Deep History of Drugs

Benjamin Breen at The Appendix has written this fascinating overview of the scientific discovery of illicit drugs. It’s concise, rather than comprehensive, but it makes for a good Sunday read.

It skips Ecstasy, which was invented by pharmaceutical giant Merck just before World War I. MDMA was later synthesized and popularized by Burner (and Bohemian Grover) Sasha Shulgin, who passed away in Berkeley this year at the age of 88.

It also misses the “discovery” of Magic Mushrooms by JP Morgan’s PR guy Gordon Wasson; their psycho-active ingredient psilocybin was synthesized by Albert Hoffman, the same chemist who “accidentally discovered” LSD. Both of these substances had actually been around for thousands of years, used in ritual hallucinogenic ceremonies like the Ancient Mystery Rites of Eleusis which Burning Man was based on.

Re-blogged from The Appendix:


Meiji Meth: the Deep History of Illicit Drugs

“We’re not going to need pseudoephedrine,” Walter White mutters through clenched teeth. “We’re going to make phenylacetone in a tube furnace, then we’re going to use reductive amination to yield methamphetamine.” Chemicals go in, and out come 99.1% pure crystals glittering with the brilliant azure of a New Mexico swimming pool.

The invention of Breaking Bad’s blue meth has become the stuff of television legend, and has even inspired a spate of real world knock-offs. But few know the true origin stories of illicit drugs—for instance, the strange fact that methamphetamine was actually invented in 1890s Japan.

Chemists have been fascinated by recreational drugs for a very long time. Robert Hooke, the short-tempered genius who discovered cells, was also the author of the first academic paper on cannabis. In the fall of 1689, Hooke ducked into a London coffee shop to purchase the drug from an East Indies merchant, and proceeded to test it on an unnamed “Patient.” It was evidently a large dose. “The Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth,” Hooke reported. “Yet he is very merry, and laughs, and sings… and sheweth many odd Tricks.” Hooke observed that the drug eased stomach pains, provoked hunger, and could potentially “prove useful in the Treatment of Lunaticks.”


An early depiction of cannabis from Jean Vigier’s Historia das Plantas (1718), originally published in French in 1670.The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University

Hooke also strongly hinted that he’d personally sampled his coffee shop score: the drug “is so well known and experimented by Thousands,” he wrote, that “there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.” (There were good reasons that Hooke’s readers might be afraid of a new drug—this was, after all, a world where pharmacies sold ground up skulls and Egyptian mummies as medicine).

Historians have largely ignored Hooke’s adventures with cannabis, entertaining as they may be. Albert Hoffmann’s accidental discovery of acid, however, is well known. In fact it’s arguably the most famous tale of drug discovery, challenged only by August Kekulé’s famous dream-vision of the benzene molecule as an ouroboros, which preoccupied Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Even LSD, however, has a more obscure prehistory. Roman physicians described a painful disease called the sacred fire (sacer ignis) which by the Middle Ages came to be known as St. Anthony’s Fire—“an ulcerous Eruption, reddish, or mix’d of pale and red,” as one 1714 text put it. Sufferers of this gruesome illness, which could also cause hallucinations, were actually being poisoned by ergot, a fungus that grows on wheat. Several authors, most recently Oliver Sacks in his excellent book Hallucinations, have noted a potential link between ergot poisoning and cases of dancing mania and other forms of mass hysteria in premodern Europe.


“The Beggars” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a painting believed to show victims of ergotism.Wikimedia Commons

By the 1920s, pharmaceutical firms began investigating the compounds in ergot, which showed potential as migraine treatments. A Swiss chemist at the Sandoz Corporation named Albert Hoffman grew especially intrigued, and in November 1938 (the week after Kristallnacht) he synthesized an ergot derivative that would later be dubbed lysergic acid diethalyamide: LSD for short.

It was not until five years later, however, that Hoffman experienced the drug. Immersed in his work, Hoffman accidentally allowed a tiny droplet of LSD to dissolve onto his skin. He thought nothing of it: hardly any drugs are psychoactive in such minute doses. Later that day, however, Hoffmann went home sick, lay on his couch, and

sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Three days later, the chemist decided to self-administer what he assumed was a tiny dose to further test the drug’s effects. He took 250 micrograms, which was actually roughly ten times higher than the threshold dose. Within an hour, Hoffman asked his lab assistant to escort him home by bicycle. Cycling through the Swiss countryside, Hoffman was shocked to observe that “everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror.”

