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.
Push Mark McCloud -- or the DEA, for that matter -- too hard for specifics about the acid market, and you'll encounter stubborn resistance. The world of LSD is truly secret.
"There are four 'families' that control production," claims McCloud.
The DEA believes that most of the world's LSD supply emanates from the United States, and pegs the approximate number of domestic producers to fewer than 10. Deducing an exact number is difficult; the labs don't volunteer themselves for an annual census and, as noted before, they don't get busted. Also, the quantity of LSD contained on the quarter-inch by quarter-inch perfs is minute -- just millionths of a gram -- which stymies DEA chemists' efforts to match "signature" impurities from one sample to another.
The DEA and McCloud concur that untold hundreds of blotter-makers produce the final product, with the acid curator volunteering that at one time the families provided distributors with both printed blotter and LSD. He says the families exited the risky business of printing to reduce the chances of getting caught and leading the cops back to the lab.
While the DEA keeps its LSD archive locked in file flats in a nondescript building in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, McCloud has been sharing his for eight years. The first public exhibit was at San Francisco's Art Institute in 1987, which attracted the attention of the San Francisco County Fair. The fair convinced McCloud to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love by entering his blotter aggregate in competition with other odd collections.
"It won a red ribbon," McCloud says, gesturing to his second-place prize on the living room wall. "A collection of burger [patty] presses won first. Going up against burger presses -- I can't say I disagree with the judges' decision."
The show traveled east to New York and Houston in '87 and '88, and is now enjoying its first run at Philip Cushway's Artrock gallery, where acid avatar Timothy Leary was the guest of honor for the Aug. 10 opening.
"The crowd for the Leary appearance was amazing," says Cushway, whose gallery sells and exhibits rock and psychedelic memorabilia. "There were hippies, punks, and middle-aged people -- the broadest range of people I've seen here."
"It's like another folk art," he says of blotter. "And it's collectible. It's paper. It's aesthetic. It's attractive. It's tactile. It's frameable."
"It was good to have Leary open the show," says McCloud. Gaunt and suffering from cancer, the 75-year-old was his playful self, going so far as to embrace his neo-senility as another gift of consciousness.
McCloud, meanwhile, is qualified to present the high art of LSD if only because he boasts a high-art background. He earned an M.F.A. in art at UC Davis in 1977, and taught art from 1981 to 1991 at St. Mary's College and the University of Santa Clara. But that career was interrupted in 1992, when he received what he calls "the black kiss" from the FBI. Agents arrested him on "conspiracy to distribute LSD" charges.
"They said I was the 'Cadillac Man,' " McCloud says, and alleged that he had made a major drug buy on Market Street.
Put on trial in Houston in May 1993, McCloud faced a minimum of 10 years in prison. Luckily for him, he hails from a wealthy family who could afford to hire San Francisco defense attorney Doron Weinberg to prepare a thorough defense. After the prosecution presented several days worth of evidence and testimony, the judge, without hearing a word from the defense, granted a judgment of acquittal.
"Doron Weinberg saved my life," McCloud says.
Not to mention the collection.
Blotter acid is unique among recreational drugs in that it allows users to choose their illusion. "What'll you have, sacred or profane?" the illustrations seem to squawk. If you crave the holy, here are yin/yang, the floating lotus, the Sphinx, and occult blotters. If you feel like a loopy time, have some Beavis and Butt-head, silver UFOs, Mickey Mouse in Fantasia sorcery drag, or blotters of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
The designs also illuminate the ongoing schism in the LSD community. It's a dispute that goes back to the mid-'60s, when the drug enjoyed its first mass popularity. On one side were the earnest psychic explorers at Millbrook, led by Leary, who viewed the drug as a key to consciousness, a magic potion that revealed religious truths. On the other stood Ken Kesey's gang of Merry Pranksters, who regarded LSD as a cosmic goof, a universal passport to adventure in the kingdom of comic-book heroes.