“Dr. Ecstasy” laments the rave drug’s notoriety
By Jason Szep
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) – The scientist who
introduced Ecstasy to the world in the 1970s fears the drug’s
notoriety and popularity at nightclubs is destroying any chance
that it might be used to treat the mentally ill.
“It’s very excellent potential for being used as medicine
has been badly jeopardized,” Alexander Shulgin, told Reuters
after defending the merits of mind-altering drugs at a
symposium on the human brain at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology this week.
“It’s gone out of control,” lamented Shulgin, a tall
Californian with a mane of white hair and a Santa Claus-like
beard, who is widely known as “Dr. Ecstasy.”
A psychopharmacological researcher who once had a license
from the U.S. government to develop any illegal drug, Shulgin
believes so strongly in the power of psychedelic drugs in
unlocking the human mind that he plans to publish a 1,500-page
encyclopedia next year of all his creations.
The 80-year-old former lecturer at the University of
California at Berkeley, who self-tested many of his experiments
and admits to more than 4,000 psychedelic experiences, finds
little comfort in Ecstasy’s image as the drug of choice at
all-night nightclub dance parties or raves.
“These rave scenes have added kindling to the fire of
governmental disapproval,” he said.
Use of the drug, known for inducing euphoria and energy
while reducing inhibitions, surged 70 percent from 1995 to
2000, according to United Nations data.
Ecstasy-related deaths, while relatively rare, make enough
headlines to force authorities to regularly issue health
warnings. Australia’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Center
in April said users risked harmful psychological effects.
Tracing that rise of the drug leads straight to Shulgin. A
gifted biochemist and former National Institutes of Health
consultant, he unearthed a formula for MDMA — a synthetic drug
with psychedelic and stimulant effects — in a 1912 chemistry
text and synthesized it into Ecstasy in 1976.
After testing it on himself, he became convinced of its
power to treat mental illness. He gave the drug to
psychotherapist and close friend, Leo Zeff, who sampled it,
agreed, and passed it to hundreds of other therapists.
Shulgin, who had already quit a senior job at Dell Chemical
after sampling mescaline in 1960 in a life-changing
introduction to psychedelic drugs, enjoyed a period of
celebrity as a cutting-edge chemist.
He described his first experiment with psychedelic drugs as
a “very delightful experience” in which he could “see clearly
what he could not appreciate before.”
Ecstasy was used in its early days as a treatment for
depression and other illnesses, but that ended abruptly in 1986
when it was banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Recently, however, Ecstasy has had a modest comeback in
clinical therapy. U.S authorities gave researchers at the
Medical University of South Carolina permission last year to
use MDMA in a small study of patients suffering post-traumatic
In August, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina
found that amphetamines, including Ecstasy, reversed the
effects of Parkinson’s disease in mice, raising the possibility
of exploring related treatments for humans.
Meanwhile, Shulgin, whose involvement in psychedelic drug
research spans 40 years, is at work compiling his encyclopedia
on 1,000 psychedelic compounds. It is modeled on the Merck
Index of chemical properties.
“It will be everything that is known to be, has been tried
but not found yet to be, or should be tried because they are
apt to be psychedelic,” he said of the work, which he expects
to self-publish by the middle of next year.