Whose bright idea was that?
How does it feel to invent something you later regret? Simon
Hattenstone talks to the people who know
13 November 2010
Alexander Shulgin is known as the godfather of ecstasy. He lives with
his wife Ann on a ranch in Lafayette, California, and at 85 suffers
severe short-term memory loss. Ann acts as a conduit between us
repeating my questions to him and his answers back to me.
Ecstasy was first synthesised in 1912 by the chemical company Merck,
but Shulgin resynthesised it in 1976 and was the first person to test
it on a human being himself. Two years later he wrote a paper with
a colleague about the effect of MDMA, stating that it created "an
easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and
sensual overtones… it didn't have the other visual and auditory
imaginative things that you often get from psychedelics. It opened up
a person, both to other people and inner thoughts, but didn't
necessarily colour it with pretty colours and strange noises.'' He
believed that with its unusual combination of effects (intoxication,
disinhibition and clarity), it could be a useful drug in
psychotherapy. And so it was for a while. But then MDMA became
ecstasy, the drug of choice for the rave generation, and in 1986 its
use in the treatment of depression was banned by the US Drug
Enforcement Agency. In 2000, US customs officials seized nearly 10
Shulgin had his first psychedelic experience in 1960, and since then
he estimates he has had another 4,000. (Ann says she has had only
around 2,000 herself.) Some regard him as a holy man, some as a great
scientist, others as a monster. The Daily Mail once ran a story
headlined "Has this man killed 100 British teenagers?"
Today, Shulgin has his doubts about the drug he championed not
because of its efficacy, but because he believes people have abused
it. "I have regrets about the way MDMA is used, because it has caused
a great deal of negative publicity and been made illegal in a lot of
countries. But it is still one of the great psychotherapeutic drugs."
In Britain and America, he says, people rarely talk of its
therapeutic value. "You just hear about it causing young people to
get into disastrous situations at raves. But MDMA is a very rich
research tool and its use in the opening up the subconscious or the
unconscious is very valuable."
The problem started, he says, when clubbers began popping pills with
reckless abandon. And once MDMA was made illegal, there was no way to
monitor the quality of the drug. "It made it impossible for people at
raves to know whether they were getting MDMA. We never use the term
ecstasy because it is meaningless some ecstasy capsules have no
MDMA in them whatsoever. So the so-called ecstasy has become a real
menace." He is convinced that the outlawing of the drug has caused
more problems than the drug itself.
The strange thing, Shulgin says, is that he has actually invented
hundreds of psychoactive drugs, all with the same potential to open
up the subconscious and unconscious, yet it is only MDMA, which he
simply brought to public attention, for which he is known. "I still
believe one day it will be a really important aid in psychotherapy,
but MDMA has caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people in the way
it was misused."