A new generation of young people is "tuning in and turning on" with LSD, raising fears that the mind-altering drug is making a dangerous comeback.
During the past two years, the number of LSD arrests and admissions to hospital emergency rooms has risen sharply nationwide, according to federal law enforcement officials. At least three LSD-related suicides have been reported in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1990, drug counselors say.
"There's been a trend of LSD becoming the most prevalent drug of abuse among youths," said Bob Bender, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco.
Unlike its heyday in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, "acid" has spread from college campuses and the Haight-Ashbury area to homes and schools in places like Pacific Heights and suburban Walnut Creek.
Although LSD use has not taken on "epidemic proportions" in the way cocaine abuse has, counselors and law enforcement officers say it merits special concern because students as young as 12 are using it. Three junior high school students were discovered using LSD at an event sponsored by a San Francisco school this year.
In Marin County last year, 20 public school students were discovered using LSD -- eight were between 12 and 14. All appeared in juvenile court and eventually were released in the custody of their parents.
"My phone's been ringing off the hook with parents and schools calling me for advice," said Dr. David Smith, the founder and medical director of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. "We've just been seeing the tip of the iceberg because LSD use has been obscured by the flood of publicity over crack."
Reasons for the drug's allure are manifold: It costs less than a box of popcorn at the movies, has no detectable smell like liquor or marijuana and is easy to get.
Bay Area youths say LSD -- short for lysergic acid diethylamide 25 -- can be found by anyone cruising Haight Street in San Francisco or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley at any time.
The average "hit" of LSD costs between $2 and $5 and kicks off a high lasting several hours. Typically, each hit is affixed to a sheet of blotter paper and is licked off or chewed.
"For $2, you're in another world for eight hours," said a 16-year-old student at Acalanes High School in Lafayette. "You can get a sheet for $30 or $40 bucks and sell it off. It's a profit thing." Sellers can pocket some cash and get their own LSD for free.
The blotter paper is often decorated with decals, which serve as a "brand name" to identify the LSD maker. Currently the most popular ones bear the likeness of Mikhail Gorbachev, red roses and red lips.
Typically, students say, when kids drop acid at home or at a party, they listen to music from the 1960s Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Cream among others.
LSD gained notoriety during the 1960s, when Timothy Leary urged America to "tune in, turn on and drop out." It was first mass-produced by Augustus Stanley Owsley III of Berkeley, a counterculture icon.
Today's acid is weaker than the LSD of a generation ago. The average dose now is about 50 to 100 micrograms of the chemical, compared to 250 a generation ago, say law enforcement officials.