In the beginning, Alexander Shulgin created 2C-T-7, and it was good. Shulgin has dedicated his life to the idea that psychedelics can be used to explore the potential of the human mind, and of all the many drugs he has sampled, 2C-T-7 was one of his personal favorites. “If all the phenethylamines were to be ranked as to their acceptability and intrinsic richness, 2C-T-7 would be right up there near the top,” he wrote of his 1986 invention. It was a glowing statement from the man believed to have consumed a wider variety of drugs than anyone else on the planet.
In his fifty-plus years as a chemist, the genial, wild-haired Shulgin, who is better known to his friends and admirers as “Sasha,” has become a renegade scientific folk hero responsible for bringing more than two hundred new drugs into the world. Timothy Leary once called Shulgin and his wife Ann “the two most important scientists of the twentieth century.” Throughout Shulgin’s career, which has included stints as a UC Berkeley instructor and expert witness at Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) trials, Shulgin’s work has been marked by his special love for psychedelics. Nowadays he often refers to them by the terms “phenethylamines” or “tryptamines,” concerned as he is by the connotations of hippie excess attached to the word “psychedelic.”
Shulgin does not design drugs for the commercial market. His inventions exist primarily on paper and in controlled laboratory quantities. Also known as “research drugs,” they have never undergone widespread testing and often have been sampled only by Shulgin and Ann, his partner in chemical exploration. While it is legal for Shulgin to invent them in the lab, it’s not legal for any of his inventions to be manufactured, sold, or consumed as so-called “analogues” designed to mimic the effects of illegal narcotics. But despite the stringency of the laws that govern such drugs, 2C-T-7 was not destined to stay confined to the Shulgins’ Lafayette lab forever.
In 1991, the couple published the first in a series of 800-page books that included directions for synthesizing a total of more than 200 chemical compounds, including 2C-T-7. PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (the acronym stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) was a unique book by any standard, weaving together lab procedure, highly personalized accounts of each compound’s creation, and Sasha and Ann’s own love story, as told in the alternating voices of two not-quite-fictional characters named Shura and Alice Borodin. It was followed in 1997 by TIHKAL: The Continuation (the “T” is for Tryptamines). Alternately hailed as invaluable contributions to the scientific world or derided as cookbooks for amateur pharmacologists searching for a novel high, the massive tomes found a ready audience among establishment and underground chemists. PIHKAL, now in its fifth printing, has sold about 35,000 copies, TIHKAL about 12,000. Recipes and commentary from both books are posted all over the Internet.
It was only a matter of time until the compounds Shulgin described in his books began turning up on the tongues of people not tasting them in the name of science. The path by which 2C-T-7 went from research to recreational drug is not terribly difficult to divine. In 1999 it made its first commercial appearance in Holland’s drug-dealing smart shops in both tablet and powder form. It was given the street name “Blue Mystic,” perhaps in order to differentiate it from its chemical cousin, another Shulgin creation named 2C-T-2. By 2000, 2C-T-7 had acquired limited popularity in the United States, along with the street names “beautiful,” “7-Up,” and “tripstasy.”
The drug acquired a reputation for its mescaline-like properties, which were said to produce an intense yet clearheaded trip with flowing visual effects. But the “trip reports” posted on drug-related Web sites such as The Vaults of Erowid (www.erowid.org) and The Lycaeum (www.lycaeum.org) also told a more complicated story. While many users praised the drug’s powerful visual effects and the strong feelings of well-being it produced, others urged caution, complaining that 2C-T-7 was extremely painful to inhale when taken nasally, and that it could cause a host of unpleasant side effects including nausea, vomiting, muscle tension, body tremors, panic attacks, and violent episodes. Because individual responses varied so widely, users suggested the drug was highly dose-sensitive and that a bad trip could be triggered by mismeasurement, a too-generous dose, or 2C-T-7’s interaction with other drugs. Titles of these Web site trip reports show the complete range of experience: from “Extremely Euphoric” and “Shiny Things Are Fun” to “Aliens Reprogrammed My Brain” and “2C-T-7 and MDMA, A Dangerous Combo.”
