ALEXANDER SHULGIN - MDMA

ALEXANDER AND ANN SHULGIN. THE RISE AND FALL OF ECSTASY
 
 
 
 
 
It’s a beautiful sunny day in the hills above Berkeley, California as Dr. Alexander Shulgin leads me up a small path behind his house to inspect his laboratory. Stepping inside it's hard to believe that forty years ago, in this tiny, ramshackle and pungently smelling lab, Shulgin re-synthesized one of the most popular and controversial drugs of the twentieth century. A drug that has influenced a whole generation, led to the birth of Rave Culture, spawned new styles of music and fashion, and is now consumed illegally by millions around the globe. None of which was the intention of this maverick chemist. That drug is Ecstasy.
 
As Shulgin gives me a guided tour of his laboratory I boldly ask him to what degree he felt responsible for the massive impact Ecstasy has had on modern culture? "I am not into proselytizing or getting involved in any cause that claims Ecstasy use will change society", he states almost irritated by the question. "That will succeed or fail depending on the way people handle it. I don't consider myself part of this."
 
As an independent research chemist Shulgin is only interested in synthesizing new drugs and not in their use in popular culture. " I view the creation of new compounds as an art form," he explains. "It's like composing music. I'm not into exploiting the drugs. I like to make new materials. Some drugs I have made are nice and some are ugly, but each is potentially a tool for studying the action of the human mind."
 
 
NEW DRUGS
 
In his fifty- year career as a chemist Shulgin has managed to create over 200 new mind altering compounds. No other person has managed to synthesize so many psychoactive drugs. And it is unlikely that any other human being has ever taken such a wide range of psychedelics. However it is not only Shulgin's extraordinary talent as a chemist that makes his position so unique. It’s the terrifying way he chooses first to test all these new compounds on himself.
 
He does this by starting with a small dose and then slowly increasing it incrementally. Once a safe and effective dose is established he then carefully documents its psychoactive properties before sharing this with his wife, Ann, and members of his "research group". A core of around a dozen volunteers who have met regularly for the past 30 years and who eagerly act as human guinea pigs for Shulgin's potent mind altering compounds.
 
Shulgin's self-testing methods have inevitably resulted in some horrendous experiences. He has blacked out, gone into convulsions and even felt his bones disintegrate. But he continues to insist that it would be immoral to give the drug to any human or animal before he firsts tests the effects on himself.
 
 
            THE ‘GODFATHER’ OF ECSTASY
 
Many people falsely believe that Shulgin was responsible for creating MDMA or Ecstasy. But unlike the 200 totally new psychoactive compounds that did emerge out of his laboratory, it was the German pharmaceutical company – Merck, who first synthesized MDMA in 1912.
 
However neither Merck, nor the American military, which experimented with the drug in the 50s, could find any practical application for it. (Undoubtedly Ecstasy's powerful ability to induce empathy and open up the heart was abhorrent to the military). So the drug's remarkable potential lay fallow for decades until the late 70s when Shulgin began to experiment with it.
 
" I first took MDMA in a social setting on a picnic with a group of friends," he recalls. "They were all drinking alcohol and I asked them if anyone would mind if I took this drug instead?" At first Shulgin thought that the drug's free-flowing effect, the warm feelings it generated and the way it allowed for easy communication made it a perfect alcohol substitute. A "low-calorie martini' as he jokingly called it. But repeated experiments soon made him realize that the drug had vastly greater potential. Both Shulgin and his wife Ann, a trained therapist, believed passionately that MDMA's unique properties enabled people to open and explore, without fear, the repressed or shadow side of their psyches, thereby greatly facilitating healing. Shulgin, who initially nick named MDMA - 'empathy', had realized that the drug could be a powerful tool for use within a psychotherapeutic context. " We thought of it as a penicillin for the soul," he said.
 
 
 

 
 
BLAME IT ON THE THERAPISTS
 
MDMA's journey from Shulgin's inner circle to mass culture mirrors the way that LSD was introduced several decades earlier. In both cases it was therapists and psychologists who acted as the conduit.
 
When Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD in 1938 the chemist was unsure what to do with it. The drug was first though of as a psychotomimetic – a drug that mimics psychosis, and was consequently given to psychologists to experiment with, including the infamous Dr Timothy Leary, who quickly became a passionate believer in its potential to expand and heal the human psyche.
 
Shulgin was similarly convinced that MDMA could also be a powerful psychotherapeutic tool. He gave it to his friend Leo Zeff, an Oakland based therapist who was about to retire. " It instantly became a sort of crusade for him," recalls Shulgin. " He started taking it with other therapists to show them what it could do. Within a year he had introduced it to around 4000 therapists in the US alone." The impact on the psychotherapeutic community was profound and many conducted legal five-hour MDMA sessions with their patients in an effort to explore its possible benefits.
 
However it was only a matter of time before the drug was sold for purely recreational purposes. It is thought that a member of this MDMA inner circle, a hippie nightclub owner in Texas, was the first to break ranks. He renamed the drug Ecstasy and started selling it to the club scene. This re-branding of the drug was the first move towards the creation of the multi billion-dollar drug trade that continues unabated today.
 
Shulgin views the assimilation of the drug into the club scene with scientific detachment. " MDMA takes away the barriers that separate people," he explains. " So it's hardly surprising that it would be enjoyed in the club context." However he feels that the drug's true potential as powerful therapeutic tool is unlikely to be met in such circumstances and this saddens him. " At Raves people are mostly getting the drug's stimulant properties, so they can dance all night long. On top of that they often mix it with other drugs which is incredible dangerous. Frankly it's just amazing that more people haven't died."
 
 
 

 
ECSTASY IS BANNED
 
In the 80s the Shulgins knew that once MDMA had begun to be consumed recreationally it was only a matter of time before the US government banned its use under the Controlled Substances Act. (The British government had already banned MDMA IN 1977). Initially they felt confident that sufficient groundwork had been done to ensure that doctors and therapists could still use the drug therapeutically. They were bitterly disappointed. After two years of hearings, in 1985, the Drug Enforcement Agency's chief administrative judge, Justice Francis Long, decided to place the drug under Schedule 3, which would enable doctors to continue using it for research purposes. However the head of the DEA, John Law, a Reagan appointee, rapidly overturned this decision. By placing Ecstasy under Schedule 1 the therapeutic properties of the drug would now be out of the reach to both the public and academics alike.
 
Despite this ban many US therapists continued to offer the drug to their patients. " We thought it was far too valuable a tool to loose," states Ann. " Many therapists thought so highly of it that they were even willing to risk prosecution. However many weren’t and to have that remarkable tool removed by people who had no idea what it was and what it could do - well we all cried."
 
 
THERAPEUTIC APPLICATIONS
 
The Shulgins believe that one of the key psychotherapeutic uses that MDMA could have served was in the area of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. " It's very good at treating depression," claims Ann, " especially where soldiers have emerged from a war and often have to deal with the horrific discovery that they actually enjoyed killing. I think MDMA could heal people who have gone through torture, child abuse or other life shattering traumas."
 
Even thought the DEA wanted to ban MDMA completely, the World health Organization recommended that experimentation into its therapeutic potential continue. In 1985 a group of five psychotherapists in Switzerland were given permission to set up the Swiss medical Society for Psycholytic Therapy. One of its members Dr Marianne Bloch, a friend of the Shulgin's, decided to treat her patients exclusively with MDMA. The results of these all day sessions were dramatically successful. In treating notoriously difficult conditions such as Anorexia and Bulimia Bloch claims a 70% success rate.
 
