Q. What is the substance that we commonly call "Ecstasy"?
Surfing the Rave: EcstacyInterview with Dr. Alexander Shulgin
A. Ecstasy is a street name. It is the popular identification of a material that is a white crystalline solid which is the hydrochloride salt of an amine. Its chemical name is 3,4 methylenedioxy N-methylamphetamine or methylene-dioxy-meth-amphetamine, hence M-D-M-A.
Q. When did you first come across MDMA?
A. I was first told about it in the late '60s or early '70s by a person who said she was exploring substituents of the MDA world. This was one of the ones that was suggested, so I made it and put it to the taste test.
Q. What are its origins?
A. The compound has been around since before World War One. It was patented in 1912 in Germany which is where some of the mythology about MDMA started. In fact, some of the earliest reports about MDMA said it was patented as an appetite suppressant and was used by the German army until it was withdrawn because of toxic side effects. It's all simply not true.
It was actually patented by Merck as an intermediate, with no claims of medical utility whatsoever, and it lay untouched in the chemical literature from 1912 until some work in Poland was done in the '60s, again describing its synthesis.
In 1950, or thereabouts, it was one of about six or seven compounds studied at the University of Michigan by the chemical warfare people as a possible toxin and stimulant. However, it received no great note there and that work was eventually declassified and published in the early 1970s.
Then in the early to mid 1970s, when I was doing a lot of work with phenethylamines, with amphetamine-type structures, I put the methyl group in them and found that all of them, all the well known psychedelics, were inactive, except for MDA. I methylated it and it became N-methyl MDA (N-methyl methylenedioxyamphetamine), and when I taste tested it, it had a totally different type of effect. It was not a stimulant as such, although it had some stimulant properties. It caused eye dilation. It caused loss of appetite, but it was not a psychedelic either. It caused this extraordinary, disinhibiting, honest response to self-image that I found to be unique, and I still believe it to be unique. I've found no other compound that has that exact family of properties.
Q. You explained how it sits in relation to types of chemicals. Can you put it in context for the non-chemist? What's it related to? Is it a bit of one thing and a bit of another ?
A. The classification of MDMA usually has to go through one vocabulary into another. If you do it through the structure of the molecule, then the molecule quite closely resembles amphetamine itself. It has the same carbon skeleton and type of nitrogen substitution as methamphetamine. But it also has on it a heterocyclic ring, a methylene-dioxy ring, that takes it completely away from the area of pharmacology of the amphetamines. Yet it still bears the skeleton structure of an amphetamine. So yes, chemically it is an amphetamine, although pharmacologically, that's not a good classification.
Q. Pharmacologically as opposed to chemically means?
A. Pharmacology is what the action on the person is, how it affects the body, how it affects the mind. Chemistry is how the molecules are put together with atoms.
The term 'amphetamine' has three meanings. One definition refers to its structure - this carbon is attached to that carbon; that is the structural fiber of an amphetamine from the chemist's point of view. The pharmacologist's definition is that amphetamine is something that causes stimulation, lack of sleep, rush, cardio-vascular involvement and a passing excitement. The third definition of amphetamine is the legal one, which means it is classified by law under a heading that says amphetamines as opposed to narcotics or sedatives. It has no connection, necessarily, either with the structure or with the pharmacology.
Q. When you first actually put it through your taste test, was it a completely new type of drug to you?
A. Yes. I expected it to be a psychedelic, and cause the sparkle and the sensory enhancement or distortion that's characteristic of the psychedelic. That part was not there.
Q. So how did it make you feel?
A. It was a new type of action. I found myself able to remain completely clear, completely lucid, I had excellent recall. I had none of the cloudiness of recall that sometimes does come with some of the delusional drugs. None of that was there at all. I found myself being able to think honestly. That's a strange term because you think of honesty as interaction between two people. But to be able to be honest with yourself and think, 'Why did I do that? Well, I'll tell you, I did that because of such and such', was fantastic. It was an honest answer in an area where we're so used to denial or to disavowing, or to just hiding our feelings. I felt myself come open. I found it extremely exhilarating because I'd discovered a completely magical place. As it began dropping - after about an hour and a half the effects very quickly went away - I found myself thinking that I'd been in a remarkable place which I would probably visit again. But first, I wanted to find out more about what happens to MDMA in me and what happens to me as a consequence of the interaction. I had to study that before I could go much further with it.
