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Sasha Shulgin, Psychedelic Chemist
by Dennis Romero
Sep 5, 1995
LAFAYETTE, Calif. -- Perhaps it was a sign of things to come when a seven-story Monterrey Pine came crashing down on the property of old Alexander T. Shulgin--Sasha, they call him--missing his musty cobweb-entangled drug lab by inches.

It could have been a good sign because the cantankerous 70-year-old wasn't around the back-yard workshop conducting one of his legendary experiments, which have been known to involve him downing any number of the new psychedelic drugs he invents in the name of science. Imagine losing your mind on some unknown compound with unknown powers (some of this stuff makes LSD look like Vitamin D)--and a tree the length of three buses rocks your world to Richter proportions. The aliens have arrived!

Maybe, though, it was a sign of nefarious things to come. Like the DEA guys who came knocking only days later, sniffing around the lab in search of improprieties. Or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency people who checked out the lab that day last June, taking notes while nosing around the beakers. (They found everything in order, says a representative.) The feds have arrived!

To tell the truth, Sasha Shulgin doesn't much care anymore what the government thinks.

He's tippy-toed around the law and the lawmen for long enough--30 years now. Since the mid-'60s, the tall, lanky, silver-haired chemistry professor has quietly invented drugs under the cover of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration license that allows him to analyze contraband so he can give expert testimony in drug trials. It doesn't exactly allow him to invent the stuff, though, and Uncle Sam appears to be getting cold feet about Shulgin's exploits.

But Shulgin's life's work is practically complete and he's ready to shout it out. "I feel the need of a public voice with some level of academic background . . . " His message: "All drugs should be made legal."

With or without the DEA's approval, the public is now able to see pages and pages documenting all the world's known psychedelic drugs--many of them invented by The Man himself: the compound structures, the lab names, street names and, more importantly, what they do to people or, more precisely, what they've done to him and wife Ann, his 64-year-old partner-in-chem.

Part I, a book they call "Pihkal," was self-published in 1991. Part II, to to be called "Tihkal," is due at the end of the year. The two books provide recipes for almost every mind-bending drug known to humankind. To Shulgin, the books provide scientific knowledge that proves drugs are a tool for the human mind. "The track record," he says, "is that there is great promise."

No one else on the planet has done more drugs, they say, than Sasha and Ann Shulgin. He is known for reviving the almost-century-old designer drug ecstasy, earning him the title "stepfather of MDMA."

"What he almost single-handedly attempted to do," says psychedelic supporter and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis, "was to chart out this whole area of compounds." Says psychedelic godfather Timothy Leary, "I consider Shulgin and his wife to be two of the most important scientists of the 20th Century."

The Shulgins are legends among some academics--LSD inventor Albert Hofmann, now retired in Switzerland, is a friend. But they are little known to the outside world--they were never a part of the counterculture.

Shulgin's work has put him in the odd position of being a source of information for both the Establishment (during his decade working for Dow Chemical and his two decades testifying for both the prosecution and the defense in drug cases) and psychedelic drug advocates (his science has been used to bolster the cause for legal psychedelic drug research on humans, which is now taking place after a 20-year hiatus).

"There's nothing wrong with making information available," he says, legs crossed and drinking iced tea on his patio.

The DEA, which repeatedly declined to comment on the Shulgin case, might disagree. The agency did confirm in a statement that it is attempting to strip Shulgin of his drug-handling license and that a hearing on the matter has been scheduled for Feb. 13. And the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco is keeping a file on Shulgin, although no charges have been brought. No one from that office would comment either.

It's hard to find anyone with ill will toward Shulgin, although there are those opposed to the philosophy of his ilk. Psychedelic drugs are dangerous, opponents say--toxic to animals and dangerous to those who lose their minds and attempt crazy things like trying to fly. "One of the things psychedelic drug activists promote is that drugs are not a problem--that we haven't learned to use them properly," Wayne J. Roques, a retired Miami-based DEA agent and anti-drug activist, said in an interview last year.

