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January 30, 2005, New York Times Magazine [view
By Drake Bennett
Shulgin, Sasha to his friends, lives with his wife, Ann, 30 minutes
inland from the San Francisco Bay on a hillside dotted with valley oak,
Monterey pine and hallucinogenic cactus. At 79, he stoops a little, but
he is still well over six feet tall, with a mane of white hair, a
matching beard and a wardrobe that runs toward sandals, slacks and
short-sleeved shirts with vaguely ethnic patterns. He lives modestly,
drawing income from a small stock portfolio supplemented by his Social
Security and the rent that two phone companies pay him to put cell
towers on his land. In many respects he might pass for a typical Contra
Costa County retiree.
It was an acquaintance of Shulgin's named Humphry Osmond, a British
psychiatrist and researcher into the effects of mescaline and LSD, who
coined the word ''psychedelic'' in the late 1950's for a class of drugs
that significantly alter one's perception of reality. Derived from
Greek, the term translates as ''mind manifesting'' and is preferred by
those who believe in the curative power of such chemicals. Skeptics tend
to call them hallucinogens.
Shulgin is in the former camp. There's a story he likes to tell about
the past 100 years: ''At the beginning of the 20th century, there were
only two psychedelic compounds known to Western science: cannabis and
mescaline. A little over 50 years later -- with LSD, psilocybin,
psilocin, TMA, several compounds based on DMT and various other isomers
-- the number was up to almost 20. By 2000, there were well over 200. So
you see, the growth is exponential.'' When I asked him whether that
meant that by 2050 we'll be up to 2,000, he smiled and said, ''The way
it's building up now, we may have well over that number.''
The point is clear enough: the continuing explosion in options for
chemical mind-manifestation is as natural as the passage of time. But
what Shulgin's narrative leaves out is the fact that most of this
supposedly inexorable diversification took place in a lab in his
backyard. For 40 years, working in plain sight of the law and publishing
his results, Shulgin has been a one-man psychopharmacological research
sector. (Timothy Leary called him one of the century's most important
scientists.) By Shulgin's own count, he has created nearly 200
psychedelic compounds, among them stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs,
''empathogens,'' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow
one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent
outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion -- in short, a veritable lexicon of
tactile and emotional experience. And in 1976, Shulgin fished an obscure
chemical called MDMA out of the depths of the chemical literature and
introduced it to the wider world, where it came to be known as Ecstasy.
In the small subculture that truly believes in better living through
chemistry, Shulgin's oeuvre has made him an icon and a hero: part
pioneer, part holy man, part connoisseur. As his supporters point out,
his work places him in an old, and in many cultures venerable,
tradition. Whether it's West African iboga ceremonies or Navajo
peyote rituals, 60's LSD culture or the age-old cultivation of cannabis
nearly everywhere on the planet it can grow, the pursuit and celebration
of chemically-induced alternate realms of consciousness goes back beyond
the dawn of recorded history and has proved impossible to fully
suppress. Shulgin sees nothing strange about devoting his life to it.
What's strange to him is that so few others see fit to do the same
Most of the scientific community considers Shulgin at best a
curiosity and at worst a menace. Now, however, near the end of his
career, his faith in the potential of psychedelics has at least a chance
at vindication. A little more than a month ago, the Food and Drug
Administration approved a Harvard Medical School
study looking at whether MDMA can
alleviate the fear and anxiety of terminal cancer patients. And next
month will mark a year since Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist in
Charleston, S.C., started his study of Ecstasy-assisted therapy for
post-traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, with somewhat less
attention, studies at the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center and the
University of Arizona, Tucson, have focused on the therapeutic potential
of psilocybin (the active ingredient in ''magic mushrooms''). It's far
from a revolution, but it is an opening, and as both scientist and
advocate, Shulgin has helped create it. If -- and it's a big ''if'' --
the results of the studies are promising enough, it might bring
something like legitimacy to the Shulgin pharmacopoeia.
"I've always been interested in the machinery of the mental
process,'' Shulgin told me not long ago. He has also, from a very young
age, loved playing with chemicals. As a lonely 16-year-old Harvard
scholarship student soon to drop out and join the Navy, he studied
organic chemistry. His interest in pharmacology dates to 1944, when a
military nurse gave him some orange juice just before his surgery for a
thumb infection. Convinced that the undissolved crystals at the bottom
of the glass were a sedative, Shulgin fell unconscious, only to find
upon waking that the substance had been sugar. It was a revelatory,
tantalizing hint of the mind's odd strength.
