The man known as "the Godfather of Ecstasy" passes through a narrow door on a dusk-soaked evening in early winter. His strides are measured, his spine slightly hunched, though he still stands more than six feet tall.
altered statesmanecstasy pioneer Alexander Shulgin defends his work:
making mind-bending drugs right here in contra costa
By Dann Halem
He’s going to be 77 in June, but his words race smoothly from mind to mouth. He wants to show his lab off before it gets too dark. Two weeks ago, a tree fell and cut the power lines completely. "This will give you a taste," he says, his shoes splashing through mud puddles.
The lab is perhaps a two-minute walk from his small gray- and red-bricked house, all of it sitting on a 20-acre family farm in unincorporated Contra Costa. The "godfather," whose name is Alexander Shulgin (though his friends call him Sasha ... and his critics, much worse) has lived on the farm since 1936. The lot boasts endless rolling hills and a postcard view of Mount Diablo. And, of course, it boasts his lab.
Rustic and sturdy, Shulgin’s lab has seen its share of controversy. It was here that Shulgin discovered - or rediscovered - nearly 200 mind-altering chemicals, the most famous being Ecstasy, a drug that continues to dominate the world’s rave scene. In recent years, Shulgin’s research has drawn the ire of law enforcement, most notably the Drug Enforcement Agency, which believes the scientist is largely responsible for creating drugs popular among today’s club kids.
All the same, Shulgin points out the aspirator system, the rotary evaporator, the solvent stills - everything a chemist requires for bare-bones pharmacological research. He believes his studies are critical to modern science’s quest to understand the human mind. When used clinically, he says, such drugs can help patients break down psychological barriers and look objectively at their lives. Did he intend his research to have worldwide distribution via technology like the Internet? He says no, though he and his wife have self-published two books filled with hundreds of his psychoactive recipes.
And Shulgin says he won’t stop, despite intense government pressure. In his lab sit shelves of long, white trays filled with carefully marked, clear beakers. "All chemicals," he says. "All chemicals I’m making." He pauses a moment before pointedly adding, "All of it legal, every last bit."
The name 3,4,-Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA/Ecstasy) is hardly memorable, or even pronounceable, to anyone outside the chemistry world. Yet the syllables glide from Shulgin’s lips like a knife cutting its way through warm butter. He sits on a lawn chair in his modest living room, explaining how to whip up a batch. His words are a maze of "aldehydes" and "phenols," though he makes the process sound as easy as baking apple pie.
His wife and "partner-in-chem," Ann, chuckles as if to say, "Isn’t that simple?" Not a single word Shulgin has said has made sense to anyone but himself, though Ann, a petite, rose-cheeked grandmother and one of Shulgin’s staunchest defenders, believes there’s something deeper to be learned from the formulas her husband has spent a lifetime exploring.
"MDMA is an insight drug," she says with a determined passion. "It helps you open doors to yourself. You can see yourself for what you are. You can feel a compassion for who you are."
Which is, of course, a very different picture from the one painted by the drug’s harshest critics. MDMA is an illegal drug with no accepted medical utility. Animal studies have found frequent use can change or imbalance serotonin levels, impair memory, and cause brain damage. The drug is almost always synthesized in underground labs. Pills are routinely laced with substances that can raise blood pressure and that can even be fatal. Still, 25 years after Shulgin’s discovery, the drug has swept around the world, not for the benefit of psychology, but instead to be purchased in the corners of dance clubs throughout North America, Asia, and Europe.
All of which is the ultimate mind-bending trip for two Contra Costa senior citizens with a houseful of books and impressionist paintings. There’s no throbbing techno beat coming from the den. Just classical artists. Prokofiev. Shostakovich. Shulgin plays a mean viola.
"It’s curiosity," Shulgin admits, that led him to this field of research. "Why have these things been revered for centuries? Why are they seen as being a conduit to contacting the spiritual world?" For a moment he sounds more shaman than scientist, more fascinated with life’s hidden meanings than with molecules and Bunsen burners.
