Dr. Ecstasy

I am glad someone got around to doing a mainstream profile of Sasha Shulgin, not that he is exactly going to be a darlng of the New York Times cognoscenti who will have read about him this weekend in the magazine section. Shulgin is the Johnny Appleseed of psychedelics, having seeded the mental landscape with hundreds of phenethylamines and tryptamines he has known and loved, all with the knowledge and even the esteem of the Food and Drug Authority. He is fond of saying that he has never done anything illegal, since his compounds only find their way to Schedule I long after he has synthesized (and he, his wife and his small study group have dosed themselves with) them. The tide may be turning, however. Schedule I is supposed to be for substances with abuse potential and no redeemable medical value, which is of course in the eye of the beholder. Recently Shulgin’s faith in the value of psychedelics has gotten perhaps its first mainstream chance of vindication, with FDA approval of several research studies into psychedelic-assisted treatments. MDMA, the unique and exciting ’empathogen’ for which he is perhaps the best known, got hijacked as the raver’s choice partying drug, of course, but seems to have particularly important therapeutic uses. Of course, that is what a cadre of dedicated psychonauts originally thought about LSD too — that it was a tool for serious intrapsychic exploration rather than a playtoy.

The article uses a curious incident to describe the origins of Shulgin’s interest in pharmacology, a 1944 incident in which he fell into a stupor after drinking a glass of orange juice the crystals at the bottom of which he was convinced were a sedative, although they turned out to have been undissolved sugar. Curious, because this incident depicts an important aspect of drug study but one for which Shulgin is not particularly known — the effect of expectancy in producing effects. One of my psychiatric mentors, the late Dr. Norman Zinberg, was fond of insisting that the experience of a drug was compounded of Drug, Set and Setting (the name of one of his most famous books) — the pharmacology of the substance, the mental expectations of the user, and the context in which it is taken. Shulgin’s interest has focused almost exclusively on Drug, although as the MDMA detour indicates, the effects one gets when one uses a substance with a thoughtful deliberative exploratory set and setting will probably be quite different from its use as a club drug.

This is an unusually sober appraisal of a controversial figure from the mainstream press. Research on the morbidity and mortality of Shulgin compounds is touched upon soberly, without the histrionics that usually suffuse such discussions. The author is circumspect about what he describes as Shulgin’s “fervent libertarianism with which he has inoculated himself against any sense of personal guilt” for the negative consequences of the use of drugs he has discovered. And, I know, I know, it is only fair to include the obligatory critique from representatives of the mainstream psychiatric establishment. But the comments from emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto Vivian Rakoff are particularly lame. He scoffs at the notion that a drug can create a revelatory moment. “Every few years, something comes along that claims to be what Freud called the ‘royal road to the unconscious’.” Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but I am not aware of that phrase being evoked at any time since Freud used it around a century ago in reference to dreams; it has certainly not been used in reference to psychedelics, as far as I know. And one would be hard-pressed to dismiss out of hand the claims that psychedelic exploration could be revelatory given that the rigorous research has not heretofore been allowed. Still, the classicist got in his Freud reference, even if he misused the allusion prejudicially. Hey, come to think of it, psychoanalytic techniques have not proven themselves the royal road to the unconscious they were supposed to be, when subjected to empirical research.

Those interested in taking this issue further should dip into Shulgin’s two self-published memoirs/manuals, PiHKAL and TiKHAL, or the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics site.