When Shulgin had his first psychedelic experience in 1960, he was a
young U.C. Berkeley biochemistry Ph.D. working at Dow Chemical. He had
already been interested for several years in the chemistry of mescaline,
the active ingredient in peyote, when one spring day a few friends
offered to keep an eye on him while he tried it himself. He spent the
afternoon enraptured by his surroundings. Most important, he later
wrote, he realized that everything he saw and thought ''had been brought
about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way
whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained
within the white solid. . . . I understood that our entire universe is
contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access
to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us,
and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.''
Epiphanies don't come much grander than that, and Shulgin's interest
in psychoactive drugs bloomed into an obsession. ''There was,'' he
remembers thinking, ''this remarkably rich and unexplored area that I
had to explore.'' Two years later, he was given his chance when he
created Zectran, one of the world's first biodegradable insecticides. In
return, Dow gave him its customary dollar for the patent and unlimited
freedom to pursue his interests.
As Shulgin turned toward making psychedelics, Dow remained true to
its word. When the company asked, he patented his compounds. When it
didn't, Shulgin published his findings in places like Nature and The
Journal of Organic Chemistry. Eventually, however, Dow decided that
Shulgin's work wasn't something it wanted to endorse and asked that he
not use the company address in his publications. He began to work out of
a lab he had set up at home, eventually leaving Dow altogether to
freelance as a consultant to research labs and hospitals.
All along he made drugs: 2,5-dimethoxy-4-ethoxyamphetamine, or MEM
for short, was his Rosetta stone, a ''valuable and dramatic compound''
that opened the door to a whole class of drugs based on changes at the
''4 position'' of a molecule's central carbon ring. A compound he dubbed
Aleph-1 gave him ''one of the most delicious blends of inflation,
paranoia and selfishness that I have ever experienced.'' Another,
Ariadne, was patented and tested under the name Dimoxamine as a drug for
''restoring motivation in senile geriatric patients.'' Still another,
DIPT, created no visual hallucinations but distorted the user's sense of
Shulgin tested for activity by taking the chemicals himself. He would
start many times below the active dose of a compound's closest analog
and work his way up on alternate days. When he found something of
interest, Ann, whom he married in 1981, would try it. If he thought
further study was warranted, he would invite over his ''research group''
of six to eight close friends -- among them two psychologists and a
fellow chemist -- and try the drugs out on them. In case of a truly
dangerous reaction, Shulgin kept an anti-convulsant on hand. He used it
twice, both times on himself.
Shulgin's pace has slowed recently -- the research group hardly meets
anymore. Nevertheless, Ann figures that she's had more than 2,000
psychedelic experiences. Shulgin puts his own figure above 4,000. Asked
if they had suffered any effects from their remarkable drug histories,
they laughed. ''You mean negative effects?'' Ann said. In more than a
dozen hours of conversation, her memory proved sharp. But Shulgin, while
a nimble conversationalist, can have trouble with names -- of people and
places, never chemicals. At one point, while explaining a mnemonic
device he uses to remember world geography, he paused and asked me,
''Where's that place where Ann is from?'' (She was born in New Zealand.)
He is, though, also nearing 80.
Once a Shulgin compound develops a reputation, it is almost
invariably placed on the Drug Enforcement Agency's list of Schedule I
drugs, those deemed to have no accepted medical use and the highest
potential for abuse or addiction. It is therefore rather striking that
Shulgin is not only still a free man, but also still at work. His own
explanation is that, quite simply, ''I'm not doing anything illegal.''
For more than 20 years, until a government crackdown, he had a D.E.A.-issued
Schedule I research license. And many of the drugs in his lab weren't
illegal because they hadn't existed until he created them.
Shulgin's knack for befriending the right people hasn't hurt. A week
after I visited him, he was headed to Sonoma County for the annual
''summer encampment'' of the Bohemian Club, an exclusive, secretive San
Francisco-based men's club that has counted every Republican president
since Herbert Hoover among its members.
For a long time, though, Shulgin's most helpful relationship was with
the D.E.A. itself. The head of the D.E.A.'s Western Laboratory, Bob
Sager, was one of his 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 defense. He even wrote the definitive
law-enforcement desk-reference work on controlled substances. In his
office, Shulgin has several plaques awarded to him by the agency for his
service. (Shulgin denies that this had anything to do with his being
given his Schedule I license.)
