The US gave scientist Alexander Shulgin a licence to make and study illegal drugs. What they didn’t know was that he would come out in favour of legalisation
It’s quite a trip to visit maverick pharmacologist Dr Alexander Shulgin and his collaborator and wife, Ann, at their rustic home in California. It is a warm secluded place far from the UK’s current controversy over drugs, fuelled by newspaper campaigns to legalise cannabis backed by Richard Branson, by Kevin Williamson’s book Drugs And The Party Line (a scathing attack on drugs policy printed on hemp) and the Scotland Against Drugs campaign.
Sasha Shulgin, as he introduces himself, is the proud godfather of Ecstasy, the hit drug of so many raves. A respected chemist, his relationship with the substance started surprisingly long ago, in the 1970s, when a colleague sent him the 1912 German patent for what was then a little-known drug called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). He synthesised and tested the orphan compound – Merck, the drug company, had never used it commercially – and has been raving about it ever since. Three years ago, for example, it was Sasha’s expert testimony that led Spanish authorities to categorise it as one of the least harmful drugs.
Sasha has invented about a hundred other mind-altering substances, no mean feat since there may only be around 200 synthetics out there, not counting nature’s own hallucinogens – magic mushrooms, peyote cacti, toad venom and the red beans of the Arizona and New Mexico Indians, among others. And for decades Sasha, 72, and Ann, a 66-year-old writer and researcher originally from New Zealand, have also imbibed psychedelics. In the name of science, they have taken assiduous notes on their trips, especially the benefits, ranging from increased self-awareness, compassion or spirituality to relaxation and great sex.
Indeed their ‚Farm,‘ as they jokingly call the shambolic place, has been the site of years of radical group research. After they had worked up a new mind-expanding compound, they would bring in eight or so fellow believers – from physicians to psychologists, scientists to businessmen – to test it and record their reactions. Until recently, however, the Shulgins were barely known beyond the world of government-controlled psycho-pharmacology.
Their white wooden home, with a panoramic view to the east, sits atop the dry hills that stretch inland from the college town of Berkeley. Suburban drivers whiz down the four-lane road at the end of narrow Shulgin Road, so named because Sasha’s family has owned the land since leaving Russia 50-odd years ago.
For more than 15 years, Sasha held a rare government licence allowing him to study and synthesise illegal drugs. He has testified as an expert on both sides of drug trials and wrote the classic reference book on US law and drugs, Controlled Substances: Chemical And Legal Guide To Federal Drug Laws. Then, six years ago, and to the dismay of the authorities, the Shulgins declared their love of psychedelics and belief that all drugs should be legal.
Adamant that their life’s work should never disappear, they published a landmark book, the 1,000-page, oddly-titled Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story. The acronym stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved, and refers to a drug family that includes Sasha’s beloved and already-illegal Ecstasy or MDMA. It contains recipes for 180 mind-bending chemicals and notes on the ‚highs‘, often with artistic references and Ann’s Jungian take on experience. Pihkal gained a cult readership, although the recipes are gobbledygook for amateurs. In its third print run, it has sold more than 21,000 copies, which is remarkable for a self-published book.
The Shulgins are now in the news again. To the fury of drug officials on both sides of the Atlantic, they have just published a second book, Tihkal: The Continuation, which covers the ‚tryptamines‘ from toad venom and magic mushrooms to LSD. In the first month, they sold 3,500 copies through their Transform Press in Berkeley, a figure boosted by a rave review in New York’s Village Voice. At a certain point, they say they will simply publish it on the Internet as they did with Pihkal. Their aim is not to make money but to release the psychedelic genie from the bottle by disseminating their know-how irreversibly. They give copies out, only asking you to pass them on to others who might be interested. ‚It can’t be exterminated now,‘ says Sasha.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the late Timothy Leary said the Shulgins are among the century’s most important scientists. And Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, is a friend with whom Sasha co-wrote the introduction to a 1977 book on hallucinogens by Aldous Huxley entitled Moksha, from the Hindu term for spiritual awakening.
Drug-induced states, argue Sasha and Ann, are so intrinsic to human nature that the use of intoxicants such as tobacco, opium, cannabis, coffee or alcohol can be traced back to the dawn of time. They advocate legalising all drugs, addictive or not. It should be a matter for personal choice, they say, something that is taxed but as available as tobacco and booze. Drug-related crime would drop, drug-fighting money would be saved and drug use might even fall without the attraction of illicitness. The only laws needed, Sasha says, would be to prevent people driving when high, drugging someone else without their permission, or giving substances to children. Drug users who get into trouble should be helped, not treated like criminals, adds Ann, as are people addicted to valium or alcohol.
Shulgin with his wife Ann at their home in Lafayette, California, USA in 2002. Photograph: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns
Has this argument become truly prophetic, a much-needed scientifically-informed salvo in a one-sided debate? Perhaps spiritual awakening, relaxation and chemical freedom should be within everyone’s grasp, especially since life is so harsh. Or is the Shulgins‘ view well-intentioned but irresponsible – a sort of heroin chic for middle-class libertarians, another take on Andre Breton’s ‚derangement of the senses‘ from two utterly charming but idiosyncratic advocates? After all William Burroughs, trying to kick junk, tracked down the psychedelic ‚ayahuasca‘ in South America in the hopes of substituting a new addiction. The ‚yage‘ ceremonies were like night-long raves. But he later asked if dropping acid is like opening a door: once you’ve found it why keep reopening it over and over again? On a sunny afternoon, Sasha and Ann serve sandwiches and cake on their patio. In the middle of the table, next to the potato salad, is a Bolivian cactus growing in a pot. It’s hallucinogenic rather than decorative, something you learn is true of almost every plant within a stone’s throw of their house.
