Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the inventor of more than 200 psychedelic compounds, died yesterday at 88.
While Shulgin is best known for his work with the popular party drug Ecstasy (or MDMA), the anti-establishment scientist’s past is full of surprises: He began studying mind-altering drugs with the backing of the giant multinational company Dow Chemical and was later granted a research licence from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
From Pesticides To Psychedelics
Shulgin, who claimed to have had more than 4,000 psychedelic experiences, entered Harvard University at age 16 on a scholarship to study organic chemistry. He left two years later to join the Navy. After serving in WWII, Shulgin went on to earn his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley.
In the late 1950s, Shulgin began working as a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical, where he helped to develop the first biodegradable pesticide, Zectran. After the pesticide’s tremendous success, Shulgin was “given freedom to pursue research of his own design” at the company, according to the Alexander Shulgin Research Institute.
Around the same time, Shulgin had his first psychedelic experience with mescaline, the active ingredient in the small, naturally-occuring cactus peyote. He began to study the plant’s chemical makeup. While employed at Dow, Shulgin published more than six papers on the psychedelic properties of substances like nutmeg oil and mescaline in respected journals like Nature and Mind.
“But while America’s anti-drug fervor picked up, Dow found itself in the uncomfortable position of holding several patents on psychedelic drugs,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
In 1965, Shulgin left Dow and opened his own personal laboratory behind his house in Lafayette, California, where he developed and tested new psychedelic compounds with a small group of friends and his wife, Ann.
Friends In The Drug Enforcement Agency
For almost 40 years, Shulgin continued to experiment and work out of his home laboratory. And for 20 of those years, he held a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Schedule I research licence. (The licence lets a select group of scientists legally experiment with controlled substances whose possession would otherwise be considered illegal.)
According to the DEA website, “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Shulgin maintained a close relationship with the very government agency tasked with overseeing his research, according to a 2005 profile in The New York Times Magazine:
The head of the D.E.A.’s Western Laboratory, Bob Sager, was one of [Shulgin’s] closest friends. Sager officiated at the Shulgins’ wedding and, a year later, was married on Shulgin’s lawn. Through Sager, the agency came to rely on Shulgin: he would give pharmacology talks to the agents, make drug samples for the forensic teams and serve as an expert witness — though, he is quick to point out, he appeared much more frequently for the defence.
He was also the author of a definitive textbook used by the DEA called “Controlled Substances: Chemical & Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws” (Ronin Publishing, 1988).
Shulgin never considered his experimentation with psychedelics, many of which were eventually labelled as Schedule I, to be illegal. Most of his research involved trying to create new drugs that hadn’t been classified. “It’s my stance that what I do is nothing illegal,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
But in 1993, the DEA raided Shulgin’s lab. There has been speculation that the raid was prompted by the publication two years earlier of PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, which stands for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved” with his wife Ann. The book includes instructions on how to synthesize chemical compounds and the appropriate doses. After the raid, Shulgin was fined $US25,000 for violating the terms of his Schedule I licence and his licence was terminated.
The MDMA Renaissance
It was in 1976 that Shulgin first began experimenting with MDMA, the substance that eventually earned the nickname the ‘Godfather of Ecstasy.’
The drug was originally “designed by the pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 to produce a blood-clotting agent,” according to The Guardian. Shulgin resynthesized MDMA after reading a report from a graduate student that hinted at the drug’s potential.
While MDMA is known to cause changes in perception and an enhanced sense of touch, Shulgin wasn’t profoundly impacted by the drug and referred to it as a “low-calorie martini,” likening the experience to an alcohol buzz in an interview with The New York Times.
Throughout his research career, Shulgin was particularly careful of drug dosages. He would begin to test chemical compounds by ingesting incredibly small amounts that wouldn’t cause any side effects and slowly build up the dosage.
He was also a strong advocate for the therapeutic qualities of MDMA, but his research on MDMA was halted once his Schedule I licence was terminated.
Today, MDMA is the subject of a series of clinical trials, including as a potential therapy for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
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