Sasha and Ann Shulgin are complicated people - self-described intellectuals with unusual interests. They are unabashed advocates of drug legalization. Sasha once attended a rave and says he had a wonderful time. Both talk about past drug experiences as if they were a trip to Valhalla. The pair tours the world touting drug-assisted consciousness at universities and academic conferences. LSD pioneer Albert Hofmann is a friend. Iconoclast Timothy Leary was a colleague. The husband and wife, married 20 years (he’s a widower, she’s a divorcée) have penned two books on their chemical adventures. PIHKAL and TIHKAL chart the exploits of "Shura Borodin" and his wife "Alice" as they create new psychoactive drugs and down Shura’s powdery inventions like happy hour cocktails. In the back of each book are hundreds of recipes - all originating from Shulgin’s lab. To this day, these drugs are synthesized by Shulgin’s followers and are introduced to the rave scene under street names like "Foxy" and "7-Up."
Of course, there is another side to the couple. The quieter side. The careful precision of their research. The way Shulgin meticulously charts drug activity, often at levels unlikely to put a glow on even the strictest teetotaler’s cheekbones. How he worked for decades as a DEA lecturer and adviser, though the federal agency has raided their property twice since they self-published PIHKAL in 1991 (the agents found nothing illegal). The way that, despite their guru status in the counterculture world, they have often observed it with academic distance. The way they worry about neighborly disapproval. Rocks flying through windows. Overzealous politicians. They’ve long treasured their anonymity. And, despite their legalization crusade, they worry about those who take science too far, at the expense of health and personal safety. They have only terse words about Timothy Leary. "He had an ego the size of an over-inflated balloon," Shulgin says. And they feel a quiet devastation when they read in newspapers about deaths from "club drugs" some of which "the great Sasha Shulgin" invented.
Shulgin has lived in the East Bay all his life. Except for a stint in the Navy during World War II and a year at Harvard at age 16, he’s watched the area slowly develop from strawberry fields to suburban sprawl. Through it all, he’s spent most of his time on the farm. The lab is built on the site of his parent’s house, which was destroyed in a fire during WWII.
Shulgin talks about his childhood at length in PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved, which includes a painting of Mount Diablo on its cover). His father was a Russian émigré; his mother came from a small town in Illinois. As a kid growing up in nearby Berkeley, he remembers his parents’ circle of friends having a distinctively Old World flavor. He had little initial interest in chemistry. Instead, his passions were stamps and marbles. A neighbor had a large basement of books, and over time Shulgin became a "lover of basements," ultimately leading him into his own, where he set up his first chemistry lab.
In chemistry, Shulgin discovered his art form. Through psychedelic drugs, he hoped to explore the human mind. A shot of morphine while in the Navy led him to wonder how drugs altered consciousness. Upon taking the narcotic, why was he able to so easily disassociate himself from pain? It would prove to be a lifelong obsession, and after earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UC Berkeley in 1955, he went to work developing insecticides in the Pittsburg and Walnut Creek laboratories of Dow Chemical. After he created an insecticide that was purchased for commercial use, Dow gave him carte blanche to study whatever interested him.
The 1950s were a vastly different time for psychoactive chemistry. It would be another decade before the counterculture movement made Shulgins kind of work unpopular. "The science of these kinds of substances really came to a halt in the mid-’60s," says Dr. David Nichols, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University. Until then, researchers were encouraged by drug companies to delve into mental illness research because, at the time, companies believed there might be a market for such discoveries. With this came a number of fresh compounds, including Albert Hofmann’s LSD.
It was during these years that Shulgin began looking at MDA, a drug closely related to Ecstasy, which the U.S. Army had initially hoped might prove to be a good truth serum. Eventually his research led him to look for other derivatives, though MDMA’s supposed lack of activity led Shulgin to ignore Ecstasy for years. Instead he did prolific work for Dow on scores of other chemicals.
Occasionally his creations made their way from publication in such mainstream magazines and medical journals as Science, Nature, and the American Journal of Medical Chemistry, into the counterculture world. One compound Shulgin invented, DOM, was resynthesized by underground drug labs and led to a rash of overdoses in 1967 in Haight-Ashbury under the street name "STP." Shulgin says users were consuming the drug at more than four times the dosage he’d used in experiments. Still, at a time when an increasing number of chemists were moving away from psychoactive research, Shulgin says he never thought about stopping. The fact that his colleagues were getting cold feet only strengthened his resolve.
