The Legacy of Alexander Shulgin, Hero of the Psychedelic Movement, or Agent of the Blue Meanies?
By Preston Peet
June 19, 2014
The passing of 88 year old Alexander Shulgin on June 2 2014, in his home in Lafayette, California did not come as a surprise to me or most anyone up on the news, sad as it was. It had been known since he suffered a serious stroke in 2010 that Shulgin was growing ever more ill, primarily due to a liver cancer prognosis on top of the results of his stroke. With the help of his wife of 35 years, Ann Shulgin, he had been actively seeking help financially to help cover the growing medical costs. He finally lost his battle with the illnesses, leaving fans grieving the world over.
Shulgin was famous, or infamous depending upon ones view, for writing two book length love letters to two sets of hallucinogenic molecules, “PHIKAL, or Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved,” and “THIKAL, the Continuation” (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved) , as well as even more famously popularizing the use of MDMA in psychiatric medical settings, thus bringing it to the partying world’s attention.
As grateful as I’ve always been for Shulgin’s having not only been inadvertently (or was it really inadvertent?) instrumental in the spread and use of MDMA by so many thousands upon thousands of regular citizens, opening up minds to whole new, more (seemingly) compassionate ways of looking at the world and those living upon it, as well as so I could go through my own phase of relatively regular use of that magical drug – not to mention his genuine bravery in always testing out each and every new tweak to this or that (quite possibly extremely) powerful hallucinogenic molecule on himself and a small cadre of friends before releasing the compound upon the world – one thing that’s always left me feeling somewhat unsettled is his close working relationship with the DEA for a number of years, analyzing street drugs for them, as well as testifying in court on occasion as an expert witness, which allowed him, along with long-time DOW Chemical connections, to not only have his own private laboratory right next to his private home, but to fiddle about with, and ingest all sorts of incredibly effective molecules (when indeed they were effective. There were times the results of his experiments did not lead to wonderful trips, or much of any trip at all, or left Shulgin or another of his experimenters to experience harrowing and hellish psychedelic trips) without any interference from law enforcement for years.
Yes, granted, the DEA did eventually raid Shulgin’s lab on October 27, 1994, but for someone, like me, with somewhat more finely developed senses of curiosity and suspicion both, it’s easy to see the possibility that the spread of MDMA, first coming out of Shulgin’s lab in the late 1970s to a group of psychotherapists, then within a few short years exploding onto the clubbing, partying scene where it was sold and taken openly, legally, by adventurous youngsters who found the feelings of empathy and a happy, speedy affection for anything and everything into which they came into contact, that there was more going on behind the scene, involving covert, black operations and the deliberate creation of yet another criminal class, as well as a segment of society made up of bright, promising youth who instead of working to change a system growing more draconian and even fascistic, began to focus more and more on scoring enough drugs, in this case MDMA (or whatever was being passed off as ecstasy to a trusting clientele who thanks to prohibition had no way of knowing what was really in the drugs they were buying, what poisons may have been mixed in to make the drug go further, making more money for the dealers and leaving more dead bodies of unsuspecting partiers who died years before their time- giving the authorities their excuse to crack down on what they perceived as a new generation of trouble making new agey hippy and raver type . The result of the birth of Rave culture was a generation of kids who could turn on some serious feelings of love by simply eating one or three little pills, then forget about the grime of Iran-Contra, and the CIA trafficking tons upon tons of cocaine into the US (creating fodder for the rapidly expanding private prison industry), that whole corrupt Reagan-Bush thing all these eaters of ecstasy spent twelve years allowing to run roughshod over government regulation of corporate greed and their overseeing of a steadily mutating armed forces’ and law enforcement militarism.
Could the spread of ecstasy have helped divert attention from growing signs of corporate, government and military disregard for the civilian populace, an intentional form of psychological warfare aimed at any possibility of a citizenry aware and proactive enough to put the brakes to the rape of our planet’s resources and the rapidly expanding powers of frighteningly militaristic domestic police forces? The idea is not unheard of, as authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain made abundantly clear in “Acid Dreams: the Complete Social History of LSD, the CIA, the 60s, and Beyond,” their landmark 1985 expose of CIA and other official connections to the development, popularizing and world-wide spread of LSD a decade or two before MDMA appeared on the world stage.