Sasha’s pharmaceutical calling came in, of all places, Liverpool. Two decades before the psychedelia of the 1960s, his epiphany was nothing to do with the Beatles‘ Yellow Submarine or Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds. He was in the US navy and had been whisked to hospital for an emergency operation. ‚Goofed up‘ on Royal Navy rum, morphine and a barbiturates, he says he was given orange juice and was so convinced he was being re-drugged, he fell unconsciousness for too long. ‚It was the ultimate placebo effect,‘ he recalls excitedly. ‚I got interested in how you can modify the mind, how you can find out what’s going on.‘ For years, Sasha worked as a scientist at Dow Chemical, although he had taken a psychedelic, mescaline, back in the 1950s. ‚I saw colours I had never seen before,‘ he says.
Ann, who experimented with mescaline-laced peyote at around the same time, adds: ‚It opens up doors you wouldn’t even know were there otherwise. It was a very extraordinary, sacred experience – everything you look at is infused with light.‘ On the way to Sasha’s laboratory, he points out an acacia tree with psycho-active bark – DMT, often the source for an intoxicating snuff in the Caribbean and South America – and a mint used by Mexican Indians that he says often gives the user an ‚out of body‘ or astral experience.
His lab is cobweb-entangled and autumn leaves are piled in the corners. Drawers are crammed with beakers and test-tubes. On the wall near an old fireplace is a Voodoo doll Sasha says he uses to invoke a certain copper reaction.
What about bad trips? I ask ‚Oh, they’re real,‘ he replies. ‚Even in the research group, we’d have idiosyncratically-sensitive people.‘ Once, a friend became temporarily paralysed on one of Sasha’s creations, 5-TOM. ‚A pretty heavy-duty experience,‘ says PIHKAL. ‚The consensus is that it wasn’t worth the struggle.‘ The war on drugs, he says, is a waste of money, more to do with political control, profit-making and fear of the unknown than medical or social concerns. ‚Is MDMA a dangerous drug?‘ he fumes. ‚It’s been used so much in the UK, and there’s been one death in a million.‘ ‚Recreational‘ heroin at your local off-licence? ‚It’s highly addictive, but perhaps not quite as much as tobacco,‘ he says.
Think about recreation, says Ann. ‚Re-creation. Young people grow up in big cities, they have to be so street-wise and untrusting. At a rave, that can drop away, leaving a sense of sharing and commitment with people they just met.‘ As if on cue, one of their fellow researchers drops by. Tony Sargent is a retired chemist who used to run radiology experiments at the respected Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He’s now a wine-maker, and is dressed with a casual conservatism- quite a contrast to Sasha with his Einstein hair and baggy ethnic-patterned shirt. They talk about psychedelics and how pharmacologists used to describe them as creating a temporary psychosis. Sasha is recalling a scan on the brain activity of schizophrenics, or ’schitzies‘ as he calls them. But surely you can’t liken taking a drug voluntarily to a psychosis that can condemn someone to a life of isolation? Later, Ann will announce that a new crate of cacti has arrived. One of the Shulgins‘ means of staying ahead of the authorities is to work with psycho-active substances that are not yet categorised or outlawed. They are preparing their third book, tentatively called Qihkal, the ‚Q‘ standing for quinolines, the hallucinogenic substance in cacti. Since many of the plants originate in Central or South America, they are not properly classified by Western botanists let alone pharmacologists.
A few days later, we talk on the phone. The Shulgins are excited about reports from a forum for police on ‚more pragmatic approaches‘ to substance abuse at the conservative Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. Former Secretary of State George Shultz and Nobel economist Milton Friedman had told the police that America’s war on drugs is a failure that has led to massive, cruel imprisonment, inner-city destruction and widespread drug gangs that thrive on high profits and violence.
For all their shamanistic talk, the Shulgins have experienced the war on drugs first-hand. Twice in 1994, US agents searched their home and lab, in part because drug officials were livid about the publication of Pihkal. Unable to halt the Shulgins‘ books because of the First Amendment, the authorities instead fined them Dollars 25,000 and made Sasha relinquish his drug-handling licence.
They might have had cold feet sooner had they known his dedication. Sasha estimates he has popped 200 or so psychedelics not of his own invention. And he has invented 100 or so psychedelics, some potent enough to get street credibility or to be used by maverick psychotherapists – 2C-B, DOM or STP, the now-illegal DOB and DOI. Ethical and sincere in his beliefs, Sasha tried them first on himself, as did Hofmann with LSD and Salk with the polio vaccine. With a subversive-sounding chuckle, he makes a final charming quip: ‚Oh, so many drugs and so little time.‘ So little time indeed, and there must quite a few out there who wish his calling were inventing a vaccine for Aids.