"That's one of the nonsensical things that they say," Roques said. "They seem to think it's a human condition to use psychoactive drugs and that's simply not so."

"I first explored mescaline in the late '50s," Shulgin says. "Three-hundred-fifty to 400 milligrams. I learned there was a great deal inside me," he replies.

"That's a considerable experience," Ann says, puffing a cigarette and nodding.

Shulgin's romance with psychedelics started after the war. He served his time in the Navy and finished school at UC Berkeley, earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry. "There was no mention of rebellion at that point," Shulgin says. "I was all smiles, open."

In the '60s he did post-doctorate work in psychiatry and pharmacology at UC San Francisco and became a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical Co. He invented a profit-making insecticide, so Dow gave him a long leash. But while America's anti-drug fervor picked up, Dow found itself in the uncomfortable position of holding several patents on psychedelic drugs.

Shulgin left the company in 1965, built his lab and became, as he puts it, a "scientific consultant." That meant teaching public health at Berkeley and San Francisco General Hospital, among other jobs. It also eventually meant inventing more than 150 drugs in his lab. "To me," he says, "having your own lab is a very extreme pleasure."

Shulgin's spread sits atop a rolling, rural utopia east of Berkeley. The old brick lab lies down the path from his boxy white house, which sits on property that has been in the family for more than 50 years.

To this day his lab looks low-tech--lined with beakers, test-tubes, stills and pumps. It's funky but functional, like Shulgin. He wears handmade huaraches with his tuxedo at special events and drives a '73 bug.

Shulgin met Ann at Berkeley in 1979. Ann, became Shulgin's soul mate, a fellow psychedelic explorer with a penchant for Peyote. ("I've read all of Castaneda," she says.) They were married in Shulgin's back yard in 1981. The man who married them, they say, was a DEA agent.

As Ann put it, "Before 'Pihkal,' we had a real good relationship with the DEA. They have few people they can talk to who are on the other side of the fence who are honest." Says psychedelic drug activist Rick Doblin, "That was his Faustian bargain--in order to do his work, he had to be useful to the DEA."

"It was not a quid pro quo," Shulgin says. "I make my research available to the government as much as anyone else."

Shulgin wrote the book on the law and drugs--"Controlled Substances: Chemical & Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws" (Ronin Publishing, 1988), a book that sits on the desk of many law enforcement officials to this day. "He's a reputable researcher," says Geraline Lin, a drug researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

By the '80s, though, Shulgin wasn't famous for any books he wrote or any drugs he invented, but rather for a drug he didn't invent. In the '70s, a friend had suggested he check out a pill that was going around called MDMA, or "empathy." He tested it, tried it and wrote a lot about it in academic journals.

For better or for worse, Shulgin rescued the drug (known in the lab as methylenedioxy- methamphetamine) from obscurity. Invented around 1912, no one found much use for it until Shulgin came along. He suggested time and again that the stuff was good for therapy. The drug's effects are described as lying somewhere between those of LSD and speed. "I still haven't found anything like it to this day," Shulgin says.

But the drug found an empathetic audience in the nightclub crowd. Dealers renamed the drug "ecstasy" for better marketability. And the U.S. government outlawed MDMA in 1985.

A young group of scientists led by Doblin tried to preserve the drug's legality, arguing that the stuff was valuable for unearthing repressed thoughts and memories. Shulgin assisted the best he could, providing science from the shadows. But the government found that the drug caused brain damage in animals. "The one thing that is clear," says UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, "is that there is a lot of damage here with MDMA."

Shulgin says testing drugs on animals isn't worth dog doo. "There are real problems involved in testing a rat for empathy or changes in self-image," he told an English magazine last year.

"In a lot of ways, Sasha was demoralized after MDMA became illegal," says Doblin, president of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies. "It was the best candidate for legal therapy out of all the drugs he helped create."

