 after a series of family blowups. His father described him as "brilliant, but emotionally unbalanced."
Stanley attended the University of Virginia, Los Angeles City College, and the University of California at Berkeley, but just barely squeezed by.
He married twice, but left both women, each with a child. He was picked up for writing $645 in bad checks and let off with a lecture. He was caught in a hotel room with a 14-year-old girl and given a 180-day suspended sentence and a $250 fine.
He served in the Air Force for a year and a half, [and] picked up some electronics skills, which later opened the way for a dozen broadcasting and engineering jobs, none of which lasted more than a couple of months.
He never earned more than $8,000 a month. Then he met Melissa Diane Cargill, 25, a chemistry major at Berkeley. She became what the columnists describe as his "constant companion." She also had the skills to master the complicated process of manufacturing LSD. Stanley had never taken a chemistry course.
Once police were tipped that Stanley was selling methedrine, known in the hippie set as "speed," to teen-agers.
They raided his lab, set up behind a vacant store in Berkeley, and confiscated nine bottles of drugs along with the lab equipment.
But a later analysis showed that the stuff was just one chemical step short of becoming methedrine and the charges were dropped. Stanley also got a court order forcing police to return his equipment.
He and Melissa dropped out of sight and police figured they had seen the last of them.

"With all that money," one policeman commented, "why should he take a chance now that LSD's illegal?"
Then, just before Christmas, federal agents raided the Orinda lab. They found Stanley and Melissa there along with William A. Spires, 24, Robert D. Thomas, 29, and Rona Glisson, 26.
All appeared before U.S. Commissioner Harold W. Jewett in Oakland, each was released on $5,000 bail last Thursday. Jewett set their preliminary hearing for Feb. 2, but federal officials said they expect to come up with an indictment before then.

(by Bob Rose, from the Des Moines Tribune, 15 January 1968)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

See also: 


  1. Much of the second half of this article was more or less unreadable in my scan, so there are a few words & gaps that couldn't be made out, but this is the best transcription I could make.

    LSD became illegal in California on October 6, 1966, which no doubt prompted this timely article.
    The same issue also had another front-page article:
    Berkeley police disclosed yesterday that they will take their growing campaign against University of California fringe drug peddlers to a Federal grand jury this week...
    The department will seek indictments against four persons described as responsible for 'a major portion of LSD sales' along 'hippy' Telegraph avenue just south of the campus..."

    It's funny that in spring & summer 1966, Owsley was running the sound system for a successful SF rock band, but apparently the police (or this reporter's contacts) never suspected this.

    The Grateful Dead are only briefly mentioned as "a way-out rock 'n' roll group." Curiously, though he knows Owsley's their sponsor, the reporter doesn't connect them with the band rehearsing at Owsley's house at the end of the article. (Or he just doesn't care about that side of Owsley's career...)
    Apparently the reporter couldn't even find anyone currently in contact with Owsley! It's notable that he talked to police & relatives but didn't bother speaking to the Dead, if he even knew who they were.

    The documentary record "LSD" was released in August 1966. Some music on the record is from "Speed Limit," a recording by the Pranksters & Neal Cassady which is said to include the Warlocks, but the band is just playing a straightforward, generic surf instrumental so it's hard to tell.
    More info on the album here:
    For the curious, the whole LP is up on youtube, just look up the LSD Capitol Documentary.
    "Speed Limit" can be heard here:
    You can hear the band without the Prankster overdubs in the last couple minutes, and they go into a second instrumental right at the end. It's not too dissimilar from other things the early Dead did, like Heads Up on 3/19/66 or the instrumental on 3/25/66.

    The officer at the end would no doubt have been delighted to know that Owsley's run-ins with the law had only just begun.
    If anyone has them, more articles on Owsley's legal travails would be welcome!

    1. Hi, and thanks for your post. I have been reading up on the cast of characters involved in the underground manufacture of LSD in the 1960s. In particular, I have been reading a lot about Tim Scully, and he is quite a fascinating read. I am sure you know that Tim Scully was trained by Bear Owsley. From what I have been able to read, Tim Scully did not indulge himself in his earnings from his LSD manufacturing; rather he spent his money on legal fees and on bail for his arrested associates and he believed that he was going to bring about world peace by providing LSD to the masses. I haven't read much of your blog yet, but if you haven't read up on Tim Scully, I am sure you will find him fascinating and brilliant.

    2. Check out the documentary The Sunshine Makers, which features Scully.
      He also has some interesting interviews, including:

  2. By the way, this may be the first time the SF Chronicle called Owsley the "LSD Millionaire." The Dead must have been amused by this, since within the next month or two, they'd named one of their new songs "Alice D. Millionaire."

  3. I added an article from 1/15/68, "Millionaire Held For LSD," reporting on Owsley's life up to his December '67 bust.
    The reason for adding it here, despite being 15 months later, is that it uses the 1966 Chronicle article as its main source, often word for word, with a few little changes & updates.

    I won't comment on the various errors, except to note that the Dead did not play the music on the "LSD" record - that was a group called Fire and Ice.
    The article was accompanied by a picture, not of Owsley, but of the arrested Dead & associates lined up in jail after the 10/3/67 bust.

    I haven't been looking for Owsley reports in the press, but I'm sure much of his legal history was reported as it happened, so I'll post more Owsley articles if I come across them.