Perfect Sound Forever

The "Thumbprint" and Other Hallucinated Truths

LSD and the "Grateful Dead Family"
by Derek Pyle
(October 2016)


In the drug lore surrounding LSD, there exists an esoteric "hippie mafia" called the Grateful Dead Family. A group of initiated Deadheads, fans of the band who sell high quality LSD at jamband concerts. This is no ordinary acid, but a super pure version dubbed "family fluff," produced by an unbroken chain of Deadhead chemists dating back to the 1960's.

The story goes something like this. An Illuminati-like sect of elders monitor the country's low-level acid dealers, and only after proving worthiness might a low-level head be invited to join the GDF. But first, new members must pass through a ritual of initiation: the thumbprint.

The thumbprint is a mega-dose of LSD, a thousand times stronger than the average street dose. Passing the thumbprint test is required before one is allowed to buy and sell weight (large quantities of LSD).

Your ability to withstand the thumbprint proves that your karma is clear -- can't have spir-itually impure people climbing the ranks of the GDF. The test also proves that you are not an undercover cop, or so says the myth, because no cop could maintain their cover under such a powerful acid trip.

There are many variations on the story. Perhaps the most popular recounting comes from Shroomery.org, a website primarily dedicated to psilocybin mushroom cultivation. One fo-rum member, chinacat72, described the thumbprint initiation in a series of posts dating back to 2003. These posts have been discussed and linked across all the Internet's seediest sites, from Reddit to the Dark Web.

It appears, however, that the story's most esoteric elements are not true. Thumbprints are an actual way of consuming LSD, but not through a secret initiation administered by watchful elders. This is disappointing news for those of us obsessed with rock and roll's occult nature. But thanks to a new book by Jesse Jarnow, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, we have new Deadhead-LSD stories to replace the old.


Drugs and music often go together, but the connections between the Grateful Dead and LSD are quite unique. In the history of modern music, no other band and no other fanbase has been as immeshed in drug distribution as the Grateful Dead were with LSD.

Owsley Stanley, the world's first illicit LSD chemist, was also the Grateful Dead's sound engineer and financial patron. He used his acid funds to provide rehearsal space and sound equipment for the band in their early days. The Dead were also the house band at the Merry Prankster's multi-media LSD freak outs, as immortalized in Tom Wolfe's novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

After kickstarting the psychedelic half of the 1960's, the Grateful Dead ultimately outlived the hippie movement, creating their own longer lasting subculture -- the world of Deadheads and Dead tour. And wherever the Dead went, LSD followed.


Much has been written about the early days of both LSD and the Grateful Dead. Phil Lesh's book Searching for the Sound describes the band's early heady days. Rhoney Stanley's memoir Owsley and Me: My LSD Family offers an account of the larger LSD world, and Nicholas Schou's book Orange Sunshine chronicles the generation of acid dealers who followed immediately after Oswley, with a focus on another "hippie mafia" called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

Very little has been written about the story of LSD and related the role of the Grateful Dead post-1970's. Enter Jesse Jarnow's new book, Heads, published in the winter of 2016. Relying on a great deal of research and interviews with various acid chemists and high-level dealers, the book is a remarkable contribution to the legends of Deadheads and their LSD.

According to Jarnow, Grateful Dead concerts were the country's primary network for LSD distribution up until the 1990s. The book does not directly address the legend of the Grateful Dead Family and the thumbprint, but Jarnow was gracious enough to correspond and speak with me about the myths. Consider this a solid source -- an end to all rumors.


The LSD network surrounding the Grateful Dead existed as a part of the larger subculture of the band and their fans. For three decades, the band toured relentlessly, playing a different set of songs each night. Each night featured a significant amount of structured as well as non-structured improvisation.

On a really good night the improvisation opened a portal to, well- maybe it was the divine, or maybe it was just really good music. Either way, it was definitely a good soundtrack for tripping -- and when the band peaked, you wanted to be there!

Dedicated heads would travel across the country, to attend every single show. An eco-system evolved around the concerts. Pre- and post-show tailgating evolved into a carnival ba-zaar of VW buses, drum circles, tie-dye, and the occasional naked dude running around yelling about God. To pay for the journey, many people sold simple foods and beer as well as home-made T-shirts and artwork decorated with Grateful Dead-themed iconography.

The scene was colorful, wild and weird. In addition to countless teenagers and college students making the trip as a coming-of-age adventure, Grateful Dead shows served as a mag-net for the country's fringes. Elvis rebirthers and alien conspiracy theorists, back-to-the-land types, self-proclaimed wandering itinerants and even religious cults -- everybody liked the Grateful Dead. It was in this swirling marketplace and social scene that the LSD dealers flour-ished.

As Jarnow described it, "When the Grateful Dead went to Iowa, LSD would show up in Iowa." The band members were not directly involved in this distribution chain -- Jerry Garcia wasn't selling acid in the parking lot -- but high-level and low-level dealers went on tour, following the band just like thousands of other Deadheads.

At any given Dead show, you could easily buy individual hits as well as sheets of acid (one hundred hits per sheet). Those in the know might even acquire grams of raw crystal -- powdered LSD straight from the lab, with one gram equaling ten thousand doses.

Dead shows also served as a meeting point for all kind of dealers. "In a lot of cases," Jarnow told me, "Dead shows were the social network for distribution that would happen through other channels, like the mail."


