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On Drugs, Freedom, and Human Nature: A Course with Alexander Shulgin

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On Drugs, Freedom, and Human Nature: A Course with Alexander Shulgin

Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin is (in)famous for his synthesis of over two hundred novel psychedelic compounds. For fifty years, he avoided the undue influence of public and private sponsorship by carrying out his modern-day alchemy in a weathered and ivy-draped shed on the Shulgin family farm.

To preserve his independence, Shulgin supported himself by teaching, lecturing, and consulting. The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact presents the first semester transcripts of a pharmacology course Shulgin taught at San Francisco State University in 1987. The book is the first publication of his work in a decade, following Volume 1 of The Shulgin Index (2011) and The Simple Plant Isoquinolines (2002). These invaluable reference guides are, admittedly, rather impenetrable to the layperson, and offer little insight into Shulgin’s life and personality. 

The Nature of Drugs marks a return to the merging of hard science and impassioned storytelling that made PiHKAL and TiHKAL so beloved to the psychedelic community. Shulgin’s personality is on full display in these lectures; he is always excited, taken by wonder, quick to share personal insights, and endlessly encouraging of his students’ own process of inquiry. Nearly every page is a treasure trove of fascinating facts and stories. Ann Shulgin is present in the class too; throughout the lectures, she chimes in with perfect questions to guide Shulgin’s teaching.

The academic simplicity of the book’s title is deceptive. “Nature,” for Shulgin, means more than physiology and chemistry. His story of drugs, accordingly, takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through history, myth, anthropology, sociology, alchemy, medicine, politics, and law, as well as the far-flung corners of Shulgin’s own (very eventful) life.

Shulgin has a mythic way of teaching. In his hands, empirical science approaches pre-modern natural philosophy. He was clearly a gifted chemist, but refused to let his specialized knowledge get in the way of the Big Questions. His one-of-a-kind pedagogy makes this book far more than just a pharmacology primer (though it serves this purpose quite well too).

The straightforward task of defining what a drug is—a question he introduces in the first lecture, and to which he circuitously returns throughout the book—provides ample opportunity for what Shulgin calls his “manic extensions and examples.” He relates a practice from the Fore people in New Guinea, for example, who leave a carved piece of bamboo filled with ash and soil in front of a person’s door who has been condemned to death. The person dies shortly after simply seeing the bamboo, with no associated physical contact, usually within twenty-four hours. 

The bamboo exerts no direct pharmacodynamic effect. Nevertheless, Shulgin insists that the piece of bamboo should be classified as a drug, since it “modifies the expected state of a living thing.” Ever the rational scientist, though, he assures his students that this ritual bamboo is also classified as a drug by the Goodman and Gilman Pharmacopeia, one of the pharmaceutical standards of medical practice today. 

While covering the origin of drugs in Lecture 3 (the transcript of Lecture 2 is missing), Shulgin again takes the scenic route, beginning from the dawn of humankind and proceeding dreamily down through history. He speaks of the discovery of altered states, the societal role of the shaman, the aboriginal Dreamtime, Dark Age alchemy and the “demons of disease,” the rise of modern medicine, and the subsequent criminalization of drugs. Instead of devaluing earlier historical stages as primitive precursors of science, he allows the mythic and the rational to coexist. He emphasizes his point by telling stories of ancient man in the present tense, and confides that he often uses the old alchemical names for chemicals in his own laboratory.

Throughout the book’s lectures, Shulgin clearly and boldly states his opposition to draconic drug policy, especially that which is used as a tool for discriminatory social control and the curtailment of civil rights. The book provides a comprehensive timeline of drug policy and enforcement, taking the opportunity to lament the losses of personal freedom along the way, from The Harrison Act of 1914, which controlled drugs as taxable commodities and “established the flavor of the laws against drugs that persisted for fifty-five years,” to the 1920s, when the misuse of drugs (i.e. addiction) was considered an inherently criminal act, and The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which enacted the drug enforcement framework that is still in place today. 

Shulgin emphasizes how the legislation of the 1970s and 1980s led to unprecedented limitations of civil liberties, all in the name of drug control. For the first time in US history, the Controlled Substances Act allowed for criminal forfeiture of personal property (which was specifically prohibited by the first US Congress in 1790). 1982 brought similar milestones: the Defense Authorization Act marked the first allowance of military involvement in civil law enforcement, and the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Law removed all previous restrictions on tax record access during the prosecution of drug cases. Shulgin calls the 1986 Controlled Substance Analogues Act (the most recent drug policy legislation at the time of these lectures) “one of the most freedom restricting things that has ever been put into law.” 

