Beloved elders Ann and Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin played pivotal roles in birthing a psychedelic culture grounded in compassion, curiosity, and open science.
A chemist and composer of compounds, Sasha is revered for introducing MDMA for therapeutic use while discovering and synthesizing hundreds of psychoactive substances. Ann, a therapist and alchemist of the heart, worked together with Sasha and a community of underground testers to evaluate the subjective effects of these compounds, pioneering the expansion of psychedelic therapies.
The Shulgins are perhaps best known for publishing PiHKAL and TiHKAL, two “fictional” texts that detail their research and stories behind their investigations. Sasha died in 2014, leaving a wealth of experimental research documented by hundreds of thousands of records that accompanied their decades of study into psychedelic compounds and their effects on humans.
The Shulgin’s research could now impact the lives of millions of people who may benefit from these molecules, as well as therapists who are learning how to use them for healing. Originally developed by Merck Pharmaceuticals in 1912, MDMA, is now undergoing Phase 3 trials for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD.
Honoring the Shulgin’s Legacy
Due to the increasing interest in psychedelic compounds and psychedelic-assisted therapies, the impact of the Shulgins’ work is receiving a new wave of worldwide attention.
A three-day virtual event hosted last month by San Francisco’s City Lights Books gathered a global group of scholars and friends to honor the Shulgins.
The gathering celebrated the publication of The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact, a collection of Sasha Shulgin’s lectures, published by Synergetic Press. The book is the first major publication of Sasha Shulgin’s writing since The Simple Plant Isoquinolines which came out in 2002, The Shulgin Index published in 2011, and The Commemorative Edition of PiHKAL and TiHKAL released in 2018.
The five-panel series featured reflections from Ann as well as friends and colleagues of Sasha. Discussing the Shulgin’s legacy of research, community building, and mentorship, panelists noted that the norms of harm reduction and personal autonomy embedded within psychedelic culture writ large are attributable to these esteemed elders and consciousness explorers.
Sasha’s alchemical artistry and commitment to scientific inquiry, together with Ann’s principled approach toward psychology, were described as essential values that panelists say they are determined to preserve in the decades to come.
Leaders in the field such as David Presti believe that Sasha’s research in psychedelic pharmacology is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Yet as noted in a trailer from the upcoming film Better Living Through Chemistry, some viewed the Shulgins as responsible for MDMA-related deaths which others attribute to lack of education caused by a politically motivated war on drugs.
For those who know the Shulgins best, those who worked with, confided in, and grew up alongside Ann and Sasha, their pioneering legacy is still being written, and the impact of their work is most evident in the relationships they have cultivated across the decades.
MDMA is only one note in the Shulgin symphony, a reflection repeatedly offered throughout the gathering. Friend and colleague Stanislav Grof, the father of Transpersonal Psychology and Holotropic Breathwork, noted that Sasha was a true renaissance man: a multifaceted philosopher, writer, violist, and chemist.
Ethnopharmacologist and researcher Dennis McKenna recalled how Sasha viewed his work as a gift to the world during the height of psychedelic prohibition, viewing the molecules he created as his children, each presenting an “aura of personality about them” that was distinct and recognizable. Sharing stories of their collaborative projects, McKenna commented that “making molecules is quite like composing music” and that without Sasha, he would never have been inspired to pursue ethnopharmacology.
Leonard Pickard, who served 20 years in prison for manufacturing LSD, noted that Sasha was an inspiration as a scientist — not only for his brilliance and creativity, but because “one could tell he loved the art of chemistry, he saw the magic, and felt the heart of the science… he knew what he was doing, and he honored it.”
As the drug war made it difficult to research psychedelic substances that were illegal to explore, the Shulgins weathered the storms by building trusted relationships and deepening community ties. Several panelists described Ann as a sage and confidant. Ann offered wisdom and guidance to those who asked or visited the Shulgin farm during the Friday night dinners that served as a touchstone during the early days of a growing, yet underground, psychedelic research community.
When asked about life during that time, Ann commented that “we always assumed the phone was tapped and didn’t have discussions much.” Panelists noted that the Shulgins found resilience in the belief that sharing their research findings was essential and that First Amendment protections were sacred — regardless of the DEA restrictions on the use of psychedelics.
As Ann and several panelists pointed out, there was every reason to assume that undercover police, infiltrators, and agent provocateurs were also frequenting the Friday night dinners and psychedelic community circles emerging in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Lucid News founding editor, Annie Harrison, recalled during her presentation the lessons learned from the Shulgins about the value of discretion and “being prepared to defend one’s rights to gather and speak.”
