A Visit With Sasha Shulgin

by Clifton Royston

Dr. Alexander Shulgin is a noted chemist who has been studying the chemistry and effects of the psychedelics for over 30 years. He is probably most widely known for his book 'PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story' (Phenethylamines i Have Known and Loved). He is also the discoverer of DOM (at one time known as "STP"), MMDA (not MDMA) and many other psychedelics, and was indirectly responsible for the introduction of MDMA to psychotherapy in the late '70s.

If you have any interest in psychoactive drugs and haven't read PiHKAL, I strongly recommend that you order and read it. It is available for $22.95 postpaid (+ $1.38 tax for California residents) from:

P.O.Box 13675
Berkeley, CA

The following is a description of my visit this fall to Dr. Shulgin, known as Sasha to his friends. It should be of some interest to those who enjoyed his book or are interested in the psychedelic drugs in general. I wrote it mainly to satisfy other Net people's curiosity about what Sasha, his house, and his laboratory are like (and of course to satisfy my own impulse to write.)

I have a few ground rules I would like readers of this article to accept:


Earlier this year (while using a different account) I posted several descriptions of experiments I had made about 10 years ago with plants containing natural psychedelics. One of these was Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) which contains the harmala alkaloids, a family of psychedelic beta-carbolines. Much to my surprise, I received a letter from Dr. Shulgin himself, asking for my permission to include excerpts from my description in his next book. I was thrilled -- I had just ordered and was reading his book 'PiHKAL', and I had adopted him as my newest hero. I wrote back a chatty letter giving him permission to reprint my account, and we began an occasional correspondence, first by letter and later by email.

This fall I was in California for several weeks, and was able to persuade Sasha to allow me to visit him at his house east of the Bay Area. I was invited to arrive mid-morning on a Sunday; Sasha warned me that it would be something of an open house situation, with guests possibly coming and going. Although I arrived with a long list of questions I wanted to ask, I left with most of them totally forgotten in the flow of conversation.

Sasha's house is located on the side of a fairly steep hill. I located his drive and turned up it, past an open gate marked "Keep Closed At All Times" to an old garage by a sprawling ranch-style house in warm earth tones. I parked and descended the steps to the courtyard; recognizing the potted cacti as large peyote cacti, I knew I must have found the right place. On entering the house, I immediately met a genial, slightly stooped white-haired and bearded man.

"I'm Sasha," he said, extending his hand. I introduced myself, and Sasha introduced me to his wife Ann, who was nursing a cold with a pot of herb tea. (I had little chance to meet her during the course of the visit.)

The house was comfortably untidy and a little dusty, with books stacked on every horizontal surface; slightly dark, but with a gorgeous view across a valley to the north. It reminded me slightly of the home of another writer I know -- here order had taken second place to creation. We cleared some space at the dining table and sat down to coffee.

Sasha quizzed me briefly about my email name; I explained briefly that I really was the Pope of my own little sect of the SubGenius, and he was delighted. "The Church of 'BoB'? Yes, I think I've heard of them." From then on, the conversation raced all over the map. Sasha is an extraordinary raconteur and conversationalist, and as lively and witty in person as in his writings.

He began by talking about the recent conference on shamanism he'd been to at San Luis Potosi. After summarizing the conference, he noted that the city had proved difficult to get around in -- the conference had been moved from one hotel to another at the last moment, and in trying to find the new hotel, it had turned out that all of the city maps included a number of streets, interchanges, and landmarks which did not yet exist but were slated for construction one day.

He showed me a newly acquired specimen of peyote which he was preparing to plant, and we chatted a little about the MDMA and 5HT-1 receptor controversy. Sasha believes that MDMA will eventually prove to be much less neurotoxic to humans than to rats (though he qualified this as just his opinion); apparently many areas of brain chemistry function somewhat differently in rats than in the "higher mammals." He also cited several studies on dogs and monkeys (one critical one as yet unpublished) which showed a lack of neurotoxic effects in humans at the levels predicted by the rat studies, and hinted that there might be some government pressure via the granting agencies to slow or halt publication of studies which show no MDMA toxicity. Everyone seems to agree that there is some toxic level of MDMA consumption; it's just not clear what that level is for humans. Hopefully Grenville's(?) study at UCSD will reveal some bounds for that figure.