Nevertheless, in the early 80's, Shulgin began having grim fantasies
of the D.E.A. throwing him in jail, ransacking his lab and destroying
all of his records. At the same time, he was finding it harder to get
his work published: journals were either uninterested in or leery about
human psychedelic research. He decided to make as much of what he knew
public as quickly as possible. He and Ann started work on a book called
(short for ''Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved,'' after a family of
compounds particularly rich in psychoactivity), self-publishing it in
It is a curious hybrid work, divided into two sections. The first,
''The Love Story,'' is a thinly fictionalized account of Sasha's and
Ann's comings of age, previous marriages, meeting, courtship (to which
nearly 200 pages are devoted) and many drug experiences. The second,
''The Chemical Story,'' is not a story at all, but capsule descriptions
of 179 phenethylamines. Each entry includes step-by-step instructions
for synthesis, along with recommended dosages, duration of action and
''qualitative comments'' like the following, for 60 milligrams of
something called 3C-E: ''Visuals very strong, insistent. Body discomfort
remained very heavy for first hour. . . . 2nd hour on, bright colors,
distinct shapes -- jewel-like -- with eyes closed. Suddenly it became
clearly not anti-erotic. . . . Image of glass-walled apartment building
in mid-desert. Exquisite sensitivity. Down by? midnight. Next morning,
faint flickering lights on looking out windows.'' ''TiHKAL''
(''Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved''), self-published six years
later, follows the same model.
To date, ''PiHKAL''
has sold more than 41,000 copies, a figure nearly unheard-of for a
self-published book. It introduced Shulgin's work to a whole new
audience and turned him into an underground celebrity. An organization
called the Center for Cognitive Liberty and
Ethics has an online Ask Dr. Shulgin column that receives 200
questions a month. On independent drug-information Web sites like
www.erowid.com, you can
find the ''PiHKAL''
entries for dozens of drugs, along with many anonymously posted accounts
of Shulgin-style self-dosing drug experiments, some of them harrowing in
With all of these fellow travelers, some very bad experiences are
inevitable. In 1967, a Shulgin compound called DOM enjoyed a brief vogue
in Haight-Ashbury under the name STP, at doses several times larger than
those at which Shulgin had found significant psychoactive effects, and
emergency rooms saw a spike in the number of people coming in thinking
they would never come down. And while the number of psychedelic-related
deaths is orders of magnitude smaller than the number due to alcohol,
prescription drugs or even over-the-counter painkillers, they do occur
regularly. In October 2000, a 20-year-old man in Norman, Okla., died
from taking 2C-T-7, a drug Shulgin describes in ''PiHKAL''
as ''good and friendly and wonderful.''
When I asked Shulgin whether he remembered the first time he heard
that someone had died from one of his drugs, he said he did not: ''It
would have struck me as being a sad event. And yet, at the same time,
how many people die from aspirin? It's a small but real percentage.''
(The American Association of Poison Control Centers, whose numbers are
not comprehensive, attributed 59 deaths to aspirin in 2003; most,
though, were suicides.) Asked whether he could imagine a drug so
addictive that it should be banned, he said no. With his fervent
libertarianism -- he says the only appropriate restriction on drugs is
one to prevent children from buying them -- he has inoculated himself
against any sense of personal guilt.
Shulgin's special relationship with the D.E.A. ended two years after
the publication of ''PiHKAL.''
According to Richard Meyer, spokesman for the agency's San Francisco
Field Division: ''It is our opinion that those books are pretty much
cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs. Agents tell me that in
clandestine labs that they have raided, they have found copies of those
books.'' In 1993, D.E.A. agents descended on Shulgin's farm, combed
through the house and lab and carted off anything they thought might be
an illicit substance. Shulgin was fined $25,000 for violations of the
terms of his Schedule I license (donations from friends and admirers
ended up covering the whole amount) and was asked to turn the license
To the extent that Shulgin is known to the wider world, it is as the
godfather of Ecstasy: 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA,
was originally patented in 1914 by Merck. The byproduct of a chemical
synthesis, it was thought to have no use of its own and was promptly
forgotten. But Shulgin resynthesized it in 1976 at the suggestion of a
former student. (He has never found out how she heard about it.) Two
years later, in a paper written with his friend and fellow chemist David
Nichols, he was the first to publicly document its effect on humans:
''an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and
Unlike many of its subsequent users, Shulgin did not find his MDMA
experience transformative. For him the effect was like a particularly
lucid alcohol buzz; he called it his ''low-calorie martini.'' He was
intrigued, though, by the drug's unique combination of intoxication,
disinhibition and clarity. ''It didn't have the other visual and
auditory imaginative things that you often get from psychedelics,'' he
said. ''It opened up a person, both to other people and inner thoughts,
but didn't necessarily color it with pretty colors and strange noises.''
