The Godfather Of Ecstasy: Alexander Shulgin’s Legacy
Often called “the godfather of ecstasy,” his recent death has left a wake of discoveries that are still yet to be fully comprehended. His legacy was that of a chemical pioneer, delving deep into the world of psychedelic research where others would never dare. It involved an undying curiosity of chemicals, the complex synthesis of hundreds of new psychoactive compounds and the gusto to share that information with the public.
Since an early age, Sasha, as his friends and family called him, had always shown a particular interest in the “machinery of the mental process.” As a 16 year old soon-to-drop-out Harvard scholarship student, he studied organic chemistry . His interest sparked at the U.C. Berkeley as a young biochemistry Ph.D., where he got his chance to try mescaline, the active component in the peyote cactus. It opened an entirely new Pandora’s box of ideas, visions and goals.
Later, he recorded his realization that everything he experienced “had been brought by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been recorded in the white solid... I realized that our entire universe is contained in the mind and spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.”
Shulgin's professional career had been given freedom by Dow Chemical after he synthesized the first biodegradable pesticide, called Zectran. In exchange for the patent, the company let him pursue his unlimited personal interests in their laboratories. Shulgin started down this psychedelic road that he would continue on for the rest of his life.
He focused the majority of his research on new chemicals that could alter the state of the mind. He personally tested each one and meticulously recorded his experiences in detail. In his life, he synthesized about 200 new psychoactive molecules - among them stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs and “empathogens,” which are drugs that promote feelings of empathy. He single-handedly created an arsenal of drugs with different pronounced effects on the mind and body. Some of his most famous creations are part of the 2C-X family, like 2C-B, 2C-I, 2C-T-7, etc. Sasha was particularly fond of the group of molecules he called the „magical half-dozen“: DOM, 2C-B, 2C-E, 2C-T-2, 2C-T-7, and mescaline.
For a while, Shulgin worked for Dow and would patent the chemicals they wanted and published the rest in public science journals, such as Nature and The Journal of Organic Chemistry. Soon enough, the company didn't want to endorse Shulgin's psychedelic research. He set up a personal lab at his home and began to work from there until he finally parted with Dow completely. He worked as a freelancer, contributing many publications, lectures and consultations to research facilities and hospitals.
In the beginning of his career, Shulgin stood on friendly standing with the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA. The DEA issued Shulgin a Schedule I research license, meaning that he had the freedom to research controlled substances and other drugs that were otherwise illegal. He was the DEA's right-hand man; he gave many talks to agents on pharmacology, drug samples to forensic teams and even played as their key eye witness for persecution – although he much more frequently showed up for the defense.
His true passion, however, was in creating dozens of never-before-synthesized psychoactive chemicals. He did this by manipulating very minute differences in already existing psychoactive chemicals to produce a totally genuine molecule and its subsequent reaction in the body. Shulgin's aim was to research drugs that would benefit different forms of therapy, especially psychiatry.
With the help of a former student, he eventually uncovered a dusty old formula buried in medical literature from the early 1900's. This was the formula for MDMA, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine, which was patented by the German company Merck in 1912 as a by-product of another chemical synthesis. The patent was largely forgotten because of the chemical's assumed uselessness, so Shulgin synthesized it again.
He quickly discovered its empathetic effects on the mind, and he understood the potential of its psychological impact. He went about sharing this through a small research group who also took the drug and had similar impressions. One of the people in the research group was a retired psychotherapist who ended up introducing the drug to nearly 4,000 other therapists.
MDMA, this “empathogenic” drug, had, and still has, the potential for releasing mental blocks from psychological trauma, depression and autism. It allows for the access to the emotional workings of the mind unlike any other drug, and quite a few therapists to this day are using it successfully for patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many agree that the use of this drug for certain patients does in one session what many other long-term drugs take years to fulfill, if they ever could.
Almost every one of Shulgin's compounds that made a reputation was soon classified in the DEA's list as a Schedule I illegal drug. MDMA was no exception. Besides being a darling in therapeutic circles, MDMA quickly gained ground in the rave scene. “Ecstasy,” nowadays often called “Molly”, does interfere little with cognition or communication, but it promotes a blissful connection with others.
MDMA was quickly attacked by the media as a “party escapist drug.” Millions of teenagers and adults were using it in nightclubs around the country, and the rest of the public feared that it would contribute to a generation of drug-induced emotional and mental decay. Today, the factual evidence that MDMA has any severe, long term impact on mental health is little.
Since Shulgin contributed as much as he did to the DEA, their relationship turned into a love-hate dependence on each other. However, toward the 1980's, Shulgin started to have visions of the DEA coming to his lab to confiscate and destroy his records.
This is around the time that he wrote PiHKAL, short for „Phenylethylamines I Have Known And Loved“. The first half of the book is his autobiography, experiences with drugs and his relationship with his wife. The second half is a detailed reference manual for synthesizing the Phenylethylamine drugs that he created. Sasha was a proponent of free information, so only the first half of the book is copyrighted; the second half is free for the taking, using and distributing.
The DEA didn't like this. They were already trying hard to crack down on illegal drug use, and here Shulgin was publishing “cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs.” A few years later, the DEA descended upon his homestead to raid his laboratory and take anything they suspected to be illegal. He was fined $25,000 for violations in the terms of the Schedule I license and was forced to turn in that license. His popularity from his book helped him with donations to cover the entire cost of the fine.
Of course, Shulgin continued to live his chemical passion. He technically wasn't doing anything illegal by creating psychoactive compounds – they need to be made before they are made illegal. His intentions were to research the drugs for pharmacological use and not for street use.
This is, in fact, exactly what he did. Today, Shulgin is credited with the rising tide of psychoactive therapy. Terence McKenna called him not the godfather of ecstasy, but “the godfather of pyscho-pharmacology.”
His personal preference was with Phenylethylamines and Tryptamines. His later book, TiHKAL, follows the same format as his previous one and generally promotes the making and responsible use of drugs. “Everyone has the license to explore their own soul,” he said.
Shulgin knew that the bulk of his work wouldn't be appreciated. He was an artist, synthesizing creations never before seen or experienced. It might be another fifty or one hundred years before the majority of the population would understand the potential of his work.
No doubt, Shulgin’s contribution to the understanding and production of psychoactive compounds is massive. The implications of his research reach far beyond the bounds of what is culturally accepted. It beckons taboo transformation. For many people, Shulgin's work has already influenced, inspired and transformed beyond the limits. Not few say his drugs saved their life.
Shulgin left behind much more than our time can handle. The molecules he created are extraordinary tools for understanding the way the human mind works. They are invaluable for self exploration and personal evolution. Most of all, they require positive intention and responsibility to use correctly. Until those simple requirements are met, it might take a long time before our culture can unlock the true potential of Shulgin's legacy.