Q. How was MDMA used in therapy? Do you know how that began? Where and what the genesis of that was?
A. Its initial use in therapy was actually the ambition of a person who's now dead, a psychologist - I think in our book we call him Dr. Adam because his family still isn't comfortable with the public release of his identity. When I first mentioned this to him, he was in his late 60s, possibly early 70s and had retired from clinical practice. I said to him, 'You might take a look at this. You might find it of interest in the sense that it allows you to be honest with yourself.' This is the one thing that's quite difficult in any therapy interaction, this idea of candiness and honesty. We go to therapy to unravel some of our problems and then we don't talk about our problems. There's an unfortunate six months or so that is invested in establishing a dialogue. I felt this compound might achieve in one session what normally took six months. And he said, 'I'm getting too old for this nonsense, but okay, I'll try it.' He tried it. He came out of retirement. He took the material and I think he single-handedly, in the course of about four or five years, distributed it around the world to therapists - not to patients, but to therapists in the thousands. He was probably the Johnny Appleseed of the use of MDMA in psychotherapy.
Q. Of course at this stage it was quite legal to do so and I guess before it became illegal, as I understand it, it spread to universities, to bars etc. particularly in Texas. Again I'm just interested in how that happened. Do we have any idea?
A. From what I have read and been told, it was being very widely used in therapy, but also its use became quite popular amongst those people who knew people who were interested; because at that time, in therapy the use of psychedelic drugs was not unknown. At that time, many of the psychedelics were not specifically illegal, and were sometimes being used for aversion therapy or for conditioning therapy.
Outside of the therapeutic community there was, as there almost always is in these cases, a person or a few people who figured out that they could sell MDMA and make a lot of money. They were the ones who gave it the name, "Ecstasy". The drug should have been called 'empathy' for what it did, but I believe they felt that 'empathy' didn't have the same sensational ring to it. So they called it 'Ecstasy', which is a strange name but it stuck. And it was sold more and more at bars, parties, what have you.
The whole thing came to a crisis in Texas where it was used to such an extent that the authorities became concerned and decided that since it was not a recognized drug that came under the umbrella of a pharmaceutical house, it was therefore an abusable drug which needed to be made illegal.
Q. Why did they decide to give it a Schedule One classification?
A. The legal structure in the United States is composed of five schedules. Schedule One is for drugs of maximum abuse potential with no medical utility. Schedule Two is for drugs of maximum abuse potential but with medical use. So medical use is acknowledged. Three is less than Two. Four is less than Three and Five is less than Four.
There is no place for something that has neither recognized medical use, nor maximum abuse potential. MDMA was given a Schedule One classification because there was no-one to champion it. Although thousands of people had used it successfully in therapy, no-one had really published anything. Therapists didn't get it into the medical literature as a valid treatment and a valid tool; as a consequence there was nothing to support its medical use and so it received a Schedule One classification.
Q. Has that led to the situation today where people are now struggling to do their initial base line work on it so that it can be reclassified or used medically?
A. It's a self-supporting denial, "a Catch 22", in a sense. If something has no medical use because it has a high abuse potential, there is no way of finding out what medical use it has because you're not allowed to test it on people because it has a high abuse potential.
That said, some work is being done. By Dr. Strassman, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he did human studies with DMT and by Dr Grob at UCLA, who's presently doing human studies with MDMA. Mind you, this is after a great deal of letter writing and political schmoozing.
Q. There is an assumption by a lot of people that MDMA has tremendous abuse potential and is addictive. Is it?
A. The abuse potential of MDMA is as real as the abuse potential of anything that gives pleasure and satisfaction. This applies to MDMA as much as it does to sky diving, mountain climbing and skiing.
I should also point out that to the authorities, abuse is the use of any illegal drug. It's not how you use the drug. It's the fact that the regulator says you can't use it.
On your second point, addiction, there is a tendency to use the word addiction in an almost pejorative or a socially condemning way. I personally tend to avoid the word addiction because of the baggage it carries with it - social unacceptability, legal involvement, pharmacological dependency. I like the word dependency because for one thing it avoids the addiction word; and secondly, it allows me to define two types of dependency - physical dependency and psychological dependency.
In the case of the former, your body will rebel if it does not get what it has become used to. In the case of the latter, you have the psyche, the spirit, the self image, the good feeling about yourself rebelling if you don't have more of the thing that feeds it. Neither are really addiction.
