Sunday, September 20, 2009

Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved

by Alexander and Anne Shulgin 
Transform Press 2003

This impossible to categorize book is ostensibly the story of Alexander Shulgin, a.k.a. “Dr Ecstasy”, the man with the most claim to have actually discovered the drug. It's a hefty tome, half chemistry and half autobiography – the latter part being half written by his wife Anne. The book seems to be almost entirely distributed under the acronym, PIKHAL, presumably to make its presence more discreet.

Shulgin's life is remarkable, simply because he gets away with so much. Most chemists of international accalim don't typically advocate illegal drugs for example. Every weekend Shulgin and a close group of friends take differing doses of newly-devised psychoactive drugs. It seems Shulgin himself has probably been ingesting psychedelic substances every second day for his entire adult life, perhaps inadvertently proving that responsible drug use is no detriment to scientific genius.

Shulgin first took mescaline in 1960, and felt a “burning desire to explain its profound action to myself and the rest of mankind”. He set about researching and synthesising drugs of a similar structure, namely phenethylamines, and over thirty years discovered 179 drugs of this class. Some of these drugs have profound effects and have since appeared on the streets. Your local neighbourhood psychonaut is probably familiar with names such as MDMA, PMA, MDA, 2CB and 2CT. Dozens more of these substances apparently also have mind expanding qualities.

Throughout his story Shulgin recounts bizarre encounters with US secret agents and scientists of foreign countries. One of Shulgin's smartest moves was to make solid connections with Californian intellectual figures, and to resist becoming an underground figure that the state could demonize. Also described in his story are many “life-changing” drug experiences, such as his accidental exposure to 2CE which caused him to hallucinate a monstrous backside and helped him to deal with personal trauma. Such accounts however pale in comparison to his wife's own experiences, which include full-scale telepathy, and a recurring hallucination happening routinely throughout her childhood. Several other interesting stories about personal development are included, for example: people resolving deep psychological baggage through MDMA use.

Anne's narrative however, is shockingly overwritten. She recounts their courtship and love affair in the style of a Harlequin paperback romance, and goes into an unusual level of sexual detail for a tale about middle aged intellectuals. Indeed, it prompted me to wonder why an international chemist of such renown would want such lurid personal information made so freely available. This section needs a massive edit.

The last half of the book is a categoric exploration of the phenethylamine family, including brief recipes, precise dosages, reports from different subjects and various ruminations. If you are an occasional drug user looking for a piece of quick information then this may all be too complex. However, if you like chemistry and fantasize about drug labs, then this may be for you. Terms like stereoisomer and dimethoxy are everywhere. 

This book makes specialist reading for anyone intrested in recreational drugs and organic chemistry. Currently there is a vast amount of misinformation about drugs in our society, particularly about ecstasy and designer drugs. Reading this book is a step in the right direction.

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