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The Magic Chemicals of Psychedelic Wizard Sasha Shulgin

The California chemist is known as the ‘Godfather of MDMA,’ but his legacy lies in countless drugs that remain a mystery to scientists and psychonauts alike

The godfather of MDMA never lived to see the wondrous little chemical live up to its full potential as a powerful therapeutic drug used in clinical settings. 

Alexander Shulgin wasn’t the first man to synthesize MDMA. But in 1976, his experiments at his longtime home in Berkeley, California led to an epiphany: Not only did he find a novel way to synthesize it, he loved how it made him feel. “I am afraid to turn around and face the mountains, for fear they will overpower me. But I did look, and I am astounded,” he wrote in his notes. “Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home. I am complete.”

Despite Shulgin’s epiphany, it is only now, after four decades, that MDMA is being fast-tracked for scientific study and clinical trials. For much of its life, the compound has been demonized as a deadly club drug — a typical fate alongside other psychedelics like LSD, which became the target of a moral panic thanks to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s abusive Harvard experiments. But the tide of scientific opinion is turning on a number of psychedelics, from psilocybin mushrooms to ketamine; meanwhile, polling suggests that a majority of Americans are ready to accept psychedelic therapy as a mental health tool. The psychedelic renaissance is here, and more than ever, it’s obvious that Shulgin wasn’t merely ahead of his time in the 20th century. He’s still cutting-edge in 2021. 

Over 40 years, Shulgin brainstormed, synthesized and personally tested some 200 psychedelic compounds, working with his wife Ann to document it all into two legendary 1,000-page tomes, PiHKAL (for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved”) and TiHKAL (“Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved”). He discovered substances that warped time, created bizarre hallucinations, changed the pitch of sounds and led to violent outbursts. And in iconic fashion, Shulgin included the precise instructions to create all his compounds in his two books — a principled decision based on a love of sharing psychedelics wisdom, as well as a fear that the government would try to destroy his life’s work. 

For modern-day psychonauts in search of new experiments, Shulgin isn’t just the godfather of MDMA — he is the actual father of a swath of drugs with yet-untested value to human minds. “The guy was just a brilliant chemist, to begin with. But what’s really important is that PiKHAL and TiKHAL just declared, ‘Here’s all the work I did, public domain, it’s free.’ So there’s not any of this typical attempt to commodify or profiteer,” says Albert Garcia-Romeu, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. “It was ahead of his time, and it was an acknowledgement that this is for the benefit of people, not Shulgin.” 

Shulgin began his career as a young University of California, Berkeley PhD with a job at Dow Chemical and a taste for psychedelics, but his breakthrough came in 1962, when he created a valuable biodegradable insecticide. To return the favor, Dow gave him a lab and freedom to innovate — a privilege that Shulgin took full advantage of. 

By 1966, however, the relationship had soured as Shulgin’s interests grew increasingly distant from Dow’s corporate needs. He departed and settled onto a plot of land east of San Francisco, with space for a chemical lab behind the main house. Shulgin secured a critical license from the DEA to analyze and synthesize Schedule I drugs. He used it to assist DEA investigations, take on consulting jobs for research institutions and legally create a smorgasbord of new substances in plain view of guests and law enforcement alike. 

David Nichols, a professor emeritus of pharmacology at Purdue University and one of the world’s leading experts on psychedelic drugs, first noticed Shulgin’s work in the late 1960s as a young chemist fascinated by LSD and mescaline. “I was kind of in awe of his reputation, and didn’t really know much about him, but when we met, I asked if it’d be okay to write him letters and correspond with him,” Nichols tells me. 

They became good friends throughout the next decade, trading notes and discoveries and chemical compounds from across the country. Nichols didn’t have the same appetite for personal experimentation that Shulgin did, and he didn’t think it very scientific for Shulgin to do research on subjects who had been coached on a drug’s effects before taking it (“I told him, that’s biasing your research, and he told me it’d be unethical otherwise”). 

The duo grew into roles as massively influential voices in the budding world of psychedelics research, even co-authoring the first scientific paper on MDMA’s effect on humans. “A lot of people say he was a legitimate scientist. The rest of them say, ‘Well, not really, because scientists test hypotheses.’ To me, he was really an alchemist. He was truly interested in just creating compounds and seeing what they did in him, without a need to do it by the book, so to speak,” Nichols says.

These days, that alchemy is most prevalent in the black market for psychedelics, where a number of Shulgin compounds, notably 2C drugs, can be purchased from underground manufacturers around the world. But it’s not the resting place that Shulgin imagined; indeed, he was often deeply disappointed by stories of dangerous (and fatal) synthesis and usage of psychedelics. Instead, Shulgin wanted his open-source information to allow people to access chemicals that could trigger life-changing experiences in the mind. 

Garcia-Romeu tells me that this is the “catch-22” of Shulgin’s compounds: their public nature basically kills the commercial interest to experiment, and the lack of information around their usage and safety means they’re unfriendly to investors, who’d rather put money toward MDMA and ketamine. “His compounds are stuck in the same type of limbo that most psychedelics have been stuck for until recently: People are using them recreationally, but there’s not much controlled research going on, if any at all,” Garcia-Romeu notes. 

Shulgin died at his home in 2014, after years of struggling with health problems including cancer, a stroke and dementia. His passing left a hole in the world of psychedelics, and I wonder what he would think now, seeing the consumer “shroom boom” emerging on the horizon. “Neurochemists and psychopharmacologists recognize the pioneering nature of Sasha’s work. Practitioners of these disciplines in years to come are likely to have an even greater appreciation of his contributions. Work of this nature may never again be possible,” wrote Rick Doblin, the founder of the pioneering Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, after Shulgin’s death. 

The point is made when I ask Nichols whether there’s an equivalent Shulgin working in the field today, skirting certain laws and experimenting with new compounds in intimate, unregulated ways, all while earning genuine scientific plaudits. “I haven’t met any people like that,” Nichols replies after a pause. 

He has heard of independent chemists who make “research compounds” and are experimenting with things like ketamine analogues, but generally views underground operations as money-making ventures, not noble acts of psychedelic documentation. Nichols also notes that there has always been an underground culture of people synthesizing and sharing psychedelics for free or at cost. But the money to experiment and test the fringe drugs that Shulgin invented is nearly impossible to come by. “It’s not swimming upstream as much as it was when I got into psychedelics research,” he says. “But even now, you basically can’t get grants to study the therapeutic properties of these drugs.” 

Shulgin’s legacy lives on in PiHKAL and TiHKAL, and in the vaults of Erowid, where amateur chemists and dedicated psychonauts channel his spirit and experiment on their own bodies, even using Shulgin’s rating system to take notes while spiraling into oblivion. He lives on in the archives of his “Ask Dr. Shulgin” column, in which he dispensed detailed info on everything from his trickiest compounds to the murky legality around home labs. 

And he lives on in the tantalizing possibility of his work, so much of which remains unexplored in-depth. As he wrote in 1991: “I am completely convinced that there is a wealth of information built into us, with miles of intuitive knowledge tucked away in the genetic material of every one of our cells. Something akin to a library containing uncountable reference volumes, but without any obvious route of entry. And, without some means of access, there is no way to even begin to guess at the extent and quality of what is there.”