Alexander Shulgin, who died this week at the age of 88, was a remarkable man who combined an intense curiosity about altered states of consciousness with amazing chemical creativity and scientific rigor. Over the years Shulgin synthesized hundreds of psychoactive compounds that he carefully tested on himself, his wife, Ann, and a small circle of friends—a process he described in his 1991 book PIKHAL: A Chemical Love Story, a 978-page tome that includes notes on the production and effects of 179 such chemicals along with a personal and professional memoir. (The title stands for "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved"; the sequel was called TIKHAL, for "Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.") Perhaps best known as a popularizer (though not the creator) of MDMA, which he said "enabled me to see out, and to see my own insides, without reservations," Shulgin embodied an open-minded yet responsible approach to drugs that should be a model for psychonauts as well as the politicians who vainly try to control them.
"Every drug, legal or illegal, provides some reward," Shulgin wrote in the introduction to PIKHAL. "Every drug presents some risk. And every drug can be abused. Ultimately, in my opinion, it is up to each of us to measure the reward against the risk and decide which outweighs the other." His great passion was for psychedelics, the "mind-manifesting" drugs with effects similar to those of mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD, which he saw as "treasures" that "can provide access to the parts of us that have answers," facilitating "exploration of this interior world" and "insights into its nature." It amazed him that legislators and regulators would presume to intrude into this deeply personal realm, especially in a society that claims to respect privacy, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of conscience.
"Our generation is the first, ever, to have made the search for self-awareness a crime, if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors," Shulgin wrote. "How is it…that the leaders of our society have seen fit to try to eliminate this one very important means of learning and self-discovery, this means which has been used, respected, and honored for thousands of years, in every human culture of which we have a record?"
That remains a bit of a puzzle, even to people who have studied the series of moral panics that comprise the history of American drug policy. But by highlighting the profound, life-enhancing potential of forbidden intoxicants without denying their hazards, Shulgin boldly pointed the way to a more tolerant alternative.