Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

June 4, 2014

Sasha Shulgin: a Light in the Dark

The great chemist and psychonaut Sasha Shulgin died peacefully of liver cancer on June 2, 2014, at 5 in the afternoon. He was surrounded by caregivers and listening to Buddhist meditation music, and passed with little struggle. I know his work better than the well-meaning obituary writers out there, and I want to tell you what he accomplished in his lifetime. It’s not to a honor the great man, which I could only do an inadequate job of, but to pull away the veil of establishment taboo and show something of the scope of his underappreciated work.

I have to skip right over his prodigal childhood and World War II Navy experience, not to mention his graduate work at Berkeley and his early professional work at Bio-Rad.

Moving right along: in the 1960’s, Sasha worked for Dow Chemical and invented Zectran, the first biodegradable synthetic pesticide (a huge ecological advantage over pesticides like DDT, which linger in the environment and accumulate up the food chain.) He was rewarded with free reign over a generously-appointed corporate lab. Not long before, someone had introduced him to mescaline on a sunny California day, and he’d been totally impressed by the experience (you can see his original write-up in the first of his lab books posted online.) So it was natural enough that mescaline was the substance Shulgin wanted to tinker with in his new lab. He experimented with alterations of the molecule, at first pursuing the all-too common medicinal chemistry approach of sifting for the most potent compounds through animal tests. Dow soon lost interest in Shulgin’s forays into medicinal chemistry (they prefer bulk chemicals and paint to pharmaceuticals, and on top of that, psychedelics became taboo over the course of the 1960’s.)

Shulgin became an independent consultant and set up a ramshackle laboratory on an old farm near San Francisco. He often found paid work testifying for either drug enforcement agencies or defendants accused of drug crimes, while continuing to make new variants of mescaline.

Shulgin believed in investigating new drugs as pure exploration, but hoped to find therapeutically useful drugs and even promote an expansion in human self-awareness as an antidote to human self-destructiveness.

He tested new drugs first on himself. He was aware of Albert Hoffman’s 1943 experience with LSD: Hoffman had started testing LSD at the 250 microgram level, believing that that was the smallest amount of any drug which could possibly have an effect… but Hoffman was knocked on his butt by a drug more potent than any discovered before! Therefor, Shulgin started with miniscule doses, and then took a nearly doubled dose a week or two later, until some hint of activity was found (poisons are just as likely as the next great breakthrough.) This work led to the Shulgin Rating Scale for rating the power of drug experiences, ranging from ” – ” for no perceptible effect up through ” ++++ ” for perceived omnipotence.

If Sasha found something worthwhile, he might take some with his wife Ann (married 1981), and then with a research group made up of close friends. The research group met on Sundays and enjoyed dinner and wine after an experiment. They included psychologists and lawyers and were able to help Sasha publish his work by qualifying as their own Institutional Review Board, for a time. The group soon found that the compounds differed in their qualities as much as in duration and potency. They investigated hundreds of Shulgin-designed derivatives of mescaline and spice rack oils (as from the peyote cactus and parsley,) and information about their synthesis and proper use was eventually collected into the book PiHKAL. Later, Shulgin tinkered with the structures of DMT and psilocin (as from ayahuasca brews and magic mushrooms,) and he wrote up over a hundred novel compounds in the sequel TiHKAL. Some of his more recent synthetic work began from new inspirations found naturally in various psychedelic cacti and poppies.

As the institutional environment became more oppressive, the research group was unable to continue getting published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The Shulgins started Transform Press as a vehicle for self-publishing, and published PiHKAL and TiHKAL as fiction during the 1990’s. As a result, Chemical Abstracts, repository of the list of all chemicals known to humankind, has rejected some of Sasha’s compounds as fictional!

In 1976 a graduate student (whose name I will try to find) called Sasha Shulgin on the phone to report smashing results with a chemical gleaned from the literature: 3,4-methylenedioxy,N-methylamphetamine, better known as MDMA, ecstasy, or molly. At first Shulgin treated MDMA as a “low-calorie martini,” but as he shared it with the research group he saw it help people make remarkable personal breakthroughs. The drug lacked the colorful or disorienting effects of LSD or other infamous psychedelics, which suggested it would make an ideal drug for psychotherapists to give their patients.

A member of the research group, Leo Zeff, used MDMA in his therapy practice and began sharing the secret with other therapists. He developed new techniques for working with patients under the influence and was known as “The Secret Chief.” People said MDMA was like “six months of therapy in one session,” which is immensely gratifying to both patient and practitioner. Therapists worked with qualified chemists to obtain the chemical, and the practice was perfectly legal.