By October 2000, wary drug users had another reason to pass on 2C-T-7: a twenty-year-old casualty from Norman, Oklahoma named Jake Duroy. According to an announcement posted on Erowid, Duroy died after taking thirty-five milligrams of the drug. Duroy snorted the drug, which multiplies its effect well beyond that of the ten- to thirty-milligram oral dose that Shulgin had suggested in PIHKAL would be sufficient for most people. Duroy’s death was both frightening and violent; about an hour after taking the drug, he became extremely agitated, and began yelling about evil spirits. A half-hour later he was convulsing, vomiting, and bleeding heavily from his nose; the coroner later found a large edema in his lung.
Two more deaths were soon linked to 2C-T-7. In April 2001, the staff at Erowid posted the news that an acquaintance of theirs, a 24-year-old Web designer from Seattle, died after swallowing an unknown quantity of 2C-T-7 in conjunction with 200 milligrams of Ecstasy. Although his name wasn’t released to the media, the report seems reliable because of his personal connection to the Erowid staff.
In the same month, Joshua Robbins, a seventeen-year-old from Cordova, Tennessee died after snorting between thirty and thirty-five milligrams of 2C-T-7, not long after taking several other stimulant drugs. According to Rolling Stone, which ran an article on Robbins’ death, in the twelve hours before he died Robbins also had consumed Ecstasy, nitrous oxide, and a “mini-thin” containing ephedrine and guaifenisen. His final hours were agonizing: Robbins’ friends recall that he vomited heavily, became panicky and violent, and spent the last few moments of his life yelling, “This is stupid! I don’t want to die!”
Media coverage has misrepresented 2C-T-7 as a quasi-legal toxic trend that is sweeping the nation. But 2C-T-7 has never really shown signs of becoming a sweeping drug phenomenon. For starters, it’s not particularly easy to make. Its use also seems to have been geographically scattered; it never appeared with any great prevalence in the Bay Area. Members of an Oakland-based group called SHARE Project, a group that does health education work at raves, report that they’ve scarcely seen it. “It’s not a big concern here,” says media liaison Le Liu. By the beginning of 2001, even many of Holland’s smart shops voluntarily agreed to stop selling Blue Mystic, the same year that at least two online suppliers stopped selling the chemical.
In fact, 2C-T-7 may well have been on the downswing of its popularity last January when Rolling Stone published the article on Robbins, touting it on the cover as “The New (Legal) Killer Drug.” It was an unfortunate headline choice — especially for a publication that very likely gave 2C-T-7 its first mass-media exposure — since the drug is certainly not, as the magazine claims, “perfectly legal.”
Some observers worry whether the recent media attention paid to 2C-T-7 will produce an upsurge of morbid interest from the sort of users who can read about a gory death and still want to sample the powder that caused it. “It just goes along with the attraction of it being illegal and dangerous,” Liu says. Several Web sites even have featured debates over whether 2C-T-7 itself cost the young men their lives, or whether their deaths were caused by taking too much of too many drugs too fast.
In any case, it is an ironic and flamboyant fate for a chemical whose inventor’s own approach to drug exploration is so profoundly different from that of the rave culture that is making his creation famous.
The media has occasionally portrayed Sasha Shulgin as a drug-guzzling mad scientist, but it is hard to see him as a nefarious figure, although he certainly has an iconoclastic bent and mischievous wit. Now in his seventies, Shulgin is bearded, bespectacled, and sandal-clad. Both Shulgins sport leonine masses of hair, although Sasha’s is more to the silver and Ann’s more to the gold. A rather charming passage in PIHKAL has Shulgin theorizing that he unconsciously willed his hair completely white by age thirty in order to enhance his appearance as a “harmless old professor” which, as he put it, “can be useful at times when you do the kind of work I do.” Ann, reclining in an easy chair with a cigarette in hand, is the handbrake to his runaway train, gently rebuking her husband when he embarks upon conversational detours liable to confuse visitors without a PhD in chemistry.
And there are many visitors. Their hillside Lafayette home, fondly referred to as the Farm, is something of a tourist destination for pharmacophiles. Although the Farm displays little differentiation between lab and living space, the most popular exhibit is a tiny backyard lab where the inventor keeps the classical music cranked up to eleven. The lab is filled with glassware, and a discarded nuclear-magnetic-resonance console lies in the backyard grass like the carcass of some sci-fi dinosaur. Guests are advised to protect their watches from the powerful magnets in one lab, and not to breathe too deeply when trooping through the storage shed, which houses thousands of brown glass bottles of powders and liquids, the combined odor of which lies somewhere between fruit punch and vulcanized rubber with several less pleasant stops in between. The Shulgins keep a strip of yellow police line tape pinned up on the dining-room wall, perhaps as a souvenir of the unwanted attention Sasha’s work has received.
