The acid house

A look at Britain as a producer of illegal
drugs, Peter Simonson revisits the 1970s, when a remote Welsh
mansion was home to the world’s biggest LSD factory.

If you were to ask the man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus
where the majority of the world’s illegal drugs were supplied
from, he’d probably mention the coca covered mountains of
Colombia or the opium poppy fields of Afghanistan. If he were
a little more knowledgeable, he might mention the fact the
majority of herbal cannabis smoked in Britain is grown within
its borders in suburban houses, warehouses and industrial
estates – nearly 7,000 of which were closed last year. But our
role as a mass producer of illegal drugs is not just a recent
trend. During the late Seventies, Britain was the world’s largest
producer of LSD.
Before LSD was made illegal in 1966, the nascent devotees of
its psychedelic properties obtained their supply legally through
its originator, Sandoz Chemical in Switzerland. Post-ban, LSD
was obtained from illegal labs outside Britain, most famously
from clandestine chemist Oswald Augustus Owsley III in
However, there were some small LSD labs operating within
UK borders. In 1968 an Islington pharmacist, Victor Kapur, was
jailed for nine years after producing 19 grams of LSD (enough
for 95,000 doses) in two labs. One lab was in his garage and
another in the back room of his chemist shop on the New
North Road. A year later Peter Simmons and Quentin Theobald
were jailed for five and seven years respectively after police
busted two clandestine labs, one on a caravan site in the East
End and another at Theobald’s home in Hythe, Kent. But the
urban LSD labs soon disappeared, partly because the LSD scene
itself – which centred around squatted hippy communes in
the London districts of Notting Hill and Camden – was being
constantly targeted by police.
From the late Sixties groups of hippies in Britain and
America started setting up alternative communities away from
the big cities, in rural idylls, where they could live without
being routinely harassed by the ‘The Man’. In the US, this
counter-culture exodus away from urban centres led to an
exodus to far flung states such as New Mexico, were they were
relatively free to live alternative lifestyles and consume and
produce drugs – as the police force was scattered over
an immense area. In the UK, they left the squatted
communes of London for the verdant fields of Wales.
Like their New Mexican brethren, hippies and counter
cultural types could set up their utopian communities
of free love, self sufficiency and, of course, the
consumption of psychoactive drugs, without too much
fear of being troubled by the local constabulary.


This was augmented by the burgeoning appeal of the free
music festival scene in Wales, including the Elan Valley Free
festival in Rhyader, the mushroom festival at Pontrhydygroes
and the legendary Meigan Fayres in the Preselli mountains.
The remoteness of parts of the Welsh countryside suited these
festivals, while the locals were accommodating and happy
to rent out their fields to the nomadic hippies. Local Welsh
markets, stores and pubs mostly welcomed the increased trade.
Of course the main drugs consumed at such festivals were
cannabis, magic mushrooms and LSD. In the late Sixties the
area was visited by luminaries who felt a certain anonymity
there, such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards.
According to Lyn Ebenezer, a local reporter at the time, Bob
Dylan also visited under the assumed name, Jerry. A farm
worker in the area later saw the cover of Nashville Skyline and
stated: “Damn, I didn’t know Jerry had made a record.” This
fertile and somewhat remote environment was the ideal place
to set up a clandestine lab. Enter chemist Richard Kemp.
In the late Sixties Kemp had been working with David
Solomon in Cambridge in an attempt to produce synthetic
THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. Solomon had edited a
book in 1964, LSD: The Consciousness Expanding Drug and had
been a regular at Millbrook, where Timothy Leary conducted
group therapy with LSD. Kemp travelled initially to France
with Solomon with the intention of producing THC, but soon
tried his hand producing LSD. With the financial help of an
American friend of Solomon’s, Paul Arnabaldi, they purchased
a crumbling mansion in the Cambrian Mountains near Carno,
called Plas Llysn, with the aim of making LSD there.
Although LSD was illegal, the possession of its precursor
chemicals, such as ergotoxine tartrate, was not against the law.
This helped Kemp and his friend, Andy Munro, another chemist
with an interest in making LSD. They were able too buy most
of the precursor chemicals, through front companies, from
Czechoslovakia. Then the production line began to roll.
Prior to Kemp and Munro’s LSD factory, illicit acid had been
mainly available in liquid form dropped onto sugar cubes,
on blotting paper and as capsules. Kemp’s premier skills as a
chemist came to the fore in perfecting a smaller, more easily
transportable form of LSD, which was to become known as the
microdot. Their invention, which became a form of ‘brand’,
would prove a global hit, with the lab producing hundreds of
thousands of LSD microdots a year ending up as far afield as
Canada and Australia.
LSD had become a drug not just associated with hippies. As
Andy Roberts notes in Albion Dreaming, in the Sixties certain
drugs were associated with certain discrete subcultures. But
from the early Seventies onwards, this delineation breaks