The middle portion of the book covers “the body’s plumbing and wiring” and “drug action.” These lectures feel most like a pharmacology course, but Shulgin’s teaching style is lucid, easygoing, and entertaining, even as chemical and anatomical terminology begins to pile up. He gives clear definitions in layman’s terms, and frequently provides analogies, metaphors, and mnemonics to facilitate comprehension. 

Shulgin repeatedly tells his students to minimize neurotic notetaking and instead to listen to the “music” of his talks. It is Shulgin’s storyteller cadence that gives even his most technical lectures this musical quality—the way he returns to the same themes and terms, recapitulating them in different ways, weaving students’ questions together with personal stories and real-world examples.

While comparing fast-absorbing vs. slow-absorbing routes of drug administration, he detours into the “mystique of drug use” with reflections on indigenous snuff ceremonies and the “needle play” rituals of heroin addicts. A discussion of vaccines and other preventative prophylactics leads to an embryology tangent, a critique of “woefully inadequate” drug education (with inevitable comparisons to abstinence-only sex education), and a deconstruction of anti-drug propaganda. 

Caveats are offered to basic assumptions of anatomy (e.g. Shulgin says it is “nonsense” that we cannot control our autonomic nervous system, and tells the story of teaching his ex-wife how to control her blood pressure with directed attention). He situates the dry details of pharmacology in the practical contexts of medicine, politics, and sociology, which highlights their significance while making them easier to learn.

The seventh lecture, on memory and states of consciousness, again offers a predictably wide range for Shulgin to roam. He shares stories from his time in the Navy during World War II, debates working definitions of consciousness with his students, and explores the nature of non-physical therapeutic interventions. One “manic extension” is dedicated to Franz Mesmer, whose animal magnetism realignment methods offered more effective and long-lasting pain relief than any available drugs of the time. Rather than dismissing Mesmer as a pseudoscientific quack, Shulgin acknowledges the efficacy of his methods and calls him “a true magician in his own way.” 

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In stream-of-consciousness fashion, Shulgin then moves seamlessly through hypnosis, brainwashing, paranoid delusions, and the dangers of defining mental illness with biochemical markers. He exposes the limitations of the biochemical hypothesis of schizophrenia, and in turn offers sage advice for budding scientists: “Do not fall in love with the hypothesis.”

This mode of inquiry is continued in the final lecture, which covers Shulgin’s principles and critiques of research. His invaluable perspective on proper research methodology is all about questions, and how to ask them. Shulgin highlights the main pitfalls of scientific research (which are arguably as prevalent today as they were in 1987), and affirms an often compromised principle of the scientific method: “No number of successful experiments can ever prove something, but one unsuccessful experiment can totally disprove something.”

This careful inquiry has an important undercurrent: the real-world consequences of drug policy. Shulgin returns again and again to drug identification and criminal drug testing as subtle examples of unprovable hypotheses. Early in the lecture, he claims that the question “Is a person under the influence of a drug?” is nearly as unanswerable as “Is there a God?” In this manner, Shulgin suggests a rationally sound connection between the scientific method (rightly practiced) and the primacy of personal freedom. Drug policy, rightly enacted, would reflect these principles of rational inquiry and civil liberty.

“Choice,” Shulgin tells his students, “must be demanded by each of us continuously as a personal liberty.”

Shulgin openly shares this perspective amidst all the controversy of late-1980s drug war hysteria. At the time of these lectures, the illegalization of MDMA was one of its still-recent consequences. Shulgin was already well-known by this time as the “rediscoverer” of the compound, which was first synthesized at Merck in 1912 but soon forgotten. Shulgin tested the compound on himself, with profound results, so he sung the compound’s praises to friends practicing in the 1970s underground LSD psychotherapy scene. Within a few years, thanks in large part to Leo Zaff—the “Johnny Appleseed of MDMA”—thousands of trained MDMA-assisted psychotherapists were treating as many as 200,000 patients. Shulgin vehemently opposed the DEA’s decision to criminalize MDMA, but predicted that one day, the therapeutic value of this and other psychedelic compounds would be recognized.

It seems a fitting tribute to Shulgin’s (ever-expanding) legacy that the publication of The Nature of Drugs coincides with Phase 3 trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD. As the current psychedelic renaissance gains momentum, Shulgin’s compassionate, rational truth-seeking remains relevant and inspiring. His voice is alive in these pages, making pharmacology fun, and reminding us to root all our inquiries in freedom, self-understanding, and wonder.

The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact
Volume 1
By Alexander Shulgin
288 pp. Synergetic Press. $35.

Image: Nicki Adams

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