Berkeley native Sasha Shulgin’s fascination with the relationship between mind and chemical matter began, oddly enough, in the Navy during World War II. A severe infection on his left thumb required surgery. Before he went under the knife, he was handed a glass of orange juice, at the bottom of which he noticed some undissolved white crystals. Convinced it was a sedative, Shulgin drank the juice but resolved to stay alert. He promptly blacked out. Upon waking, he was surprised to discover that the knockout drug had been nothing more than sugar; his mind had tricked itself over the simplest of placebos. Shulgin resolved right then to devote his career to the relationship between drugs and the human mind.
After leaving the Navy, he returned to UC Berkeley to study biochemistry. Reading the works of Aldous Huxley and Henri Michaux, he became intrigued with mescaline, which he tasted for the first time in 1960. “It was a day that will remain blazingly vivid in my memory, and one which unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life,” he wrote in PIHKAL. “The world amazed me, in that I saw it as I had when I was a child. I had forgotten the beauty and the magic and the knowingness of it and me. … The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid.”
After receiving his doctorate from Cal, Shulgin worked for a decade as a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical, where he was given a good deal of research freedom after inventing a profitable insecticide. It was during this period that Shulgin began a lifelong policy of taste-testing all his work. He began by testing a mescaline analogue called TMA, expecting a repeat of his previous experience. Instead, he was unpleasantly surprised to discover that the TMA produced only feelings of rage. He describes one trip during which he found himself in Tilden Park angrily hurling rocks and sticks. It was a pivotal moment in his development as a researcher; a chemical structurally similar to mescaline had produced the opposite effect. His subsequent work would focus on this very phenomenon, rearranging the atoms of known active substances to produce isomers that might yield different effects.
In 1966, Shulgin left Dow to attend medical school at UC San Francisco. But he only stayed for two years; it turned out he was more interested in learning how the body and brain worked than learning how to repair them. So he set up a home lab and hung out his shingle as a consultant, beginning his curiously interdependent relationship with the DEA. Despite Shulgin’s persistent interest in sampling drugs and the agency’s persistent interest in stopping people from doing so, the two parties developed a surprisingly close relationship. Shulgin wrote a handbook on the Controlled Substances Act that became a standard desk reference for DEA employees, and he later would serve as an expert witness for both the prosecution and defense in DEA drug trials. In return, the DEA granted Shulgin a license to handle certain illegal drugs, which was subject to a rigorous annual inspection. Shulgin also became a university instructor, teaching classes in forensic toxicology at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University.
Sasha and Ann met in 1978 at a weekly discussion group in Berkeley. At the time, Ann was a divorced mother of four; Sasha’s wife of thirty years, the mother of his son, had passed away the year before after a stroke. Ann, who had tried peyote and been extremely moved by the experience, was eager to trip again and pelted the chemist with questions about his work. He soon invited her to the Farm to try MDMA, now better known as Ecstasy (a name they both dislike, since a good portion of what is marketed as Ecstasy is not truly MDMA).
Shulgin had begun experimenting with MDMA as early as 1967. Although MDMA is the drug that made him most famous, it is not his own invention. The compound was created in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck, only to fall into obscurity. Shulgin helped repopularize its use, claiming that it might have value as an antidepressant since it allowed people to look deep inside their own psyches without reservation. In Ann he found a willing partner in exploration. As a lay therapist, Ann joined the movement of psychologists and psychiatrists who claimed that MDMA was a powerful therapeutic tool that could, for example, help rape victims or war veterans open up to a therapist.
Ann soon became a regular in the most unconventional part of Shulgin’s research. Unlike university or pharmaceutical company scientists, Shulgin is his own prime test subject. But one does not survive swallowing untested drugs for more than forty years by luck alone. Shulgin developed a painstaking system. He swallowed only minute amounts of untried chemicals, letting 48 hours go by before boosting the dose, usually by a factor of two or less. He learned his own body’s warning signs — never let your thoughts fall into a rut; never stare too long into a mirror while on MDMA; watch out for anything that provokes jumpiness or sleepiness at a low dose. He developed a scoring system in which the effects of new materials were rated from “minus,” or “no effect,” up to “plus four,” a “one-of-a-kind, mystical, or even religious experience.” Once he concocted something promising, he would invite a half-dozen friends to spend a day sampling it with him. This, too, had rules. No one who was sick, on medication, or had taken any other drugs within the previous three days could partake. The group would bring food and sleeping gear for an overnight stay. The safety rules were strict: a hand signal meant the speaker was about to raise a real-life safety concern, each participant could veto group suggestions that might affect their experience, and people not in established relationships were discouraged from sexual behavior. The friends generally spent their time eating, walking in the garden, listening to classical music, and paging through picture books. Like Shulgin, they’d start with tiny amounts of a new drug and slowly boost their doses. Afterward, the participants were expected to share their impressions with Shulgin, who made it clear he was a researcher, not their personal candy-man.
