Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Spoonful of Sugar

Reprinted from the Fall 2014 issue of CALIFORNIA (print edition -- unavailable online.)

In 1943, during a stint in the Navy in World War II, a young Alexander Shulgin -- who would later be dubbed "Dr. Ecstasy" -- was hospitalized for a bone infection in his thumb.  A nurse offered him a glass of orange juice.  As he knocked back the glass, Shulgin noticed a thin film of undissolved white crystals at the bottom.  He struggled to stay awake for his surgery despite what he thought was a sedative, just to see if he could.  To his surprise, he later found out the the "sedative" that put him to sleep was in fact just sugar.

"A fraction of a gram of sugar had rendered me unconscious, because I had truly believed that it could do just that," writes Shulgin in his self-published autobiography and MDMA recipe book, PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story.  "The mind is the major factor in defining a psychoactive drug's action," explains Shulgin, who passed away in June (see In Memoriam).  This revelation paved the way to a prolific career in psychopharmacology.

After obtaining his bachelor's and doctoral degrees at Berkeley, the chemist rediscovered an obscure compound, MDMA, first isolated in 1912.  From then on, it was love.  Over the course of his lifetime, the "Godfather of Psychedelics" synthesized more than 200 compounds and believed them to be tools for providing insight into the brain.

"Each of us has his own reality, and each of us will construct his own unique drug-person relationship," writes Shulgin.  Even if it is with a spoonful of sugar.

-- L.C.