Date: Oct/Nov/Dec 1998

21st Century Highs
The Future of Psychedelics

An interview with Alexander T. "Sasha" Shulgin by Dee

picture of Sasha Shulgin

Alexander Shulgin is the world's foremost developer and explorer of psychedelic drugs. Born in 1925, this self-described "manic libertarian psychedelic chemist", over the past 30 odd years or so, has been a prolific writer and his publications (150 scientific papers, 20 patents and a handful of books) provide a great introduction into the world of psychedelics and also he is the discover of DOM (at one time known as STP), MMDA and many other psychedelics and is generally regarded as the reinventor or stepfather of MDMA (Ecstasy - E).

With a PhD in Biochemistry from UC Berkeley, he has been a scientific consultant for such state-run organisations as The US National Institute on Drug Abuse, NASA, the US Drug Enforcement Organisation etc., but in private, has used his government licensed research lab, discreetly, but legally, designing hundreds of new psychoactive compounds, together with his wife Ann and a small, but dedicated research team, who sample each new drug as it's developed. Through cautious escalation of dosage, they discover and map out the range of each new drug's effects, experimenting with the various aspects of their psychological and/or spiritual potential.

In fact, one of the reasons he decided to write his autobiographical "chemical love story" Pihkal (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) and its continuation, Tihkal (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved), published late in 1997 and reviewed in Fringecore 2, was because he could see the need to get a lot of information published into a form that could not be destroyed. The books not only detail Sasha and Ann's remarkable adventures, but also set out recipes for recreating hundreds of Sasha's finely crafted magic molecules.

Sasha claims to be inspired partly by the history of Wilhelm Reich and considers Castanada to be his model and hero, not only seeing psychedelics as a potential enrichment to everyday life, but also as a means to increasing personal insight and expansion of one's mental and emotional horizons.

Psychedelics may be best defined as physically non-addictive compounds which temporarily alter the state of one's consciousness. Sasha believes that the use of psychedelic drugs, including the minor risks involved (an occasional difficult experience or perhaps some body malaise) are more than balanced by the potential for learning. He has a strong preference for psychedelics over heroin or cocaine (especially crack), both of which he has tried, because he feels both tend to allow the user to escape from who he or she really is, even to the point, from who you are not. Heroin, in particular, he feels, creates a loss of motivation and alertness and under its influence, nothing seems important to him. Cocaine, on the other hand stimulates a sense of power, but also the inescapable knowledge that it is not true power.

There is a healthy dose of humour in Sasha's writings and I was looking forward to talking with him about the future of psychedelics and the likely highs for the 21st C.

Dee: What effect will future users be looking for, particularly in terms of ASC (Altered State of Consciousness)?

Sasha Shulgin: The effects that will be sought by future users of psychedelic drugs will, I believe, depend on the circumstances of their use. In a public environment, the uses will certainly parallel those of today such as socializing and person-to-person interactions. The disinhibition with honesty that often accompanies the pursuit of the alteration of one's consciousness allows an intimacy of interaction, not necessarily in the sexual sense but rather in the trusting sense. In a clinical environment, such as in psychological counseling or psychotherapy, the search might be directed more to establishing access to one's unconscious, with the expectation of unearthing the sources of personal problems and addressing them. In a private environment, the user may venture an exploration along spiritual paths, or some similar interior search for answers to personal questions.

Explain the different forms of contact high and how is it, do you think that it creates unintentional participation?

S: A contact high is an often unintentional joining into the spirit of a group interaction without the use of any drug that might have been used by the others. This is the very nature of man as a social animal. When those about you laugh, you laugh even though you may be unaware of just what, if anything, is funny. When there is a sad feeling about you, you can truly feel sad. The spirit of people in a rave scene, for example, can be contagious and, if there may happen to be a general use of psychotropic drugs, you may find the feelings contagious. I have often seen, in small groups, the behavior of a pet cat who just seems to know that something unusual is going on. It is an amazing animal model of the "contact high."

Ketamine and scopolamine are delusional anaesthetic drugs which actually produce true hallucinations, whereas, most psychedelic drugs contrary to common belief only create visual distortions of the real surroundings. When do you think there will be hallucinogens available that have the effect of ketamine, but less of the side-effects?

S: The separation of mind from body with Ketamine and similar drugs is not a side-effect - it is the intended effect. These are anaesthetics that have been designed for medical use to achieve just this result. They keep the afferent signals from the body from ever reaching the brain, thus allowing the patient to remain conscious and to travel out there in the cosmos, without being bothered by the otherwise painful input from the resetting of a broken leg.