Shulgin, who had in the late 1950s developed a series of biodegradable insect killing chemicals for DOW Chemical Corporation, subsequently also producing synthesized mescaline in 1960, the active ingredient that causes human beings to trip after eating certain cactus, such as peyote. Shulgin was allowed to pretty much run his own show after this for a number of years, until in 1966 he left DOW and moved onto what he and his wife named The Farm, where in a lab near the house, he labored for years bringing out one new molecule after another, until the DEA carried out their somewhat petty and veritably useless 1994 raid, which ended their official ties.
The mid-1980s, “Just Say No” shenanigans of Nancy Reagan and government and police friends, along with a publicly panicking DEA, had already managed to convince the US government to enact the Federal Analogue Act in 1986, making it illegal to create any new form of hallucinogenic molecule that even resembled any already in existence and therefore already banned. But this had little effect on Shulgin, who continued his tinkering with molecular structures, churning out hundreds of new forms of chemical agents of chaos both before and after said raid.
Where my own disheartening and unsettling feelings begin to really jangle and jig is when I discovered out that even while Shulgin was being “harassed” by the evil federal DEA, which was claiming he was producing a horrible “menace” by his producing and spreading to the world MDMA, ( actually first patented by Merck in 1912 until the US Military used it in its MK-ULTRA experiments in the later 1950s, seeking truth serums and more dastardly uses for a variety of strong, mind-bending chemical concoctions) he was still cooperating with the DEA, all the time.
In 1965, while still working at DOW Chemical, Shulgin found references to MDMA. So, while not inventing the love drug himself, he was the one who came up with an extremely simple manner of producing large quantities of the drug, and tried it for the first time on himself in 1967. Shulgin soon gave a small vial to his friend, psychotherapist Leo Zeff, who in turn allegedly passed it on to thousands of compatriot therapist types and the genie was out of the bottle for good, despite every apparent (and ultimately a wasted) effort by the DEA and other arms of the prohibitionists’ armed forces to stop its spread.
By the time of the 1985 DEA raid on his home and lab, severing the official contract he held with DEA to analyze confiscated street drugs in his private lab, as well as that practice by the DEA to pretty much turn a blind eye to all his other activities, most of which were for a long time not in any way, shape or form illegal but still seem on the face of it to be somewhat suspicious that they did not attract more official attention than they did for so many years, Shulgin was well known to federal anti-drug agents. Yet he never was arrested, never served any time behind bars, and Shulgin even continued testifying as an expert in court cases for the DEA. Just how much of a menace did the feds really feel he was? Was this more a case of a pet scientist of shady government, military and intelligent agencies, working to su pply one chemical after the next that would insure that more and more potentially politically aware youth would simply drop out of the system, carried up and away by the very genuine but still artificially created feelings of camaraderie and affection for their fellow human beings and other life forms on the planet, chemical compounds which would keep many from participating in the political process? The fact that Shulgin was also a member of the secretive Bohemian Grove, or as he called it in passing, The Owl Club, is also fodder for the conspiracy-minded crowd. What was a psychedelic researcher of the most fringe, radical chemical compounds designed to alter the brain and perception doing hanging out with a collection of society’s elite ruling types, including such scary individuals as Henry Kissinger? There really does seem to be more to the story of Shulgin than meets the eye.
Now, despite my somewhat pessimistic assessment so far in this blog, there is no denying there are real, genuine benefits from the use of MDMA, for myriad reasons, including the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome of all levels, from the most mild to debilitating examples. The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, founded by Rick Doblin in 1986, who started the organization to promote the study and use of MDMA (as well as other substances, such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine, and marijuana), working to get them all approved for various medical treatments and uses.
While I may have allowed my suspicious nature to shine forth for the beginning of this article, it’s true, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that MDMA (and all the other substances I list just above), all have their very real, helpful benefits for veterans, trauma patients, the depressed, and probably for many other illnesses and problems these victims suffer. Now, if only the US and other prohibitionist government could move past the control freakiness and greedheaded “gotta make a profit” mode, perhaps, just perhaps, we could see in a few short years the use of substances illegal to use, or even experiment with today, in common use. Let’s all hope we see this day arrive so much sooner than later. It’s way past time.