By the time he arrived home, Hoffman decided to call a doctor. However, the physician reported no abnormal physical symptoms besides dilated pupils, and Hoffmann began to enjoy himself:

Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

Hoffman awoke the next morning “refreshed, with a clear head,” and with “a sensation of well-being and renewed life.” In an echo of Hooke’s report about his friend’s cannabis experience, which left him “Refreshed…and exceeding hungry,” Hoffman recalled that “Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure.”

One of the interesting aspects of Hoffman’s story is how detached it was, both temporally and culturally, from the 1960s context with which LSD is often associated today. This delay between the scientific identification and the popular adoption of a drug is a common story—and in no case is it more stark than in the gap between the discovery of meth and its widespread adoption as an illicit street drug. Methamphetamine was synthesized by a middle-aged, respectable Japanese chemist named Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893.


An elder statesman of Japanese science and medicine, Nagayoshi Nagai and his wife hosted Albert Einstein in 1923.Wikimedia Commons

A member of the Meiji Japanese elite, Nagayoshi devoted much of his energy to the chemical analysis of traditional Japanese and Chinese medicines using the tools of Western science. In 1885, Nagai isolated the stimulant ephedrine fromEphedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.

The year before, in July 1884, Sigmund Freud had published his widely-read encomium to the wonders of cocaine, Über Coca. Cocaine was radically more potent than coca leaves, and chemists the world over were on the lookout for other potential wonder drugs. It’s likely that Nagai hoped to work the same magic with ephedra—and in many ways he did. Ephedrine is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs historically permitted to Mormons, (although see thisresponse post for an interesting breakdown of the debate over “Mormon tea”). Currently, on T.V there are so many drugs for sale, yet we are in a “war on drugs” you can even find a “ dr oz guide on how to buy garcinia cambogia” if this were a real war, how could such things be allowed?

But in 1893, Nagai blazed a chemical trail that would live in infamy: he used ephedrine to synthesize meth.

As with LSD, it took the world a couple decades to catch on. In 1919, a younger protégé of Nagai named Akira Ogata discovered a new method of synthesizing the crystalline form of the new stimulant, giving the world crystal meth.

It wasn’t until World War II, however, that meth became widespread as a handy tool for keeping tank and bomber crews awake. By 1942, Adolf Hitler was receiving regular IV injections of meth from his physician, Theodor Morell. Two years later the American pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories won FDA approval for meth as a prescription treatment for a host of ills ranging from alcoholism to weight gain.


Ambar: a potent mixture of methamphetamine and phenorbarbital, shown here in a mean-spirited 1964 advertisement that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 1, No. 5385).

The rest is history—by the 1960s, “tweakers” had made meth a byword for deranged drug addicts, and it lost its standing in the scientific and medical communities. Much like heroin, which was originally marketed by Bayer as a companion to aspirin (the company still technically owns the copyright to the name), meth began life as a wonder drug only to segue into a depraved middle age.

It all points to an interesting and unexplored dichotomy in the history of drugs: there’s a huge gap between the inventors of illicit drugs—usually rather austere, cerebral and disciplined—and their consumers.

I’m guessing that Robert Hooke, Nagayoshi Nagai, Albert Hoffman, and Walter White would have a lot to talk about.

This post is part of a larger series. Read the next installment.

Burning Man seems tailor-made for the psychedelic movement. Founder and Director Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger, used to hang out in a house in the Berkeley hills in the early years, with a bunch of techies from the Mondo 2000/WIRED scene and acid straight from Stanford’s Chemistry Lab, which provided the gear for the original “acid tests”. In a panel discussion with This Is Burning Man author Brian Doherty in July 2013 , Danger Ranger said:

“I have a connection to Silicon Valley that goes back to the beginning of the personal computer…We were all hanging out a lot, I was meeting people who were from Mondo 2000 which was the pre-cursor of Wired magazine. We were going to parties, I’d go over to their house in Berkeley, they had connections to the Stanford Chemistry Lab, they had drugs that had not been outlawed yet – it was out on the edge, it was really crazy. A lot of the connections came from out of that tech industry because we knew each other and we hung out” [YouTube, from 19:20]

Larry Harvey and Grateful Dead songwriter (and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder) John Perry Barlow gave an interview in London for Tech Crunch last year, where they described the long history of inter-relationships between psychedelic drugs, the counter-culture, and the tech industry, as outlined in John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said.

Burning Man takes place on Federal Land, where marijuana is illegal even if you have a medical prescription for it in your home state. Alcohol is illegal for anyone under the age of 21, and cigarettes are an illegal drug if you are younger than 18. Even Ambien, Viagra, and Xanax are illegal if you don’t have a current doctor’s prescription for them.
Given all that, I’m wondering – have you ever done illegal drugs at Burning Man? This poll is totally anonymous and there is no way to track your vote back to you, you don’t need to provide a name or email address to answer.

