Deadheads in Raybrook, N.Y., federal prison. (Date unknown.)

Deadheads in Raybrook, N.Y., federal prison. (Date unknown.)

I wrote this story 22 years ago. It seems profoundly relevant, even today. — Dennis Cauchon, editor, The Clemency Report

Attack on Deadheads is no hallucination

Band’s followers handed stiff LSD sentences


October 17, 1992

David Chevrette was a young free-spirited hippie. His only possessions were his clothes, a dog and a 1970 Volkswagen bus painted with peace signs. For fun, he followed the Grateful Dead rock group on concert tours.

Then, the 20-year-old got busted for selling LSD in 1990 to a guy he met on the beach.

Now, he’s doing 10 years without parole in federal prison – a longer sentence than those given in federal court to rapists, armed robbers and some big drug dealers.

Chevrette is a victim of a concerted crackdown on Grateful Dead fans — called Deadheads — fueled by a quirk in federal drug law.

That quirk — involving whether to weigh the paper or sugar cube LSD is stored on — has resulted in what Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., calls an “unintended inequity.”

In short: LSD sentences are out of proportion — by a factor of 50 or more — with other drug sentences.


Jerry Garcia

Chevrette’s term for $1,500 worth of LSD is more serve than if he’d smuggled $100,000 worth of heroin. The quirk — buried deep and unnoticed in a large drug law — has been turned into a bludgeon in the battle against Deadheads.

Today, 1,500 to 2,000 Deadheads are in prison, up from fewer than 100 four years ago. Most are young middle-class whites or old hippies. Many are serving mandatory no-parole prison terms of 10 or 20 years.

“We’ve opened a vein here,” says Gene Haislip, head of LSD enforcement at the Drug Enforcement Administration. “We’re going to mine it until the whole thing turns around.”

DEA's Gene Haislip died in 2012

DEA’s Gene Haislip died in 2012

The DEA has tripled spending, personnel and arrests for LSD since January 1990. “We’ve seen a marked pattern of LSD distribution at Grateful Dead concerts,” says Haislip. “That has something to do with why so many (Deadheads) are arrested.”

The Grateful Dead – the USA’s top grossing concert act last year ($34 million) — has been around since the 1960’s.

Some people are weekend fans, such as Vice President-elect Gore and his wife, Tipper, who took their daughter to a Dead show in June. Others are more devoted. They wear tie-dyed shirts and catch five or 10 shows a year.

The most dedicated fans follow the band from show to show, creating a traveling village of 3,000 to 6,000 sometimes called “Deadland.”

Franklin Martz (circa 2005)

Franklin Martz (circa 2005)

The values are pure ’60s: peace, love, vegetarianism, communal living and partying. To many, mind expansion is also part of the Deadhead experience  — and that means LSD.

“Yes, LSD is my sacrament,” says Franklin Martz, a Haight-Ashbury-born hippie who saw his first Grateful Dead show in 1967. He’s now serving a 40-year LSD sentence.

This brazen advocacy of LSD angers many parents and police.

A USA Today review of more than 30 cases found Deadheads routinely have their musical tastes, dress and lifestyles used against them in the criminal justice system.

  • More police searches. A University of New Hampshire police officer told the student newspaper that he pulled over cars with Grateful Dead bumper stickers.
  • Bond denial. Deadhead Janet Godwin’s license plate was presented at her North Carolina bond hearing to prove she was a flight risk. The plate read RAMBROSE, after the Grateful Dead song “Ramble on Rose.”
  • Negative portrayal to jury and new media. Police told the media that Michael Thrasher’s 1,984 doses of LSD had a satanic symbol — an upside own pentagram. No mention was made of the word “LOVE” stamped across the LSD paper.
  • Sentencing prejudice. Deadhead Todd Davidson, 20, sentenced to 20 years without parole, was described in his pre-sentence report in Florida as a
    member of the “cult that follows the Grateful Deads.”
  • Labeled as prison gang. Richard Cash is classified as “gang-affiliated” in the Colorado prison system because he’s a Deadhead. The label — usually reserved for Crips, Bloods and members of Arayan Nation — is used to determine prison privileges and where a prisoner is placed in order to curb gang violence. Cash, a pacifist, complains: “I’m exposed to harsher conditions all because I’m a Deadhead.”
ACLU's Nadine Strossen

ACLU’s Nadine Strossen

Nadline Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, “People shouldn’t be singled out because their lifestyles or musical tastes are unpopular with the majority.” Nor should they receive harsher sentences for these reasons, she says.

But prejudice against Deadheads pervades the legal process.

“A big issue at my trial was my ‘alternative lifestyle,’” says Thrasher, 19, says a college student from Portland, Ore. The prosecutor stressed lifestyle issues such as Thrasher playing in a band named “Ethel & Jake’s Psychedelic Jug Band, Jamboree and Wino Wrestling Team.”

A few months ago, North Carolina lawyer Charles Brewer entered into what he thought were routine plea talks for a client. He was surprised to find prosecutors unwilling to deal. “They were powerfully impacted by the fact that she was a Deadhead,” he says.

Deadheads are often subjected to aggressive “jurisdiction shopping” — prosecuting a case where it gets the greatest punishment.

Deadheads Aaron Taylor and Todd Davidson (right) while both were serving 10 years

Deadheads Aaron Taylor and Todd Davidson (right) while both were serving 10 years

For example, Thrasher was arrested and prosecuted entirely by local authorities. But his case was switched from state to federal court to get a longer sentence. In state court, he would have gotten 16 months; in federal court, he got 10 years without parole.

Davidson, now 22, is scheduled to be released from prison on March 19, 2010. He’ll be 40.

“I’d go back on tour in a heartbeat,” Davidson says. “It was a big happy family.”

“It’s funny,” says Deadhead Christopher Jones, who just finished an LSD sentence in Virginia. “Everyone is like ‘We gotta be careful,’ but everyone is doing the same old thing. You’ve still got idiots walking around shows yelling, ‘Doses! Doses!’”

Where are they now? 

The Clemency Report plans a follow-up on how life turned out for the Deadheads in the story. Send editor Dennis Cauchon an e-mail and let him know.

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