Alexander Shulgin, the most prolific psychedelic chemist in history, has died at the age of 88. I interviewed Shulgin and his wife and co-researcher Ann at their home in California in 1999, when I was researching my 2003 book Rational Mysticism. What follows is an edited version of the profile of the Shulgins that I wrote for Rational Mysticism.*
The Shulgins first came to my attention in 1998 when I judged an essay contest for MIT students asked to forecast science’s future. My favorite essay proclaimed that research into mind-expanding drugs represents science’s most promising frontier. The essay included several pungent quotes about the potential of psychedelics from someone named Alexander Shulgin. He complained that “our generation is the first, ever, to have made the search for self-awareness a crime, if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors.”
Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, I learned later, was a top-rank researcher for Dow Chemical in 1960 when he ingested a psychedelic compound—mescaline—for the first time. Shulgin found the experience so astonishing that he devoted the rest of his career to psychedelic chemistry. He left Dow in 1966 and supported himself thereafter by consulting, lecturing and teaching. Working out of a laboratory on his ranch east of San Francisco, he synthesized more than two hundred novel psychotropic compounds.
Shulgin tested these substances and others on himself and a group of trusted friends. He and his fellow “psychonauts” took meticulous notes on their research sessions. They rated their experiences according to a scale invented by Shulgin. It ranged from a minus sign, which represents no change, up to plus four (written as ++++), which is a sublime, potentially life-changing, “peak” experience.
There were a few rules for the sessions. Subjects could not be taking any medication, and they had to refrain from ingesting any other drugs for at least three days before the session. If someone said, “Hand in the air” while raising her hand during a trip, that meant she wanted to discuss a serious “reality-based concern or problem” (for example, the smoky smell in the kitchen). Sexual contact was prohibited between people not previously involved.
“Of course, if an established couple wishes to retire to a private room to make love, they are free to do so with the blessings (and probably the envy) of the rest of us,” Shulgin once remarked.
In the late 1980s, Shulgin was left unsettled by a biography of renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich invented the “orgone machine,” a metallic box that he claimed could heal those who lay within it. Beginning in the late 1940s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pressured Reich to stop prescribing his orgone machine. When Reich refused, federal officials imprisoned him. Reich died in prison in 1957, and the Federal government destroyed all of his papers.
Haunted by Reich’s tragic story, Shulgin vowed that he would not suffer a similar fate. Although he had written about his research for peer-reviewed journals, the bulk of his findings were confined to his personal notes. He ended up pouring his knowledge into a PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. This remarkable book is a fictionalized autobiography written by Sasha and his wife Ann, a writer, lay psychotherapist, and enthusiastic collaborator in Sasha’s psychedelic research. PIHKAL is an acronym for “phenethylamines I have known and loved.” Phenethylamines are a class of natural and synthetic compounds, some with powerful psychotropic properties.
The best-known naturally occurring phenethylamine is mescaline and the best-known synthetic one is methylenedioxymethylamphetamine, as known as MDMA or Ecstasy. Although MDMA was first synthesized in the early twentieth century, Shulgin is credited with having drawn attention to its unusual psychotropic properties in the 1970s.
The first half of PIHKAL, called “The Love Story,” was narrated alternately by Sasha, known in the book as "Shura Borodin," and by Ann, whose alter ego is "Alice." Each recounts how they met and fell in love in the mid-1970s after their previous marriages dissolved. The book is in part a sexually and psychologically explicit love story involving two intelligent, cultured, Bohemian protagonists.
What sets PIHKAL apart from comparable romantic memoirs is its account of Shura’s initiation of Alice into his circle of psychonauts, and its detailed descriptions of their experiences with DOM, 2C-T-4, and other compounds synthesized by Shura.
That is Part I of PIHKAL, which covers 450 pages. Part II, “The Chemical Story,” which runs for another 528 pages, offers recipes for 179 phenethylamines and accounts of the physiological and psychological effects at various dosages.
“No one who is lacking legal authorization should attempt the synthesis of any of the compounds described in the second half of this book,” the Shulgins warn in a “Note to the Reader.” But they also declare that investigations of the scientific and therapeutic potential of psychedelics “must be not only allowed but encouraged. It is essential that our present negative propaganda regarding psychedelic drugs be replaced with honesty and truthfulness about their effects, both good and bad.”
The Shulgins published PIHKAL under their own imprint in 1991. Six years later they released TIHKAL, for “tryptamines I have known and loved.” Tryptamine compounds include the well-known psychedelics psilocybin and DMT and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine. Like its predecessor, TIKHAL is divided into two parts. Part I tells more tales from the personal life of “Shura” and “Alice.” Because they are now happily married, the narrative focuses less on romantic episodes than on psychedelic ones. Alice discusses her use of MDMA in her therapeutic practice. Part II consists of recipes for and commentaries upon 55 tryptamines.
