Alexander Shulgin: Chemist whose discovery of an easy way of making Ecstasy led to the rave culture of the 80s and 90s


Wednesday 04 June 2014 23:01 BST
Shulgin in his home laboratory: he would pour his creations into hundreds of glass bottles, each labelled with its unique chemical formula
Shulgin in his home laboratory: he would pour his creations into hundreds of glass bottles, each labelled with its unique chemical formula

Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin was a chemist and psychopharmacologist who introduced the world to the drug MDMA – Ecstasy – while creating hundreds of other psychedelic drugs. MDMA spread from Shulgin's lab to a coterie of psychotherapists in the late 1970s and later rocketed around the world as a recreational high, sparking the rave and club culture.

Shulgin spent his final years as a revered elder travelling to conferences and the annual Burning Man arts festival in the Nevada desert, where he and his wife were praised by self-styled seekers of spiritual enlightenment. In the last few years he had seen a resurgence in legitimate research as academics restarted clinical trials with MDMA as a therapeutic tool, publishing studies showing that the drug can help veterans come to terms with the trauma of war.

"He was depressed once MDMA was criminalised," said Rick Doblin, president of an association which funds clinical trials of MDMA and LSD. "Sasha always felt these drugs didn't open people up to drug experiences, but opened us up to human experiences of ourselves."

In 1985, with Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign in full swing, US authorities banned MDMA by placing it on the Drug Enforcement Administration's most restrictive list of dangerous substances, those "with no currently accepted medical use" and a high potential for abuse. A costly anti-Ecstasy media blitz followed, and Shulgin was entangled in the US's decades-long drug war. In Britain MDMA had been rendered illegal in 1977 by a modification order to the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act banning various phenethylamines. In 2000 the Runciman Report, commissioned by the Police Foundation, recommended that MDMA should be downgraded from Class A to Class B.

"There's no reason I should be Dr Ecstasy," Shulman said after a 2005 magazine article gave him that title. "That's not the name I gave anything. I call it MDMA." The renaming of the drug and an explosion of recreational use "destroyed the medical value," he said.

As a scientist at Dow Chemical in 1965, Shulgin stumbled on a compound patented by the German pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 that was a close chemical cousin to amphetamine. Finding no apparent use, the company abandoned the drug, which languished in a chemistry journal until the US Army experimented with it in the 1950s.

Shulgin he concocted a relatively easy method for making MDMA, and first tried it himself in 1967. "I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria," he wrote in his 1990 book PiHKAL ("Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved"). "I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience."

Shulgin felt such a deep connection to the people around him – a "universal love" – that he gave a small vial to a psychotherapist friend, Leo Zeff, who provided the still-legal drug to several thousand therapists around the world. "Once the therapists started using it, whew, it was in demand," said Bob Sager, a retired DEA agent and long-standing friend of Shulgin's.

An enterprising seminary student in Dallas named Michael Clegg branded it "Ecstasy" and began selling up to half a million pills per month. Amid the ensuing tumult, Shulgin continued to advise the DEA and testify as an expert witness. He analysed street drugs under a DEA licence, but a federal raid on his home laboratory in 1994 severed that relationship.

An escalating legal and chemical war followed, with Shulgin cranking out new psychedelic drugs faster than the US government could ban them. In 1986, Congress passed the Federal Analogue Act, which sought to ban drugs not yet invented if they were chemically similar to already-banned drugs.

Shulgin responded by spinning his chemistry further afield. In his dusty, cluttered lab, with orchestral music as a backdrop, he poured his efforts into brown glass bottles, each labelled with a unique chemical formula. He built unlikely connections to mainstream culture via his participation as a violist in the Bohemian Club, an annual gathering of business and political leaders in the northern California woods whose members have reportedly included George HW Bush and Henry Kissinger.

He was born in 1925, in Berkeley, California. His parents were teachers, and he won a scholarship to Harvard at 16. He served in the Navy during the Second World War then completed a biochemistry doctorate in 1954 at the University of California in his home town.

At Dow he invented a line of biodegradable insecticides, then in 1960 he came upon mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote. With Dow's blessing he began tinkering with its molecular structure, creating the first of hundreds of new drugs, which he published in journals. But by 1966, as the LSD-fuelled countercultural wave brought on a federal backlash, Dow realised it was in the awkward position of owning demonised compounds.

Shulgin left the company, moving to "the Farm", a plot of family land in the Berkeley hills where he spent the rest of his life creating variations on dozens of psychedelic substances. With each new creation he tested the drug on himself in escalating doses, then bringing in his wife, Ann. If the drug proved safe and interesting, the couple shared it with a "research group" of eight to 10 close friends.

He kept detailed notes, published in a series of books. Each chemical recipe included ratings on the Shulgin scale, up to "Plus Four" – "a rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a peak experience." In 2007 Shulgin said he had achieved only "two or three" Plus Four experiences in around 4,000 trips.

With a modest income from Social Security and a mobile phone tower on their property, Shulgin and his wife had asked their extended psychedelic family for donations in recent times to pay medical bills. He lamented that he was often asked to name his favourite mind-altering drug, to which he would answer, "Probably a nice, moderately expensive Zinfandel." In 2010 he suffered a stroke and was recently diagnosed with liver cancer.


Alexander Theodore Shulgin, pharmacologist: born Berkeley, California 17 June 1925; married firstly Nina (marriage dissolved; one son deceased), secondly Ann Gotlieb (four stepchildren); died Lafayette, California 2 June 2014.

© The Washington Post

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