True addiction has traditionally meant being physically dependent on something, so that if it's withdrawn, you go through a crisis that may be life-threatening. Very few drugs satisfy that criterion, although barbiturates come close.
I remember a demonstration medical school about a cat that was given a barbiturate in a regular IP injection. The cat came to expect its injection and turned up every day at noon time to receive it. This went on for about eight months. One day, the cat got saline instead of barbiturate. Within two or three hours, the cat was dead. That is true physical dependency. That is addiction according to its archetypic definition. You do not have that kind of thing with MDMA. In fact, you do not have that kind of thing with psychedelics at all. For one thing they build up tolerance quite rapidly, or refractoriness. In other words, if you take it on the second day, it doesn't have that much effect, while on the third day, it has no effect at all. Nor is increasing the dosage the answer because of the side effects this causes. So you are almost blocked from becoming locked into a pattern of re-use. Physical dependency? Not at all.
You might have psychological dependency with some drugs in this area, such as Ketamine and marijuana. I know a number of people who use these drugs as a matter of habit and are very uncomfortable if that habit is broken. So there is a psychological component with some of these drugs. MDMA does not have that habit.
However MDMA does have a negative aspect. If you do use it with some degree of regularity, for example every week over a period of many weeks, that remarkable empathic magic is lost. Most people only have remarkable experiences with MDMA the first couple of times they use it. After that, the magic is somehow gone.
Q. Does that mean that a huge percentage of the people who are using it in the rave and dance scenes in Britain, Europe and Australia aren't getting a lot out of it?
A. That's right. The people in the rave scene are often over-using it to try to re-experience the original effects.
Q. Are you aware of many deaths from MDMA?
A. Yes, although many of the deaths are almost incidental to the use of the drug. However because MDMA is present, it's blamed. Worldwide, there have been dozens of deaths associated with Ecstasy. However, probably only a dozen have actually been due to Ecstasy.
I was once asked this question in court in Madrid, where I was giving evidence. At the time, the authorities didn't know what to make of MDMA. I told them that perhaps half a dozen deaths were directly due to the drug. I also told them that in England, millions of people have used it and that any drug that causes one death in a million users is probably pretty safe. The prosecution didn't really want to hear this, but the magistrate nodded and seemed to understand. Like any drug, there have been deaths associated with Ecstasy. But is it a lethal risk to use it? No!
Q. Do you think the media has exaggerated the risks of MDMA use?
A. Yes, but then that's the nature of the news media. You don't want the benign, you want the negative. How many times have you heard MDMA discussed in the light of its therapeutic use, its use in psychological exploration? All that most media do is find something associated with the dance scene or misbehaviour. And if there is an incident that is tragic, then all the better. That makes it newsworthy.
Q. Do you think there is a social use for MDMA?
A. Is there a social use for MDMA? Is there a social use for alcohol, which is lethal, or tobacco, which is also lethal? Yes. MDMA has for different people, different types of rewards, just like other drugs. Is there a reward for caffeine? Yes, but it's not necessarily the stimulant aspect of it. It's the community aspect of sharing a cup of coffee. You have this with marijuana. You have this with almost any drug that can play some role in establishing a rapport between people. That is the fibre of the social use of drugs. We have certain ones that we find acceptable. There are others that we make illegal. Other communities will rearrange the chips on the table of law in different ways. All of these materials have social redeeming value, including heroin and cocaine. On the other hand, we have built up an anti-drug picture with some being the evil ones and others being the accepted ones. And the insistence upon this dichotomous assignment is so much a part of our national self image, that I think the pattern is going to be hard to change.
Q. Does the expectation of a drug's effect influence the effect that that drug will have?
A. The expectation of a drug's effect very much influences the effect that drug will have. This was brought out years ago. I think it was Tim Leary who popularized the expression "set and setting". The "set" is what you expect a drug to do and the "setting" is the environment in which you use that drug. A lot of the early work, for example with LSD, was studied by Abramson and others in his living room with music in the background. The interaction between him and the people who were in the experimenting group was largely positive. For another group, in Los Angeles at about the same time, the setting was a hospital room, with stethoscopes and emergency equipment at the ready and a Code Red button to be pushed in case something went wrong. And almost to the person, the same drug was rejected, was found negative in its end results and was not wanted again. Exactly the same drug! The same type of person. The same background of health and freedom from psychotic problems. And yet the two different settings and the two different sets - the 'we-are-going-to-study-this as a possible social lubricant' versus the 'we're-going-to-study-this to see if it causes any liver damage' made such a difference. You take the same drug in two different contexts and you get two entirely different results.
