Brian Vastag

Science Journalist

Happy Birthday, Sasha Shulgin


Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin turned 82 yesterday. He’s here at the Mind States Costa Rica meeting, a gathering of psychedelics enthusiasts. (For those who don’t know, I won a raffle to attend the meeting so I decided to check it out.)

Since 1955, Sasha has invented something like 200 new psychoactive drugs. He began his career as a chemist for Dow, making insecticides. Someone gave him mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote cactus, and he became intrigued. Soon he began manipulating the mescaline molecule to invent new compounds, many with similar effects.

Dow became disenchanted with Sasha’s work, which he was publishing regularly in scientific journals, so he struck out on his own. He set up a lab in the East Bay area of California where he has been working his magic ever since.

In the late 1970s, Sasha resurrected a forgotten molecule, MDMA, and figured out a relatively easy way to synthesize it. The drug gave him a powerful sense of connection with others, and it soon appeared in psychotherapists’ offices. Originally called Adam, the MDMA grew in popularity among young party-goers as Ecstasy. The federal government banned it in the mid-1980s, prompting a hiatus in all therapeutic MDMA research until just a few years ago. A resurgence of interest in medical MDMA has led to clinical studies in the U.S. and Europe for post-traumatic stress disorder.

For a long time, Sasha maintained a special relationship with the Drug Enforcement Agency. One of his best friends was a chemist at the agency, and Sasha had a license to work with schedule I drugs (the most restrictive category). He kept the DEA apprised of his work and they let him do his thing.

But in the mid-1990s that relationship ended. A few years earlier, Sasha had published PIHKAL, a book that narrates his relationship with his wife Ann – an integral partner in his work – and details his invention of new psychedelics and empathogens (the former term refers to drugs with LSD-like effects, the latter to MDMA-like drugs). The book contains brief recipes for synthesizing the drugs as well as reports from his and Ann’s experiences with them. The DEA stormed Sasha’s lab, and he subsquently decided to give up his license to work with scheduled substances. Then he continued devising new molecules that weren’t scheduled and published a second book of recipes.

The Shulgins’ first book has sold about 6o,000 copies, a huge number for a self-published work. At the Mind States meeting Sasha is something of a Gandalf figure – a revered and beloved wizard. Last night, the 50 meeting attendees gathered to wish him happy birthday. The cake was frosted with a drawing of one of the molecules he invented. Dave, from an L.A. band called the Insect Surfers, wrote and sang a song about carbon rings and methyl groups. An artist from New York, Joe Coleman, spontaneously sketched Sasha and Ann, and the meeting organizer, Jon Hanna, showed a video tribute. Sasha seemed touched and told many of his trademark corny jokes.

Sasha hopes to finish his third book by the end of the year. It’s a major work, a 2000-page compendium of psychoactive drugs with detailed references to human and animal studies. After finishing the book, he’ll head back to the lab. (Although his eyesight is poor, he’s still spry and he recently hired a helper who can manipulate glassware.) Ann says she’s going to lock Sasha in the lab and refuse to feed him until he invents some new molecules. During an interview the other day, Sasha outlined for me some of his planned creations. He has a long list of ideas he wants to test.

Sasha is deeply dismayed by the war on drugs and the ever-expanding list of molecules – many of his own creation – that are banned. As for his favorite drug, he says that, despite an estimated 4,000 psychedelic experiences, he likes a “nice inexpensive Zinfandel.” The birthday celebrants obliged, and the psychedelic godfather sipped it with eyes bright and smile beaming.

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