The Einstein of ecstasy

Alexander Shulgin and his wife, Ann, have gone beyond mere experimentat ion with psychedelic drugs. They believe that by demonising such substances we are neglecting powerful tools for studying the function of the mind. By Lucy Broadbent
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The Independent Online
Sasha Shulgin puts down his lunch fork. His words accelerate, his sentences fill with chemical acronyms and both hands begin to gesticulate. He is explaining the difference between phenethylamines and tryptamines. It is not easy to follow.

"They are basically two different types of psychedelic drugs," he says at last. His wife, Ann, who has been listening from the other side of the kitchen table, laughs at this simple conclusion.

If ever there was an advertisement for saying "yes" to drugs, it would be Alexander Shulgin, known as Sasha to his friends. At 72, having personally experimented with more mind-altering substances than a laboratory beagle, the biochemist is not only physically fitter than most people a quarter his age, he has the IQ of a genius. He might look like the cliched mad professor with his thick mane of silver white hair and extravagant gestures, but he is too quick-witted to be the absent-minded stereotype.

Not that Shulgin is advocating drug use by all, anyway. In spite of the reverence with which he is regarded by the rave generation, he has only been to a rave once (he prefers Mozart). But he does believe that drugs should be legalised.

Shulgin was the man who brought ecstasy to public attention in the Eighties, when he published medical papers recommending its use in therapy. In 1991, he published a recipe for the drug in his book Pihkal, an acronym for "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved". Although readers needed to have a chemistry degree to understand his collection of more than 300 psychedelic drug recipes, written with Ann, the book sold more than 21,000 copies, and attracted the disapproval of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which "conducted an inspection" of the Shulgins' home.

Today the kitchen table of their home on the outskirts of San Francisco is piled high with papers, manuscripts and book proofs, as well as lunch. The Shulgins are about to publish a sequel, Tihkal: Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved, which will contain more recipes and will continue the narrative they started in the first book, based on their own lives.

"You ask what these drugs are good for. They are tremendously powerful tools for studying the function of the mind," Shulgin explains, ready with a response to those who accuse him of promoting drug abuse. "That, I believe, is one of the most exciting areas that mankind has yet to explore."

"How would you find out how the human mind functions?" he asks. "You can't experiment on rats because a rat doesn't have a human mind. Does it have a soul, spirit, imagination? Can it communicate what it has experienced? But one of the best ways of seeing how something works is to support it or enhance it in a peculiar way, to depress it in a peculiar way and see how the responses go. The book shows my research. It shows how to make these tools, their effects on man. I am confident that there will come a time when this work will be recognised for its medical value."

Shulgin believes that just as early man shied away from fire, society today shies away from the power of drugs. He gives an example of a drug that he and his friends tested many times, finding that its only effect was to distort sound. He explains that one of the characteristics of schizophrenia is "hearing voices" and suggests that studying the imbalance of that chemical in the body could lead to a cure.

Ann interrupts to explain the benefits of MDMA - ecstasy. She has been Shulgin's fellow psychedelic explorer for the past 17 years. Now 66, she is an equally lively advertisement. "It dissolves paranoia," she says. "One of the great fears that everyone has is that the essential self is a terrible thing. This is a basic unconscious fear. MDMA dissolves that fear and replaces it with a tremendously peaceful acceptance, not just of yourself but of other people, too. In a therapy situation, it becomes very useful for insight. It was one of the greatest developments to have happened in psychotherapy."

MDMA is on the list of outlawed drugs - Schedule 1 in the States, Class A in the UK - along with most other "psychedelics". The Shulgins cite prejudice, fear and a lack of education for this. Yes, they have heard of Leah Betts, the British girl who died two years ago having taken an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party. And yes, they have heard of the other tragedies around the world, too.

"There is not a drug that is not dangerous," says Shulgin. "Aspirin can kill you if you take too much of it. If you look at all the prescription drugs, you will find deaths associated with all. But the less deaths, the less danger. In the last few years, MDMA has been used by a great many young people, possibly as many as a million a day. And there have probably been some 15 or 20 deaths, only four or five of which have documentation of the drug's participation in that. If you look at those statistics, it's probably one of the safest drugs there is. But if you have a newsworthy death of one user, then it becomes the scapegoat of the entire scene."