RIP Sasha Shulgin

Alexander-Shulgin-en-el-Burning-ManBurner Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin passed away this afternoon around 5pm. He was 2 weeks away from his 89th birthday. He had been dealing with serious health issues since at least 2010.

Shulgin has been called “the godfather of drugs”. In his life, he synthesized and documented more than 200 different psychoactive compounds. He is credited with the re-introduction of Ecstasy (MDMA) into America – he called himself “the stepfather of Ecstasy”. It was prescribed legally by psychiatrists in the early 80’s as a marriage counselling tool, and millions of doses had been legally distributed to Texas nightclubs by 1984.

Shulgin served in the US Navy. He was a member of Bohemian Grove, a long term DEA collaborator, and a multiple Burner.

Shulgin said that of everything he ever created, he preferred 2CB. It combines hallucinations and euphoria, and lasts a long time.

He also created one mysterious compound that was so good, he immediately destroyed it and burned his notes. Such a substance, he felt, should not be unleashed on mankind.

Shulgin’s work lives on in his books TIHKAL and PIHKAL.

Over the past four decades, Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin has created more than 200 psychedelic drug compounds, many involving MDMA—better known by its street name, ecstasy. The Northern California–bred scientist is the subject of a new documentary, Dirty Pictures…He met his wife, Ann, in 1979, and they immediately bonded over a mutual interest in visionary plants. At age 79, she is his research and writing partner. Dirty Pictures shows the Shulgins’ sampling new drug compounds with friends and associates—they call this experimenting. These scenes are intercut with the Shulgins’ travels—to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, to Egypt, to a symposium in New York City—and interviews with an amiable DEA agent and a chemist who’s developing psychedelic drugs for use in medicine but has never actually tried them himself. 

…MARTIN: The film shows you visiting Burning Man, which is not exactly known for pharmaceutical purism. But we never learn how you feel about the festival.

ANN: Approximately one third of the people at Burning Man take psychoactive drugs. The rest take alcohol. There’s not that much psychoactive drug taking.

SASHA: I think a lot of people assume they gather doped-out on psychoactive drugs. They don’t have them; they don’t even want them. They just happen to take a little bit of something or another and turn on and spin around a while.

ANN: If you haven’t been to Burning Man, you should do it once. It’s an extraordinary experience. Some of the best artwork I’ve ever seen in or out of a museum. Amazing. We’d love to go back, but it’s too expensive.

SASHA: We’ve been there three times, and that’s enough.

Here’s some video of Sasha at Burning Man in 2008. There are 8 parts up on YouTube:


Here are a couple more interviews with Shulgin. This one is by Dennis Romero for the LA Times, in 1995 (via

Sasha Shulgin, Psychedelic Chemist


Alexander Shulgin, psychedelic chemist

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.”

       bohemian owlWith 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 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 ann and sashaShulgin’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.”

       shulgin labIn 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.”

pihkal        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).

tihkal        “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.

This next interview is billed as Shulgin’s last interview. From Hamilton Morris at VICE:

…I suspect there is another reason Shulgin likes to have the first taste: The sensation of synthesizing a completely unknown drug and ingesting it, a sensation that can only happen one time, is clearly druglike in and of itself. It’s the breaking of a transdimensional, neurochemical hymen. In a sense, it’s the one drug he keeps coming back to. Ask Shulgin what his favorite psychedelic is and he will say “2C-B”5  without hesitation. Ask him how many times he has taken it and he’ll say “a few.” This is a guy who has had approximately 10,000 psychedelic experiences. No drug, not even his cherished 2C-B, tastes better than the untasted…

shulgin-and-morris…Eventually, Paul brought in dozens of green cardboard boxes full of chemicals. They contained a physical history of Shulgin’s entire pharmacopeia. A life’s work corked up in three-dram vials. The collection was supremely tantalizing and borderline pornographic. My heart rate increased and my brow began to perspire, as I tried my hardest to avoid undignified Tex Avery-type behaviors like panting, making an aroogah sound, or letting my eyeballs fall out of my head. He removed the lid, revealing 100 alphanumerically indexed cells that housed glass vials, with conspicuous lacunae once occupied by Schedule I drugs. Each vial’s gummed label was hand-inscribed with a small molecular diagram. Many of these substances don’t exist anywhere else in the known universe. Shulgin is not only a chemist, he is a collector. Early in his career he ambitiously sought to accumulate every psychoactive drug in the world but eventually realized he couldn’t keep up. According to the index card, the (partial) contents of the single box Paul opened included trichocereine, crude curare, isomescaline, amphetamine, R-DOM, MDMA, DET, DiPT, scopolamine, benz-phetamine, d-methamphetamine, aspirin, berberine, physostigmine, papaverine, pipradol, aconite, thebane, pilocarpine, oxycodone, oxymorphone, several forensic samples of PCP dated and labeled “illicit PCP 1975,” and my dear old friend Ritalin…

