How the country's most pioneering psychonaut came to be associated with someone else's creation and what that means for your weekend.
By the time he turned 70 years old, Alexander Shulgin was credited as the reason people roll at raves.
Dubbed the "Godfather of Ecstasy" by somebody with dubbing power, Shulgin was infamous for both developing a number of psychotropic drugs and contributing to research which framed them as therapeutic devices. The increasing use of these drugs in the exploding dance music scene of the late 80s and early 90s conveniently framed him as the secret overlord of rave culture; the man behind the curtain indirectly responsible for the kandi-coated PLUR we know today, but in reality, he was no such man.
A great man, but not that man.
As it turns out, The Godfather of Ecstasy did not invent ecstasy. Rather, Shulgin only introduced the drug to west coast psychotherapists in the late 70s. Yet, by the time he died at age 88 in 2014, Shulgin's legend as ecstasy's pioneering psychonaut had been solidified in the pages of history. With over 200 patented psychoactive compounds, 4,000 experimental trips and six books under his belt, Shulgin was definitely the Godfather of Something, but it sure as hell wasn't ecstasy. So, how did he become the drug's weathered poster child?
MDMA was created in 1912 by Anton Köllisch, a German chemist working for Merck who died before ever knowing the true scope of what his discovery would be.
However neither Köllisch, Merck, nor the American military (which experimented with the drug in the 50s), could find any practical therapeutic or militaristic use for it. After all, inducing empathy and opening up the heart doesn't quite top the military's to-do list in the same way that "bombing it if it moves" does. So, MDMA's remarkable potential for good went unnoticed for decades until the late 70s when Shulgin entered the picture.
Shulgin, who had been developing his own psychoactive compounds for years, began to experiment with it, finding that it completely changed the way he interacted socially with his friends.
"I first took MDMA in a social setting on a picnic with a group of friends," he recalled in an interview with journalist Tim Coleman. "They were all drinking alcohol and I asked them if anyone would mind if I took this drug instead?"
As Coleman reports, "At first Shulgin thought that the drug's free-flowing effect, the warm feelings it generated and the way it allowed for easy communication made it a perfect alcohol substitute. A 'low-calorie martini' as he jokingly called it. But repeated experiments soon made him realize that the drug had vastly greater potential. Both Shulgin and his wife Ann, a trained therapist, believed passionately that MDMA's unique properties enabled people to open and explore, without fear, the repressed or shadow side of their psyches, thereby greatly facilitating healing. Shulgin, who initially nick named MDMA 'empathy', had realized that the drug could be a powerful tool for use within a psychotherapeutic context. 'We thought of it as a penicillin for the soul,' he said."
Thus began Shulgin's long crusade to integrate MDMA into therapeutic settings. He gave some to his therapist friend Leo Zeff, who in turn distributed it to over 4,000 therapists across the U.S. for use in their own practices. As Shulgin described to Coleman, "MDMA takes away the barriers that separate people." Unsurprisingly, it became a short-lived standard of couples therapy, where it caused partners who had suffered years of discontent to magically align emotionally, spiritually and sexually after just one treatment.
Given this effect, it was only a matter of time before it infiltrated the party scene. That it did, and the rave culture of the last few decades has become shaped by its existence.
That last bit, Shulgin did not like. In fact, he entirely rejected his association with it following its mutation into ravers' Official Drug of Choice. According to The Guardian, he seemed "exasperated" by the way MDMA was being used, and in his interview with Coleman, he completely rejected his involvement with what the drug had become.
"Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place, psychologically," he had warned in his infamous book, Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Later he was to famously lament that ecstasy had been "sidetracked into the Yahoo generation."
After all, Shulgin was from from the wide-eyed psychedelic proselyte that had come to be associated with ecstasy use. He was measured and calm, and believed that drugs like the ones he was using and creating should be legalized, but used responsibly for good, not self-destruction.
So, he set out trying to make another ecstasy; one that could play substitute to MDMA in therapeutic settings where ecstasy was now thought to be too dangerous.
Shulgin's most ecstasy-like creation was 2-CB, a distant cousin of MDMA that never quite attained the same ubiquity as the latter. However, outside of 2-CB and a few other compounds of his that gained a small amount of notoriety on websites such as Erowid, none of the drugs he invented became as famous as the one he didn't.
Nevertheless, Shulgin's false claim to fame had already become absorbed into the psychedelic zeitgeist. When Vice's human drug-sponge Hamilton Nolan was sent to interview him in 2010, the writer was so awestruck that he described himself fanning out at the mere sight of the Shulgin septic tank, "which undoubtedly contains the world's most diverse collection of psychedelic urinary and fecal metabolites".
However, what Shulgin lacked in ecstasy creation, he made up for with the development of hundreds of other psychoactive compounds in his home laboratory, all of which he tested extensively on himself and his wife. He reported his findings in Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved, and the combination of the book, his prior association with ecstasy, and that drug's staggering popularity transformed hm into somewhat of a celebrity figure … or as much of a celebrity figure as you can be when you're an aged chemist experimenting with psychotropics in your home laboratory.
So, as for who we have to thank (or blame) for rave culture, thank (or shake your fists at) that damn German Köllisch. However, as for who we have to thank for science's recent uptick in research that explores MDMA's therapeutic potential, thank Shulgin. His mistaken association with ecstasy is the reason you might be able to buy it over the counter before your midlife crisis.