In your experience which drugs produce the most potent mind-body separation, often known as the "Ketamine State" and are there different types of states?

S: I have had very little experience with the Ketamine world of psychotropic drugs. My search has, as a rule, been for materials that would tend to bring body and mind together, rather than to separate them.

Have you ever reached or come close to a plus 4 (++++) (by means of a drug, of course), if so, was it truly bliss and what produced it?

S: The +4 state is not simply a more intense place - it is a unique mental state that is a phenomenon unto itself. As Ann and I noted in PIHKAL, it is a rare and precious transcendental state which has been called a "peak experience," a "divine transformation" or a "state of Samadhi." It has been known to come from a drug experience, and it has been known to occur to a person spontaneously with no drug having been involved. I have had two drug-related reactions that I have called "bliss" or "timeless" or "omnipotent" states where I can move things without touching them and make cloud patterns assume shapes of my own choosing. But as extraordinary as they are, they are also exhausting and an eventual return to a normal "stoned" condition is truly appreciated.

Have you found that recipes such as Aleph 2 from Pihkal or AL-LAD in Tihkal, which seem to give a more peaceful trip than LSD often does, are likely to become more popular?

S: Probably not. Both of these materials call upon rather sophisticated chemical skills, and I suspect that they would not be the choice of the inexperienced layman. I suspect that the peacefulness of a psychedelic experience would be more likely to come from a familiarity with the ups and downs that might be met, and with a careful titration of one's own personal dosage requirements.

Which new "target compounds" are you researching?

S: I am currently totally caught up with an earlier interest I had had with the relationship between the structures of the alkaloids of the cacti and the poppy world. Most of this I had never published, but now I am resynthesizing and getting spectroscopic definitions of many fascinating compounds. One hears about a psychoactive cactus, thinks of peyote and mescaline. One hears about a psychoactive poppy, one thinks of morphine. And then turns to another topic. But both families are treasure houses of some remarkable compounds called tetrahydroisoquinolines, and I hope to put these findings together into a new book in the near future.

In the chapter on designer drugs in Tihkal "Shura" mentions that the drugs could be accepted as being of great social value, in that they could contribute to a better standard of living. In which way do you seeing this value being best expressed other than in purely improved basic health reasons?

S: The positive social value of these materials is a direct consequence of the enhanced openness and trust that can follow their exploration. This can come from a better understanding of one's own nature, and from an increased acceptance of the ideas and motives of others. Anything that can contribute in any way to the structuring and reinforcement of a community has the potential of true social value.

You have always found ways of by-passing the barriers/obstacles placed in the way of your research, the various controlled substance laws, the schedules etc. These seem to be coming more rigorous as you will know a large number of the recipes/drugs covered in Pihkal were recently made illegal in the UK. As I understand your stance to be that you do nothing illegal, how do you balance these factors?

S: The writing of new law, or the amending of old law, is a two-edged sword. The increase of complexity or of fine detail makes a structure stronger but, at the same time, more rigid. And I believe that the ends intended are very rarely met. Some 130 of the compounds mentioned in Pihkal were not specifically named, as it was felt that the generalized structure definition in the "Analogue Amendment" to the MODA covered them already. A careful comparison between their chemical structures and the precise wording of this amendment gives official acknowledgment of some remarkable limitations. And the explicit naming of the some 40-odd compounds in Pihkal that were believed to lie outside the scope of this amendment gives unprecedented publicity to several interesting psychedelic compounds that would have otherwise faded into oblivion. I have completed a working draft for a Chapter in my new book, entitled, "Britain: A Class A Country."

What is your current stance on human experimentation?

S: It is an absolutely essential procedure in the development of any research tool or medicine that will have eventual application in the study of the function of the human mind, or in the medical treatment of the problems that are associated with it. Research with animals has great values in determining the duration of sedatives or the effectiveness of narcotics, but can play no role in the discovery and evaluation of potential drugs that might improve self-image or recapture lost memories. These are uniquely human mind needs and require the human animal as the test animal. In the United States, a law was passed in 1986 that effectively outlawed the giving of any analogue of a Controlled Drug to anyone with the intent of achieving the effects of a Controlled Drug. This effectively outlawed the giving of any stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic drugs to man. This was put in place to prohibit exploration in these areas, but two areas remain totally open. No case can be made against the self-administration of a new chemical without an established effect. And, if no stimulant, or depressant, or hallucinogenic effect is intended but, rather, something in the area of an anti-depressant or a mood-enhancer, then the analogue law does not apply to the experiment.