The conversation jumped again with new introductions when Sara, a friend of Sasha's came in. She admired the peyote button, and asked a few questions about the effects of DMT (N,N-dimethyl-tryptamine), a very short-acting psychedelic. Sasha answered gnomically, "DMT always seems to me to have a very dark aspect to it", and then passed the question to me. I admitted that I had smoked 5MDMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyl- tryptamine), but not DMT itself, and that I didn't know how they compared. I did observe that once when I tried a small dose of 5MDMT when I was severely depressed (fearing to risk a big dose with the wrong mental "set") instead of sending me on a trip it seemed to kick me abruptly and permanently out of the depression and back to my normal state of mind. Sasha was intrigued as to the possible mechanism for this (restoring depleted serotonin levels?) but had no answers.

This topic put him in mind of something else which had recently happened to him. He asked me if I had ever heard of a church in New York which used psychedelics as part of their sacrament.

"Was this the Church of the Tree of Life?" I asked dubiously. "No, no, no! Nothing like that at all. No comparison. These people are 100% sincere Jesus believers. They take it to see God. They sent me some of their literature -- you can't make up stuff like that. It could only come from true believers."

Apparently a journalist from New York had recently contacted him to ask him about the effects of DPT (N,N-dipropyl-tryptamine.) Sasha obliged with the standard information -- dosage, duration (circa 2 hours), active orally or parenterally (i.e., via eating, smoking, or snuffing) and type of effects (classic psychedelic.) Then he began quizzing the journalist about how he had heard of him, and the story emerged: the journalist had found out about the church's psychedelic sacrament (being used very responsibly, by his account) and had contacted the DEA for more information on it, which they should have had. Rather than answering him, they had referred him to their designated expert -- Dr. Alexander Shulgin. Sasha speculated that since DPT is not specifically scheduled by name, unlike DMT and DET (N,N-diethyl-tryptamine), and since it is apparently being used in a bona fide religious context, possibly the DEA would rather just not know about it. As they could be slammed by the media with equal ease for ignoring it ("tolerating blatant drug abuse") or for cracking down ("religious persecution") someone in the department may have made the judgement call that it was safer for them to know nothing at all about the situation until officially forced to take cognizance of it.

While Sara was off giving her friend Joe a tour of the house, Sasha showed me a whole book on Syrian rue which argues that it was the source for the "soma" of the ancient Aryan Rig-Vedas. (Unfortunately, I didn't jot down the author and title.) Sasha chuckled over the fact that this author and Gordon Wasson (who has written on the theory that Soma was the agaric mushroom) have each constructed a theory which he himself believes is totally air-tight, and each airily dismisses the other's theory. They don't talk at conferences.

The conversation flowed from there to the other natural source of the harmala alkaloids, namely ayahuasca or yagé, the hallucinogenic drink compounded from Banisteriopsis caapi and related vines. I had read the Burroughs and Ginsberg books on ayahuasca from the early '60s, and a few anthropological books such as Harner's 'Hallucinogens and Shamanism.' Consequently, I had believed that it was used largely by remote Indian tribes and by the poor in rural areas. Sasha corrected me. According to him, use of ayahuasca has now become an accepted phenomenon in the Brazilian middle-class. On occasion, wealthy Brazilians in the U.S. import the vine, paying up to several hundred dollars per dose. Some of the other plants which go into the traditional brew are unavailable here and can not be imported, because Customs has them on record as containing DMT. As one part of the Brazilian tradition is that the compounding of the drink is solely at the discretion of the individual curandero (healer), curanderos in the U.S. may substitute psilocybin mushrooms or even LSD in the brew on occasion to produce the desired combination of effects.

Along the same lines, many resorts and restaurants in Thailand have traditionally served "magic mushroom" omelettes for their hipper tourists. They are now coming under pressure from the government to cut this out; the result, according to Sasha, is that some are now serving ordinary mushroom omelettes with LSD added to the filling. No net improvement in any sense, and rather less picturesque. (Note to the curious: while I have heard some people complain that psilocybin mushrooms have a nasty flavor, this must be limited to a couple specific species of the genus; the only types I've ever tried had a pleasantly bland flavor that would have been quite suited to an omelette.)

