This week, the chemist Alexander Shulgin died. Hailed/demonized by the press as the “Godfather of ecstasy”, Shulgin was a pioneer in the science of mind altering substances and an outspoken drug advocate. From a distant enough perspective, Alexander Shulgin was just a chemist often under the employ of the federal government and chemical companies. His life was very much one spent inside labs, labs in all likelihood funded through nefarious means. The life, times and influence of Sasha (as his friends called him) can only be fully understood from an internal perspective, a perspective which cannot be imputed in anyway to the uninitiated except by anecdote. His life and research was one of deep internal experience and exploration, as he tried to hone the chemical effects of many of the world’s favorite psychedelic substances.
To understand the influence Shulgin had on the world completely, we must also dwell on the internal shifts he caused in others. With that said, allow me to indulge you in a drug story. Nearly 3 years ago, I was at a low emotional point in my life, perhaps the lowest. I was 22 and imagined that life had already dealt me the cards of introverted misery and resentment that I would carry until my grave. But, one night a young woman sent me a text asking if I would be interested in going to a small rave and experimenting with MDMA. At this point, I knew as much about Molly as your grandmother probably does. It was a goofy new speed which made people dance and hug each other. Hardly my scene, I thought. However, my friend was persistent, insisting that this would get me out of my rut of aggression and despair with the world around me. So I acquiesced.
What happened later that night will never lose its’ full and splendorous meaning to me. This fad party drug had somehow connected me to a room full of people I didn’t know at all or had little acquaintance with, but for perhaps the first moment of my life, I felt open. I felt unashamed. I felt loved. I felt free. If my subjective experience allowed for it, I might have wept for a decade wasted in depression and isolation, but no, I was not capable of regret. I was only capable of embracing this, of embracing my new found friends, who to me were no less than saviors in this moment. On that night, I came out as bisexual to a room full of people, something 5 years prior was literally unthinkable to me and had become more or less a part of me I didn’t feel was worth sharing. That night, it was worth sharing. I was worth sharing.
Alexander Shulgin made that experience, and many more like it, possible. His research liberated me. While the headlines today read that Shulgin as the godfather of “the party drug ecstasy”, Terrence McKenna first described him as the godfather of psychopharmocology. Rather than influencing party culture, which will inevitably take hold of powerful psychoactive chemicals, Shulgin was the first to synthesize MDMA as we know it today and to apply it as a therapeutic agent. Today, MDMA is openly used by psychiatrists in the treatment of PTSD, with often times miraculous results.
While most known for his MDMA research, Shulgin thrived within the realm of more traditionally psychedelic substances, especially phenylethylamines and tryptamines, gracing us with the presence of new powerful agents of self-discovery.
Throughout his research, Shulgin remained transparent and friendly with the government and law enforcement, even sharing his compounds with agents of the DEA and writing manuals for use in the classification of drugs. However, like all researchers of illegal substances, Shulgin’s research was shut down by the DEA in 1994. The federal government had had enough of Shulgin’s two sides, one side an obedient chemist and the other a writer of subversive, drug-promoting literature. The DEA declared his more personal writing to be nothing more than “cookbooks” for illegal substances.
Shulgin knew his research would remain mostly isolated for his lifetime. Despite the definitive proof that MDMA and other psychedelics contain within them the solution to many psychological ailments, the U.S government has done nothing to tighten its’ grip beyond allowing strict therapeutic and lab research. The only political victory he experienced was through his testimony to Spanish authorities which had it effectively rescheduled as a substance of minimal danger.
I will not allow this to be Shulgin’s final legacy. He has been nothing less than a personal liberator of thousands, perhaps millions of minds. The drug war and the iron fist of government generally is anathema to a world fully exposed to the influence of Shulgin’s life’s work. I am freer because of him and have made it my own life’s mission to liberate others, to free them from the psychological constraints the drug war keeps us all in. While remaining for much of his life an apparent friend of the State, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin used his position to ultimately undermine the drug war and started many down a path of self-discovery and mental freedom which will ultimately undermine the brutalizing, regressive nature of government power.