But what of illicit production of drugs in the UK post
Operation Julie? While Julie was a landmark case
due to its international scale and its links with the
counter culture of the day, the arrests clearly did not
stop budding chemists from attempting to produce
illicit substances
The rise of Acid House and outdoor raves from 1987,
which in many ways mirrored the free festivals
of the 70’s and probably exceeded them in terms
of numbers attending the events, provided the
opportunity for budding chemists with a taste for
psychoactive substances and an un-taxable income.
In the US, two books by Dr Alexander Shulgin and
Ann Shulgin, “PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story” (1991)
and TiHKAL: The Continuation” (1997), provided
the chemical formulas for a range of psychedelics,
empathogens, amphetamines, and tryptamines.
Paul Halfpenny, a research chemist with Parke Davis, the
pharmaceutical arm of multinational Warner Lambert,
was arrested with 2kg of amphetamine sulphate near
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Halfpenny, along with fellow
Parke Davis chemist, Dr Reginald Richardson, appeared
to have been producing amphetamine and attempting
to produce MDMA at Parke Davis’ Addenbrooke labs. Dr
Richardson was eventually cleared of all charges, while
Halfpenny was found guilty of possession, production of
controlled drugs and conspiracy to produce MDMA.
Operation Pirate, one of the largest police operations against
UK clandestine chemists, saw amphetamine sulphate
labs being dismantled in Merseyside, Cheshire, Cumbria
and Greater Manchester. An 18-man organisation led by
Frederick Cook were arrested and charged. Police discovered
a clandestine lab in a remote cottage in Cumbria with
enough precursor chemicals to enable the gang to produce
£18 million worth of speed at street value. A further raid
at a furniture warehouse in Widnes, appropriately named
‘Aladdin’s Cave’, netted a further batch of chemicals which
could have produced £4 million worth of amphetamine. Along
with the other raids the total value of drugs was estimated by
the police to be worth in the region of £36 million.
The first detected case of LSD production post Operation
Julie was discovered in a house in Ovingdean, near Brighton.
Casey Hardison, an expat American and self-styled medical
anthropologist was raided after a tip-off from US Customs,
who had seized a package containing £4K worth of MDMA
that Hardison had posted to America. During the raid,
police in chemical protection gear dismantled the lab and
discovered 145,000 blotter tabs of LSD, quantities of the
psychedelic disassociatives DMT and 2CB and evidence that
Hardison had bought £38K worth of precursor chemicals
used to produce psychedelics. He was charged with
producing LSD, DMT and 2CB, intent to supply LSD and
trafficking. At his trial in 2005, Hardison, much like Kemp
back in ’78, pleaded that he was motivated not by profit,
but by the spiritual “journey” to produce LSD. Prosecutors
argued that he had moved to the UK to produce LSD to
avoid heat from US police. Hardison was found guilty and
sentenced to 20 years and is currently campaigning against
the sentence through the Drug Equality Alliance.
Peter Sanders had turned his legitimate chemical company,
Sanchem, into an after hours amphetamine lab with the
help of his top chemist Ian Kilner. Through Sanchem they
were able to procure the chemicals to produce Benzyl Methyl
Ketone (BMK) a precursor in the production of amphetamine
sulphate. They produced the BMK at a remote farmhouse
near Southport and transported it back to a portakabin on
the Sanchem site to convert into amphetamine. When the
police raided Sanchem they found enough precursors to
produce £4.2 million worth of amphetamine paste. Arrested
alongside Sanders and Kilner were Steve Dalton (found with
£1.5 million of amphetamine paste in his wardrobe), Anthony
Bodell, and the alleged ringleader, Leonard Briscoe Stubbs.
Bodell and Stubbs were jailed for five and a half years each,
Dalton for four years and Kilner and Sanders got three years
each. Interestingly, Stubbs had previously received two years
after being arrested during Operation Pirate (see 1998).
The first case against UK manufacturers of
methamphetamine appeared before the courts. Timothy
Morgan, David Walker and Stefan Thomas had attempted
to set up a bogus chemical supply company in order to buy
ephedrine, used in the production of methamphetamine.
When this failed they resorted to the US method of buying
up cough medicines from which they extracted the drug. The
police investigation estimated that the gang had the potential
to produce £1.5 million of methamphetamine per year.
AFTER JULIE: UK synthetic drug factories since Kemp and Munro’s lab
down. Even punks who positioned themselves as opposed to
everything hippies stood for, took LSD.
The growth of LSD use inevitably came to the attention of
British police, who had worked out that an LSD factory was
based in the UK. While Kemp and Munro’s lab was in full
production mode, under the watchful eye of Detective Inspector
Dick Lee, a police task force began to gather intelligence
at commercial concerts and free festivals, using a team of
undercover officers with outgrown hair and hippy clothing.
The evidence coming back to DI Lee was irrefutable: LSD was
everywhere. And all roads seemed to lead to a ‘Richard Kemp’
in Wales.


