Toni Brown of Brooklyn, N.Y., figures it was three years ago when she first noticed something weird going on in her mailbox.
As editor of Relix, a magazine dedicated largely to the Grateful Dead, she was receiving loads of mail from fans -- Deadheads. Many were written from inside federal prisons.
"And it was not just a few isolated letters," said Ms. Brown, whose magazine has become so swamped with such letters today that it prints them under a new section, dubbed "Heads Behind Bars."
What Ms. Brown was seeing back in 1991 were the first results of an undercover operation by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as local and state police, to target the buying and selling of LSD at Grateful Dead concerts.
The San Francisco-based band, still the top-grossing concert attraction in the country with $34 million in sales last year, currently is on a sellout spring tour.
Independent surveys estimate that up to 2,000 Deadheads, most of them first-time offenders, have been nabbed at or around concerts through stings.
Because of mandatory drug sentences, many of these new prisoners are serving longer sentences than rapists, kidnappers, armed robbers and big-time heroin dealers.
Anyone apprehended with more than 1 gram of LSD must serve a five-year sentence, and it's 10 years for anything more than 10 grams.
Although a single gram of pure LSD yields 20,000 doses, authorities rarely encounter that much.
Instead, when computing a sentence, prosecutors include the weight of the much heavier sugar cube or paper that carries the LSD.
As a result, people like Stanley Marshall of El Paso, Texas, who was arrested in 1988 with less than a gram of LSD, is serving a 20-year sentence -- because the paper that held the drug weighed 113 grams.
DEA records show that average sentences for people carrying $1,500 worth of LSD is 10.1 years, compared with 6.5 years for attempted murder, 5.8 years for rape and 4.2 years for kidnapping. Heroin dealers have to smuggle more than $100,000 of the drug before receiving a similar sentence.
Still, the DEA denies that it is targeting Grateful Dead fans. The agency has made more than 1,000 LSD arrests since 1989 -- mostly through undercover work -- including 343 in 1992, officials said.
"If they follow the Grateful Dead or if they follow Johann Sebastian Bach, it makes no difference to us," said Gene Haislip, head of the DEA's LSD division. "We are an equal opportunity arrester."
Grateful Dead members said they are "horrified" by the arrests and for several years have tried to warn their fans that their concerts are not "protected" places. They also accused the DEA of skirting what should be its real job -- tackling more pernicious and addictive drugs such as crack and heroin.
"No one has ever robbed anyone else so they could go buy a hit dTC of acid. It just doesn't work that way," said Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead's publicist. "The bottom line is that it is much easier to go after a bunch of nonviolent, young, true believers who think they are giving you a ticket to enlightenment when they sell you a hit of acid than to go after a bunch of armed crack dealers."
Efforts to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences have met with some success. One bill put forward by Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., would allow judges to reduce from five years to one year the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders.
A Washington-based group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums also led a successful campaign last year to soften the federal sentencing guidelines that often add even more time to the mandatory five- and 10-year sentences.
The group's second-largest contribution -- for $10,000 -- came from the Rex Foundation, owned and operated by the Grateful Dead.