Do you think we will see increasing interest in natural psychedelics, such as those containing psychedelic beta carbolines, such as peganum harmala; or ayahuasca, yage etc. What are the new base types evolving?

S: Very much so. Nature around us is an unbelievably rich, largely unknown, source of many plants and there are many quiet dedicated people exploring it. And some not so quiet! There are many herbs and potions being explored by an ever-increasing number of people. The ayahuasca concept is becoming widely known. This is the mixing of two plants, one of which contains a potentially active compound that is destroyed by the body's chemistry before the action can be realized, and the other containing a different compound that inhibits this destruction. And clues to certain botanical threads are being pursued with vigor. A recent addition to the psychedelic scene is the Mexican sacred mint plant which contains the very potent compound salvinorin-A. I have recently heard that as an outgrowth of this knowledge, several people are systematically eating or smoking other Salvia species to see if they too might contain active components. And so far, this search seems to be somewhat successful.

It seems that users will look for faster-acting psychedelics in the future, are there even newer forms of tryptamines being developed that are more effective than the derivatives and analogues of DMT, DET, DPT, DBT discussed in Tihkal etc?

S:I am not sure that speed of action and effectiveness are necessarily related. Rapid onset of a drug is as much a consequence of route of administration as it is an intrinsic property. Consider N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) or even better 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) as examples. When smoked, they are effective within seconds. But this very short onset period and the often correspondingly short duration is seen by some users as a negative property. You are hit quickly, you are pretty much on your back totally out of it, and then you recover and wonder just what that was all about! These materials, when taken orally with some metabolic poison such as an amine-oxidase inhibitor, can be much slower in onset and much longer lived. And in the eyes of many users, with an action that is much more acceptable.

Do you envisage that one of the pharmaceutical corporations will find a legal justification of bringing out a new line of psychoactive/psychedelic drugs within the next five years?

S: I would be most surprised if this were to happen. The ubiquitous anti-illegal drug propaganda all about us has been prompted primarily by the two most newsworthy entities cocaine and heroin. But the psychedelics have been caught up in this generality and the public has lumped them together as being similarly evil. And I cannot see any pharmaceutical house risking its reputation for health and goodness on the promotion of something that smells of evil. Look at the struggles that the advocates of medical marijuana are undergoing, all in the face of this relentless Government noise about drug abuse and related criminality. I am afraid that both the laws and public opinion will have to change before any responsible corporation offers a psychedelic drug commercially. And even then, its action will have to have a description identification without words such as psychedelic, or spiritual, or visionary, or God in it.

You invented MMDA, which despite popular confusion is a totally separate drug from MDMA. I believe you stated that it has many times the activity of mescaline. Do you feel that your original learnings on this drug and its analogues in terms of its effects have been verified? Will you find a way of producing MMDA-4 or 5 and what would you expect its power to be?

S: Yes, MMDA and MDMA are totally different materials. The first has initials that stand for Methoxy-Methylene-Dioxy-Amphetamine, and is structurally related to the essential oil myristicin. The second stand for Methylene-Dioxy-Meth-Amphetamine and is related to the essential oil safrole. I first discovered and published the nature of the activity of MMDA in 1962 and of the five theoretically possible positional isomers it is the second, MMDA-2, that is about ten times the potency of mescaline. I don't believe that anyone has ever succeeded in even making the isomer MMDA-4, let alone having evaluated it. I didn't publish the human activity on MDMA, however, until some fifteen years later, in 1978.

Phenethylamines and tryptamines are the two basic building blocks of psychedelics, by boosting their neurotransmitter counterparts in the brain. Are you researching any newly-found substances that can stimulate other, similar transmitters?

S: The brain neurotransmitters that are most closely related to phenethylamine and to tryptamine are dopamine and serotonin respectively. I am not sure that I would use the word "boosting" as a description however! These brain neurotransmitters are clearly involved in the action of the psychedelic drugs, but the interrelationships are not as simple nor as well understood and the neurologists would have you believe. There is a chemically related natural neurological agent that has the potential of parallel chemistry; this is the material histamine. With a black-board and a good supply of chalk, one could parallel the chemistry of both the phenethylamines and the tryptamines and draw a host of compounds that might possibly be psychoactive. But this is a theoretical world without any present known promise, and must wait for some future enthusiast to champion it.

Do you think that all of the states of consciousness which psychedelics induce are naturally present in the human or are they sometimes a unique reaction created by the interfacing of the chemicals with the endogenous neurotransmitters?

