– It extends here, he explained, while he built the molecule with hand gestures.
For a chemist, it was probably obvious what was happening there in the thin air in front of him. For me it was completely incomprehensible, yet incredibly fascinating. There is something very beautiful and attractive about people who are so involved in what they do.
The rest of the audience seemed to know exactly who he was, but I stumbled into the lecture without a clue. Alexander Shulgin, and next to him his wife Ann Shulgin. Both gray-haired, old, but with a sparkling natural glow that lit up the room. Together they spun the story of his life’s work.
Alexander made it his life’s work to synthesize and develop new psychedelics. He then tested them with his wife, before they tested them together with friends.
– How do you usually do when you try them the first time? asked one of the audience.
– Well, usually we’re in the bedroom. Many of these substances have lovely erotic effects, said Ann Shulgin and made the audience giggle in recognition.
His two books PIHKAL and TIHKAL (Phenethylamines and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved) include all the basic information on the magical molecules which he discovered. He published all the recipes, so that the pharmaceutical industry could not patent them, and thus keep them away from the public. Best known of all the substances attributed to Shulgin is not a discovery, but the rediscovery of MDMA – the sought-after ingredient in Ecstasy.
MDMA releases serotonin in the brain, leading to extremely happy and emphatic states. In this lies both the substance’s blessing as its curse. If you are over using MDMA, it is easy to burn out the reserves and plummet into depression and feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. However, if you use it with proper caution and with an intention, then it can be a miraculous remedy for such things as depression, anxiety of death, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, empathy disorders and the like. That was the main area where the substance was first made available – it was used with excellent results by therapists to help people who were stuck in different ways. However, the substance was soon picked up in club and rave culture, and when the establishment saw how strangely the youths started dancing and behaving it was banned.
What do you think happened next?
Well, criminal organizations took over the manufacturing and distribution of the substance. MDMA became big business for the Mafia, militant groups, motorcycle gangs and suburban gangs. Quality control disappeared and consumers could not be sure that the substance was pure or what strength it held.
Young people continued to experiment in such a high degree that it can rightly be considered the single most important ingredient for the development of rave culture. The availability is high and many people use it, but because it is illegal, many safety nets fail. For example, if someone would feel acutely bad, many would avoid contacting authorities because they would risk getting caught.
Of course some people are getting caught, but it is rarely at the level in the criminal organizations where it actually matters. Many people who get caught are very young and are at the bottom of the chain, sometimes only as users. They are judged and stigmatized accordingly and lose opportunities in life, with no effect on supply or demand.
The big losers, however, are all those suffering from death anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress and empathy disorders. They are war-traumatized, rape victims, cancer patients, drug users, those who have lost children, those who no longer dare to feel emotions and those who see life in gray. They are the ones that are deprived of a legitimate and powerful therapeutic tool.
Only now, 30 years after MDMA was banned, clinical studies are beginning to be permitted on a very small scale. Not surprisingly they show stunning results and cures.
The psychedelic godfather Alexander Shulgin died on 2 June 2014.
Thanks for letting me watch you play with molecules in the air.