High Times Greats: Interview with Sasha Shulgin

The stepfather of ecstasy, Sasha Shulgin, on his highly productive career.
High Times Greats: Interview with Sasha Shulgin
Sasha Shulgin in the lab (Scott Houston/Corbis)

In this May, 2005 High Times feature, David Bienenstock interviewed renowned chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin (1925-2014). In honor of Shulgin’s birthday on June 17, we’re republishing the Q+A below.

Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin has taken more psychedelic drugs than any human in history. Not in volume (godspeed to that anonymous cosmonaut), but in variety—including scores of molecules that never even existed until he came along to invent them.

The man who brought the world STP, 2CB, D0I and countless other so-called designer drugs attended Harvard at age 16 on a full scholarship, but dropped out to join the Navy when America entered World War II. As a child he had developed an intense love of chemistry, which he continued to explore during his military service—literally memorizing the textbook he carried onboard his destroyer escort in the North Atlantic.

After the war, Shulgin earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, did postdoctoral work in psychiatry and pharmacology at U.C. San Francisco and eventually became a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical Company, where his invention of a lucrative organic pesticide garnered him enough leeway at the office to quietly begin pursuing decidedly more mind-expanding studies.

Perpetually straddling the line between drug research and drug “experimentation,” Shulgin’s own psychedelic journey began in 1960 with 600 milligrams of mescaline—a huge dose, which unleashed a flood of deeply suppressed brain functions. The experience convinced the then 35-year-old scientist to devote the rest of his career to the study of psychedelics.

Eventually Shulgin would leave Dow and go independent, using inside connections to secure a Schedule I license from the DEA, which authorized its bearer to produce small amounts of any illegal substance. Beholden to no one, he would offer his research and insight to the government one day and return to his low-tech backyard laboratory the next—ready to continue work on one of the hundreds of psychedelic compounds he’s originated over the years. Both the inventor and his creations managed to remain relatively obscure in this way until the late ’70s, when one of Shulgin’s most promising genies jumped out of the bottle.

Shulgin Rediscovers the Magic Formula

Although MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by Merck Pharmaceuticals, the magic formula remained buried deep within piles of otherwise unremarkable research until 1965, when Shulgin rediscovered the chemical compound—trying it himself first, and eventually expanding his experiments to include a tight-knit group of like-minded therapists, who found in MDMA the promise of a wonder drug capable—in a clinical setting—of shepherding patients to new levels of compassion and self-acceptance.

A secret this good, however, tends to get out. Renamed Ecstasy, MDMA made its public debut in 1977, at a Texas nightclub. The drug culture in America would never be the same, and neither would Sasha Shulgin. His professional reputation staked on the promising new therapy treatment, the man of science was completely undercut by the all-night party called Ecstasy.

Eventually his relationship with the establishment would deteriorate, and although he’s never been charged with a crime, the DEA would force him to return his Schedule I license. In 1996, DEA agents raided his home lab in the hills above Berkeley, CA—again without any charges being filed. Throughout it all, Shulgin has continued to invent, to experiment and to publish his work—so that others might pick up on his psychedelic trailblazing.

Dr. Shulgin and his wife, Ann, spoke with High Times prior to a lecture at the John Jay Law Library in New York City.

Let’s say you meet somebody on a bus or an airplane, you get to talking and they ask, “What do you do for a living?” How do you respond?

Dr. Shulgin: Well, it depends on the environment and my take on the person. In general, something to the effect of “I’m very interested in tools for studying the brain, especially the mind and mental process, and I invent new compounds as research tools to do that exact task.”

What are some of the things you’ve invented?

Dr. Shulgin: Oh, over 150 different psychedelic drugs.

What does “psychedelic” mean? Why do you use that word?

Dr. Shulgin: If I stop someone and ask them, “What is psychedelic?” they kind of know in their heart that it’s something that turns you on and gets your brain and mind in a very interesting place—sometimes an uncomfortable place, but a very creative place. They may not approve, but at least they know what I’m talking about.

Would you prefer “psychedelic” to be a neutral term, or does it express something that you believe in?

Dr. Shulgin: I believe in it, and to me it’s more positive than neutral. Where I get a little bit uncomfortable is when it goes into the rave or the hippie scenes, into the totally illegal direction—because this jeopardizes its value as a research tool.

If the drug warriors manage to suppress all psychedelics, what will we have lost?

Dr. Shulgin: A little bit more of our freedom. And our ability to look into new areas.

Where do you do your work?

