Alexander Shulgin



Alexander Shulgin (b. 1925), known as Sasha, is an American pharmacologist. Shulgin is credited with the popularization of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially for psychopharmaceutical use and the treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In subsequent years, Shulgin discovered, synthesized, and bioassayed over 230 psychoactive compounds.

In 1991 and 1997, he and his wife Ann Shulgin authored the books ‘PiHKAL’ and ‘TiHKAL’ on the topic of psychoactive drugs. Shulgin discovered many noteworthy phenethylamines including the 2C family. Additionally, Shulgin performed seminal work into the descriptive synthesis of compounds based on the organic compound tryptamine.

Through the late 1950s, Shulgin completed post-doctoral work in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California, San Francisco. He began work at Dow Chemical Company as a senior research chemist. It was at this time that he had a series of psychedelic experiences that helped to shape his further goals and research, beginning with an experience with mescaline. Telling the LA Times in 1995, ‘I first explored mescaline in the late ’50s, Three-hundred-fifty to 400 milligrams. I learned there was a great deal inside me.’

He would later write 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.’

Shulgin’s professional activities continued to lean in the direction of psychopharmacology, furthered by his personal experiences with psychedelics. But, his opportunity for further research came with his development of Zectran, the first biodegradable pesticide, a highly profitable product. Dow Chemical Company, in return for Zectran’s valuable patent, gave Shulgin great freedom. During this time, he created and patented drugs and published findings on other drugs in journals such as ‘Nature’ and the ‘Journal of Organic Chemistry.’

Eventually, Dow Chemical requested that he no longer use their name on his publications, and in 1965, Shulgin left Dow to pursue his own interests, and became a private consultant, also frequently teaching classes in the local universities and at the San Francisco General Hospital. Through his friend Bob Sager, head of the U.S. DEA’s Western Laboratories, Shulgin formed a relationship with the DEA and began holding pharmacology seminars for the agents, supplying the DEA with samples of various compounds, and occasionally serving as an expert witness in court. He also authored a definitive law enforcement reference book on controlled substances and received several awards from the DEA.

In recent years, Shulgin has worked on a series of N-allylated tryptamines including 5-MeO-DALT and 5-MeO-MALT.

In order to carry out consulting work with the DEA, Shulgin obtained a DEA Schedule I license for an analytical laboratory, which allowed him to possess and synthesize any otherwise illicit drug. Shulgin set up a chemical synthesis laboratory in a small building behind his house, which gave him a great deal of career autonomy. Shulgin used this freedom to synthesize and test the effects of psychoactive drugs.

In 1967, Shulgin was introduced to MDMA (ecstasy) by Merrie Kleinman, a graduate student in the medicinal chemistry group he advised at San Francisco State University. MDMA had been synthesized in 1912 by Merck, but mostly forgotten. Shulgin went on to develop a new synthesis method, and in 1976, introduced the chemical to Leo Zeff, a psychologist from Oakland, California. Zeff used the substance in his practice in small doses as an aid to talk therapy. Zeff introduced the substance to hundreds of psychologists around the nation, including Ann Shulgin, whom Alexander Shulgin met in 1979, and married in 1981.

After judicious self-experiments, Shulgin enlisted a small group of friends with whom he regularly tested his creations, starting in 1960. They developed a systematic way of ranking the effects of the various drugs, known as the Shulgin Rating Scale, with a vocabulary to describe the visual, auditory and physical sensations. He personally tested hundreds of drugs, mainly analogues of various phenethylamines (family containing MDMA and mescaline), and tryptamines (family containing DMT and psilocybin).

There are a seemingly infinite number of slight chemical variations, all of which produce variations in effect—some pleasant and some unpleasant, depending on the person, substance, and situation—all of which are meticulously recorded in Shulgin’s lab notebooks. Shulgin published many of these objective and subjective reports in his books and papers.

In 1994, two years after the publication of ‘PiHKAL,’ the DEA raided his lab. The agency requested that Shulgin turn over his license for violating the license’s terms, and he was fined $25,000 for possession of anonymous samples sent to him for quality testing. Richard Meyer, spokesman for DEA’s San Francisco Field Division, has stated that, ‘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.’

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