Regardless of rights, every dinner began with a warning: a reminder to be cautious and act sensibly, and to establish a clear set of boundaries for engagement in higher risk spaces where one misstep could potentially result in arrest, property seizures, and prison. With rules established, the Shulgins would spend years connecting hundreds of curious psychonauts, researchers, and therapists to one another, serving as a loom through which individuals could weave into each other’s scholarship and psychedelic experiences.
These dinners were more than a point of connection or an affinity group, but were quite often a secondary family — especially for those unable to disclose their underground research to loved ones. As researcher Paul Daley noted, encountering these community spaces catalyzed by the Shulgins “breathed life into me that I thought I had lost” during a challenging period in his life.
For Bob Jesse, session moderator and convener of the Council on Spiritual Practices, the Shulgin’s gatherings were routinely a trusted space to be heard and supported by wise elders willing to offer wisdom and encouragement when he needed advice or a shoulder to cry on.
McKenna further reflected on how kind and joyful the Shulgins were with his daughter when they attended the dinners, saying the Shulgins were beloved and “unofficial godparents” to his daughter during that time. Recalling stories of swarming fans at Burning Man and counting cards at a blackjack table, Cosmo Feilding Mellen, CEO of Beckley PsyTech, commented how Sasha was like a “grandfather to me… an incredibly humble and understated genius.”
As a couple, the Shulgins modeled what Harrison called a “relationship of respect,” one that also served as an inspiration for many researchers, including Daley and chemist David Nichols. Jesse also echoed this sentiment, noting that the Shulgins have been role models as a couple, showing us all “what a loving, stable, high output partnership looks like.”
So too did Earth Erowid, cofounder of the Erowid nonprofit organization, who reflected that “Ann and Sasha were very big role models who had a huge impact on how the drug geek community evolved.” Sharing insight from his partner, Fire Erowid, Earth recalled how Sasha refused to sign an autograph in their copy of PiHKAL until after Ann signed it first.
The Shulgins also demonstrated to younger generations of scholars the importance of mentorship and being available to student and public inquiries. As journalist and chemist Hamilton Morris revealed, those who benefitted from Sasha’s kindness and openness often feel compelled to pass on these teachings, as well as Sasha’s humble and curious approach to seemingly repetitive questions from complete strangers.
Shadows, Science, and Subjective Experience
For all the brilliance and genius of Sasha’s chemical creations, multiple panelists noted that it was the Shulgin’s insistence on subjective reporting that was most vital to the evolution of psychedelic research — and science.
As Harrison noted, Ann’s diligence in recording and reporting the subjective effects and experiences of the novel psychedelic compounds she and Sasha tested was critically important to the expansion of psychedelic therapy, especially regarding the “shadow self” so often evoked during psychedelic mindstates. According to Ann, this level of detailed reporting, and especially the examination of one’s own shadow, remains some of the most essential work for any psychonaut to explore.
Nichols reflected further on the importance of psychedelic human trials. Presented by the Shulgins as works of fiction to avoid unwanted engagement from the DEA, the texts PiHKAL and TiHKAL detailed both participants’ subjective experiences and the chemical processes by which one might (theoretically) develop the compounds used to initiate such experiences. Nichols noted the value of human trials compared to animal studies, highlighting the importance of creating a “database for other scientists who are working in academia who really need something to correlate their models with.”
As Sasha designed and created novel psychedelic compounds, he would engage in self-experimentation first, beginning with a minute dose and slowly increasing it over time until an active dose was identified. Noting the different responses to dosage and psychedelic compounds between men and women, Daley added that Sasha would cautiously share notable compounds with Ann to elicit her views. The Shulgins ultimately compared their unique experiences before determining together whether the compound was worth sharing with their underground research group.
Accessibility and the Future of Psychedelic Therapy
With compassion and autonomy at the heart of the Shulgins’ work, accessibility of psychedelic medicines emerged as a priority for several panelists who posed questions about capital investment, patents, and the future of psychedelic healthcare access. With the recent incorporation of The Alexander Shulgin Research Institute, hundreds of unpublished, untested compounds remaining in the Shulgin archives will emerge, some of which may one day be patented, studied, and prescribed.
Recalling past conversations, Pickard agreed that Sasha would “fret over the patenting of medicine” but would work to find ways to honor differing value systems despite differences around issues of corporatization. For Ann, organizations aiming to patent forms of psychedelic-assisted therapy are especially “worrisome and have to be fought.”
