LSD chemist Leonard Pickard, free at last

A drug war victim, he talks about 20 years in prison, Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and the psychedelic renaissance

Marc Gunther
The Psychedelic Renaissance
8 min readJan 3, 2022

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Leonard Pickard at Horizons. Photo by Andres Bohorquez Marin of https://www.atlanticheadshots.com/

America’s war on drugs is not just misguided; it is misnamed. It is, in truth, a war on people — millions of people who, in a just society, would have the right to decide what to put into their bodies. William Leonard Pickard, a brilliant, Ivy League-educated chemist with a mysterious past, is one of its victims.

Pickard, who is 76, has been convicted three times of making psychedelic drugs, including LSD. Sentenced to life in prison, with no hope of parole, he was locked up for 20 years until a judge granted him a compassionate release, because of the threat of Covid-19, in 2020.

“Half of my adult life has been in a cage,” Pickard says.

Last month, at Horizons 2021, a conference about psychedelics, Pickard described in a hushed voice the indignities of life in a maximum security prison. The 30-foot walls, the razor wires, the guard towers. The killings and fights, the screams in the night, the clanging of doors. The leg chains, arm chains and belly chains. The cramped cell with its metal bed and toilet. His bleak future.

“Every day, I thought I would most certainly die in prison,” he said.

Worst was the pain of separation from loved ones and the absence of human touch.

“One notices, when one isn’t touched for a few weeks, the loss of what feels like an electrical charge in one’s body,” Pickard said, avoiding the first-person pronoun, perhaps to keep the feelings at a distance. “One becomes cold and isolated and only human touch can bring that back.”

Some listeners fought back tears. Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, who interviewed Pickard for his Psychoactive podcast, later told me: “It’s a tragedy of the drug war that a guy like Leonard–who was not involved in violence or in scamming anyone–got such a long sentence.”

Pickard is not alone. According to The Sentencing Project, a reform group, about 160,000 people are currently serving life sentences in US prisons. Nearly a third are over 55, and it has been estimated that 17,000 have…

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Marc Gunther
The Psychedelic Renaissance

Reporting on psychedelics, tobacco, philanthropy, animal welfare, etc. Ex-Fortune. Words in The Guardian, NYTimes, WPost, Vox. Baseball fan. Runner.