Dr. Shulgin: I have a laboratory behind my house. It’s known to the authorities and not disapproved of. I keep all the inexpensive equipment there, and I use the expensive equipment at a nearby hospital, where I work in the clinical pharmacology group.

If somebody wanted to re-create your home lab, about how much would they have to spend?

Dr. Shulgin: Well, I have a magic stockroom with 10 to 15,000 chemicals in it. If they wanted to reproduce that, they’d be very hard-pressed. I have been collecting materials from a university here and a company there—anywhere they’re told by the environmental people, “Get rid of these things. They’re carcinogenic, they’re explosive, they’re all kinds of negative things, and since you have people employed here, you can’t keep this in stock.” So I get a phone call saying, “We’re coming in with a bunch of boxes.” And it’s beautiful. It’s sort of an idea source. I browse amongst the latest and see what I can do with it.

What’s some of the stuff you have that’s the hardest to find?

Dr. Shulgin: If it’s hard to buy, or I need a starting material, I’ll just make it, because I have complete synthetic laboratories.

“To synthesize” means what?

Dr. Shulgin: Synthesizing is like cooking. You follow a recipe and, by cooking, heating, filtering, decanting something else, you get your product. The process requires a recipe, and if it hasn’t been done before, you have to make up the recipe yourself. Pretty much, if you can do 10 things in the kitchen—boil something, filter something, decant something—you can do 10 things in the laboratory. You can be a cook or a chemist. Subtlety comes with years of experience.

Would you say the process is more scientific or artistic? Or do they overlap?

Dr. Shulgin: Chemistry is like writing a piece of music.You try something, it doesn’t sound good, and so you change the note. It’s very much feeling your way into new territory, not following the rigors of the textbook. There’s a rhythm to it.

How would you describe your relationship with these molecules?

Dr. Shulgin: You go into a laboratory and mix and mix and mix, and you come up with a white crystalline solid [that’s] never been seen before—maybe on some distant planet, but certainly not on this planet. It’s brand-new. You think it might be a psychedelic drug.

What’s your relationship with that white solid? Would you get rid of it? Would you want to learn from it? Would you treat it with care? With disgust? How much would you take? A milligram? A gram? A microgram? You don’t know. You have had no communication at all yet, and you don’t know where to start. So you work your way up, sneak up on the effects, and eventually you establish a dialogue.

Are you the first person to ingest these molecules?

Dr. Shulgin: Yes.

Is that a break with scientific convention?

Ann Shulgin: Only very recent scientific convention.

How much different is it to take a drug when you really don’t know what’s going to happen?

Dr. Shulgin: One of the more difficult experiences I had was with one of the higher 2CT compounds, which I had actually invented about 25 years earlier. I found myself in a state of bliss, which is something way up there. You look at a cat, smile, wiggle your nose, and the cat turns and runs away—that kind of a complete control of everything around you.

I said to myself, “What if I stay here? My God, I don’t want that.” I had the horrible feeling that I’d just thrown a bliss switch somewhere. Can you imagine being blissful for the rest of your life? That’s nice for the first little while, but if it doesn’t go away, it gets kind of burdensome.

What do you think is really happening when you ingest psychedelics?

Dr. Shulgin: A lot of people say, “Well, this drug does so and so, or it produces this visual thing.” Nonsense. Drugs don’t do it; they allow you to do it. Each drug allows you to open a different door. You can’t imagine a little white solid could carry memories of your childhood.

Are there any drugs that you think should be illegal?

Dr. Shulgin: No.

How do you feel about the movement of substances you synthesized, such as MDMA, from academic, scientific research circles to a wider drug culture?

Dr. Shulgin: I’m not surprised it happened. I’m saddened that it’s no longer available in the medical community, because it was a fantastic tool in the practice of medicine. MAPS has finally gotten approval for new MDMA research after a couple years of paperwork manipulation. Rick Doblin has been very persistent and diligent working to get that approved.

What do you hope will come out of that study?

Dr. Shulgin: I think, eventually, the realization that nothing much is gained and a lot is lost by laws restricting research. Something is Schedule I because it has no accepted medical utility, but [it] only has no accepted medical utility because you can’t do research on it because it’s Schedule I. It’s a loop without a break, and I think that out of this may come some way of breaking that self-sustaining loop.

What do you think about the government- and corporate-approved alternatives—drugs like Paxil, Prozac, Ambien and that whole field?

Dr. Shulgin: The direction in pharmaceutical research is to bring back to normal people who are diagnosed as being not quite where they should be—as if this were the ultimate goal, to be normal. I believe a lot in researching how to take a person and expand him into areas that are not immediately apparent—not to make a sick person well, but to let a well person see what he is.

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