His friends claim this stubborn streak was critical in the long run. Says Nichols: "He’s been the most visible person to take this on and say this is research we should be allowed to do. What we know about the human effects of these kinds of substances, we largely know from the work of Dr. Shulgin." "There isn’t any question he’s the most outstanding psychedelic chemist in the world," says Myron Stolaroff, treasurer of the Los Angeles-based Albert Hofmann Foundation. "He’s spent his life studying and revealing new compounds. Nobody’s even approached his volume. Hofmann discovered some wonderful things, but it was only 10 or 12, compared to the couple hundred Sasha discovered." Still, by the mid-1960s, Shulgin’s work had begun to chafe on his employers. Eventually Dow asked that he publish his scientific writings from home. Shortly thereafter, Shulgin built his lab and quit Dow to work as an independent consultant, continuing his increasingly controversial research semi-defiantly from his own backyard.
If there’s one word the Shulgins can’t stand, it’s Ecstasy.
One reason is that they don’t think the name fits. "The drug should have been called Empathy," Shulgin insists. He believes there’s nothing ecstatic about Ecstasy - though he mirthfully admits the drug dealers who coined the tag probably knew what was best for their business.
Prior to 1985, which is when MDMA was declared illegal, it was one of hundreds of compounds that chemists mined for pharmacological activity. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 1976 that Shulgin was curious enough about the old German reject (it had been patented by Merck in 1912) that he decided to "taste test" a batch of his own.
A week before, he’d received a call from a friend recommending he take a closer look. Starting out at 15 milligrams, he found the drug had no effect. Yet, as days turned into weeks, Shulgin gradually increased the dosage and soon found something unexpected.
"I was just amazed by what was there," he says. In his lab notes, he wrote, "I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day and evening. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience."
Soon after, Shulgin recommended the drug to a number of his psychologist friends. One of them, whom Shulgin has never identified, became a Johnny Appleseed of sorts, introducing MDMA to thousands of doctors across the country. At the time, the Shulgins were thrilled by the initial buzz surrounding the drug, though today they concede MDMA’s reputation has been sullied by what they see as a culture of irresponsibility and a federal government hell-bent on promoting an anti-drug agenda. They believe this has drawn focus away from MDMA’s potential in medical research, specifically for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an area in which the FDA approved limited testing last fall.
"I think it could prove most important in helping soldiers who have killed during war," Ann says, adding that she cried on the day it was outlawed. "It allows you insight without self-rejection. It’s as if you can see your life happening to someone else, but view it with understanding compassion."
Still, some psychologists believe the Shulgins rely too heavily on their own personal biases, and they question the motivations of those who encourage MDMA in therapy. "I don’t think the thrust of curiosity here is trying to find a drug to cure Post Traumatic Stress, but instead is enthusiasm of how it’s unique to experience altered states," says Raymond Ruzicano, a Walnut Creek psychiatrist and member of the Medical Ethics Committee at John Muir Medical Center. "I think there’s a lot of naïveté about it. When you get down to it, most of the results are anecdotal. There’s very little data to support it."
Nor are Shulgin’s research methods universally embraced by the medical establishment. While mainstream testing is done on animals, Shulgin years ago adopted the controversial approach of testing his creations on himself and friends.
Until drug laws tightened in the mid-1980s, Shulgin frequently invited friends to his home to test his discoveries. Shulgin’s "human health board" included a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and several chemists (Ann joined in the late 1970s).
Shulgin claims his research group was crucial toward his conducting research on how the human mind interacts with psychedelic drugs. While it would be possible to study the physiological reaction of an animal, Shulgin believes only human testing illustrates how these drugs impact sensory perception.
However, some critics say Shulgin has violated one of the fundamental tenets of research by involving himself in his studies firsthand. They say such interference is frowned upon in mainstream science because a researcher’s involvement can invariably alter an experiment’s results.
"He is the patient. He knows what he’s taking. That’s the fundamental flaw," says Dr. Neil Fruman, chairman of John Muir’s Medical Ethics Committee and a family practitioner in Lafayette "His perceptions are going to be distorted by what he uses, and the consequences and side effects of those perceptions, when he’s in a more lucid state, are what he’s going to write about."
