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Godfather of Ecstasy: Alexander Shulgin’s Last Trip

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Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, perhaps the greatest psychedelic research chemist of all time, passed away on June 2, 2014, just 15 days before his 89th birthday. Unaware of his dire health, High Times had paid a visit to his laboratory the previous week. Though obviously ill, Sasha exhibited his trademark humor, asking why we had come so far to visit. When one looks at his life and achievements, the answer to that question is clear.

East of Oakland, and overlooking Mount Diablo, a hobbit-hole has been dug into the side of Pleasant Hill. It’s a modest structure, gilded with a patina of rust and rot, swallowed by years of English ivy. But inside this humble cottage, a great White Wizard has crafted his alchemical hideaway. On most evenings, the Wizard could be found there hunched over bubblers and boilers, listening to string quartets, condensing spirits from aromatic wisps and vapors, occasionally releasing a plume of steam and stench. Around him was a cathedral of colored jars, bottles, flasks and vials, each one holding a potion or powder of unimaginable power, labeled with glyphs that only another alchemist could decipher. A bottle of sweet-smelling oil might be a deadly poison or a powerful aphrodisiac; a jar of white powder could be a miracle cure or a pinch of the philosopher’s stone.

This place may sound plucked from fantasy, but I can assure you that it’s real. It’s the laboratory of the famed psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, only 30 minutes from Oakland in Lafayette, CA. Of course, this wizard was more likely to be found in ethnic print shirts than white robes, and the string quartets came from the tinny speaker of a beat-up transistor radio via the local public radio station. But other than a few artifacts of the modern age, this alchemical hideaway could have been the timeless lair of any 17th-level magic user worth his salt. And in this laboratory, Alexander Shulgin designed, synthesized or discovered more psychedelic and psychoactive molecules than any other chemist who’s ever lived.

Standing in Shulgin’s lab just days before his death, I am struck by a sense that Alexander — “Sasha” to his friends and family — may be the last of his kind. At 88 years old, Sasha Shulgin is the last of America’s gentlemen scientists — self-employed innovators in the mold of Einstein or Tesla. These were educated men with the personal means to pursue the science of discovery purely out of interest. Shulgin was unconstrained by corporations or academic institutions demanding results. Free to follow his passion, he was arguably the most prolific psychoactive chemist of the 20th century, producing hundreds of novel psychedelic compounds during the course of his career.

Looking over the rows of jars with faded and yellowing labels, I can only wonder how long each bottle has been sitting there. Some hold substances synthesized last year; others were forgotten four decades ago, added to Shulgin’s ever-growing list of projects put on the back burner. But now his days of working in the laboratory are finally over. The bubblers and boilers sit cold and dry; the inscrutable glyphs stare silently across a maze of tubing and glassware.

Legend has it that the Wizard retired to this alchemical hideaway in the late ’60s, but the story starts long before then. Even as a child, Shulgin was a prodigy. Both of his parents were teachers, musicians and prolific poets, but even in a family like that, Sasha was a bit of an oddball. “He had to learn how to tone it down — you know, to be funny and engage people,” says Ann Shulgin, Sasha’s second wife and collaborator of over 30 years. “He knew that if he appeared too smart in front of the other children, he wouldn’t be accepted … he would be the boy that no one liked.”

But the child prodigy who hid behind playground fart jokes had an organic chemistry textbook in his backpack that he’d memorized by the age of 11. He attended Harvard University on a scholarship at the age of 15, then dropped out to join the Navy in the middle of World War II. “He always said he was ‘hypomanic’ — just a little below fully manic,” Ann Shulgin recalls. “So he needed to have all these different projects and new experiences to keep his mind occupied.” To relax, Sasha would play the viola or piano, often dropping into Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to lighten his mood.

After his stint in the Navy, Shulgin finished his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley and eventually landed a senior research position at Dow Chemical. His commercial success with the biodegradable pesticide Zectran won him the freedom to study whatever he chose while at Dow. Shulgin’s primary interest was in psychoactive drugs — particularly mescaline, to which he’d been exposed in the late 1950s. He was also intrigued by the rumor that prison inmates were using nutmeg as a psychedelic drug and wanted to identify the psychoactive component in the spice.

“You have to remember, back then there was a great deal of hope that figuring out these psychedelic molecules would be the key to solving all kinds of mood disorders — insanity, schizophrenia, psychosis, dementia, the whole lot,” says Paul Daley, Shulgin’s longtime collaborator and heir apparent. “Of course, we now know it’s not quite that simple — but the laws changed shortly after that, and most of the research just ended.”

As the legal mood toward psychedelics shifted in the early 1960s, Shulgin left his position at Dow and retired to spend time with his family. The Wizard’s beard grew longer and whiter. He played his viola with local string quartets —  “because quartets always need a viola,” Ann explains. “It’s an easier position to fill.” And on one of those days, he cleared out the old hobbit-hole, a brick-walled basement left over from a building that had burned down long ago. It was full of spiders and rat droppings, but Sasha had a vision: This would be his laboratory. So he began collecting equipment. “He was a scrap hound,” says Daley. “He would collect whatever equipment he could get his hands on. Anytime a local chemical company went out of business or was throwing something out, he’d be in the truck. He would take almost anything— glassware, chemicals, solvents, propane, precursors … he would take it all.”

Piece by piece, the alchemical hide- away came together, and then the Wizard went to work. Late at night, the old radio played symphonies as Sasha conducted with a glass stirring rod, checking temperatures in reaction vessels, evaporating droplets of colored liquid into clear dishes of oils, waxes or salts. Then, once a pinch of the newly created substance was properly washed and dried, into a little brown bottle it went. A simple but arcane schematic of the molecule was scrawled on a label and taped to the front. These little drawings became known as Sasha’s “dirty pictures.” And whenever a new molecule appeared, it was tested — first on Shulgin himself, in small doses, and then on a trusted group of researchers and friends. The results were sometimes disappointing; other times, they were spectacular.

