In Memoriam: Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin (1925-2014)

We’re sure that most readers of Points are already familiar with Sasha Shulgin and are aware of his passing on June 2. But the death of the man responsible for popularizing MDMA in the United States cannot go unremarked upon, especially as the slew of related news reports are bringing up important questions about the drug’s therapeutic use.

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Shulgin died of liver cancer on Monday evening in his northern California home at the age of 88, “surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music,” as his wife Ann announced in a Facebook message. He had, for the span of his six-decade career, brought MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly, if you’re a Miley Cyrus fan), an empathogenic amphetamine, into modern use, and was a widely-published and well-respected leader of the psychedelic movement.

Like other psychedelic leaders such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Aldous Huxley, Shulgin extensively tested the use of his psycho-spiritual drugs on himself and a close coterie of relatives and friends. And, like Leary et al., Shulgin also believed that drugs like MDMA could play a powerful role in treating a variety of issues – everything from the fear, anxiety and stress of terminally ill patients, to veterans suffering from PTSD, to others suffering from a variety of psychological and physical ills. (A longer piece from the New York Times Magazine from 2005 called him “Dr. Ecstasy,” though this was a title Shulgin fought against, preferring the term MDMA.)

Naturally, as the 1960s and ‘70s gave way to the “Just Say No” era of the 1980s, Shulgin’s work fell into disfavor. An emergency scheduling placed MDMA, which had heretofore been legal and unregulated, as a Schedule I drug in 1985, suggesting that it had a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical value. Rick Doblin, who heads the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and was a friend of Shulgin’s, reported that this was one of the more upsetting moments of Shulgin’s life. “He was very depressed once MDMA was criminalized,” Doblin told the Washington Post. “Sasha always felt these drugs didn’t open people up to drug experiences, but opened us up to human experiences of ourselves.”

Yet, despite his death, Shulgin’s work will not go quietly into that good night. Calls for the therapeutic use of drugs like MDMA, mescaline, psilocybin and other psychedelics have surged in recent years, as more soldiers are returning to the US with PTSD and the culture of drug demonization has significantly ebbed. Though Shulgin did not live long enough to see MDMA rescheduled or used regularly in therapeutic sessions, he was able to witness a fairly radical transformation over the past thirty years, one that in many ways affirmed what Shulgin was arguing all along.

With Shulgin’s passing, the community of drug scholars in the United States has lost one of its most eloquent, well-respected, and unique personages. He will be missed.

You can read more about Shulgin, his academic research, his books, and his life in these obituaries online:

–       The BBC

–       NPR

–       Scientific American

And here’s a great video of a 1993 conversation between Shulgin and Terence McKenna.

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