The Shulgins say they’re merely making the best of a bad situation, one in which federal law restricts their ability to do research on many chemicals, and neither the FDA nor the drug corporations are willing to fund broader psychoactive research. In recent years, they say, even scientific journals have grown increasingly uncomfortable about publishing Shulgin’s findings. "It’s called chicken," Ann says.
This eventually led them to write PIHKAL and TIHKAL, books that Timothy Leary once described as akin to Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Half semifictitious memoirs, half underground cookbooks, the Shulgins’ self-published books about their research have dramatically raised their public profile, forever altered their relationship with the government, and led to many of Shulgin’s recipes becoming hot commodities on the rave scene.
Sasha is telling a story. It’s drizzling on the porch outside. His words come noticeably softer now, a departure from the jokes he likes to crack, where Ann, puffing lightly on her third cigarette, tells him to mind himself and hush. The story is about an old psychologist who had his own strange field of research. At the end of his life, his work ran afoul of the FDA. He was arrested, but died before his trial. Shortly thereafter, authorities went to his house and burned all his papers. "I could see something like that happening to me. All of my lab books going up in smoke," Shulgin says.
So, instead, he chose to publish his findings. He says the goal was to attack the perception that drugs are either good or evil, and to assert that they are tools to be used for personal discovery. Both Shulgins believe there is nothing criminal about a search for self-awareness, and every person should have "the license to explore the nature of his own soul."
In their living room, the examples come fast and furious. "Do you know what a state of inflation is?" Shulgin asks, while Ann prepares tea. Such a state, he says, is equivalent to being Michael Jordan or the dictator of a third-world nation. It’s a sensation most people can only experience artificially, though the Shulgins believe there are lessons to be learned from it. Most important is how to return to the regular world.
"The most valuable thing about such a state is that once you’ve experienced it, you begin to understand by contrast what is so valuable about your normal, non-inflated life," Ann says.
To the Shulgins, such thinking is hardly controversial. So much so that when they finished PIHKAL, the first people they sent copies to were their old friends at the DEA.
Today the DEA has little to say about Alexander Shulgin. They admit he once held one of their analytical licenses, which allowed him to do studies on illegal drugs, and that the license was surrendered as "part of a civil matter."
"Other than that, there’s nothing else I can say," says DEA spokesman Richard Meyer.
That the DEA has been so critical of their research has plainly left the couple stung. While the Shulgins say many DEA chemists are enthusiastic about their contributions to science, they feel the higher-ups in the agency have been both hostile and harassing.
Following PIHKAL, Shulgin claims, the DEA killed some of his chemical ordering accounts and limited relationships with old friends in the Agency. Then there was the time two years ago when Ann called the police to report a prowler. Within hours, the DEA and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department were combing the property, and Sasha was placed in the back of a police car. Though they found nothing illegal and the farm hasn’t been visited by drug investigators since, "the invasion," as they like to call it, left the couple noticeably shaken.
"We don’t need any more of the government hoping we’ll die,"Ann says. "Someone in the higher echelons of the DEA said something to that effect. We don’t need that kind of thing. It’s just not comfortable. Just because we don’t agree with their point of view? If it wasn’t for the First Amendment, we wouldn’t be alive, the way things have happened."
Shulgin adds, "I’m very scared about the way things are going today," highlighting just how dramatically his relationship with the federal government has changed.
For 30 years, while Shulgin was not-so-secretly inventing compounds and advocating drug legalization, he was also one of the DEA’s leading consultants and expert witnesses at government drug trials. In the Shulgins’ office, hidden behind a row of musty file cabinets, are two commendations from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a precursor to the DEA, presented in recog-nition of Shulgin’s "significant personal efforts to help eliminate drug abuse."
Rick Doblin, whose Florida-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been leading the charge for MDMA medical testing, once called Shulgin’s government work the "Faustian bargain" he had to strike in order to continue his research. Yet, even now, Shulgin doesn’t see a conflict between his DEA work and his private research. There were many times in the past when DEA friends would visit his lab. They’d poke around beakers, curious to learn about the latest drug he was slowly perfecting. When the Shulgins were married on a hot July 4th, their minister was a DEA agent.