The international dimension to the case only dawned on DI Lee
when he visited the Home Office laboratories in Aldermaston
during the early Seventies. He was told that 95 per cent of the
LSD being seized in the UK and 50 per cent worldwide was in
microdot form – the mark of Kemp and Munro’s production
line. Lee had further intelligence that the wholesale price
of LSD was substantially cheaper within the Welsh borders
than elsewhere in the UK. By 1976 Lee had joined up the
links between Wales and the global supply of LSD and the
organisation encompassing Richard Kemp, Andy Munro,
Christine Bott (Kemp’s partner), Henry Todd, David Solomon
and a cast of others.
On a very small budget, DI Lee set up a surveillance team
to gather evidence on the goings on at Plas Llysn. Officers
disguised as coal mining surveyors and itinerant fishermen
were, within the confines of the Welsh countryside, trying
to bring down a worldwide drug production ring which was
using pubs in rural Welsh towns and villages such as Tregaron,
Cwmann and Ffarmers to exchange massive supplies of LSD.
On March 26 1977, ‘Operation Julie’, named after a female
officer who had been working on the case, sprung into action.
Over 800 officers raided 83 locations across England and Wales.
Police discovered 600,000 microdots buried in a field near
Reading and 120 grams of LSD crystals – enough to produce 1.2
million microdots – beneath a compost heap near Christine
Botts’ potato patch. A further 50,000 microdots were found
under a stone in a field near Plas Llysyn and 100,000 microdots
in a Winalot dog biscuit box buried in another local field.
A raid on the organisation’s London HQ netted enough LSD
crystal to make a further 2.5 million microdots. In a safety
deposit box in Christine Bott’s name in Zurich police discovered
cash, a gold bar and 2kg of ergotamine tartrate. Later, after
a police tip-off in October, a further 1.3kg of LSD crystal was
discovered, buried beneath Kemp and Botts kitchen.
At the trial in 1978, Mr Justice Parks sentenced 17 defendants
to a total of 124 years. Kemp got 13, Todd, 13, Solomon, 11,
Munro, 10 and harshest of all, Christine Bott received nine
Bott had not been
actively involved in the production
or distribution of the LSD and as the secondary
chemist, Andy Munro said: “Bott got nine years for making
sandwiches. I got 10 for making acid.”
Kemp had originally written an 8,000 word defence
statement, but was advised by his lawyers against using it. It
was released at the time to a journalist at the Cambrian News
who précised it under the headline ‘Microdoctrine – the tenets
behind Kemp’s LSD’. The gist of Kemp’s defence was that LSD
was a catalyst for social change, the motive was the ideal not
the money.
Even after the court case, the gang’s hoard of LSD was being
unearthed. A cache of one million microdots was discovered
buried in a wood in Bedfordshire in September 1979. It took the
total value of the six million LSD tabs seized during Operation
Julie to £100 million. To this day, there are still recurring, Holy
Grail-like tales of ‘Julie’ microdots being uncovered, such was
the quality of Kemp’s chemistry.
The use of LSD has, since the Seventies, rapidly declined.
Its use had a strong following within the anarcho-punk scene
and the travelling hippy communities. The mixing of these two
scenes saw the emergence of the ‘new age traveller’ movement,
which coincided with the rise of the rave scene.
The last British Crime Survey puts last year LSD use
amongst 16-59 year olds at 0.2 per cent of the population.
Those seeking spiritual enlightenment or psychedelic pranks
still have other avenues to choose. As Mark E Smith of The Fall
sang in 1979 a year after the Operation Julie, “I don’t need the
acid factories, I’ve got mushrooms in the field,” while others
buy substances such as San Pedro cactus and Salvia Divinorum,
plus an array of ‘research chemicals’ available online and
produced in the Far East.
Many of the outlaw British chemists of the 21st Century
seem more motivated by the quest for financial rather than
spiritual gain. But although illegal use of LSD is ever declining,
after some 50 years in the cupboard, it’s now enjoying a
psychotherapeutical renaissance. The Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) highlights research
in Switzerland which uses LSD to reduce anxiety for people
with terminal illnesses, while the Beckley Foundation is looking
at the use of LSD in brain imaging research. Albert Hoffman’s
‘problem child’ appears to be having a rebirth.

Peter Simonson is a research intern at the
UK Drug Policy Commission

Operation Julie: The World’s Greatest LSD Bust,
by Lyn Ebenezer, is published by Y Lolfa (2010)

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