The ecstasy man
He is the creator of MDMA as well as 200 other psychedelic compounds – and now that research is showing the health benefits of the ‘rave drug’, his reputation is being restored. Dan Glaister pays a visit to Alexander Shulgin’s laboratory
Friday June 17, 2005
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday June 22 2005
We made it appear in the interview with Alexander Shulgin below, that we believed he had in effect discovered, rather than rediscovered, MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, going so far, in a heading, as to describe him as “the creator of MDMA”. In fact, MDMA was first synthesised by Merck Pharmaceuticals in Germany in 1912.
‘Let’s take the yellow brick road to Oz.” Alexander Shulgin shuffles ahead along the garden path leading out of his back door. At the end, some 30 yards away, a large squirrel is making its getaway from a ramshackle garden shed.
“The damn squirrel’s got in,” Sasha – as he is known – exclaims. “A new hole, I’ll have to patch it up. They just eat their way through wood.”
Shulgin built the shed himself, working up from the brick foundations of what was once the cellar of his parents’ house on Shulgin Road half an hour outside San Francisco. Now the shed contains his laboratory. It looks almost wilfully disorganised, as if an enthusiastic child – or perhaps a squirrel – had been left alone to construct a Heath Robinson vision of a back-garden lab. Classical music gently plays from a radio, a stained wineglass sits atop a mound of papers, evidence of the previous night’s endeavour.
It all seems thoroughly mundane. An amiably eccentric elderly gentleman – Shulgin is 79 – pursuing his hobby in his garden shed. What could be more innocuous?
A neat laminated note stuck on the wooden door of the shed gives the lie to this presumption. It reads: “This is a research facility that is known to and authorised by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, all San Francisco DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] Personnel and the State and Federal EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] Authorities.”
Shulgin has good reason to post the note. His lab has been raided twice, once with intent and a second time almost by accident.
He is a psychopharmacologist, the creator of some 200 psychedelic compounds. Stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, hallucinogens: you name it, Shulgin has made it and, personally, tested it. He thinks he has probably had more than 4,000 psychedelic episodes in the course of his work. Assuming each episode takes up at least a day, that constitutes almost 12 years of his life. Not surprising, then, that Timothy Leary should have described him as one of the 20th century’s most important scientists.
Perhaps to his chagrin, Shulgin seems destined to be remembered for one small episode in 1965 when, tipped off by a student about an interesting but forgotten compound, he synthesised MDMA. With that step, ecstasy was eventually born and Shulgin marginalised. Only now, as the investigation of its potential is re-examined, is his reputation being restored. For his appearance at a London conference on the future of drugs this afternoon, he is being billed as a “living legend”.
“I do nothing illegal,” he points out readily, “nothing illegal. There is nothing illegal about synthesising new compounds. I don’t know if they’re going to be psychedelic or not until I taste them. And there’s nothing illegal about my tasting them.”
If a compound shows promise, Shulgin tests it on his wife, Ann. If she confirms his impression that it may be “active”, they take it to their own research group of eight friends. “They are personal friends,” Shulgin explains. “We all take off in one of their houses and we all take the compound.”
An encounter with mescalin set Shulgin on his chemical path, turning the chemist on to the potential of the psyche. “In 1950 I had the opportunity to experiment with my first psychedelic and it caught my attention. I think the best phrasing now would be: it brought out so many lines of thought and so many memories from the past and so many visual distortions and awarenesses of colours I was totally unaware of. It was impressed upon me that a few hundred milligrams of a white crystal cannot have all these colours and all these memories. They don’t do what happens, they catalyse and allow you to do what happens.”
The Shulgins’ adventures and misadventures with psychedelic compounds are recounted in two self-published books, PiHKAL (short for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved,) and its sequel TiHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved). The books have provoked controversy because they include what could best be described as psychopharmacological recipes. The Shulgins’ justification for this is that people are going to experiment, and they are passing as much information as possible in order to avoid harming themselves and others.
Which is where ecstasy comes in. Shulgin expresses frustration and disgust at the way ecstasy has been used and abused, both by dealers and the scientific community.
“Analysis has shown that in some cases less than half the materials sold as ecstasy are MDMA. ‘You want to buy some ecstasy?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here’s some ground-up plaster.’ If a person takes a dose at a party and falls downstairs and breaks their back, this is a death associated with MDMA. Once you say ‘associated with’, it gets transformed into ‘due to’. It’s a shame that it got so far into the rave scene and the underground scene that people began making their income in the scientific area by getting federal grants and funds for finding out how it’s bad.”
But recent research has seen a resurgence of interest in the therapeutic effects of MDMA. Successful results have been reported from trials in the use of MDMA on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in the relief of anxiety in patients with terminal cancer.[MAPS NOTE: THE MDMA/PTSD study is in process and results are promising but no data has been released. The MDMA/cancer anxiety study has not yet begun but should start fairly soon.] It is a return to the spirit of the original use of MDMA: after its synthesis by Shulgin in the late 1960s, its first use was in psychotherapy.
Is he pleased that MDMA is returning to a medical use? Does he even have an idea of practical use when developing a compound or is he propelled by the pure pleasure of discovery?
“I do have an idea of the use,” he says, “It’s toward the developing of tools for use in the functioning of the mind, the mechanism of the mind. A lot of these materials are themselves, or are related to, materials that could be used in humans for determining the mysteries of how the mind works. They’re research tools. That is the ultimate value that I hope to see realised.”
There is an air of romance about the Shulgins: they bumble around in their hillside home, the shock-haired maverick scientist and his muse, making discoveries, testing them, and then very probably settling down to a nice cup of cocoa before bed. Is this a romantic pursuit, I ask?
“Good heavens it is,” says Ann Shulgin.
Her husband professes ignorance.
“Romantic? Pursuit? It’s such a lovely term. I don’t understand your question. It’s unbelievably exciting. You’re opening doors that have never been opened before, doors where they didn’t even know there was a door. It can be frightening.”
UK News site Guardian Unlimited ran this story about Alexander Shulgin, his history as a pharmacologist, and the repercussions of his 1965 synthesis of MDMA.