"Chemistry is Pornography in Disguise"

Christian Sager

© Scott Houston/Sygma/Corbis

Imagine that you spend every day working from your beautiful home in California. In the backyard you have a shed laboratory where you develop psychedelic chemicals and meticulously test them on yourself, your wife and your best friends. And for a good while, even the Drug Enforcement Agency doesn't bother your experiments, because you're too valuable to them as an expert on drugs. That was the life of the late Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin.

Let's be clear. I've never used psychedelic drugs. I don't even drink alcohol. So don't read this as a celebration of drug culture. However, Sasha Shulgin's work remains fascinating to me and it would be deceptive to not consider him a pioneering scientist. Shulgin died this week at age 88, reportedly from lung cancer. While he devoted much of his life to understanding psychedelics' effects on the human mind, he was far more interested in the chemistry than he was in the trips. He loved the science so much, he's quoted as once saying, "Chemistry is pornography in disguise, you just have to know which functional group to look at."

Shulgin was born in Berkeley, California in 1925. His parents were both teachers, leading to him enrolling at Harvard University at only 15 years old. Four years later he dropped out to join the U.S. Navy, where he claimed to memorize an encyclopedia on chemistry. Returning to formal education, Shulgin received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1955.

His postdoctoral work began in psychiatry and pharmacology, but he eventually ended up working at Dow Chemical producing pesticides. There, Shulgin invented Zectran, advertised as the world's first biodegradable pesticide. The product made Dow so much money that they left Shulgin to his own, wondering what he'd cook up next. After taking his first dose of mescaline, Shulgin devoted his studies to psychedelic chemistry, publishing his findings in "Nature" and "The Journal of Organic Chemistry." When Dow discovered what he was up to, their Board of Directors decided his research could be bad publicity. Shulgin left the company in 1966, set up his own home lab and made his living freelancing as a consultant to research labs and hospitals.

After Dow, Shulgin's true life work began. He experimented with the molecular structure of mescaline to see what difference its effect would have. Shulgin tested each new compound on himself, taking the minimum amount required to have an effect and gradually increasing the dosage while recording his experiences. To confirm his data, Shulgin shared the substances with his wife Ann. If further study was required he would invite a "research group" of friends to come over and test their reactions to his invention. The Shulgins did enforce some rules during their "psychonaut" sessions. Their subjects couldn't take medication or any other drugs for at least three days before the session. They were also prevented from sexual contact with others present whom they weren't previously involved with. But if an established couple wanted to engage in intercourse, they were welcome to the privacy of another room in the Shulgins' home.

Through this methodology Shulgin created over 200 unique drugs to stimulate the mind in one way or another: speeding it up, slowing it down or even tapping into its empathy. The DEA actually protected his garden laboratory, granting him a license to produce Schedule I substances so that he could provide expertise in their cases. Schedule I drugs are categorized as those with no accepted medical use and the highest potential for abuse or addiction. Pinned to the lab's door was a sign that said, "This is a research facility that is known to and authorized by the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, all San Francisco DEA Personnel and the State and Federal EPA Authorities."

Other articles about Shulgin are mainly engrossed in his work with the designer drug MDMA, otherwise known as "Ecstasy." Invented in 1912 by the pharmaceutical firm Merck, Shulgin learned of MDMA from a psychiatrist friend and subsequently found an easier way to synthesize it. But to him it was just another step in the journey of discovery, not a catalyst for counterculture. He did however consider MDMA a useful benefit for psychotherapy. Others (including Shulgin's wife) say that MDMA helps patients lower their defenses to make progress faster in therapy.

For a long time, Shulgin's biggest problem was squirrels getting in the lab. But the DEA's passivity changed when the Shulgins self-published their first book "PiHKAL" (an acronym for "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved"). Part memoir, part cookbook, "PiHKAL" includes instructions on how to produce 179 psychedelic substances. Shulgin also included his qualitative notes on what he experienced on each drug. While initially an underground success "PiKHAL" and its sequel "TiHKAL" ("Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved'') are now used as pharmacology handbooks all over the world. Regardless, two years after "PiHKAL's" publication, the DEA ended their working relationship with Shulgin. In 1993, agents raided Shulgin's home and lab, revoking his Schedule I license and fining him $25,000.

The irony is that one of Shulgin's closest friends was Bob Sager, the former head of the DEA Western Laboratory. Sager had maintained Shulgin's collaboration with the DEA for years, where the chemist served as an expert witness and pharmacology consultant. When compounds Shulgin invented gained a popular reputation as designer drugs, the DEA placed them on its list of Schedule I drugs. Technically, the drugs he invented weren't illegal because they didn't exist until he invented them. Shulgin saw the deaths of those on drugs he created as "sad events" but did not feel morally responsible for their abuse. In fact, he believed that the only legal restriction on drugs should be to prevent children from buying them.

At the end of his life, Shulgin's income came from stock investments and rent he earned from phone companies that used his land for cell towers. He predicted an exponential growth in psychedelic compound development, believing there would be over 2,000 in existence by the year 2050. I'd like to think that his legacy will thrive within research being conducted on the medical benefits of these drugs. Harvard Medical School has studied how MDMA can alleviate fear and anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients. Other psychiatrists are looking into its therapeutic use for post-traumatic stress disorder. While the DEA came down hard on Shulgin in his later life, studies like these are now being approved and may hopefully lead to further revelations about how humans can receive hallucinogens as helpful remedies.