How drugs got on the metric system

How drugs got on the metric system

One mystery of the drug trade now has a plausible answer

VicesApril 05, 2019 By Reilly Capps

When "Aaron" sells narcotics out of his one-bedroom apartment, with Alex Grey posters on the wall and dirty dishes in the sink, he pulls the paper and powder out of his freezer, and outlines the prices: $7 for 125 micrograms of LSD, $15 for 20 milligrams of 2C-B and $100 for a gram of ecstasy.

There are many big, tough questions here: why are such amazing and dangerous compounds sold in secret in small apartments, the way you'd buy dirty stuff like African Ivory tusks or sex slaves? When did America decide that feeling happier by taking a molecule was immoral and illegal?

But one small question, worth asking, is: why does Aaron use the metric system?

America is the country of pounds and ounces, but Aaron uses micrograms, milligrams and grams.* Why? Why doesn't Aaron sell, for example, DMT by the teaspoon and molly by the cup?

Comedians joke about this: "Drugs have taught an entire generation of kids the metric system," joked writer P.J. O'Rourke. And, joked The Onion, "Metric System Thriving In Nation's Inner Cities.”

But, seriously, why?

And one likely answer — never before seen in print — is interesting, even if you never do drugs.

Drug dealer Aaron has a couple smart guesses:

Drugs are international. Cocaine starts in Colombia or Bolivia, heroin poppies are grown in Afghanistan and Mexico. Those drug lords wrap their junk up by the kilo. When they cross into America, they're broken up into grams, not ounces.

Drugs are small. Most drugs are sold in units too miniscule to use the normal system: selling a gram of molly, a typical amount, would mean selling 1/28th of an ounce. A tab of acid typically has 125 micrograms of lysergic acid on it; it would be too hard to say that number in the Imperial system: 4.4 x 10-6 ounces.

Both of Aaron's guesses are valid reasons, and likely true.

Then I came across a new answer. 

Owsley "Bear" Stanley, who made a million hits of LSD and was the sound man for the Grateful Dead, said he put American drugs on the metric system.

Here's Stanley's claim, from 2009 (1:30 minute video): 

Was Stanley more successful at teaching Americans about grams and kilos than a whole generation of school teachers?

It's a tough fact to check. Stanley died in 2011. So I contacted Stanley's biographer, Robert Greenfield, author of the excellent book "Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III." Greenfield never asked Stanley about his metric system claim. But …  

"That makes sense to me," Greenfield said.

Book cover - Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III

Stanley was an amazing dude. He treated drug dealing and cooking as a serious, orderly profession, with high standards of quality and purity. Everything Stanley did, whether it was cooking amphetamines or developing the Wall of Sound speaker system for the Grateful Dead, Stanley did right. "Owsley" is still slang for super-clean LSD.

After Owsley, drugs "became more businesslike and scientific," Greenfield said. "It stopped being casual and guys on the street."

Plus, Owsley hung around college campuses, so would have been one of the few people back then with access to a metric sale. So Greenfield doesn't doubt Stanley's claim.

"Call it, unconfirmed but probable ... that Owsley introduced the metric system to the drug trade," Greenfield said. "His presence in the culture and his acid making was so legendary that whatever he would have been doing would have been followed by everyone who came after. He was the original, the first guy."

photo - Owsley Stanley arraigned 1967

[Stanely at his 1967 arraignment for running an LSD lab. From Wikicommons.]

Owsley's claim, if true, suggests a few things:

  • The guys who cook drugs ain't dummies.

  • There's some honor among these so-called "criminals"; Owsley wanted to have the best, purest, most accurate stuff — even if it was illicit.

  • If you go for quality, you might be remembered, even in an obscure trade like drugs.

  • One way to teach kids about the world is to make it so they have to teach themselves. Cannabis is teaching a whole generation about agriculture. Back in the day, drugs taught a whole generation about chemistry. To some extent, they still do.

Aaron, the drug dealer, tries to follow Owsley's lead, and provide quality, well-measured drugs.

"I do it as a source of pride," Aaron said. And that means portioning out his stuff right — down to the milligram. "The imperial system is just so shitty, it makes sense not to use it," Aaron said.

Aaron might have Owsley "Bear" Stanley to thank for that. And one small mystery of the drug trade now has a plausible answer.

[Cover photo: Owsley Stanley and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Photo from OwsleyStanleyFoundation.org]
* Some drugs are sold on the traditional system in America, in ounces and eighths, such as weed, shrooms and cocaine. But most others operate on grams and milligrams.