“…Anything that the human is capable of doing through the mind is duplicable pharmacologically..”
with Alexander and Ann Shulgin
Alexander (Sasha) and Ann Shulgin stand on the frontier of designer neurochemistry, developing a plethora of miraculous pharmacological keys that unlock different aspects of the brain is hidden potential. They are known to many as the authors of the underground best-seller PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, the title of which is an acronym for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Alexander is a long-standing, well-respected research chemist and professor of pharmacology at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in biochemistry in 1954. He is the author of 150 scientific research papers, twenty patents, and three books. Although Alexander has been quite outspoken regarding his Opposition to the so-called war on drugs, he has been a scientific consultant for such state-run organizations as the National Institute on Drug Abuse, NASA, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But in private, in his government-licensed research lab, he has spent the last thirty years discretely–yet legally-designing hundreds of new psychoactive compounds, particularly psychedelics. Along with his wife, Ann, and a small, brave, and dedicated research group, they sample each new drug as it is developed. Through the cautious escalation of dosage, they discover and map out the range of each new drug’s effects, experimenting with the various aspects of their psychological and spiritual potential. Most of Alexander ‘s psychoactive designer molecules are unknown to the public, but a few, such as 2CB (an MDMA analogue) and DOM (better known as STP), have received widespread distribution. Their research continues to this day, and a new book, TIHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved) is on the way. Their previous book, PIHKAL, details their truly remarkable adventures and, for those with a solid background in chemistry, provides the esoteric recipes for recreating hundreds of Alexander’s finely crafted magic molecules.
Alexander and Ann make a very compatible research team: they complement on another; and their relationship reflects a deep commitment to inner exploration. They are extremely warm, and anxious to share what they’ve learned through their experimentation. We interviewed them at their home in Lafayette east of Berkeley in northern California on May 19, 1993. Ann is strong, solid and grounded very much connected to the earth. Before moving to northern California as a teenager she lived in four countries. She worked as a medical secretary at the UCSF Medical Center and has three children from a previous marriage, to Jungian analyst John Ferry. She is presently a psychotherapist.
A wild electrical current seems to buzz through Alexander’s nervous system, as evidenced by the white hair that seems to stand on end on his head and face, and the excited manner in which he explains everything. Alexander’s research laboratory, just a short walk from the main house, is filled by a complex of interlocking flasks, glass beakers, plastic tubes, heating coils, and countless bottles; it looks dramatic enough to be used as a Hollywood movie set. The only chemicals that we sample, however; are in the cheese sandwiches that we have for lunch before we begin the interview. Even so, we do feel ourselves to be in an altered state.
David: What was it that inspired you to write Pihkal?
Alexander: I was inspired partly by the history of Wilhelm Reich. I discovered that in his very last years he got into very unusual and not totally acceptable areas of hypotheses, such as making rains fall by means of electro-static guns and other such ventures.
The FDA filed a lawsuit against him for promoting radical equipment that had not been approved by them. They put him in jail and he died there. After his death the FDA took all his lab books and papers and burned them. One of the reasons I wrote Pihkal was because I could see the need to get a lot of information that had not been published into a form that just could not be destroyed.
Ann: And I couldn’t imagine him writing all that fun stuff without my help. (laughter) I’ve co-authored one paper with him before and discovered that it’s a great ego-boost to do good writing and I’ve never had anything published before. It became the most exciting thing in the world to do, especially because it was pushing against the establishment.
My model and my hero was Castaneda but what I wanted to do was bring in the personal which he failed to do – marriage, kids, love, soup – every day reality. Our feeling about psychedelics is that if you use them the right way, they enrich your everyday life. You learn to think a different way about the ordinary things you see.
Rebecca: What is a phenethylamine, why is it so special and what role has it played in your research?
Alexander: There are a collection of neurotransmitters in the brain and two of the largest families are the phenethylamines and the tryptamines.And it turned out that all the known psychedelics around the time I got curious in this area – back in the `50’s and 60’s – were either phenethylamines ortryptamines. It’s now been shown that this is a very good guide. Nature said, “here are the two basic building blocks and if you’re going to do something with the brain it’s going to be with one or the other.”
David: Why did the two of you use ficitonal names in the book when the story was obviously autobiographical?
Ann: Among the drugs we were writing about some, like LSD, are illegal. It was risky enough writing the book in the first place. We didn’t know what to expect from the establishment, if anything. Some people late at night with baseball bats smashing up the lab was a perfectly reasonable possibility. Using fictional names gave us a deniability.
The second reason was so that I could tell my children that the sex in the book wasn’t actually us. (laughter) Also, we didn’t want to jeopardize our next book. At this point, when not only has there been no fire from heaven descending on our heads but the DEA itself is one of our best customers, it’s easy to look back and ask why were we worried.
Alexander: One of the things I did was to send a score copy of the book to people within the DEA with covering phrases like, `Here’s a book that will provide you with a lot of information which may be useful to you.’
David: What was their response to it?
Ann: They loved it. One of the higher administrators of the DEA in Washington said, “My wife and I read your book and it’s great!”
David: Sasha, how did you become a chemist?
Alexander: My doctorate degree is in biochemistry, but I found that it didn’t have the magic and the music of chemistry. In my teaching class at Berkeley I would ask, “How many people are taking organic chemistry?” And you’d hear this groan. Why? Because the typical instruction would be, “Go and read pages 83-117 in the textbook and we’ll have a quiz on Monday.” People hated it! Chemistry, however, is an art, it’s music, it’s a style of thinking. Orbitals are for mathematicians, chemistry is for people who like to cook!
Some of my colleagues would often have a goal and if something went wrong they’d try and find out how else they could get it to go right. My argument has always been, if something went wrong, Oh wow! Out of this will come something unexpected. That led me into a very great curiosity about the mind process which was greatly amplified by my first mescaline experience.
Drugs do not do things, they are allowing you to do things. It’s not an imposition from the outside. People tend to say, “What did that drug do?” or, “How did the drug do what it did?” or, “I took a drug and it did such and such.” In each instance this is giving up your power to an inert white solid. The drug catalyzes and facilitates but it doesn’t do things. That puts it in perspective. You don’t have to give credit to a drug.
David: And it also encourages the person to take responsibility.
Alexander: Completely. You can’t live without that.
Rebecca: Do you ever find yourself making a judgment that what you’re experiencing is a quality of the drug rather than something inherent in your own psyche?
Alexander: If I do then that experience is sure to be a bummer!(laughter)