Around this time, another morning guest, Fred, joined us. Eventually I managed to slow the conversation enough to get a tour of the work areas. Sasha showed me his writing study: floor to ceiling library shelves, an old IBM XT, and a brand-new 486 PC clone, which he is still transferring files to. On the desk was a letter from one of his correspondents, with a sample vial of a new indole-based psychoactive to look into. I got a brief look at the "clean lab" (spectrometers and more books) and then went out along the garden path to the little outbuilding with the "wet" lab. It was quite as fantastical as described in his book -- every cubic inch, it seemed, filled with glassware and chemical apparatus, and old leaded glass cabinets along one wall filled with reagents.

Sasha pointed to one bottle filled with a mass of needle-like white crystals suspended in clear liquid. "What's that?" he quizzed me. I peered at the label... C(NO2)4. "Surely that's some kind of explosive?" I answered. He looked pleased. "Tetra-nitro-methane. As a liquid it's not too bad -- the tri-nitro- is worse -- but once it gets cool enough to crystallize, I try not to touch the bottle again until spring." I got a brief glance at his latest project, a synthesis for DBT (N,N- dibutyl-tryptamine.) As both the dimethyl- and diethyl- tryptamines are so important, Sasha has decided to survey as many of the N,N-dialkyl- tryptamines as he can synthesize. So far, he is only up to the butyls.

The last stop on the tour was the reagent storage shed, set back on a far corner of his property and safely away from any neighbors, with highly reinforced shelving. OSHA has recently been more strict about enforcing workplace safety regulations, which affect many hospitals and labs which must keep small quantities of some highly hazardous reagents on hand. In some cases, they've been ordered to stop storing reagents which they still need intermittently, and which there is no good way to dispose of safely. In such cases, Sasha has made arrangements to step in and rescue the reagants from the workplaces; the labs or hospitals can still call him if they need to borrow the reagants, while he provides safe storage in return for free access to the reagents for his syntheses. A win-win situation.

On the way back, Sasha proudly pointed out his San Pedro cacti (Trichocereus pachanoi, a mescaline-containing cactus.) One looked nearly five feet tall. It appeared that some of them had been trimmed back periodically -- I wonder why...

Over lunch, Fred, Sasha, and I chatted about topics less directly related to psychoactives. We talked over possible changes in the general government attitude under the Clinton administration; Sasha believes he has seen some subtle softening in the DEA and FDA positions in the last few months, while they wait to see what Clinton's postition will be. We rambled through the lack of walnut trees in Walnut Creek and Walnut Grove, the ineptitude of FEMA at disaster management and response, the decidedly sinister nature of some of the Federal Executive Orders on record, the varying lingua franca required to communicate in foreign countries, and the convenience of bribery in visiting or living in the Third World.

We did discuss the status of the upcoming book for a while. For those who don't know, it was leaked on the Net a while back that Sasha is working on 'TiHKAL' (Tryptamines i Have Known and Loved). This book will do the same job for all of the indole or tryptamine-derived psychoactives that PiHKAL did for the phenethylamines. Thus it would cover DMT and all the di-alkyl-tryptamines mentioned above, DMT analogues and derivatives like 5MDMT, psilocybin and psilocin, the beta- carbolines such as harmine and harmaline, everyone's favorite problem child LSD and its related ergot alkaloids, and doubtless many compounds which the rest of us have never heard of. There will also be an appendix on new phenethylamines which have been reported to him during the last year. Apparently the publication of PiHKAL has brought a number of researchers "out of the closet" with more material for him to publish.

Sasha thinks he has most of the material he needs; the problem is in getting the time to sit down and write it. He had sworn off conferences to get more writing time; then he was invited to deliver keynote addresses at two conferences, one on 'Drugs as Sacraments', the other on 'Drugs and Civil Disobedience.' He is feeling sorely tempted by both, as he would be able to choose his own topics. (Personally, I wish I had the time and money to attend such conferences, never mind speaking at them.)

Eventually I had to make my apologies and leave, as I was late for another appointment. I left with my head buzzing with ideas to think about. Somehow I retained enough dignity to not beg for any free samples. I hope I shall be able to return one day for another visit.

-- Clifton Royston

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