Q. What's your feeling about the "just say no" approach to drug education?
A. I disagree with it. I firmly believe that people must be kept fully informed, must have complete access to all information about something and then make a choice. This way I think you're going to have a better consequence from the use of drugs in society. Drugs will be used in society. They always have been. They always will be. The risks now are getting more and more away from the body, away from the mind, away from the the public health aspect, and more and more into the legal aspect. I would say the most damaging aspect of many drugs and drug use today is the law, which often does more harm than the drugs themselves.
Q. Is there any chance of that actually changing for MDMA?
A. Might the law change in the area of MDMA? Only with difficulty. Unfortunately, the whole legal system as it addresses the drug and drug-use situation has moved away from what originally was a medical or a public health concern. Now it embraces not only power and control, but money. I'm trying to estimate the size of the industry - that is, the 'war on drugs' industry - that has been built up, that is associated with, connected to, and benefits from this particular war. Now that we've lost communism as an enemy, what do we do with our large military? We find ways for it to be used in socially responsible enforcement of law. You have seizure laws. Property can be seized if that property is somehow associated with drug use. You have industries like the prison industry. I've heard that in California alone, four billion dollars a year is invested in the prison industry, in some 30 or 40 prisons. This is a big industry and it's growing. You have people who make spectrophotometers that are back ordered. Fifty-thousand dollar spectrophotometers are back ordered because the demand for testing urine samples is so great, that they can't supply them fast enough to the analytical laboratories where they're hiring chemists to run these assays. This is a big industry! You have the investment of the State Department which now can enter countries more and more - South American countries, European countries, because they are the sources of drugs. And therefore, it can enter and influence the politics of those countries. And the vehicle for getting into foreign politics is 'the drug' and 'the drug war'.
We had a Posse Comitatus Act passed after the Civil War in this country, that said that the military cannot be used in the enforcement of civil law, except for national emergencies. And so I learned just a while ago that submarines, nuclear submarines that no longer have to patrol the Straits outside Murmansk are now following trader-trawlers from Colombia to the United States and are going underwater and using their periscopes to see where the ships are going. Then they inform the Coast Guard. So, I asked the question of this person, 'How much does it cost to run a nuclear submarine for an hour? And I asked a group of people who were business people, visitors sitting around a camp fire, and I got answers ranging from twenty thousand to twenty million. Because you can't say the cost of a nuclear submarine. If you consider the toilet paper and the potato chips, twenty thousand dollars an hour. If you consider where the uranium came from and how often you have to change the missiles, and at 30 years what you're going to do with the left-over fuel. This is billions of dollars of equipment that, per hour, becomes quite expensive. And this is being used in the war on drugs. It's a part of the industry. The military has a tremendous investment and is getting more of an investment. This is part of that industry of the war on drugs.
You are not going to take away the very tools that are the raison d'etre of that industry without making a lot of people very unhappy. They've lost their income. They've lost their position of power, position of authority, position of doing what it is that gives them their jollies. You think that people use drugs because of the pleasure it gives them. The people who run the drug war in a sense use the drug war for the pleasures it gives them in turn. And unless you can change that ever increasing body, that entity, the gestalt of that industry as a self-perpetrating and self-growing thing, you're not going to find MDMA coming out and being made legal very soon.
Q. Do you think this is quite a sad loss for society?
A. No, not specifically for MDMA. There'll be other drugs. There are many other drugs that can potentially play that role and if research were easily done, they would be found. The loss to our society, I'm very much afraid, is at a much more subtle level. That is the loss of our individual freedom of behaviour, of being an independent person. I think it's a big worry that people in government, in industry, in this quadrant and that quadrant of society, are required to take random urine tests. Why? It's not to determine the presence of drugs. It's not a public health drive. It's a litmus test for individual ethics and morality. If you want the job, you have no choice. When you agree to the test, you're relinquishing a part of your freedom. Sure it's subtle, but this is just one example. There are many more. Who knows what the ultimate result will be. But it's going in a very bad direction. The bottom line is, if you dare say it, it's becoming a police state!
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