TIKHAL is more overtly political than its predecessor, and it alludes to legal tribulations that the Shulgins endured after their first book was published. In 1994, agents from the local branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration carried out a surprise inspection of Sasha’s laboratory. Shulgin’s research has always been legal; the Drug Enforcement Administration has licensed him to do research on scheduled compounds. But these agents accused him of violating various “new” regulations—and implied that he was manufacturing drugs for sale. Although Shulgin was never indicted, his alter ego wonders in TIHKAL whether this visit is just the beginning of a harassment campaign against him.
Before flying to California, I contacted the Shulgins by phone to arrange our meetings. Sasha’s directions to his home are detailed and meticulous, just like his recipes for synthesizing hallucinogens.
I rumble down a dusty dirt road in the foothills east of San Francisco to a rambling, tree-shaded, one-story home, with a few outlying sheds. Sasha is a big, barrel-chested, rugged man, with a hoary, leonine beard and mane. Ann has a deeply lined face, and eyes whose downward slant imparts empathy rather than melancholy.
Sasha gives me a tour of the ranch. A room crammed floor-to-ceiling with books and journals in metal bookcases is the library.
“If it’s on psychedelics,” he boasts, “I’ve got it.”
A room down the hall contains a magnetic-resonance imaging machine, a mass spectrometer, and other instruments for performing chemical analysis. “This is a filthy room that I call the clean room,” Sasha says. He adds, squinting at a cobweb-veiled skylight, that the spiders keep down the bug population.
As we stroll down a path to Sasha’s lab, he points out plants: shocking-pink lilies, a bay tree, several gnarled pine, various cacti, and a weedy plant that Sasha identifies as Salvia divinorum—which contains what may be the most potent naturally occurring psychedelic compound known to science.
On the door of his laboratory--an ivy-draped, cinder-block hut--is the familiar icon warning of the presence of radioactive materials. Another sign reads: “NOTICE: This is a research facility that is known to, and authorized by, the Contra County Sheriff’s office, all San Francisco DEA personnel, and the State and Federal EPA authorities.”
Within the lab is a dusty, twilit jungle of exotic glassware, tubing, racks, clamps, and labeled bottles. The lab’s pungent, sulfuric odor stirs up long-buried childhood memories in me of playing mad scientist with my chemistry set. A voodoo doll hangs from a test-tube rack. A friend gave it to Sasha to improve his luck with difficult copper-based experiments. It worked for a while, then it didn’t, Sasha says.
Back at the house, Ann makes sandwiches in the kitchen while Sasha and I sit in an adjoining room crammed with books, papers, potted plants. A picture window looks across a valley at a great brown mound: Mount Diablo, Sasha informs me. Pinned to one wall is a piece of yellow tape that reads: “SHERIFF’S LINE: DO NOT CROSS.” That is a memento of a 1998 raid by the local Sheriff’s department, which suspected Sasha of manufacturing methamphetamine, also known as “crystal” or “ice.” After a few telephone calls, the agents apologized for the misunderstanding and left the Shulgins in peace.
A pattern emerges early on in my conversation with Ann and Sasha. At one point I ask, Do you think the legal and political climate for psychedelics is improving? No, Sasha replies, shaking his head. If anything, things are getting worse. He is appalled by a recent federal law giving police power to confiscate property of those accused of breaking drug laws.
“I have a different view on that,” Ann calls out from the kitchen. She is encouraged by the fact that commentators, or at least intelligent ones, increasingly refer to the “failed” war on drugs. “Everyone knows this thing has not only failed; it has made the drug problem actually worse,” she says. “If we get one politician with courage, that's all it's going to take to break the whole thing apart and start changing things.”
“She's optimistic, I'm pessimistic,” Sasha summarizes. “We balance out very nicely.”
Later, Ann says she firmly believes in reincarnation. Sasha finds reports about people remembering past lives interesting but ultimately unconvincing. Ann intuits a divine intelligence guiding the cosmos, while Sasha is skeptical. She is the romantic empath, he the hard-headed rationalist. She is the psychotherapist, he the chemist. But they are unfailingly gracious toward each other. When Ann interrupts Sasha to disagree with him, as she does often, he seems less irritated than charmed.
Sasha likes to turn my questions back on me. What do I mean by "mysticism"? By "God"? When I ask if he meditates, he replies that it depends on my definition of meditation.
“Are you doing things with your mind, or are you undoing things?" he asks. "Structuring, or destructuring? Assembling and analyzing, or disassembling and avoiding?”
Sasha tried Zen but found no benefit in it. “The idea of sitting there quietly and voiding your mind of any thoughts, of any process, of turning off the record, just turning the amplifier not down but off--I find it frightening! I don't see what the virtue is. You’re in absolute, thoughtless, mindless space for about twenty seconds. And I say to myself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’”
If meditation means total immersion in an activity, being absorbed in the moment, Sasha continues, well, he does that whenever he works in his laboratory. “I consider that meditation, but very active,” he says. “For me that's a treasure.”