If Shulgin’s tasting weekends weren’t lab protocol, they certainly weren’t wild drug parties, either. “Use them with care, and use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool,” Sasha Shulgin once said of phenethylamines. “Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place psychologically.”
Even as the Shulgins’ collaboration deepened — they were married by a DEA agent in 1981 — the laws surrounding their work were changing rapidly, largely in response to the behavior of other drug enthusiasts whose experimentations were less scientific. In 1984, the federal government listed MDMA as a so-called Schedule I drug, barring it from future clinical testing as a substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. The loss to the Shulgins was enormous. They believed a powerful tool was taken from researchers because of the government’s overreaction to MDMA’s increasing prominence in nightclub culture. Why, they asked, were limitations on medical research being set by the DEA, a law enforcement agency?
The following year, the federal government went even further, passing the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act as a reaction to the proliferation of designer drugs such as heroin analogue China White. The Analogue Act criminalizes the sale or manufacture for sale of any chemical with a structure or action “substantially similar” to that of a Schedule I or II drug.
In a letter published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Shulgin complained that the law has a “carefully worded vagueness,” which allows the government to arbitrarily decide which chemicals to okay and which to squelch. “By designing the net which has a completely variable mesh size, one can catch whatever fish one wishes to and let escape another fish that is not wanted,” he wrote.
Regulators say the law is fairer than that. “I wouldn’t say it casts a wide net,” says one official from the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s a very narrowly crafted law that only affects substances that are not being studied for use as medicines for humans, but are being manufactured or distributed for human consumption outside of approved research, have been found on the street, and which are likely to meet the findings for control under our laws in the future.”
In either case, the effect on Shulgin’s research was obvious — the group drug-tasting experiments had to stop. By this time, many of the scientific journals that once had welcomed Shulgin’s work were turning away his papers, citing legal worries. Seeking another outlet, the Shulgins published PIHKAL and TIHKAL.
Even though PIHKAL begins with a warning that to synthesize any of its recipes for human consumption is to “risk legal action which might lead to the tragic ruination of a life,” and even though more than half of the recipes were previously published in scientific journals, the authors could have faced legal action. They published anyway. Asked why, Shulgin tells the story of Wilhelm Reich, inventor of a “cloudbuster” that he claimed could make it rain, and the orgone box, a device he said could treat cancer. After the FDA charged Reich with fraud for selling an unlicensed medical device, he died in prison in 1957. The court ordered that all of his research be burned, and his life’s work was lost. “I can see having maybe two or three people in the higher echelons of the government who may not like what I do, and I did not want particularly to have all of this be seizable and burnable,” Shulgin says. “So I published it. Now you cannot get rid of it.”
The Shulgins take a long view towards the role of psychedelics in human history. People have used psychoactive substances for thousands of years, they note, and it’s unlikely that anyone will stop soon. “People all over the world are trying to fiddle around with chemical compounds and if you close one down, ten more spring up, because it’s a fascinating pursuit,” says Ann. “Publishing the recipes is an effort to minimize the harm that could come from somebody following the wrong instructions, or maybe no instructions at all, and ending up with a compound that kills him or poisons all his friends.” Plus, she adds, the recipes in the books are written in scientific language targeted at experienced chemists. “The complaint that they could easily be made in anyone’s bathtub is total nonsense,” she says. “No way.”
But after PIHKAL‘s publication, Shulgin’s relationship with the DEA changed — although the agency never took any official action against the book itself. In 1994, the DEA raided the Shulgins’ lab. In a chapter of TIHKAL simply called “Invasion,” Ann’s alter ego describes the raid. She remembers DEA agents and state narcotics officers — some wearing helmeted biohazard suits — pulling up in a fleet of vehicles, including a firetruck and a decontamination truck. She also remembers the DEA agents shyly asking the chemist to autograph their copies of PIHKAL.