But there was always Shulgin's trusty lab, which provided fodder for intimate trips with Ann and friends. Those times, up at his hilltop home, amid the rosemary bushes and live oak, surrounded by the smells of fennel, rue and bay, were magical, they say. "Inventing new psychoactive drugs," Ann says, "is like composing new music."

Sometimes, the music could be maddening. One time a friend, testing out a new Shulgin creation he called 5-TOM, became temporarily paralyzed and completely zombie-fied. It terrified the Shulgins. "There's no experience of this complexity without instances of difficulty," Shulgin says.

A few drugs Shulgin invented, substances with names such as STP and 2CB, escaped to the streets of San Francisco. Amateur chemists read Shulgin's published research and made batches for sale. Like most of the drugs in his book, they were included on the federal government's outlaw list of drugs, called Schedule I.

"A lot of the materials in Schedule I are my invention," Shulgin says. "I'm not sure if it's a point of pride or a point of shame."

Shulgin's rebound came in 1991 when "Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story" (Transform Press) was published. For fans of psychedelia, it was an instant collector's item. "I think Pihkal," Leary says, "is right up there with Darwin's 'Origins . . . ' "

"The history of psychedelic drugs is still being written," says Siegel, who is respected both by the authorities and legalization activists. "Even though Shulgin's observations may not be entirely scientific, they are an important start since he's the only one who has made some of these observations and taken some of these drugs."

"Pihkal," which has sold more than 15,000 copies, covers about half the psychedelic drugs known to humankind--the "phenethylamines I have known and loved," as the book's title suggests. The phenethylamine group of compounds includes such substances as MDMA and mescaline. The other half--a group that includes everything from toad venom to magic mushrooms--will be included in the forthcoming "Tihkal"--for "tryptamines I have known and loved."

To understand the Shulgins is to understand their unwavering belief that these drugs have untold powers and that we, as a society, are ignorant of these powers--like early man who shied away from fire. Yet Shulgin's words are almost always sober: "I'm very confident that there will come a time when this work will be recognized for its medical value."

In 1992 he testified before NIDA that psychedelic drug research using humans should once again be made fully legal (it was all but outlawed in 1970). Shulgin invoked his own legally questionable research on humans.

At the meeting, says Doblin, who was there, "he describes the work that he's doing with human beings, in a way that its clear that it's illegal." Even so, Shulgin influenced NIDA's position that human studies should restart, which they did. "Shulgin put himself on the line," says Lin, who chaired the meeting.

"It was a scientific meeting, not a political one," says Shulgin, understated as usual. "I was explicit, but not provocative."

Later, Shulgin makes this much clear: "It's my stance that what I do is nothing illegal."

In 1986, the federal government outlawed research on humans using drugs that resemble banned drugs, called analogs. Before then, research using designer drugs that weren't expressly outlawed skirted the rules (using an MDEA compound instead of MDMA, for example).

"Since '86, I've stopped all research in this direction," he says, i.e., he doesn't test drugs on humans. He adds that he still invents drugs and feels it's still legal as long as he has his drug-handling license. "I synthesize materials for publication," he says.

This balancing act is in response to the pressure he's been feeling from the DEA. It's ironic, say Shulgin's supporters: He has provided science to the government (most often in cases involving methamphetamine) and all takers only to be taken to task in the end for that very science. "Shulgin's not a criminal," says Mullis, "he's a chemist."

So imagine Shulgin's consternation recently when he found himself playing a gig (he plays the viola with a local orchestra for kicks) at the nearby Bohemian Grove and club guest Newt Gingrich starts talking about . . . drugs.

Normally, this all-male club (the word exclusive is not exclusive enough to describe its clientele) is not so serious--the site of nude rampaging, mock-Druid fire rituals and all manner of back-to-roots male bonding. Snort-Snort. So when Gingrich started talking about a topic Shulgin has studied for 30 years, he kept his mouth shut and his ears open.

"He was very correct," Shulgin says.

"You have two alternatives: We either have to take Draconian means and break the back of the problem, or legalize drugs. I believe in the latter choice."

©Los Angeles Times