Alex Grey (left) and Sasha Shulgin

Alex Grey (left) and Sasha Shulgin

…I sat looking at (and possibly ogling) Shulgin chewing his egg-salad sandwich and thought about the superhuman influence his work endued on the world. The hundreds of deaths, millions of freak-outs, tens of billions of dollars exchanged of which he has not received a dime, cumulative millennia of prison sentences, trillions of transformative experiences, decaliters of joy tears, decibels of laughter, and so forth. I wanted to tell him how much he has changed my life; I wanted to offer him 1,000 screaming genuflections of gratitude for everything that has happened to me on substances he has created and championed. My bed collapsing while I was on 2C-B. Being cradled like a child by a computer programmer as I lay dying on DOC. Biting a crisp Red Delicious in the seminary on 2C-E. Finding a nippy jug of milk on a stoop and being attacked by a dog on DiPT. The Central Park portrait artist who drew me as if I were Enrique Iglesias on 4-HO-MiPT. Memorizing the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram on 2C-D. Burying my face in a sopping-wet wig I found on the floor of a taxi on 4-HO-MET. These were all holy and wonderful things that I wanted to tell him. I would not be capable of giving him enough thanks.

Read the full interview here.

The East Bay Express did an in-depth story in 2002 on designer drug 2-C-T-7, one of Sasha’s creations.

There’s a 6-page interview the New York Times did with him in 2005 that’s pretty good too.

Reality Sandwich started a 5-part series on Psychedelics featuring Shulgin. Part I is from three months ago and Part II is from today.

The man who invented more drugs than most people have even heard of, let alone done – maintained a happy marriage for 35 years and lived to be almost 90. May history remember him kindly.


Miss Molly Goes to War

by Whatsblem the Pro

CJ Hardin has gone from PTSD to MDMA to A-OK

CJ Hardin has gone from PTSD to MDMA to A-OK

CJ Hardin first went to Burning Man in 2006; when he can make it to Black Rock City he volunteers as a medic. He spins fire staff, and is learning ball poi.

Outside Black Rock City, CJ Hardin is a soldier whose three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan left him an alcohol-soaked, suicidal wreck peppered with physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. The physical damage wasn’t much – some minor injuries, a touch of tinnitus – but the PTSD he suffered picked him up by the scruff of the neck and took him right out of his life.

Michael and Annie Mithoefer are burners, too, and more formally known as Dr. Michael Mithoefer, MD, and his co-therapist, Annie Mithoefer, BSN. The couple run a well-regarded internal medicine practice in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

The Mithoefers are currently conducting clinical trials as part of a ten-year, $15,000,000 project that intends to transform MDMA — sometimes sold under the street names Molly, Ecstasy, or X, among others — from an illegal street drug into an FDA-approved prescription medicine. CJ Hardin is a patient in one of those trials.

The project is being administered by a non-profit organization called MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS, currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, has earned a solid reputation in the scientific community by doing peer-reviewed work on the legitimate medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana since 1986.

To a non-profit organization like MAPS, exploring the medical uses of MDMA makes good sense, because the patent on the drug has expired. This being the case, the for-profit pharmaceutical industry has little or no interest in testing and developing the drug into a product. Once someone like MAPS does it, the for-profit big boys in the big league may manufacture their own version and sell it alongside the patented products they own, but since they can’t hold a monopoly on the drug, there’s no money to be made in doing the groundwork that must come first. This is part of the reason why MDMA has remained on the government’s Schedule 1 list of substances that supposedly have no medicinal value.

All the drugs that MAPS works with either have expired patents, like MDMA, or are unpatentable, like marijuana; once the research allows products to be manufactured from them, nobody – not even MAPS – will have a monopoly on making and selling them, and thus they will likely remain cheap or even free to the people who need them most.

I interviewed CJ Hardin about his progress with the Mithoefers’ MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013.

Whatsblem the Pro:
CJ, you’re a burner, right? How did you find your way to Black Rock City the first time?

