What Alexander Shulgin’s “Godfather of Ecstasy” Obituaries Say About America’s Harmful Anti-Drug Puritanism

The general futility of the War on Drugs, along with the endless parade of dead bodies it generates, has been so well documented that it would be redundant to revisit those arguments here. Still, the death of experimental chemist Alexander Shulgin, who the entire media is insisting on calling the “Godfather of Ecstasy” (with obligatory scare quotes) has highlighted one of the more pernicious effects of our ongoing quixotic crusade against a landscape of chemical windmills: all the lost therapeutic potential of the hundreds of chemicals that Shulgin synthesized, many of which are now illegal, sacrificed to a policy that has cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

First, let’s get it out of the way: yes, Shulgin was indeed the man responsible for bringing MDMA into the public consciousness, as it were. But it’s important to note that he didn’t discover it — the drug had existed for decades before he came across it in the mid-’70s (among other things, the CIA amused themselves by dosing each other with it as part of their MK Ultra fun time in the 1950s and ’60s). Shulgin worked out a relatively easy way to synthesize it, someone else worked out that it felt pretty damn good to take a bunch of it at a dance party, and the rest is rather depressing history.

The story of MDMA is all too indicative of the way in which successive governments have approached drug policy as a matter of political expediency and pseudo-morality. Again, it’s not exactly breaking new ground to point this out — I suspect that if you asked pretty much any politician beyond the right-wing lunatic fringe in private, off the record, if they thought the War on Drugs was a worthwhile and/or productive endeavor, they’d say no. But still, it’s worth saying: the reason MDMA is illegal has less to do with its actual effects and more to do with how it’s perceived by the public and the government.

Still, this isn’t about whether I should be able to legally do MDMA at a dance party anytime soon. (For the record, I wouldn’t, mainly because the comedowns are brutal. But then, y’know, so are hangovers.) People will always find a way of getting hold of whatever drugs they want, and shit, if I did want to get hold of some molly, I could probably get a hookup in about 15 minutes and have the shit delivered to my door tonight. Admittedly, it’ll be cut with god knows what — something else for which we can thank the War on Drugs — but it’s not exactly hard to lay your hands on.

Ultimately, if people want to do drugs for recreational purposes, they will find a way of doing so. Equally, if people become addicted to drugs, they will find ways of getting hold of such drugs, regardless of the potential legal hazards of doing so. If the post-Reagan era has shown us anything, it’s precisely this: you can make penalties as harsh as you want, and people will still do drugs. Fancy that.

But here’s the thing: we miss out on the potential legal uses of drugs that the world’s politicians have deemed to be Bad. One of the more bitter ironies of the War on Drugs is that for the last half-century or so, the move toward ever-harsher drug laws has coincided with the increased awareness that many scheduled drugs have positive uses. For instance, I’m not on the marijuana-is-harmless bandwagon — I know too many people who’ve been royally fucked up by strapping themselves to the bucket bong for years on end — but its potential for abuse doesn’t invalidate its value for medical purposes, and we’re currently in the ridiculous situation whereby the Federal Government criminalizes distribution of marijuana while simultaneously, um, distributing marijuana.

Similarly, there’s increasing evidence that ketamine isn’t only good for tranquilizing horses and getting hella fucked up — it may well also be an effective treatment for depression, a condition that, lest we forget, afflicts more Americans than heart disease and cancer. If ketamine weren’t illegal because a pretty tiny minority take it at parties and/or in the comfort of their own homes, who knows how much more quickly its potential for treating depression might have been discovered, or how much more seriously that potential might have been explored?

Beyond this, there’s the use of LSD for terminally ill patients, psilocybin for OCD and cluster headaches, and MDMA for PTSD. In almost every case, the exploration of these potential uses has been hamstrung by political pressure and/or the ravings of tabloids, both of whom know they have an easy vote-winner/click-driver in taking the moral high ground to a public who’ve grown up being told that Drugs Are Bad.

It becomes an issue of ill-defined morality, whereby using a drug for its pleasing effects is seen as an inherently bad thing to do (unless, of course, that drug is alcohol or tobacco, whose largely disastrous effects on public health are somehow OK, perhaps because of the amount of money that goes into lobbying politicians who don’t mind a glass of scotch and a cigar now and then). Clearly, there’s a lot of history here, which again is beyond the remit of this article — a bit of judicious googling will reveal all sorts of strange reasons why certain drugs ended up being produced en masse by big pharma and others ended up being the Scourge of Our Children.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is this: if you can use ecstasy to treat PTSD or acid to treat various psychological disorders, who knows what else we might be able to use them for? Who knows what, say, 2C-T-7 or 2C-I or any of the hundreds of other chemicals synthesized by Alexander Shulgin might be able to do? What are we missing out on because of the fact that generations of politicians have criminalized drug use and demonized drug users in search of cheap votes?

You might argue that this is all highly speculative, but then, pretty much every drug that has been prohibited over the last few decades has some medical utility — even cocaine can be prescribed legally for anesthetic purposes in some countries, and morphine has been used for decades for pain relief in chronically and terminally ill patients. The arbitrary line between Good and Bad Drugs is rendered more ridiculous by the year (and, y’know, every time a respectable businessman takes Ambien on a plane and proceeds to get naked and piss on his seat).

If much of this sounds familiar, it’s because people have been making entirely sensible arguments in favor of more reasonable, liberal drug policy for decades, and pretty much every time they’ve been unilaterally ignored by demagogues and political expedients. Still, one day, I hope Alexander Shulgin is remembered not as some sort of countercultural icon or the “Godfather of Ecstasy,” but as a chemist whose contribution to the field of drug research has been invaluable.