In Memoriam: Alexander Shulgin, The 'Godfather of Ecstasy'

Among his own, Sasha Shulgin, who died on Monday, will always be remembered and revered as one of the greatest shamans of modern times. Certainly more scientist than psychonaut; he was crudely dubbed "the godfather of ecstasy," but he was far beyond that.
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By Rick Cusick

In 2005 Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin was interviewed by the New York Times and High Times during the same week. It wasn't my story but I was privileged to sit in. Shulgin was over 80 years old at the time, with a mane of long white hair, a long white beard and an absolutely unmistakable sparkle in his eye. His wife, best friend and longtime collaborator Ann Shulgin sat next to him as they agreeably finished each other's sentences and charmed everyone in the room. The Shulgins had spoken to the New York Times earlier that week and told both magazines essentially the same story -- almost.

''At the start of the 20th century, there were only two psychedelic compounds known to Western science: Cannabis and mescaline," Sasha told both reporters. "50 years later there were 20 including LSD, psilocybin and MDMA. The number increased by a factor of 10 in 50 years. By 2000, there were over 200, most of them originating in my book, PiHKAL. The growth was exponential.'' When the New York Times reporter asked if that exponential growth would continue, Shulgin sensibly predicted, ''The way it's building up now, we may have well over that number.'' But that's not what he told High Times. To us, Sasha Shulgin spoke candidly: "There will be over 2000 psychedelic compounds known by 2050," he said definitively. And the twinkle in his eye grew brighter as he smiled and said, "I've already developed 750 of them."

Among his own, Sasha Shulgin, who died on Monday, will always be remembered and revered as one of the greatest shamans of modern times. Certainly more scientist than psychonaut; he was crudely dubbed "the godfather of ecstasy," but he was far beyond that. In fact, he was the bridge between ancient spiritual traditions and modern chemical science, and his many contributions that he made to mankind are likely to resonate through the ages.

Alexander Shulgin was born in Berkeley, CA in 1925, the son of a Russian immigrant father and a public schoolteacher from Illinois. Always a brilliant student, Shulgin studied organic chemistry at Harvard University on a scholarship at 16, but dropped out when he turned 18 to join the Navy in time for World War II. He served on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic, and during the war discovered psychopharmacology when a placebo put him to sleep for surgery. He was fascinated that "a fraction of a gram of sugar had rendered [him] unconscious," and, following that insight, he combined his passion for chemistry with his increasing curiosity for the untapped power of the mind.

After the war he returned to Berkeley where he earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California and did his postdoctoral work in psychiatry and pharmacology at UC San Francisco. He was quickly snatched up by the private sector, landing a choice job as senior research chemist at Dow Chemical; around the same time, Sasha had his first experience with psychedelic drugs. "I first explored mescaline in the late '50s. Three-hundred-fifty to 400 milligrams," he recalled in an interview, a massive dose. "I learned there was a great deal inside me."

Shulgin also realized that a small bit of the substance had thrown open the doors of sense and memory but those qualities, he maintained, were "not contained in the little white solid."

"I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit," he told the New York Times reporter; later that week his comments for High Times readers were far more affirmative.

"Drugs don't do it," he insisted. "They allow you to do it. Each drug allows you to open a different door."

Beginning in 1960, Sasha started to independently develop iterations of the amphetamine molecule and, breaking with western medical tradition, repeatedly tested his discoveries first on himself and then on a small group of professionals and friends who helped him categorize and rank the individual effects. That same year Dr. Shulgin developed Zectran, the first biodegradable pesticide and a highly profitable product for his employers. In return for the patent Shulgin was given wide freedom to pursue his own research as he created and patented more drugs for Dow. He independently developed new psychoactive compounds and published the results in all-too-visible journals such as Nature and the Journal of Organic Chemistry. By the mid-'60s Dow asked him to stop using their name on his publications; he subsequently parted ways with the chemical giant. He studied neurology for two years, teaching at San Francisco General Hospital, and became a private consultant for a wide variety of organizations including, infamously, the DEA. Shulgin set up a small laboratory behind his house, a legendary space by the time he was through, with a "magic stockroom" containing 10 to 15,000 hard-to-find chemicals. In a small shack behind his home in Northern California, Sasha began a systematic exploration of the human psychopharmacological landscape.

