Motherboard reviews the life of Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, the recently deceased pioneering psychedelic researcher responsible for creating hundreds of psychedelic substances and for recognizing the therapeutic potential of MDMA. The article details Shulgin’s early career, reveals details about the birth of underground psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, and lists how recent studies into the therapeutic potential of MDMA were inspired by Shulgin’s research.
Originally appearing here.
It’s amazing what the human body is capable of feeling—how extreme sensation and perception can be. The everyday norm trudges on in minor peaks and valleys of mood and anxiety: the serotonin hit of some junk food, the endorphin dusting of a good workout, the norepinephrine jab of stress. More or less, everyday distributions of these neurotransmitters keep us functional and productive, and, mostly, we don’t complain. Some, however, want more: open the chemical throttle, and let’s see what this thing can really do.
So we have drugs, usually the illegal kind, allowing us to ditch everyday speed limits and take our brains out on the abandoned runway drag strip that is getting high as shit. We might just crash out there, flipping and burning as other euphorists look on, but we also might have felt superhuman bliss in the process. There’s a decent chance that some of your own personal speed records came courtesy of chemist and pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin, who passed away this week at age 88. Shulgin is considered to be the godfather of MDMA (ecstasy), a compound discovered quite by accident in the early 20th century by Merck chemists trying to dodge a patent, but was only popularized and properly described in the 1970s.
This late interest is credited to Shulgin, then a medicinal pharmacologist instructor at the University of California, Berkley. One of his graduate students mentioned the drug in a seminar, claiming that it had cured her stutter, according to Shuglin and his wife Ann Shuglin’s book, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Part I (PiHKAL is short for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved”). The drug had seen some action in the long gap courtesy of the US military and its interrogation programs, but Shuglin saw its true potential in psychology as a talk therapy aid (and, let’s be honest, as a recreational aid as well; he called it his ”low-calorie martini”), and it soon found semi-underground use as such, primarily via psychologist Leo Zeff, who left retirement to have an opportunity to advocate for the drug.
“Zeff was so enthusiastic about the compound that he postponed his retirement to travel across the country introducing MDMA to hundreds of his fellow therapists,” recalled a 2002 piece in Wired. “Along the way, he gave the drug its first street name, Adam, because he believed it stripped away neuroses and put users in a primordial state.” Ecstasy was a ticket back to Eden, in other words.
In 1978, Shuglin published the first scientific paper describing the drug, with the general effect being ”an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.” Shuglin, by then a literal backyard chemist after cutting lose from his employer/benefactor Dow Chemical (where he developed the first organic pesticide), had already devised a new method of MDMA synthesis. But after many years with a coveted Schedule 1 laboratory permit, the mid-’80s found Shuglin finally on the DEA’s bad side.
Despite its apparent successes within psychology, in 1985 MDMA was listed as a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, classifying it alongside other amphetamines and their analogs, while boosting its criminality. “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,” noted a 2005 New York Times profile. It all but disappeared from medicine and by the ’90s had become a full-on scare, the nightmares of suburban moms and small town football coaches. The scene of some kid being pulled from a rave sweating and gasping for air became a popular trope, quickly eclipsing its short life in alternative psychology.
MDMA returned to medicine in 2000, via a study conducted by Spanish researchers investigating its potential in PTSD therapy. In the years since, more (small) PTSD studies have trickled out, with positive but limited results. There’s currently a well-coordinated, well-funded (to the tune of $18.5 million) push by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to get MDMA approved as a prescription medicine by 2021. MAPS claims to be the only organization in the world pushing for “funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy,” and it now counts as successes a handful of current studies in the US and Canada looking at MDMA’s potential in therapies for both PTSD in veterans and social anxiety in autism patients.
In addition to recent work with PTSD and autism, a long-term study led by Dr. John Halpern at the Harvard Medical School, conducted between 2005 and 2011, tested MDMA’s effects on the anxiety of terminal cancer patients, with the results apparently still pending. A different Halpern study, released in 2011, tracked the health of 52 illicit MDMA users—a large number for this sort of research—finding “no cognitive impairment.” Shulgin must have felt some vindication.
Shuglin is a deity in the eyes of psychedelic proponents, but the Times profile noted an unsurprising flipside: “Most of the scientific community considers Shulgin at best a curiosity and at worst a menace.” To his fans, that’s no doubt a compliment, but Shuglin’s public face was so often as an advocate and Erowid celebrity, rather than someone conducting science. He’s asked in the profile how he felt the first time her heard someone died as the result of one of his pharmocological creations: ”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.”
It’s an unfortunate comparison. The aspirin numbers are very, very small (59 in 2005, with most of those deaths attributable to suicide) and that’s for the most widely used medicine in the world (often as a first-line heart attack treatment). But it doesn’t matter: Shulgin told the Times reporter that he thought there was no such addiction warrenting government intervention, and the only drug regulation he thought necessary was age requirements: keeping drugs from children. On the drag strip, consenting adults take their own risks.