Ultimately, Shulgin was written up for a series of chemical storage violations that somehow never caught the attention of previous inspectors. At the DEA’s urging, he surrendered his Schedule I drug handling license, paid a $25,000 fine, and made some changes to his laboratory to comply with environmental regulations. Shulgin says the loss of his license doesn’t affect his inventing at all — after all, he doesn’t need Schedule I drugs for his own research and is not interested in producing analogues of them. “If a chemical turns out to have an action of a Schedule I drug, I’ll just publish the damn thing and go on to something else,” he says.
But the investigation had a powerful psychological effect. “Never again will Shura work with a sense of absolute freedom,” Ann wrote in TIHKAL. “He’s had a taste of that particular form of power-flexing peculiar to people who are employed by government agencies. The authorities intended to frighten him and perhaps they even hoped to silence him, but that is not and will not be possible. … The magical laboratory still stands.”
Law enforcement’s get-tough reaction to what is clearly a significant American curiosity about psychedelic drugs unwittingly encourages people to sample research chemicals and other exotic compounds, drug-policy-reform advocates argue. “Drug laws are driving people to try drugs they ordinarily wouldn’t because they can’t get the tried and true, like mushrooms or LSD,” writes one freelance drug researcher and Erowid contributor who goes by the screen-name “Murple.”
Both sides of this debate agree, however, that once a research drug hits the street, it can mean trouble. Research drugs’ lack of prior testing and the legal misunderstandings surrounding them combine to create the worst of all possible scenarios — a period of heightened interest in an untested substance during which dealers are quick to cash in on a new trend, emergency room technicians are unlikely to recognize the drug in the event of an overdose, and information about safe usage is scarce and anecdotal at best. Little is known about research drugs’ side effects, interactions with other drugs, and safe dosages because FDA clinical trials are not conducted on substances that hold no promise of patents and profits for university or pharmaceutical company researchers. So people commonly resort to what Julie Ruckel of the Drug Policy Alliance calls “dancefloor pharmacology,” an informal network in which information passes from friend to friend. “It’s all word-of-mouth,” she says. “Someone took twenty milligrams and it was fine, so they’ll tell the next person.”
Just about everyone involved in the 2C-T-7 debate agrees this is a dangerous practice. “A small difference in the dose can make a huge difference in the experience,” says Liu of the SHARE Project. Other factors, including a person’s weight, how much fluid is in their system, and what medications they are taking also can determine how a trip turns out. For its part, the DEA cautions that taking any non-FDA approved drug is a risky prospect. “You don’t oftentimes know what the safety risks are, you don’t know what the dose would be, what the administration should be,” the DEA official says.
Certainly the government collects information on new street drugs, but the generation of partygoers who have been instructed since toddlerhood to “Just Say No” often just tune out government education efforts. “Who wants to be the wet blanket at a party?” sighs Kate Malliarakis, branch chief officer of demand reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “If you’ve got ten people standing there saying, ‘Come on, mellow out, take a chill pill,’ and you have a couple of old farts like myself standing there saying, ‘This is going to do damage to you,’ it’s like an old cartoon. Who’s going to believe me?”
Liu agrees that government drug-awareness programs have overemphasized the negative effects of drug use, so teenagers have lost faith in them. “You don’t want to withhold information from people, especially young people,” he says. “If you tell them the whole truth, they’re going to be more open to you telling them about the risks. If you only tell them the bad things about drugs, they’ll know you’re not telling them the whole story. Kids are smart enough to know that you’re telling them this information about this drug because people are using it. But they’re going to think, ‘Why are people using it?’ Obviously there’s some sort of benefit, so you must be lying.”
In the absence of information perceived as reliable, curious drug enthusiasts now often get their information through two channels that owe a great deal to the expansion of the Internet — online bulletin boards and the studies of amateur researchers. The popularity of Web sites such as Erowid and the Lycaeum shows the breadth of public interest in research drugs; the fact that amateurs have bothered to craft their own studies reveals the depth. Erowid, for example, gets 20,000 page views a day. Both Erowid and the Lycaeum have adopted a tell-it-all philosophy toward both the positive and negative effects of drugs such as 2C-T-7. Their disclaimers don’t mince words. “When you take a research chemical, you are stepping out into the unknown, and you could be the unfortunate person to discover a new drug’s lethal dose,” reads the “Research Chemical FAQ” Erowid site. In general, news posted on these sites is acknowledged to be so far ahead of the curve — and so readily available — that regulators are learning to check there first for information about new drug trends.