In 1965 Shulgin was introduced to the molecule 3, 4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine by one his former graduate students. MDMA -- better known today as ecstasy -- is an empathogen first synthesized and patented by Merck in 1912 purely for business reasons, so its unique properties lay dormant, buried in a mountain of research and never fully explored until Alexander Shulgin rediscovered the drug. He developed a new synthesis method that made the molecule easy to replicate and passed those tangible results onto psychologist Leo Zeff, who used MDMA in small doses in his private practice and, more importantly, introduced the substance to hundreds of psychologists and lay therapists around the country (these professionals included Shulgin's future wife, Ann, whom Sasha met in 1979 and married two years later). Between Shulgin's newfound method of synthesis and the molecule's newfound mojo among shrinks, the MDMA revolution began in the 1980s, and the legend of the godfather of ecstasy was born.

Prior to Shulgin's arrival on the scene, the development of psychoactive drugs was the exclusive domain of research labs. That's why LSD came to be patented by Sandoz, and why MDMA was patented by Merck. Over the years, the Shulgins came to believe that these substances are valuable tools for personal growth and need to be available to the public. This led to the publication of PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story by Dr. Alexander and Ann Shulgin (Transform Press 1991), a self-published masterpiece. Part fictionalized loved story, part chemical cookbook, the title word is an acronym: "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved". By publishing detailed synthesis instructions for over 200 psychedelic compounds (most of which he developed) Shulgin ensured that the ownership of his chemical children would remain in the public domain and could not be patented in the future by private corporations. Like MDMA, PiHKAL launched its own revolution -- the club-drug world of 2C-B, 2C-T-2 and 2C-T-7 and so many more. All told, Shulgin's creations include a host of aphrodisiacs, depressants, stimulants, convulsants, empathogens, emetics, time-dilators and mood elevators, drugs that suppress your emotions and drugs that increase your love.

Recently, a researcher at the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA successfully used MDMA to ease end-of-life anxieties in terminal cancer patients. Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a Charleston, SC psychiatrist working under the umbrella of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has demonstrated that MDMA is safe for treating severe post-traumatic stress disorder; that project is currently in Phase 2 FDA trials -- using human test subjects -- to determine if MDMA is effective as a therapeutic aid for PTSD as well. Similar studies are being considered for victims of sexual assault. These research projects are part of a broader resurgence of scientific interest in the healing power of psychedelics that is growing among scientists. At this writing, over a dozen double-blind studies are underway to assess the medical efficacy of psychedelic drugs with fresh eyes. MDMA, safe to administer and anecdotally effective, is at the nexus of that growing movement. In this manner, as the 21st century proceeds, Dr. Shulgin's true contributions will manifest. The question is: What will a world with 2,000 psychedelic drugs look like? The answer: It will look different. Probably very different.

"I have a drug that can seize your muscles every time you take it," Shulgin told High Times. I was listening as someone else was conducting the interview. "I have a drug that will provide six hours of bliss every time," and he wryly added, "and that's not as much fun as it sounds. I have a drug that can extend an orgasm for hours and I have a drug that can..."

"Wait!" I sat up with sudden interest. "Go back!" I said. "I have a question!"

Sasha, Ann and the High Times reporter all laughed.

"On you?" I implored. "Do you have this drug on you?"

In 1997 the Shulgins followed up PiHKAL with TiHKAL -- "Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved" -- and taken together the two books comprise a continuing act of subversion and an ongoing gift to mankind. But giving that gift came at a price. Two years after the publication of PiHKAL, the DEA raided Shulgin's backyard lab and pulled the DEA license that allowed him to make small amounts of Controlled Dangerous Substances. However, by that point Shulgin's work had evolved beyond CDS to working exclusively with base chemicals and elements, all perfectly legal, and synthesizing them into something that had not previously existed outside the lab, something that was not illegal -- yet.

The DEA's crude move did not slow down Sasha's work, but aging was more determined. When High Times caught up with the Shulgins in 2005, Sasha was writing a complete encyclopedia of psychedelic drugs, and had achieved "almost 750" of the 2000-plus possible iterations of the amphetamine molecule. At some point he realized that he wasn't going to have time to finish his work and, with the help of a determined group of acolytes, began instead to make sure his research was preserved. This led to the publication of The Shulgin Index, Volume 1: Psychedelic Phenethylamines and Related Compounds, Transform Press (2011). The Index is a comprehensive survey of the known psychedelics and represents the compiled life's work of Dr. Alexander Shulgin. Over 1,300 compounds are covered in Volume 1, and Volume 2 is slated for publication in the near future. Shulgin's final gifts to mankind, these two books should keep chemists and psychonauts busy for decades to come.

Sasha Shulgin died on June 2, 2014 at exactly 5:00 pm surrounded by friends, family and Buddhist meditation music. "His going was graceful," his wife reported.

As was his life.

Have a good trip, Sasha.

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