Shulgin Licensed to Make Scheduled Drugs

Publication Year: 
2010

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LSD, as it became known, was a focus of intense interest in a postwar world where 'psychotropic' medications such as lithium were promising a radical expansion of drug therapies for depression and other mood disorders. Psychotherapists reported the astonishing progress made with long sessions of analysis under its influence, during which patients could unlock deeply buried traumas and gain an empowering sense of perspective on their lives. But, as its use spread, it became clear that similar benefits could also be experienced by those who were not ill or under medical supervision. Particularly in California, where therapy mingled with the cults of Hollywood celebrity and radical self improvement, LSD began to be promoted as an experience that would add richness to the life of anyone who chose to take it. As it diffused into the emerging counterculture, it made a rapid transit from research chemical to 'drug', and when the Sandoz patent expired in 1963 it became a controlled substance. Mescaline followed soon after, with the Native American Church eventually whining a hard-fought legal exclusion to permit their religious use of the peyote cactus.
But the prohibition of LSD and mescaline could not obscure the chemical vistas their discovery had opened up. Both, it had become clear, were representatives of large families of related substances, with effects on consciousness thus far entirely unknown. Among those exploring this terra incognita was a Californian biochemist named Alexander Shulgin. He had developed profitable pesticides for the Dow Chemical Company, and had been given the freedom to research new psychopharmacology compounds, working with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), for whom he would perform chemical assays on samples and appear in court as an expert witness. In 1965 Shulgin left Dow to become an independent researcher, working out of a private laboratory in the hills outside San Francisco with a DEA license to manufacture scheduled drugs.
Shulgin recognized that the phenethylamines – the family of drugs to which mescaline belonged – formed a continuum with the amphetamines, and that there were hundreds of intermediates that might combine the hallucinogenic effects of the former with the euphoric and stimulant effets of the later. It emerged that one of these compounds, methyldioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), had been synthesized by Merck in Germany as far back as 1912, but had never been tested. He developed a new synthesis, and in 1976 began producing the substance that would soon be known as ecstasy. Thereafter Shulgin's laboratory became the birthplace of hundreds of new compounds, their chemical formulae abbreviated to an alphabet soup of names such as 2CB, DOM and 2C-T-7. It also became the focus for a discreet network or self-experimenters who tested the effects of the new compounds, taking them in carefully recorded doses and publishing their findings anonymously.
Shulgin spent his early career testing laboratory drugs on animals in the conventional manner, but regards the need for self-experimentation with psychoactive drugs as 'obvious to any one who gives the matter some thought'. Each new substance that emerges from the laboratory is a tabula rasa: its effect on human consciousness cannot be predicted simply from its chemical structure. Although the DEA has attempted to curtail his work since he published his research notes and syntheses in two doorstopping volumes, Shulgin continues to publish, and to unfold new psychopharmaceutical vistas. In recent years he has pioneered the synthesis of 'fly' and 'dragonfly' compounds – wing-like extensions to the molecular structure that create new and more potent variations on his already vast repertoire. The permutations may be, to all practical purposes, infinite.

pp. 103-106 High Society by Mike Jay (2010)

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