Because of his friendly advisor’s relationship with the DEA, Shulgin was able to obtain a Schedule I research license that allowed him to synthesize, possess, and test new psychoactive drugs on himself and others. It is impossible to overstate how much of a pioneer Shulgin was in this field. Says Kenneth Morrow, the founder of Trichome Technologies and an expert on cannabis extractions: “There are dozens of active and inactive compounds in cannabis — terpenes, cannabinoids and so on. We take all this stuff for granted today, but Shulgin wrote the first paper on this back in 1971.” (For the record: Shulgin, A., “Recent Developments in Cannabis Chemistry,” Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Vol. II, No. 1, 1971.) Back in those days, there was a grove of pot plants in the Wizard’s backyard. The federal government had issued Shulgin marijuana tax stamps so he could legally grow cannabis for research purposes. “Today, the cannabis market is obsessed with isolating cannabinoids for medical purposes,” Morrow observes. “And here Shulgin was, doing this research 40 years ago!”

Sasha and Ann often experimented with psychedelics together and shared their findings with their confidential research group. “Different people have different body types, so Sasha thought it was important to see how a drug reacts in all kinds of people.” When I ask Ann about his favorite among all the chemical compounds he’d created, she answers immediately: “It would have to be 2C-B. He was always very proud of that one. He called it the ‘Great Teacher’ … although I preferred 2C-B-FLY a bit more.”

But there are so many to choose from: DiPT, 5-MeO-AMT, 5-MeO-DALT, methylone 2C-T-7—the list goes on and on.

Ann can’t say for sure how many trips they shared together; she just smiles and admits, “We stopped counting at around 2,000.” This is a mind-boggling number — except when you consider that the total may actually be closer to 4,000.

When pressed to reveal elements of Sasha’s darker side or other experiences that were frustrating, Ann pauses and thinks. “He was not a perfect man,” she says at last. “He could get moody and stop talking … the communication would stop.” I ask for an example. “Well, you could tell Sasha was in a bad mood if he was cleaning something. If you saw him in the kitchen washing the dishes, you could be sure there was something really bothering him, and you’d better stay out of his way.”

Paul Daley confirms that Sasha was the same in the lab. “If he ever hit a sticking point or couldn’t figure out why something wasn’t working, he would begin breaking down the lab and cleaning things. He’d clean the glassware, the tubing — scrub it all out. And by the time he was done cleaning and setting up, he’d have thought of two or three more things to try … or 11.”

Although Shulgin worked with many types of drugs, his favorites were the phenethylamines, psychedelics that are more thoughtful than overpowering. Ann recalls a time that she and Sasha tried the psychedelic brew known as The last time I saw Sasha was five days before his death. He was in a wheelchair, almost deaf, almost blind, suffering from dementia and with liver cancer on top of everything else. I told him I had come all the way from Seattle to see him; he kept asking, “Why? What for?” He was almost entirely out of breath. I couldn’t tell if he was confused or just playing with me, but it felt like he was reaching for the energy to make another joke.

Always with the jokes, this guy … even at death’s door. I remember the first time I spoke at length with Sasha, almost 10 years ago, sitting in an Italian restaurant after a conference on psychedelics in San Jose. A young chemist sat next to me asking all kinds of questions, but Sasha only wanted to make jokes — or, worse, puns. “What’s the best time to go to the dentist?” he would ask. “Tooth-hurty.” Sasha could torture people for hours with a steady barrage of these groaners. “He was relentless,” recalls family friend Greg Manning, who spent a magical evening driving around Burning Man in a golf cart with Sasha and Ann. “I kept telling him to stop, and he kept nailing me with one-liners. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. He was just destroying me.”

But Sasha couldn’t summon the energy to make that last joke. I said goodbye and thanked him for everything he had given to the world. He died a few days later.

It’s hard to say what life will be like on Shulgin Farm now that the Wizard is gone. Although Sasha’s published work is available from Transform Press, there are still many volumes of unpublished notes that have never been transcribed. “There are dozens of Sasha’s journals in storage,” says Tania Manning, Shulgin’s archivist. “We’re still in the process of cataloging everything.” Tania takes me around the estate and shows me all the plants in the Wizard’s magic garden. Back in the hobbit-hole, Paul Daley keeps the equipment clean and occasionally fires it up to continue Sasha’s work. “I think there’s still great value in researching the duds,” Daley says, referring to the many Shulgin compounds that should be psychoactive but, for whatever reason, aren’t. “These chemicals may have all kinds of secondary effects that have never been explored. These could be fruitful lines of research, but exploration in this area has barely started.”

Those around him have re-formed the Alexander Shulgin Research Institute (ASRI) to preserve his scientific work, but it’s hard to imagine that Sasha’s independent and imaginative style could ever be duplicated by a foundation. Many people think of chemistry as technical and boring, but Shulgin never did. “I’m just a cook,” he would often say—and from the looks of his alchemical hideaway, he liked things messy and exciting. I remember watching Sasha and my chemist friend scrawling a few “dirty pictures” on a napkin in that Italian restaurant. They drew a series of synthesis pathways from one molecule to the next, each one trying to do outdo the other. “It’s so amazing,” I said, looking at the napkin. “Adding and removing atoms from existing molecules turns them into totally different molecules. It’s like you’re rearranging the fabric of reality.”

“That’s it exactly,” replied the Wizard, peering at me from under a bush of crazy white eyebrows. “It’s the closest thing we have to real magic.”

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