Special Disco Mention #34: Alexander Shulgin
And so, we bid a fond farewell to a man the media are calling ‘the Godfather of Ecstasy’; Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin. The maverick, endlessly curious scientist passed away on June 2nd, aged 88. His widow, Ann Shulgin, told the world of his passing via facebook,
“Sasha died today, at exactly 5 o'clock in the afternoon. He was surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music, and his going was graceful, with almost no struggle at all.”
Shulgin is most widely remembered for conducting research into a new method of synthesising MDMA, a discovery that led to an explosion in the drug’s recreational use, inadvertently having a profound effect on wider culture, particularly on the dance music scene that has gone on to shape and define millions of lives. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that without Shulgin, house music would have taken a very different path, or possible not existed at all (at the very least, Slam might never have written the rushy bit in Positive Energy…).
Reading over Shulgin’s life it’s hard not to rate him. He first experimented with psychedelics in the late 50s, hitting some mescaline and seeing it all so clearly, writing,
"I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability."
After a few years of youthful work for Dow Chemicals (during which time he created the first biodegradable pesticide), Shulgin managed to wrangle a DEA permit to synthesise drugs. Retreating to his California ranch, that’s exactly what he did. He created thousands of different psychoactive compounds, testing them on himself and his friends (we imagine a party round Shulgin’s yard was fucking brilliant), advocating for the healing potential of psychedelics, and generally cheerfully exploring the outer reaches of his consciousness with bugger all regard for making money. Somewhere along the way he introduced his new synthesis of MDMA to a psychologist friend, Dr Leo Zeff. Zeff saw the potential of the drug in aiding counselling, and introduced it to hundreds of other therapists. Again, Zeff didn’t seek to make a fortune off the drug, and it took off.
Had Shulgin, still soaring through universes down on the farm, been a bit more financially cold eyed, then maybe the US government could have warmed to this modern day alchemist. Instead they busted him, convinced that he was making far too many people happy to not be doing something illegal. In 1994, the DEA raided his farm, withdrew his license and tried to shut him down – with no success. Shulgin carried on researching, writing and publishing, with the aid of his wife Ann, right up to the last years of his life. Two of their collaborative books are still seen as bibles of pschoactive chemical exploration; 'PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story' and 'TIHKAL: the Continuation' (standing for, respectively, 'Phenethylamines and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved').
Anyone who’s ever – even if only for a fleeting moment – experienced the joy of a euphoric narcotic experience, will probably be unsurprised that Shulgin was rarely motivated by money. How could such an abstract, burdensome thing compare to the power of eternity? So it was a cruel irony that his discoveries made many people stinking rich.
"I'm disturbed by the fact that you get someone who wants to make a pile of money and doesn't give a damn about the safety or the purity," he said. "It's a motivation that I'm uncomfortable with. People using psychedelics, I'm not uncomfortable with. I consider it a very personal exploration. But I'm very disturbed by the overpowering of curiosity with greed."
So there you have it. Sasha Shulgin – a good man in a shitty world. As the UK's own chemical advocate Professor David Nutt has pointed out – the world will be a better place if more people "listened and learned from Shulgin rather than tried to suppress his knowledge and ideas". That one man might have contributed to so much joy to the Earth is remarkable – maybe in years to come he will be recognised widely as the visionary he was. Til then, we're here to raise a glass and wish him well on his way. Salute.