When I ask Sasha how many drug trips he has taken in all, he says it depends on how I define “trip.” When exploring a new compound, he starts with very small amounts to test for potency and gradually increases the dose.
“Not all of these were trips, and a lot of them were just exploring.” He has taken compounds that are at least potentially psychoactive three or four times a week for more than 40 years, but only a few thousand of those experiments were genuine trips.
Their psychedelic days are over, Sasha and Ann assure me. Ann used to give MDMA to her psychotherapeutic patients, but she stopped after the drug was outlawed in 1986 under the so-called Designer Drug Act. The team of psychonauts that had tested compounds concocted by Sasha has disbanded. Sasha's research continues; one of his current projects involves searching for new antidepressants. But he no longer either ingests or synthesizes psychedelics.
Like other spiritual practices, psychedelics are a two-edged sword, Sasha emphasizes. They may help us become more compassionate and wise, but they may also lead to ego-inflation or worse. He poses a hypothetical question: What if a psychedelic drug helps an evil person accept his evil nature? Would that be a positive step?
“It's not a panacea,” he warns.
I ask if they believe in God. Define God, Sasha demands. I mumble something about a creative force or intelligence underlying the design of the universe.
“I believe the concept of God is absolutely unnecessary,” Sasha declares.
“Unnecessary?” Ann responds, staring at him.
“That’s a straight answer,” Sasha growls. “Things are what they are.”
“Do you think the concept of a purposeful universe is nonsense?” Ann presses him.
“It's nonsense. Yeah,” Sasha replies. “I don't think it's created by a divine force with a beard.”
No one of any intelligence, Ann tells her husband sternly, takes that old patriarchal image of God seriously any more. Turning back to me, she says she believes that some sort of God or intelligence or consciousness or something underlies material reality, but it is not distinct from us.
“We’re all parts of it, expressions of it. So we are it.”
Ann has a friend who experiences God as pure love. “That brings out the cynicism even in non-cynics,” Ann grants. How can anyone believe that God is love, given how suffused nature is with pain and suffering? The answer, Ann suggests, is that our suffering is somehow a necessary part of our development and learning.
“It's a little bit like watching your one-year-old experimenting,” Ann says. When they fall down and cry, “you sympathize, because they are having a little bit of pain on their bottom. But you realize that that is a step toward growing up.” Psychedelics, Ann says, can help you see things from this cosmic perspective.
Sasha and Ann both reject the notion of enlightenment as a final state of mystical knowledge. There is no final state, Sasha says, only a never-ending process. Ann agrees. She has had a few flashes of what Zen Buddhists call satori, both in psychedelic visions and in lucid dreams. “But they are not a destination. They are a reminder.”
I say that psychedelics have drawn me in two opposite directions: They can make me feel blissfully connected to all things, or alienated and alone. Which experience is truer?
“The place I think the Buddhists try and get you to,” Ann responds, “is right on the knife edge between the two. That's where the truth is. But don't ever forget that the truth of the universe changes second by second. It's not the same universe it was when we sat down at this table.”
Our development, our learning, never stops, Ann says. “You learn in your sleep, from conversations. You learn unconsciously, consciously. You learn from every book you read and every trip you take,” she says. “You're experiencing and taking in and changing as a result all the time, and yet you remain the same, essentially.”
Sasha gives me advice that has helped get him “through many years, and will get me through a few more”: Never lose your sense of humor or take yourself too seriously.
“The laughing Buddha is your best guide,” Ann adds. “What the heck is he laughing about? You can't explain that logically, but you can get into that state. And the final answer you're looking for is the knife edge, because both exist: that terrible darkness, and that absolute life.”
I ask whether their psychedelic experiences have helped them come to terms with their mortality. Ann says her psychedelic experiences have bolstered her faith that “the mind, consciousness, almost certainly exists outside of the body” and will survive death. After her brother died unexpectedly of a heart attack a year ago, she was overcome by grief. But when she viewed her brother’s body before he was buried, her grief gave way to a strange joy, as she felt her brother’s intelligent, humorous presence still surrounding her.
Ann has much she wants to accomplish before she dies, but otherwise she does not fear death. “I’ve never believed there was nothing on the other side,” she says. “It doesn't make any sense. We are continuing streams of energy. Now the form you take afterwards, the form of the consciousness, that's open to some question. But I have a feeling that we all know, because we all have the unconscious memory of having gone through it many times before. I think it is really a going home. I think it will be familiar as soon as you get to the door.”
Sasha says his view of death keeps evolving. As a young man, he believed that when you die, that's it; your consciousness is extinguished. In middle age, his fear of death became so acute that it complicated his research on psychedelics.
Now, at the age of 74, he does not exactly look forward to death, but he no longer fears it. Speaking quietly, calmly, Sasha says he views death as “another transition, another state of consciousness. Admittedly it's one I've not explored, but then again, any new drug is one you've not explored.”
*This is a revised version of a column I posted yesterday.