Unbeknownst to many fans, in the 1980's and 1990's, Owsley the acid kingpin still attended many Dead shows, manning a Greenpeace booth in the venue's lobby. Owsley supposedly retired from cooking LSD in the 1970s, but he was still willing to share trade secrets with the right person.

One of Owsley's "disciples" was Karen Horning. Prominent on the scene in the 1980's, Heads chronicles how over the years, Horning sold pounds worth of raw crystal. The band and their crew even knew of Horning, but they kept some distance from her whenever she appeared backstage with Owsley.

If anyone was initiated into the Grateful Dead Family, it would be Karen Horning. Beyond her direct connection to the original LSD chemist, there's documented evidence -- a lengthy trial and incarceration -- to prove the depth of her involvement in the acid scene. Horning was even-tually caught in an undercover sting, arrested while selling an ounce of raw crystal to a single buyer. That's a quarter million hits of acid.

Horning is just one example of the many heavy hitters Jarnow interviewed for Heads. Yet none of the people corroborated the GDF story. Rather than discovering an organized and unified group of LSD mafiosio, Jarnow found just the opposite. "There was no one way that it worked," Jarnow told me. "It was this incredibly fluid, always changing system."

"It was just a bunch of people doing this in kind of loose configuration, informally con-nected in this sort of holistic way," Jarnow said. He described the process as cell-like, with fluid cliques of people moving in and around each other, and around Grateful Dead concerts.


Sometimes the dealing process was so decentralized as to be nearly anonymous. Karen Horning, who had numerous fake identities herself, didn't even know the real names of the people she bought crystal from.

"That's part of the anarchistic structure," Jarnow told me. "It's hard to call them rules, but it seems like there were certain practices that people engaged in -- one of which is not knowing the names of the people above you." This degree of anonymity worked to protect the chain of dealers. It's hard to get busted when no one knows your name!

Mega-doses, or what you might call a thumbprint, were in fact another loose practice. For those with surplus supply, dipping a finger -- a thumb even! -- into a bag of raw crystal was not uncommon. Amazingly, a few dealer cliques were not content with merely eating raw crystal, preferring to snort it instead. "But in terms of a formal [thumbprint] initiation," Jarnow told me, "everybody laughed when I asked about that."


Jarnow does describe a few longstanding people -- elders, even -- who carried the torch throughout the decades. Heads offers the first detailed account of a man dubbed Dealer McDope (apparently no one knew the guy's real name). McDope provided LSD precursor, ergotamine tartrate, to chemists.

As Jarnow explained to me, ergotamine tartrate "is not a trivial thing to manufacture or acquire. There was this group of very secretive people who were able to acquire the precursor, mostly in Europe, but by the 1990s there was just this one guy left."

That guy was Dealer McDope. The demise of McDope had a major impact on the pro-duction of LSD. As Jarnow told me, his death contributed greatly to "what's known as the Ďacid drought' of the early 21st century."

This well-documented "acid drought" can also be linked to the Grateful Dead ecosystem, as it coincided with the end of Grateful Dead tour. Heads describes how, as the band broke up and stopped touring in the wake of Jerry Garcia's death, the infrastructure supporting LSD distribution literally disappeared. The 1996 bust of long-time chemist Nick Sand -- caught with 43 grams of raw crystal -- also played a major role in the drought.

The U.S. government has a different explanation. Claiming responsibility for the drought, the DEA boasts that the arrest and prosecution of acid chemist Leonard Pickard stopped 95% of the country's LSD production.

Pickard was, of course, connected to the Grateful Dead scene. Busted for making LSD in the late 1980's, Pickard's acid was laid on Grateful Dead-themed blotter. Heads re-counts how Pickard stopped making acid after the 1980's bust, but sometime in the 1990's, a group of chemists summoned him to begin again.

It's the stuff of legend that may or may not be true, again with a Grateful Dead twist. "In the accounts of that gathering," Jarnow told me, "it happened in Jerry Garcia's old house."

But could the meeting be construed as a group of elders, convening around some kind of initiation? Jarnow doesn't think so. "I imagine that as being more of a business meeting than any type of initiation," he told me.

Or maybe it was more of a "family" meeting -- just without the capital "F". Like a large group of extended kin, with cousins twice removed and the occasional drunk uncle floating in and out of jail. After all, these Deadheads worked together for decades in a clandestine mission to save the world by way of LSD, and what's more familial than that? But it wasn't some tiered mafia with military rankings. According to the high-level people Jarnow interviewed, there was never a proper noun "Family."

Since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, various members of the Grateful Dead continue to perform around the country. There is invariably LSD available at these shows, but the heady days of yonder are gone. Jamband concerts are now one of many public gatherings where LSD can be found. Burning Man, electronic dance music, and the festival circuit -- not to mention the proliferation of Internet-based drug sales on the Dark Web -- make for even more decentraliza-tion.

In today's scene, there are people who claim to represent the Grateful Dead Family. Just go to any jamband festival and you'll meet half a dozen of them. But if the past is any indicator of the present, those repping the GDF "brand" are not a unified, all-powerful group but just one of the many cliques in an increasingly anarchistic tapestry of dealers. It's a shadowy world but on behalf of the wide-eyed Deadheads everywhere -- those who wonder late at night about their favorite band's strange mixture of mysticism, illicit activity, and rock'n'roll -- Jarnow has written a truly illuminating, watershed book.


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