 
 

 
A LICENSE TO MAKE DRUGS
 
The fact that Shulgin is allowed to synthesize large numbers of psychedelic compounds without being arrested puzzles many. However people fail to realize that Shulgin only creates totally new drugs. A drug that has never existed before cannot by definition be illegal. "There is usually a four year period between the time I make a new drug and the time the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) decides to make it illegal," he explains. Shulgin's activities are entirely within the law since he is not making drugs for the commercial market. So long as the 'research drugs' he synthesizes are made in small batches, his lab maintained to set safety standards and his results published in scientific journals Shulgin is free to create any number of new and interesting psychoactive compounds. However despite fulfilling these criteria his situation remains far from secure.
 
Originally Shulgin had a good relationship with the DEA who had issued him with a license permitting him to handle Schedule 1 drugs. All went well with the authorities until the publication of his first book: PIKAL - A Chemical Love Story –(1991) that has sold over 35,000 copies. PIKAL stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Shulgin prefers to use the term Phenethylamines rather than psychedelics. A term he feels has been largely contaminated. (Phenethylamines are a group of compounds which able to produce psychoactive effects.)
 
PIKAL contains the subjective and scientific insights of both Shulgin and Ann, collected over a 30-year period. It chronicles the use, danger and value of all the drugs Shulgin created. It also contains detailed information on how to synthesize any of these drugs. And this is where the trouble with the DEA started. Despite that fact that half of the compounds detailed in PIKAL had already appeared in scientific journals and the fact that Shulgin stated in the front of the book that no one should attempt to synthesize the drugs unless they possessed proper legal authority, the DEA were furious. Not wishing to create the appearance that the license they had given him was tacit approval of his research into psychedelics, they decided instead to teach him a nasty lesson.
 
 
 

 
THE AXE COMES DOWN
 
In 1994 a fleet of DEA vehicles, including a decontamination truck, pulled up outside the Shulgin's home and proceeded to raid both his house and lab. This resulted in a $25,000 fine and the loss of his license. "The lesson from that was obvious," he states somberly. "Do not embarrass those in power or you will get punished."
 
Since legally Shulgin does not require a Schedule 1 license to continue creating new drugs its loss has not stopped his research. And undaunted much of his new work appeared in his second book, co-authored with Ann, called: TIKAL - The Continuation. (1997). (TIHKAL stands for Tryptamines I have known and Loved.) In that book Ann writes of the psychological effect the raid had on her husband. "The authorities intended to frighten him and perhaps they even hoped to silence him, but that is not and will not be possible." She adds defiantly " The magical laboratory still stands."
 
 
 
 
CHEMIST OR ALCHEMIST?
 
Undoubtedly Shulgin will continue to remain a controversial figure. To the authorities and those of a more conservative bent he will always be seen as an irresponsible scientist endlessly creating new and dangerous mind altering substances that often become assimilated into popular culture. But to others he is more alchemist than scientist a counter culture hero who goes on probing the shortcomings of a reductionist scientific system that insists on trying to explain the nature of human consciousness solely through an understanding of the chemical workings of the brain. Do the chemical interactions in the brain explain why we have a mind? Can science ever understand the nature of consciousness and from that the nature of man's spirituality? These are some of the questions Shulgin is prepared to ask.
 
However one thing Shulgin believes in absolutely is the right of an individual to experiment with psychoactive drugs so long as they are fully informed of the consequences. For Shulgin, governments do not have the right to remove that choice. However he cautions - "Every drug, legal or illegal, provides some reward. Every drug presents some risk. And every drug can be abused. Ultimately, in my opinion, it is up to each of us to measure the reward against the risk and decide which outweighs the other."
 
 

Articles

Tim Coleman has been working as a professional journalist for over thirty years. He has been published in a huge range of magazines and newspapers around the world including: The Guardian, The Independent, FHM Magazine, The Face, Focus, Sky, Skin and Ink, Wienner, Tatowier (Germany) Enigmas (Spain), UFO Magazine (UK and US) X-Factor, Encounters, Kindred Spirit and many more.
 
"As well as earning a living from being a freelance journalist, I have always found journalism to be the perfect medium to explore subjects that I'm passionate about. This not only allows me to enter deeply into the subject through the research, but it also provides me the honor of meeting key players in that field ."
Tim Coleman
 
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