"It was a well-paying job," Shulgin says of the arrangement. "I’m a sharer of information. I wasn’t consulting to their ends. I had no political alliance. It was the same information I would share at a university. The audience wanted what I had."
Of course, the DEA wasn’t the only group interested in Shulgin’s findings. Over the years, countless amateur pharmacologists have used his instructions to synthesize dozens of his creations for personal use and sale. It’s a reality the Shulgins find both empowering and disillusioning. They believe the spread of accurate information is good if it reenergizes the country’s drug legalization debate and advances the cause of psychedelics with medical utility.
However, both know the more common use (or "misuse," they would say) of their research is the creation of street drugs (or dangerous, poorly developed derivatives) that are often abused by teenagers, and in extreme cases, lead to death.
Though a number of Shulgin’s drugs are illegal, the vast majority of his compounds remain both legal and accessible. Shulgin talks freely about one drug, "a potent psychedelic," that is sold by an East Coast neurological supply house and remains completely off the books. Many of Shulgin’s drugs are now being commercially sold on the Internet; one, 2C-T-7, has had known fatalities.
Last year a 17-year-old Memphis boy purchased 2C-T-7 from an acquaintance who had bought it over the Internet. Though information on the drug specifically states it should not be snorted, the teenager did just that and died of a massive overdose at a Tennessee hospital.
It’s stories like this that make both doctors and parents shudder. "He should realize that the people who are paying attention to him are sometimes the people who have the least capacity to make better judgments," says John Muir’s Fruman.
"I certainly support his right to do research and publish it, but it would worry me that people would misuse it," agrees Ellen Peterson, a community activist who educates adults on drug issues in Contra Costa County. "He certainly has the right to do it, but ethically, I couldn’t. I’d have trouble creating and publishing something that had the potential of hurting others. Still, I also couldn’t be a bartender or manufacture bombs.
Even Shulgin’s colleagues agree there is a dark side to his work. "His perspective is clearly similar to the one the fathers of the atomic bomb had," says Purdue’s Nichols. "They unleashed this technology they believed would help end all war, but at the same time, it had all of these possibilities for evil and doing destructive things. I think these compounds, when used properly, will ultimately prove to be very beneficial, but right now it’s very frustrating for him to see things that can help improve people relegated to the wastebasket."
For Shulgin, who claims he never dreamed that his work would be used outside of science, it’s a tough call, and one he is most comfortable answering with a joke. "There are two things you must remember," he says. "First, the average IQ is 100. Second, always remember that 50 percent of the people are below average." He chuckles dryly, but then grows serious. "What are you going to do? Put yourself at an intelligence level of the least of the species? Never drive a car? Never leave your house? There will be tragic incidences from this research where one can only feel deeply saddened. And yet there is a lot of good coming from this too- good which I think will statistically compensate."
In the Shulgins’ dining room hang two red and brown paintings. Their style is abstract, their brushwork crafted, and if you look long enough, you’ll eventually see women’s faces. The portraits were given to Shulgin by a man he met only once. It happened years ago, following a college lecture. The man was tight-lipped and incredibly serious. He carried dozens of paintings under his arm. "Are you Professor Shulgin?" he asked.
The man stared at him intensely and said, "I took DOM for the first time four weeks ago. It was the first drug I’ve ever used. I had never painted before in my life." He requested that Shulgin please take the two paintings.
The Shulgins treasure the artwork. It hangs beneath a strip of police tape left behind by the DEA. To Shulgin, they’re tokens of a career he believes will be buried in the finer print of scientific literature. Only when asked about the story’s significance does he answer with something semi-surprising.
He says the man who gave him these paintings had it wrong. It wasn’t the drugs that made him paint. It was something hiding deep within him that he didn’t know he owned.
"Drugs don’t do things," Shulgin says. "They only catalyze what’s already there. No drug has skill. It’s you who has skill. You only have to know it."
Ecstasy in the USA
Ecstasy and Honesty
Ecstasy and the Brain
Alexander and Ann Shulgin
Alexander Shulgin on MDMA
Alexander Shulgin Interview
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Alexander Shulgin and 2C-T-7
MDMA in a Therapeutic Context
Alexander Shulgin: Psychedelic Chemist