He decided that it might be well suited for psychotherapy.
At the time, it was not such an unconventional idea. In the 50's and
60's, the use of LSD, psilocybin and mescaline in therapy was the
subject of much mainstream scholarly debate. LSD was a particularly hot
topic: more than a thousand papers were written on its use as an
experimental treatment for alcoholism, depression and various neuroses
in some 40,000 patients. One proponent was a psychotherapist and friend
of Shulgin's named Leo Zeff. When Shulgin had him try MDMA in 1977, Zeff
was so impressed that he came out of retirement to proselytize for it.
Ann Shulgin remembers a speaker at Zeff's memorial service saying that
Zeff had introduced the drug to ''about 4,000'' therapists.
In certain therapeutic circles, MDMA acquired a reputation as a
wonder drug. Anecdotal accounts attested to its ability to induce in one
session the sort of breakthroughs that normally took months or years of
therapy. According to George Greer, a psychiatrist who in the early 80's
conducted MDMA therapy sessions with 80 patients, ''Without exception,
every therapist who I talked to or even heard of, every therapist who
gave MDMA to a patient, was highly impressed by the results.''
But the drug was also showing up in nightclubs in Dallas and Los
Angeles, and in 1986 the D.E.A. placed it in Schedule I. By the late
90's, household surveys showed millions of teenagers and college
students using it, and in 2000, U.S. Customs officials seized nearly 10
million pills. Parents and public officials worried that a whole
generation was consigning itself to a life of drug-induced depression
and cognitive decay.
There is, in fact, little consensus about what MDMA does to your
brain over the long run. Researchers generally agree on its immediate
physiological effects: especially at higher doses, it can trigger sharp
increases in muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure.
Hyperthermia, or raised body temperature, is a particular worry, along
with the attendant risk of heatstroke or dehydration. MDMA also, at
least temporarily, exhausts the brain's supply of serotonin (a
neurochemical thought to play a role in memory and mood regulation). But
as to the extent and duration of that depletion, and whether it has any
measurable functional or behavioral consequences, there is fierce debate
and surprisingly scarce data. Nationwide, fatality numbers are hard to
come by, but a study by New York City's deputy chief medical examiner
determined that of the 19,000 deaths from all causes reported to his
office between January 1997 and June 2000, 2 were due solely to Ecstasy.
In the past couple of years, MDMA's opponents have backed off from
some of their stronger claims. (In one particularly embarrassing
instance, a study linking MDMA to Parkinson's disease was revealed to
have instead been based on the use of methamphetamine, which is known to
be much more neurotoxic.) Emboldened, a few psychiatrists are bringing
MDMA back into the news in a role closer to the one Shulgin originally
imagined for it.
With the F.D.A.'s approval of the
Harvard cancer-patient study on Dec. 17, all that's still needed is a
D.E.A. license for MDMA. John Halpern, the psychiatrist heading the
study, anticipates that happening in the next couple of months. At the
same time, he cautions against making too much of his ''small pilot
study'': eight subjects undergoing a course of MDMA therapy, with
another four receiving a placebo. The Charleston study is similarly
modest, with 20 subjects.
Still, according to Mark A.R. Kleiman, director of the Drug Policy
Analysis Program at U.C.L.A., ''there's obviously been a significant
shift at the regulatory agencies and the Institutional Review Boards.
There are studies being approved that wouldn't have been approved 10
years ago. And there are studies being proposed that wouldn't have been
proposed 10 years ago.''