Someone with less discretion found out and decided that MDMA should be made available to everybody. Larry Hagerty and others in the inner circle of Dallas MDMA dealers were motivated not only by the ample profits, but also by the desire to save humanity much as Sasha himself had described in an especially zealous talk! Thousands and thousands of doses were sold in the Dallas dance club scene. In 1985 the DEA noticed and acted to ban the drug, not only from clubs but from therapists’ offices as well.

MAPS, a non-profit that runs on donations, today funds studies into MDMA to treat the fear of death in the terminally ill, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans and rape survivors, and social anxiety in the autistic. MDMA’s capacity to quell human suffering is well-demonstrated, vast and legally forbidden. MAPS faces an uphill battle to fund the extensive testing required by the FDA, which only a few cartelized pharmaceutical companies have ever been able to fund.

Sasha Shulgin produced many interesting compounds besides his role in passing along MDMA. 2C-B is a sense enhancer and aphrodisiac; DiPT disrupts the perception of pitch and harmony; TOMSO is a psychedelic which manifests no effects until combined with alcohol; CPM leads to eyes-closed fantasy, yet the structurally similar MAL leads to visual chaos with the eyes open. ARIADNE has been investigated as an anti-depressant. 5-MeO-DiPT enhances orgasm. All of these compounds may present uses for therapy or creative work, and certainly all of them present clues and new puzzles for brain science. Investigation into them is a legally tortured pursuit, especially in the United States. The vast bulk of Shulgin’s compounds have been only very superficially investigated.

Shulgin’s work is carried on by chemists and therapists around the world, often quietly.

His one-time student David Nichols has worked within the system, and extensively probed the molecular mechanism of MDMA at Purdue’s pharmacology labs. He also is the founding President of the Heffter Institute, which conducts research into psilocin mushrooms as medicine.

Sasha inspired his friends Earth and Fire Erowid to provide the best information about drugs available online. Erowid.org is especially sharp at keeping current with new synthetics that appear on the grey and black markets. The site helps users understand what they are getting into and stay safe, and even to get the most out of their drug experiences just as a therapist would help a patient to do.

Paul Daley came to the Shulgin farm in 2007, to help in the lab after Sasha’s eyes failed due to macular degeneration. Recently the pair was working on techniques for growing peyote, for such time as this becomes legal for the Native American Church. Another project seeks to help cluster headache sufferers with an efficient synthesis for 2-bromo-LSD. 2-bromo-LSD is not a psychedelic or an interesting head drug of any sort, except that it aborts clusters of “suicide headaches” said to be among the most physically excruciating of all human experiences. Shulgin and Daley were working on improving the synthesis of an unapproved drug with little hope for running the approval gauntlet — suggesting that they might have been hoping for others to distribute 2-bromo-LSD in an underground fashion, just as earlier circles of doctors did with MDMA. Their allies in the 2-bromo-LSD project are the Cluster Busters, a patient organization.

In 2013, Daley reported that 87-year-old, blind, dementia-addled Sasha was still joining him in the lab every day. Sasha was no longer on top of the work but he hung around in the lab and cracked corny jokes about whatever was going on. Those are some of the best things about working as a chemist anyway.

Sasha is survived by his wife Ann, a writer and lay therapist with valuable contributions in PiKHAL and TiKHAL. I find her work on integrating the shadow to be especially interesting and useful. She was also a great support to Sasha, taking care of him when he was ill, and cooking meals for the Sunday experiments.

There is every reason to believe that when these drugs are freed from their taboo status, they will allow us to make strides towards physically understanding the brain-mind correlation, and relieve vast amounts of human suffering. It will take dozens of scientists decades just to chase down all of the suggestions mentioned in PiKHAL and TiKHAL.

Some may eulogize Shulgin as a colorful character, “Dr. X, the inventor of ecstasy” or the like, but understand that Shulgin’s work is just the beginning of an unfolding Big Bang in mind science and medicine. After the superstitious and ignorant Church (of unlimited government authority) stands out of the way, we’ll recognize Shulgin as a giant of science like Galileo or Einstein.

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April 9, 2013

Animist on Atheism

Animism is the belief that the world is full of spirits. Atheism is the rejection of belief in gods. These beliefs are not opposed according to their bare definitions, but I know of no atheists who really get excited about the spirit world.

