For the last several months, frightening notices have popped up in schools, day-care centers and hospital emergency rooms throughout Southern California warning that the mind-altering drug LSD is being sold in the form of rub-on tattoos shaped like blue stars or cartoon characters.
The flyers, written anonymously and in virtually the same language, say that the brightly colored paper tabs soaked in LSD are a "new way of selling acid by appealing to our young children." In many communities in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, parents panicked by the notices are calling police and reporting that their children are coming home with tattoos of Superman and Mickey Mouse on their bodies.
A menacing drug plot threatening schoolchildren? Or another urban folk tale of mysterious origin?
Law enforcement officials, long aware of adults using cute rub-on characters as a furtive way of selling and using LSD, say they are not sure. They cannot recall a single case of an unsuspecting child coming in contact with an LSD-laced tattoo.
But Lt. Richard J. Olson, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said the drug tattoos themselves are real.
"It does exist," Olson said. "About a year ago our deputies made an arrest (for narcotics) in south Orange County and found two of those (star/cartoon tattoo papers laced with LSD). But we haven't found any since then."
J.D. Miles, agent in charge of the county office of the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said neither he nor anyone in the statewide bureau has turned up any of the alleged LSD rub-on tattoos.
"I haven't seen any, and I haven't received any information from the schools about this," said Miles said. "I'm not saying these don't exist, but I just don't have anything to support it."
Said Olson said: "This doesn't seem to be a big problem in Orange County, but there is no harm in being careful and letting the warnings go out."
The 10-paragraph flyer begins "ATTENTION PARENTS" and states that "the Valley Children's Hospital and the Police Department have informed us that there is another danger in our community." The warning--never identifying the children's hospital or the police department by city--is written in such a general way that it could apply to virtually any community. It strikes an alarming tone, alerting parents that their children could unwittingly encounter the drug-laced tattoos. Licking the tabs or placing them on their moist skin could be enough to absorb the drug and cause a "fatal trip," the flyer says.
"These drugs are known to react very quickly, and some are laced with strychnine," the flyer concludes.
Rosa L. McDow said she was frightened when her son, 7, brought home a copy of the flyer last week from the Normandie Christian School in South-Central Los Angeles. "He's always going to the store to get candy and a sticker. He used things before that stick on his arms and forehead."
The school's principal, King Walker, said he was handed the notice by one of his teachers and sent copies home with the 175 primary school-age children. "I felt that if it was something that concerned the safety and well-being of our students, then the parents ought to know about it," he said.
The flyer worked its way through the school and medical community and gained credibility along the way, even though several people who photocopied the flyer had doubts about its veracity.
One of the notices that reached parents in Culver City arrived by way of the Kindercare Day Care Center in Simi Valley.
In August, a parent whose child attends the day-care center gave a copy of the notice to teachers there. One copy was posted, and a second was mailed to the Hospital Council of Southern California, a Los Angeles trade association that represents about 220 hospitals in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties.
David Langness, the association's vice president of communications, said the warning was then mailed to all 220 member hospitals. "When we hear about these things, we don't attempt to confirm or deny them," he said. "We simply send it out to emergency rooms across the region in case they see a medical problem associated with this kind of drug."
At Long Beach Community Hospital, the warning gained further weight in the form of a "drug alert" contained in an Aug. 20 news item mailed to all hospital personnel. After receiving the news item, the spouse of one hospital worker photocopied it and took it to work in Culver City.
That is when it fell into the hands of Anna Rincon, who works at a local day-care center and as a security guard at Culver City High School. She copied it "and gave a copy to the high school and the day-care center. Now they're both posted."
Several school administrators in Los Angeles and Orange counties decided against sending copies of the flyers home, saying they had received identical letters from time to time over the past decade.
But parents and teachers in at least two Orange County school districts--Orange Unified and Capistrano Unified--are being warned about the existence of the alleged tattoos laced with LSD.
Jacqueline Cerra, community relations officer for Capistrano Unified, said the district sent out its first warnings about the LSD tattoos to school principals in March. Recently, Cerra said, a resident in south Orange County saw a flyer warning about the tattoos and called the school district.
"We then called the Sheriff's Department, and we were told that they had found evidence of these things in a drug arrest in Laguna Hills," said Cerra said. "So if we had to err, we wanted to err on the side of caution, and we put out a warning to our staff.
"Fortunately, we have never seen any evidence of these in our school district."