Meet Dr. Ecstasy

Ransom Riggs

At the turn of the last century, there were only two psychedelic compounds known to man: cannabis and mescaline (which is what makes peyote so popular with shamans and hippies). By the 1950s, scientists had developed or uncovered LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms") and about 15 more compounds you've probably never heard of. These days, we're well into the hundreds, thanks in large part to the work of an organic chemist named Dr. Alexander Shulgin and many years' worth of experimentation (much of it on himself) in a tiny lab in his backyard in Northern California. (Pictured above: Shulgin and his wife, Ann.)

Shulgin is responsible for at least 200 psychedelic compounds (which weren't illegal when he created them, simply because the DEA hadn't yet heard of them), is the author of a pair of memoir/cookbooks called PHiKAL and TiHKAL, short for "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved" and "Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved," respectively. But he is certainly most famous for reintroducing the world to a little-known compound called MDMA in 1976. It had been patented by Merck in 1914, but thinking it useless, the drug giant had never done anything with it. Shulgin resynthesized it, wrote a paper about it in which he noted ''an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones," and the world had Ecstasy.

You might wonder why Shulgin was never arrested. From the 50s through the 80s, he had the full support of the DEA -- the DEA's chief was even married in Shulgin's backyard -- and frequently gave pharmacology lectures to DEA agents. He had a DEA-issued Schedule I research license. That is, until he published PHiKAL in 1993, which the agency -- deeply engaged in its now-controversial "war on drugs" -- didn't look kindly upon. The agency turned his back on him, raided his lab and yanked his license. (He's still allowed to work in his lab creating new things -- he just can't make or possess anything that's currently on the DEA's list of Schedule I drugs, which is most of his life's work.)

Shlugin views himself as a scientist in the most classical sense: his goal has been the identification and classification of a whole range of brain-altering compounds previously unknown to humankind -- much like a naturalist might name and describe new species of butterflies he discovers. Reading through the various effects of his discoveries is a bit like reading through a catalog of the many switches in your brain that can be flipped, to various effects. From the New York Times Magazine:

[Shulgin discovered] stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, ''empathogens,'' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion -- in short, a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience. .... A compound he dubbed Aleph-1 gave him ''one of the most delicious blends of inflation, paranoia and selfishness that I have ever experienced.'' Another, Ariadne, was patented and tested under the name Dimoxamine as a drug for ''restoring motivation in senile geriatric patients.'' Still another, DIPT, created no visual hallucinations but distorted the user's sense of pitch.

Why did Shulgin choose such an unorthodox field of research? He describes a revelatory experience with mescaline in 1960, after which he realized that everything he saw and thought ''had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid. . . . I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.''

Here's a video of "Dr. Ecstacy," talking science in his backyard lab:

Note! Mental_floss recommends flossing your brain with trivia, not illegal Schedule-I drug compounds.