Atheism in the West is heavily shaped by Christianity, or more precisely, by rejecting Christianity. An ultra-brief history of Christian thought could begin with the Gnostics, part of the cultish religious soup in and around the ancient Holy Land, who saw their world as a miserable material prison to be escaped through ecstatic travels. The medieval Church kept the idea of this world as a material prison, but dropped the possibility of escaping through ecstasy. It urged followers to believe in a spirit world that could not be seen, except by the dead and resurrected or a few chosen prophets. People had to listen to their priest and trust in received wisdom, or actually risk being tortured and burned as a heretic. Early moves towards skepticism included demanding to be allowed to read the Bible for oneself, cutting out a major priestly privilege!

Atheists (and Deists, their close intellectual cousins) said: “Enough of this crap! We won’t believe in the Invisible Man in the Sky who watches us all the time anymore! It’s very manipulative and we call ‘shenanigans’ upon thee!” So, freethinkers shifted their attention to the world of things they could find out for themselves — reason, history, and especially science. Any hint of the spirit world was regarded as the same sort of superstition as Churchly lies. The spiritual practices of “savages” were beneath contempt, of more interest to edgy bohemians than serious scientists or philosophers, and were not seriously looked at in the West for a few hundred more years.

So, in animism, the spirit world is present right here in nature. In mainstream Christianity, the spirit world has been ripped away from the present world and hidden behind a veil, as for the priests to communicate to the helpless peasants. And in atheism, the spirit world has been denied existence entirely.

The atheist denial of natural spirits is based on an error, the belief that the spirit world is basically a lie communicated to the people by priests. For most people over most of human time, the spirit world was much more directly accessible.

On an everyday level, people were trained to rely on their instinct or “see with the heart.” Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, describes it thus: “I spent much of my childhood in a third-world, rural environment where we had to be in tune with Mother Nature for our very survival… To be instinctual means to be clearheaded, open, and aware of the signals we are getting from other people, animals, and our environment all the time. It means understanding our natural selves and the natural world, and acknowledging our interdependence with that world.” (from “Be the Pack Leader.”)

To a little child, the world is a colorful place imbued with meaning. This tree is sinister, that one is welcoming, still another is powerful and proud. I believe that these impressions are devalued by the education process, until the student a) comes to see trees as collections of cells and organs described by a Latin binomial, of interest as a sort of ongoing biochemical reaction or b) loses interest and stays inside watching football. The animist myths of trees as plant teachers and homes for forest spirits express the more important truths. Ignoring the truth about trees causes us to build ugly places — perhaps best embodied by Tolkein’s Mordor. (By the way — plenty of atheists appreciate and protect the trees, and plenty of ugly-minded deforesters call themselves Christian.) I happen to believe that the most powerful human-tree bond is on a level we truly experience as magical — an exchange of ill-defined “energy.” On what evidence should anyone reject that magical level of bonding? To what end?

 

A giant tree surrounded by fences.

Really ancient trees still inspire reverence from people of all beliefs. Mary and Angus Hogg [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A stubbly, muddy field stretches everywhere in sight.

Do the opencast miners need a more advanced science to explain to them where they went wrong? by Texas Radio and The Big Beat [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening up our senses to the magical seems like a wise move, if Sauron is not to win.

Since the middle of last century, the West has exploded with information about ecstatic technologies that permit direct experience of the spiritual world, often in full Technicolor. Albert Hoffman discovered LSD-25 in 1938, and it was soon being used in psychiatry to accelerate insight, healing and development in therapeutic clients. This very nearly coincided with Richard Shultes’ first trips to Mexico to identify the shamans’ magical plants and fungi (psilocybe mushrooms, morning glories and solanaceous trumpet flowers.) Shultes sent Hofmann morning glory samples for analysis, and Hofmann discovered LSD analogs in the seeds. They realized that indigenous shamanism had a lot in common with the cutting edge of psychiatric practice. Psychedelic drugs are not for everyone, and they are the subject of a mostly secular but authoritarian backlash, but they are not the only technology of ecstasy. Mind science imported from Buddhist and yogic traditions was popularized throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Music took on longer forms to allow the listeners to “get into it,” and incorporated trippy light shows. You don’t have to listen to your priest interpret Ezekiel’s vision of a wheel for you any longer: people can experience the other world for themselves, the paths are known.

In rejecting a phony or insanely corrupted spiritual tradition, many freethinkers found themselves cast to philosophies like materialism and positivism. Many Christians box up their religion except for Sundays and live in the same soulectomied world. These philosophies are insufficient — they do not feed the instinctual side of human nature. We find ourselves a bunch of neurotics living in ugly places. But there was never any reason to stop developing knowledge of the magical worlds of our childhood. Use your reasoning capacity, but remember where we all started from.

 

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