HANGING OFF THE MOLECULE: A BRIEF MEETING WITH ALEXANDER SHULGIN

I met Alexander Shulgin after a lecture he gave at the Mindstates conference in Berkeley, in November of 1997. He was seated unobtrusively on a stoop in front of the Berkeley lecture hall, The International House, minding his own business, a burly avuncular old man, no doubt unwinding after the lecture he gave to a packed audience on mescaline-containing cacti, a passion of his for many years. In fact, it was mescaline that opened the doors of perception for not just Huxley and Sartre, but Shulgin as well: “Mescaline: a magic name and a magic compound. It was not until April 1960 . . .that a friend of mine provided me with the opportunity to be “baby-sat” on an experience with 400 milligrams of mescaline sulfate. It was a day that will remain blazingly vivid in my memory, and one which unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life.” PIHKAL pg. 47.

It fascinated me that the twentieth century’s greatest alchemist was seated alone, no groupies or mobs attending him, and I sidled over, trying to conceal my glee. Although I found a lot of the chemistry he had mentioned during his lecture hard to follow, I complemented him on his lifetime achievements, which had touched tens of thousands: re-discovering MDMA, and creating many new compounds, including the 2-C-B class of drugs, and DOM a.k.a. STP (Serenity, Tranquility, Peace), a long-lasting, highly-potent psychedelic phenethylamine often too strong for most novices (He wrote the formula on a chalkboard for his students one day, and soon after it appeared on the street, much to his dismay.) He had been outspoken against the drug war until his death in 2014.

On that bright November day, amid throngs of people scurrying about the grounds of the building, we talked of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a work Shulgin was familiar with. The book deals in a fanciful and satiric way with the collusion of IG Farben and American business interests during WWII—a seeming paradox since IG Farben was on the Nazi side of the war. (WWII was a period Shulgin was active in, serving in the navy, as Pynchon would years later.) The visionary aspects of chemistry are touched upon throughout the book, as is the ferocious profit motive behind tweeking chemicals:

“Since his earliest days as a detail man, Wimpe’s expertise had been focused in cyclized benzylisoquinolines . . .Here is Eucodal—a codeine with two hydrogens, a hydroxyl, a hydrochloride”—gesturing in the air around his basic fist—hanging off different parts of the molecule. . . To help sell a sparer design. . .”

Gravity’s Rainbow pg. 390

The alchemy of mescaline analogues became an obsession of Shuglin’s, igniting a tsunami of research chemical experimentation that continues to rage to the present day, (of course, government prohibition of psychedelics in the form of analogue acts adds fuel to the fire).

The most thoroughly investigated analogs are substituted phenylisopropylamines. Shulgin wrote in his paper on Mescaline analogues in 1972, These carry the carbon skeleton of amphetamine, as is found in natural bases such as ephedrine. Ring substitution arrangements that imitate the peyote alkaloids and the phenylpropenes from the essential oils, have led to a number of hallucinogens generally more potent than mescaline. . .Other analogs are based largely on changes in the length of the carbon chain, or in the nature of the substituent in the 4-postion (Para to the aliphatic chain). The shortening of the chain always decreases the observed potency but any lengthening invariably changes the pharmacological action from hallucinogenesis to relaxants or to psychic energizers . . .Variations of the substitution pattern of the methoxyl groups within this generalization of the three-carbon chain optimum, have led to extensive changes in potency.

From Mescaline: The Chemistry and Pharmacology of its Analogs. 1972

I had read PIHKAL, an autobiography and pharmacological “cook book” he co-wrote with his wife, and was intrigued by the level of his personal commitment to expanded awareness via drugs. He was quite bold about his drug use, which, even today, is courageous. Calling MDMA his 5 o’clock cocktail! It made me want to experiment with his compounds to find out how accurate his claim was that “I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit.” A chemical didn’t reveal the universe, the mind did with a chemical catalyst. And judging by the popularity of his books, a lot of other people did as well.

In the phenethylamine eighties and nineties and tweaking zeros, the MDMA explosion that started in Dallas and continued on through to the underground raves of England, and now throughout the world, the Shulgin scale of drug intoxication has gained wide appreciation among trippers. It is as follows:

MINUS, n. (-) On the quantitative potency scale (-, ±, +, ++, +++), there were no effects observed.

PLUS/MINUS, n. (±) The level of effectiveness of a drug that indicates a threshold action. If a higher dosage produces a greater response, then the plus/minus (±) was valid. If a higher dosage produces nothing, then this was a false positive.

PLUS ONE, n. (+) The drug is quite certainly active. The chronology can be determined with some accuracy, but the nature of the drug’s effects are not yet apparent.

PLUS TWO, n. (++) Both the chronology and the nature of the action of a drug are unmistakably apparent. But you still have some choice as to whether you will accept the adventure, or rather just continue with your ordinary day’s plans (if you are an experienced researcher, that is). The effects can be allowed a predominant role, or they may be repressible and made secondary to other chosen activities.

PLUS THREE, n. (+++) Not only are the chronology and the nature of a drug’s action quite clear, but ignoring its action is no longer an option. The subject is totally engaged in the experience, for better or worse.

PLUS FOUR, n. (++++) A rare and precious transcendental state, which has been called a “peak experience,” a “religious experience,” “divine transformation,” a “state of Samadhi” and many other names in other cultures. It is not connected to the +1, +2, and +3 of the measuring of a drug’s intensity. It is a state of bliss, a participation mystique, a connectedness with both the interior and exterior universes, which has come about after the ingestion of a psychedelic drug, but which is not necessarily repeatable with a subsequent ingestion of that same drug. If a drug (or technique or process) were ever to be discovered which would consistently produce a plus four experience in all human beings, it is conceivable that it would signal the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end, of the human experiment.

— Alexander Shulgin, PIHKAL, pages 963–965

The wild frontier in chemognosis that Shulgin engineered, and documented indepthly in his weighty tomes, PIHKAL and THIKAL continues unabated, with underground chemists everywhere taking up his lead, but the future of it is unwritten—perhaps a +4 utopia? Or a more potent Brave New World Soma, to keeps us all rutting in a consumer soap commercial???

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