Drugs: The warnings, which have surfaced over the years, appear at an El Segundo school. Some attribute their spread to people who mean well but are misinformed.

by Jim Newton, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1992

A puzzling hoax is frightening parents from coast to coast, most recently in El Segundo, with fake warnings that their children are being exposed to new and potentially lethal forms of the psychedelic drug LSD.

The warnings -- once taken seriously by police, drug experts and doctors -- are being emphatically dismissed as a cruel joke. Yet, the rumors defy official attempts to squelch them, and as recently as this month the flyers turned up at St. Anthony's Catholic school in El Segundo, where administrators sent them home to parents.

According to the one-page flyer, the new forms of the drug, some laced with strychnine, are being sold to students as "tattoos" and designed to be absorbed through the skin. Parents are asked to be on the lookout for the drug and its symptoms.

"A young child could happen upon these and have a FATAL TRIP," warns the typewritten sheet sent to parents of students at St. Anthony's. "It is also believed that little children could be given a free 'TATTOO' by the other children who want to have some fun cultivating new customers without the children's knowledge."

Drug experts say there is no truth to that.

"We don't know where these come from, but they're bogus," said Ralph B. Lochridge, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Los Angeles office. "It's like UFO sightings. They show up everywhere."

Authorities do not know who is responsible or what their motives might be. Some attribute the flyers to pranksters, others to well-intentioned people with incomplete information.

Washington drug authorities said the phony LSD warnings have been cropping up across the country for several years, starting on the East Coast in such places as Upstate New York and Pennsylvania and gradually working their way West. Most often, the flyers appear in small towns, but they have found their way into police stations, union mailers and major hospitals.

Although the hoax is centered in the United States, similar flyers have even been found in Belize, Canada, Europe and Mexico, said Cornelius Dougherty, a DEA spokesman in Washington.

The flyers are particularly hard to debunk, officials say, because they contain some accurate information about LSD and its effects. That makes them convincing, even to people who know something about the drug. But the flyers' main contention -- that a new form of the drug has appeared and that children are especially susceptible to it -- is untrue, authorities said.

"They're like a chain letter," said David Langness, a spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, which represents about 250 hospitals in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties. "They capitalize on anti-drug hysteria, and as far as we can determine, they are a total hoax."

Langness said he did not know of any youngster admitted to a Southern California hospital because of the effects of ingesting an LSD "tattoo."

DEA agents said that although LSD can be absorbed through the skin, as the flyer notes, that is the least effective way of getting high from the drug, which usually is taken orally.

Although some officials said the phenomenon has seemed to ebb since a peak of activity in the late 1980s, a group of parents expressed alarm last week when a flyer surfaced in El Segundo.

"I was completely baffled by this, and I was certainly worried," said Arlin Alonzo, whose son attends kindergarten at St. Anthony's. "Here's this note, which was the most disturbing news I've had in quite a while."

Mary Williams, whose 6-year-old son attends the school, said she was frightened by the warning. "We sat down right away and talked about it. I don't know why someone would do this."

St. Anthony's Principal Eileen Deck, who had the flyer sent to parents, said she was surprised to learn from a reporter that the warning is a fake, and she promised to alert parents.

The warning, she said, came to her attention through a parent who saw the flyer at his job and thought other parents should be alerted. In addition to its warnings about LSD tattoos, the flyer warns of tabs of the drug decorated with Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters.

"This is a new way of selling acid by appealing to young children," the flyer warns.

That, too, is a lie, officials say.

"The cartoon characters go all the way back in the history of LSD," Dougherty said. "Obviously, Bart Simpson is new, but we don't see any evidence of an effort to market this to young children."

Dougherty and other drug experts urged school administrators, hospital officials and others to treat any anonymous warnings with skepticism. But they acknowledged that the unsigned flyers can be hard for well-intentioned authorities to ignore.

Often they are distributed because officials who happen upon them want to make sure parents are not denied what appears to be an important warning about a serious subject.

"You feel like if it's happening, you want to let parents know," Deck said. "We didn't make a big issue of it, but we wanted to pass it along."

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