Biochemist Alexander Shulgin accidentally discovered one of the most famous and infamous party drugs of the 1980s.
He synthesized a compound called MDMA in 1976 in his backyard laboratory and, as was his tradition, tried it out on himself. “First awareness at 35 minutes,” he wrote in his journal of the mood-altering drug, “smooth and it was very nice.” He felt it held therapeutic promise.
But the political and legal ramifications of the drug, called Ecstasy when it hit the rave party scene in the 1980s, was anything but smooth. Critics blamed MDMA, and Shulgin by extension, for bad reactions and even deaths.
Shulgin, 88, died Monday at his home in Lafayette, Calif., according to an announcement on his website. He had been diagnosed earlier this year with liver cancer.
At the time of his experiments with MDMA, Shulgin, known as Sasha to his friends, had already scored a major success for an established company. While working for Dow Chemical, he developed what was described as the first biodegradable pesticide, Zectran.
The patent was such a boon to Dow that the company gave Shulgin wide discretion as to what he wanted to research.
“Dow said, ‘Do as you wish,’ ” Shulgin said in a 2002 interview with the Independent newspaper in London. “So I did. I did psychedelics.”
Shulgin had been introduced to psychedelics when he tried mescaline with friends in 1960. It was a life-changing experience, unearthing long-forgotten incidents and feelings.
“The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid,” he wrote in his 1990 book, “Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story,” written with his wife, Ann.
But Shulgin had little interest in the recreational use of the drugs. “Use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool,” Shulgin wrote. “Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place.”
Shulgin was born June 17, 1925, in Berkeley to parents who were both schoolteachers. He was admitted to Harvard in 1942 on a full scholarship, but he hated it.
“The people around me were sons and daughters of important people, with money and property, position and stature,” he told the Independent. “I was not, and there was no social blending at all.”
After less than two years, he dropped out and joined the Navy, serving in the North Atlantic during World War II. After his discharge in 1946 he enrolled at UC Berkeley, eventually earning a doctorate in biochemistry.
He wasn’t the first to develop MDMA — that was done by the German company Merck in 1912, but there are no records of the company performing human tests. By the time Shulgin had synthesized it in the form he ingested, he had left Dow and had set up his own lab on land his family owned in Lafayette, about 10 miles east of Berkeley.
Shulgin insisted that his experiments there were legal, though he not only tested his compounds on himself but also with a group of like-minded friends. He found fascinating even bad feelings brought on by his experiments.
One compound he tried gave him “one of the most delicious blends of inflation, paranoia and selfishness that I have ever experienced,” he told the New York Times in 2005.
For many years, the government mostly left Shulgin and his backyard lab alone, perhaps in part because he analyzed possible contraband for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
After trying MDMA, Shulgin gave samples to therapists. Some reported highly positive results, but the feelings of warmth and euphoria that it engendered made it a natural for the party scene and labs around the world with no connection to Shulgin started turning it out.
Reports of Ecstasy being taken in clubs and outdoor mega-parties became rampant, followed by accounts of bad reactions. Supporters of the serious use of MDMA countered that the negative reports were highly exaggerated, and that street versions of what was supposed to be Ecstasy often contained little if any MDMA.
But the public outcry against Ecstasy was strong. In 1986, the DEA put MDMA on its Schedule 1 list of dangerous drugs with “a high potential for abuse.”
In 1993, the DEA dramatically ended its relationship with Shulgin, raiding his lab and seizing some of his drugs found there. He was fined $25,000.
“In a lot of ways, Sasha was demoralized after MDMA became illegal,” Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies, said in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview. “It was the best candidate for legal therapy out of all the drugs he helped create.”
Over time, restrictions on research were lifted. There are ongoing studies of how the drug can aid in post-traumatic stress disorder therapy, and a current study at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center is looking into how it can ease social anxiety in high-functioning adults with autism.
Doblin’s goal is to make MDMA an approved prescription drug by 2021.
Despite all the trouble MDMA caused him, Shulgin said in 2005 that the prospect of research was still enticing.
“It’s unbelievably exciting,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in London. “You’re opening doors that have never been opened before, doors where they didn’t even know there was a door. It can be frightening.”
Shulgin is survived by his wife, Ann. His son, Ted, died in 2011.