So is he against all drug restrictions? "I believe we should have no laws that dictate our behaviour," he says. "In private there is no reason to be subject to another person's morality. Of course there should be laws governing one's effect on other people. To give drugs to other people without their consent, for example, is improper. To give a drug to someone who is not able to judge its goodness or badness, someone who doesn't have the education, the age, or the intelligence, that's wrong. To drive under the influence of drugs and put people at risk, this is not right, either."

But how do you stop children taking drugs at raves? "You have to have the same restrictions against children using drugs that you have for tobacco and alcohol. You don't know how effective that is, but that is at least a valid restriction ..." Ann stops him in mid-sentence: "There is also something that has to go along with legalisation and that is education. What they call education now is propaganda. There are those who suggest getting a licence to take drugs - you go to school to learn about them and have a textbook, stating dosages, the effects, the possibilities."

Shulgin adds that were there no legal restrictions there would be companies that would make drugs and compete for purity and price, thus eliminating the "bad" drugs which occasionally make their way on to the market. "One of the first things that happens when you make something illegal is you create a tremendous market and the money starts flowing ..." Ann stops him again: "One of the things we should point out is that there are drugs that are addictive and we know they are addictive. Heroin is one of them. Cocaine is another. But the psychedelics are not. There is nothing addictive about psychedelics unless you are one of those people who is going to get addicted to anything. I think of them as spiritual tools, and a lot of people do, because you are learning about your own insides."

Shulgin was born in California in 1925, studied biochemistry at Berkeley University, and in the Sixties moved on to psychiatry and pharmacology before joining a chemical research company. He was so successful there that they gave him a long leash and a drug-handling licence, allowing him to research whatever he saw fit. He built his own small laboratory, in which he still potters about, and became a consultant, frequently analysing drugs for the DEA for court cases. He wrote The Controlled Substances Act, a textbook that sits on the desks of many law enforcement officials. He lectures at Berkeley University, and remains a consultant in clinical pharmacology.

"The turning point to the story," Shulgin says, "was in the late Fifties, when a group of friends and I took approximately 400 milligrams of mescaline. I had known of drugs that influenced the mental process. But my first experience was a beautiful pure sample and that day was extraordinary. It really convinced me that there is something to the mind that is not being investigated. The fact was that I could have this truly dramatic experience of visual colour enhancement. I said it is not just 400mgs of white powder that is giving me this. This is there all the time. The chemicals are just the catalyst that are allowing it to be seen and expressed and used."

He met Ann in 1979 at Berkeley, where she was a researcher. She became his soul-mate, and had her first hallucinatory trip at roughly the same time. They married in their garden in 1981. It was her fourth marriage, his second. Between them they have five grown-up children, one of whom, Wendy, is helping to publish the book. "Before Pihkal we had a good relationship with the DEA," Ann says. "Sasha would help them analyse drugs for court cases. But once the book was out, they felt there was an implication that all the research was done with government approval because of Sasha's licence. That led to the `incredible Thursday'."

The Shulgins devote a chapter in their new book to what they call "The Invasion", in which eight vehicles full of DEA officials turned up on their doorstep to raid them. They found little, but Sasha decided to hand in his licence.

For obvious reasons, the Shulgins stress that the two characters in their book who experiment with drugs are fictional. Before agreeing to be interviewed they were at pains to describe how vulnerable they are, still under scrutiny from the DEA. But they are also celebrities now. Shulgin is frequently invited to lecture in Europe on his favourite subject and Ann often accompanies him. The Shulgins occupy a great deal of cyberspace - the Internet is filled with articles about them and excerpts from their book, as well as details of a trust fund set up to help pay their $25,000 fine and legal costs following the raid. They received sackfuls of fan mail each week.

"Albert Hoffman, who was the inventor of LSD, in his nineties now, and a great friend of ours, was the first icon," says Ann proudly. "Sasha has become the kind of heir apparent to that. And we get great benefit because he's been invited to many foreign countries, and the only way we can afford to go is if our way is paid.

"It's exciting being mavericks, but also knowing that we are doing the right thing. We believe very strongly in what we do."

With that, she clears the table. They have a book deadline to meetn