The theoretical basis for MDMA therapy varies a bit depending on whom
you talk to. Greer says that by lowering patients' defenses, the drug
allows them to face troubling, even repressed, memories. Charles Grob,
the psychiatry professor running the U.C.L.A. psilocybin study (also
with terminal cancer patients) and a longtime advocate of therapeutic
MDMA research, focuses more on the ''empathic rapport'' catalyzed by
MDMA. ''I don't know of any other compound that can achieve this to the
degree that MDMA can,'' he said.
The medical community remains dubious. For Vivian Rakoff, emeritus
professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, there is something
familiar about the claims being made for psychedelics. ''The notion of
the revelatory moment due to some drug or maneuver that will allow you
to change your life has been around for a long time,'' he said. ''Every
few years, something comes along that claims to be what Freud called the
'royal road to the unconscious.''' Steven Hyman, professor of
neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and former director of the
National Institute of Mental Health, put it this way: ''If you asked me
to place a bet, I would be skeptical. In general, one worries that
insights gained under states of disinhibition or mild euphoria or
different cognitive states with illusions may seem strange and distant
from the vantage of our ordinary life.'' Even so, both Hyman and Rakoff
say that research should be allowed to proceed.
Shulgin has been credited with jump-starting today's therapeutic
research, but he prefers to play down his role. While heartened by the
MDMA studies and happy to play psychedelic elder statesman, he insists
that he is not a healer or a shaman but a researcher. Asked why he does
what he does, he replies, ''I'm curious!'' He is most animated when
describing the feeling that accompanies the discovery of a new compound,
no matter what its properties. Sometimes he compares the moment to that
of artistic creation (''The pleasure of composing a new painting or
piece of music''), and sometimes it sounds more like a close encounter
of the third kind (''You're meeting something you don't know, and it's
meeting something it doesn't know. And so you have this exchange of
properties and ideas'').
Shulgin's lab is in the concrete-block foundation of what used to be
a small cabin, set into a ridge a few dozen yards from his house along a
narrow brick path. On the door is a laminated sign that reads, ''This is
a research facility that is known to and authorized by the Contra Costa
County Sheriff's Office, all San Francisco D.E.A. Personnel and the
State and Federal E.P.A. Authorities.'' Underneath are phone numbers for
the relevant official at each agency. He posted it after the sheriff's
department and the D.E.A. raided the farm a second time a few years ago.
(They later apologized.)
Shulgin gave me my tour late one afternoon. A weak light came in
through the small, dusty windows. The smell -- synthetic and organic at
once, like a burning tire doused in urine -- took some getting used to.
Bulbous flasks were clipped into place above a counter crowded with
glassware shaped like finds from the Burgess Shale. ''Everything you
need is right here,'' Shulgin declared, pulling out drawer after
clattering drawer of test tubes, beakers, plastic tubing and syringes.
At the far end of the room, beside the fireplace, was a small chalkboard
covered with the traces of his brainstorming -- antennaed pentagons and
hexagons ringed with N's, H's, C's and O's. Shulgin picked a short bit
of scrap wood off the counter. He occasionally used it, he explained, to
tear down the spider webs that festooned the rafters. ''But the main
problem is the squirrels,'' he said, pointing to where he had put up
sheet metal to keep them out. ''It doesn't look like the labs you see in
the movies, but you get a chemist out here, and he'll say, 'Oh, my God,
I'd love to have a lab like this.'''
Of course, in a way, it's exactly the sort of lab that you see in the
movies -- they're just movies in which the scientists wear frock coats,
turn into monsters and abduct wan women in nightgowns. There's an
undeniable romance to what Shulgin does. As he stood there with his
spider-web stick, describing what it's like to be in the lab late on a
cold night with the fire blazing and Rachmaninoff on the radio, it
seemed to me that he realized it.
He might best be described not as a scientist in the modern sense but
as a different type -- what Aldous Huxley, the novelist turned
psychedelic philosopher, once described as a ''naturalist of the mind,''
a ''collector of psychological specimens'' whose ''primary concern was
to make a census, to catch, kill, stuff and describe as many kinds of
beasts as he could lay his hands on.'' Shulgin has on occasion run PET
scans to see where in the brain some of his drugs go. He has offered
theories as to mechanisms of action or, as with MDMA, even suggested an
application for a drug. But his primary purpose, as he sees it, is not
to worry about things like that -- much less about the political and
social consequences of his creations. His job is to be first and then
push on somewhere new. What to do with the widening wake of chemicals he
leaves behind is for the rest of us to figure out.
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for The Boston Globe Ideas