Ann further commented that companies like Compass Pathways ought to be “prevented from doing what they are trying to do,” which is to patent therapeutic modalities long practiced by underground psychedelic practitioners. Compass Pathways believes that their approach to patents expands the potential for greater availability of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes, while opponents believe that such a move could establish precedents that negatively impact the accessibility of psychedelic compounds for mental health conditions.
As Jesse, a board member of the George Sarlo Foundation and the Usona Institute, described the patent processes for developers of psychedelic therapies in Europe, moderator Mike Margolies considered whether the FDA approval process and legalization was the only option for addressing accessibility.
Psychedelic researcher and author Dr. Julie Holland noted that unregulated therapy centers and underground therapists will continue to offer these services. Holland explained that this would happen largely because regulated forms of psychedelic therapy will remain inaccessible to most people until systems are created to support insurance coverage or until therapists adopt sliding scales to accommodate all community members.
Rick Doblin, Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, recalled the courage with which Sasha presented his self-experimentation and psychedelic human trials to both NIDA and the FDA in a series of meetings in 1992. Calling it a “galvanizing moment,” Rick noted that Sasha knew animal research was “irrelevant without human data to compare” it to and that innovation would not move forward unless he was “willing to share information with everybody, including the DEA.”
Though the Shulgins’ approach to science put them at significant risk of arrest, Sasha spoke without guilt, presenting his unsanctioned studies that would ultimately galvanize NIDA to reconsider moving forward with psychedelic research. For Doblin, this was the Shulgin’s most important legacy. In addition to the process of scientific discovery and synthesizing compounds, Sasha was committed to engaging in policy reform as well as clandestine psychedelic research. As noted by Feilding Mellen, Sasha’s commitment to high-quality science served as a “legitimizing tool for this whole movement.”
For Ann, accessibility and legitimization fell more closely along the lines of nurturing properly trained psychedelic therapists. Such individuals must, in the eyes of several panelists, have experience with psychedelic therapy themselves. Commenting on the emerging era where developing protocols sometimes do not require psychedelic therapists to have used a psychedelic, Ann observed, “I think it’s total nonsense, and it’s dangerous. I think anyone who is going to give a psychedelic medicine to a client or patient must know the territory. To do otherwise is to potentially do a great deal of damage.”
Keeper Trout, chemist and curator of the Shulgin Archive agreed, adding that, “it’s sort of ludicrous that a person would want to be considered qualified for being a therapist when they are totally ignorant of what they are cementing into the patient… there’s a degree of pompousness in that that’s actually frightening. That somebody would view that as even appropriate is really disturbing.”
Wendy Tucker, daughter of Ann Shulgin, assistant to Sasha and owner of Transform Press, believes that this prerequisite would likely change when psychedelics are decriminalized, noting that it’s “really ridiculous to think that people could do this kind of work without knowing the territory.”
Education and Legacies
Asked what advice they might offer young people eager to get involved in psychedelic work and research, Ann commented on the importance of reading as much as possible and getting the education and degrees necessary to contribute to the field.
Trout suggested further that anyone wanting to use psychedelics, not just therapists in training, ought to spend as much time as possible educating themselves on all aspects of psychedelic research and culture. Holland added that a commitment to self-education could help one realize that psychedelics may not be their ideal medicine.
While panelists noted that psychedelics are generally safe, there remain concerns about the impact of certain substances for which there is less clinical and subjective research. Holland noted, for example, that ibogaine presents a known cardiac risk for some people.
For decades, the Shulgin farm, with its Friday night dinners and the presence of psychedelic elders, served as a touchstone for many coming of age in the psychedelic community. Researchers, physicians, advocates, and artists learned to engage in safe and sustainable use of psychedelic compounds and how to build supportive communities despite the confines and harms of prohibition.
As the psychedelic renaissance gathers momentum, the wider cultural impact of the Shulgin’s legacy is inspiring the emergence of public spaces and community centers focused on education and healing. Participants noted that integration circles, educational workshops, affinity groups, and group therapy modalities could help usher in the next steps in the evolution of accessible psychedelic-assisted healthcare.
As these services and communities evolve, the archival contributions of the Shulgins will continue to emerge. With the support of co-publishing partners Synergetic Press and Transform Press, the third book in the PiKHAL series, Synthesis, is presently being compiled, as are the second and third volumes of The Nature of Drugs. Reflecting the same dedication to service and shared discovery that inspired the Shulgins to publish their prior research, these new texts will continue to expand the Shulgin legacy.