S: I am a strong advocate of the hypothesis that psychedelic drugs do not do things, but rather they allow things to happen. All the states of consciousness that can be revealed have always been present within that remarkable organ we call the brain, but we normally remain ignorant of our potentials. There is no way that a few micrograms or milligrams of a simple white solid could have the property of producing a religious experience or of seeing a divine image, all tucked away in its crystalline lattice. It is we, as curious and uninformed individuals, who bring these new states of consciousness into our awareness. The drug is merely the catalyst that lets this happen. All possible states are all with us all the time, and we were simply unaware of them.

Do you think that the use of psychedelics can lead to a completely new form of perception?

S: Not really. This is an extension of the question I just answered above. We have a handsome array of sensory skills normally at our disposal, and I believe that the psychedelics allow them to be more fully appreciated. In my first experiment with mescaline, almost 40 years ago, I saw colors that I had never seen before. But there was no way this could be argued as a new form of perception. They must have always been there, but I simply had never paid much attention before.

Are there long-term negative residues of psychedelics left in the body after a number of years of recreational use, if so is there any way of minimalising this in the future?

S: This is an ongoing concern of many people, and there is no direct way of answering it. There have been quite a few animal studies with various psychedelic drugs that have shown believable neurological change. Most of these have involved large and continuing dosages, but change is change and it simply cannot be said with any confidence that these results cannot apply to man. I don't want to attempt to make here a critical review of the mountain of medical literature that has appeared to attempt to tie MDMA to clinical problems. Most of the connections are weak, but some are real and demand that close and continuous attention be paid to the possibility of its being an instrument of causality. As to chronic use leading to long term damage, it is easy to say, "we have no way of knowing what might lie twenty years down the road," but the same can be said of any of the several new and well tested pharmaceutical agents that are introduced into medical practice every year. One must always remain cautious and observant.

Do you believe there will be an even more widespread use of psychedelics in the future?

S:This is hard to answer because it is impossible to say just how widespread the use of psychedelic drugs is today! There are many closet users who for some personal reasons choose not to reveal these interests. If the negative image that stains these drugs were to be removed and their use were to achieve social acceptability, there might be some rather remarkable public acknowledgments eventually made. And this could be interpreted as an increase in their use. I don't believe that the needed information is available to answer this.

What will be the next "Ecstasy", (not a psychedelic, of course) in terms of mass scene usage?

S: Oh there will surely be some event, some factor, some symbol of something that will define the "mass scene" but it need not be another "Ecstasy" and it need not even be another drug. As all of us get older, year by year, we tend to assume that the human animal, everywhere, is getting older and older. Not so! There has always been, and there will always be, a segment of the population that is at the rebellious age. They will search for, and discover a way of saying, "We are who we are. We are immortal. We will not march to our parent's drum." Time will move each individual towards old age and mortality. But at any given time, there is a real and exciting rebellious population who will use some prohibited drug, or explore some disallowed sexual things, or become devoted to some gung-ho musical phenomenon that the elders disapprove of. It is in the nature of youth to define itself in some new and preferably offensive way (at least as seen by the adults of the moment). It is an expression of defiance. I have been there and I have survived it. But I also remember it and very much respect it.

Although E is losing its popularity, it is still a regular at raves, which bearing in mind the fact that the magic and its "set" seem lost after the first few uses, presumably means that new users are coming into the fold all the time. By the way, do you consider yourself the "reinventor" of E (MDMA)?

S: The magic of the experience of MDMA ("E". Ecstasy) is sadly lost after the first few exposures to it, at least for most users. But it is keenly remembered, and the experienced user can recapture the memory of that magic by seeing a new person trying it for the first time. This is certainly one of the factors that has kept it alive and in demand over the years. Am I the "reinventor" of MDMA? I will settle for being called its step-father in that it was first invented many years before I was born. But as I was the first person to describe its remarkable properties in the scientific literature, maybe reinvention is an OK term.

and further reading

'Dr Ecstasy'
Professor X
Global Ecstasy
The Shulgin Scale
Carlos Castenada
Ecstasy in the USA
Ecstasy and the Brain
The Abolitionist Project
MDMA/ecstasy: review
The Language of Ecstasy
Alexander and Ann Shulgin
Alexander Shulgin on MDMA
Alexander Shulgin Interview
Alexander Shulgin and 2C-T-7
Buying Research Chemicals Online
The man who took 40,000 Ecstasy pills
Alexander Shulgin: Psychedelic Chemist
Can MDMA treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
MDMA/Ecstasy enrichment of the drinking water supply?