CJ Hardin:
I went with friends in 2006, after my second Iraq deployment. I really didn’t know much, other than that it was a huge party with cool music and art in the desert. We rented a bus and really kinda glamped it. I didn’t know that it was such a participatory event, but I really started to enjoy it once I began talking to fire spinners, since I had done fancy drill teams with rifles in the JROTC. I had a great time, but also gained a deeper appreciation for the burner community. I really appreciated how Burning Man set itself apart from music festivals I had been to, like the Family Values Tour, and Bonaroo.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How long have you had PTSD, and how long have you been doing the MDMA therapy?

CJ Hardin:
I got deployed in 2003 during the initial push to Baghdad, and served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I started to really feel it after the second deployment.

I’ve been in the MDMA study since midsummer of 2013, and I’m about to do my third MDMA session, on December 3rd. If I haven’t been getting the higher of the two doses they’re testing, I’ll get another five sessions with the high dose after this.

Whatsblem the Pro:
This is a horribly rude question that I wouldn’t ask under other circumstances, but would you mind telling me something about the experiences you had that left you with PTSD?

CJ Hardin:
Well, I’ve been hit by two IEDs while in armored vehicles, but I wasn’t seriously injured, just some hearing loss. I was hit by a bullet fragment from friendly fire that made me think I was shot. . . and pretty much every day we were being targeted with mortar and rocket fire, so we could never really feel safe. On top of that, I was a member of a command team, so I got to see all the operational stuff and the casualties. There was a lot of gory stuff, and friends getting injured and killed. . . and of course never knowing whether a mortar was going to drop on you in your sleep or on the shitter was a really bad feeling that dissociates you from the real world. All of it combined was the problem.

Whatsblem the Pro:
What sort of symptoms did you develop?

CJ Hardin:
Any sudden noise, change of air pressure in the room, motion. . . I’d get hyper-vigilant. Rapid pulse, crippling anxiety. Depression. A need to avoid crowds. Driving became impossible; I’d swerve to avoid anything near the road because it would remind me of IEDs. I got into some major alcohol abuse to keep my mind off stuff. Insomnia. Lack of a sex drive. Thanks to the IEDs, I’ve also got permanent tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears.

I got to the point where I stayed home and never went out. I didn’t even try to work really, just did odd jobs. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How has the therapy you’ve been doing with the Mithoefers affected all this?

CJ Hardin:
Working with them and with the MDMA has vastly reduced all the symptoms. Some are gone totally. I go out and hike and drive now; I don’t jump as much at all at sudden things; I’m much better with crowds now. Essentially, I realize on a gut level that I’m not at war any more, and I’m safe.

Whatsblem the Pro:
All that, with just two sessions?

CJ Hardin:
Two sessions with the MDMA, and some therapy sessions in between, yes. I’m about to do the third MDMA session.

Whatsblem the Pro:
It sounds like you got your life back.

CJ Hardin:
I did get my life back! There was a profound difference after the first session. . . and my girlfriend benefits by having a sane boyfriend. Did I mention that I lost my marriage due to the PTSD?

Whatsblem the Pro:
I’ve read that a single dose of MDMA might be worth years of psychotherapy.

CJ Hardin:
Oh, yeah. . . eight hours of therapy with MDMA feels like three years of therapy without it.

Whatsblem the Pro:
What went with the MDMA? Were you guided through any particular experience with it, or did they just give it to you and babysit passively?

CJ Hardin:
Oh no, I was totally guided. The doctor and his wife, who is a nurse, were with me the whole time. There was soft music playing, and they gave me a sleeping blindfold in case I wanted to “go inside.” My girlfriend was there for most of the time, too. They let me talk about whatever. Sometimes they would remind me of what I was saying or get me back on a train of thought.

Whatsblem the Pro:
They told you to go inside yourself?

CJ Hardin:
Yep. After I’d talk about something a little more intense, they’d suggest that I go inside and try to feel where I felt the feelings. . . then breathe through it. To dwell on it, kind of.

Whatsblem the Pro:
I can see that happening at a theme camp at Burning Man, too.

Thank you, CJ. This is fascinating research, and from what you’re telling me it seems very promising. Is there anything the community can do to get involved and help?

CJ Hardin:
Actually, yes. . . the study I’m taking part in right now needs funding to continue. It’s all non-profit, and runs on donations, so there’s an Indiegogo campaign that you can give money to. You can read all about the clinical trials and the science and everything there, too.

I really believe that the work the Mithoefers are doing is going to end up helping a lot of people who need help badly and can’t get it because MDMA is illegal. It’s helping me, and I’m very grateful. Please give generously!

Whatsblem the Pro:
Good luck, CJ! We’re rooting for you.