So far, you could count the number of scientific papers devoted to 2C-T-7 on one hand and still have a finger left over. In 1991, Shulgin published the first report on 2C-T-7 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Two years later, another study appeared in the Journal of Ethnomedicine, but it was extremely limited, consisting of only eight test subjects who each took a single dose. The only other studies out there have been conducted by nonscientists who disseminated their results online. One of them, published in the Summer 2000 Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies by amateur researcher Casey Hardison, simply surveyed the experiences of 48 people who tried differing amounts of 2C-T-7 at a conference for what he calls “entheogen enthusiasts.”
The following year, Erowid contributor Murple posted the results of a larger e-mail survey of more than 400 people who had tried 2C-T-7 in a variety of dosage amounts, both by snorting and swallowing. The results of both studies reaffirmed what already had been posted on Erowid and Lycaeum trip reports. In general, 2C-T-7 produced feelings of lucidity and euphoria, as well as the rare panic attack; neither study indicated a pattern that could show users when to expect which result. The vast majority of those surveyed expressed interest in trying the drug again. Murple’s much larger and more systematic survey also documented a high incidence of side effects, with about two-thirds of the users reporting nausea, about half reporting muscle tension, with one-third reporting vomiting and another third reporting headaches. His report also included detailed chronicles of the three 2C-T-7-related deaths, as well as further anecdotes collected from around the world of seizures and blackouts apparently prompted by 2C-T-7.
The most interesting conclusion he drew from his research, Murple says, is that 2C-T-7 appears to be both erratic in its effect and highly dose-sensitive, much more so than other phenethylamines. Why is the difference between a good trip and a nasty one just a few milligrams of powder, he asks, and why are some people so floored by the drug and others barely feel it? While he believes the three connected deaths make 2C-T-7 a bad bet for clinical trials on people, Murple points out that 2C-T-7’s apparent volatility makes it a worthy subject for mainstream medical researchers who could come to the table with better funding and equipment than any amateur could. “I think if we could figure out what makes 2C-T-7 so unique, we’d learn something very valuable about the way the human brain works and about the way this whole class of drugs works,” he writes. “There is something very unusual going on here, and we owe it to ourselves as a society to find out what.”
But not everyone thinks the Internet is a safe place for curious pharmacophiles to be exchanging such research. A recent National Drug Intelligence Center report sparked huge outrage by concluding that Web sites and bulletin boards that post information about the production or effects of illicit substances constitute a “threat” to American youth. “I have trouble with the Web sites because they talk about the here and now, but not the consequences,” says Malliarakis. “They do talk about what a bad trip is all about, but not about what it’s going to be like five years from now.” Plus, she points out, you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Web. “You don’t know who’s writing this,” she says. “Is it all fantasy? You don’t know dosages, side effects. If you’re on an antidepressant, is it going to interfere with that? If you have a family history of depression and your depression switch hasn’t turned on yet in your life, will this be the drug that turns it on? There’s so much about the brain that we just don’t know.”
And if the science itself isn’t confusing enough, add to that the fact that a cautious user who checks the law books to see if the drug they’re interested in sampling is taboo won’t find a new analogue like 2C-T-7 listed by name. “If the government makes a list of things and says, ‘These are controlled substances,’ in law that means that the things that are not on it are not controlled substances,” says attorney Richard Glen Boire of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics. “The reasonable conclusion is that you’re doing something legal.” Like other research drugs turned street drugs, 2C-T-7 is “unscheduled” rather than legal. It’s a key distinction. In fact, 2C-T-7 is considered an analogue of a Schedule I club drug known as Nexus or 2C-B, another Shulgin invention described in PIHKAL. From a law-enforcement point of view, it is an excellent example of the type of chemical the Analogue Act was created to regulate. It’s so new that individual police officers might not recognize it by name, and yet it’s clearly being sold as a drug that will mimic the effects of previously outlawed chemicals.
And while 2C-T-7 may never become more than the flavor of the month, its emergence into the public realm also comes at a time of heightened DEA scrutiny of what are loosely termed “club drugs” — generally synthetic drugs consumed at nightclubs and raves. The DEA firmly believes that club drug usage is on the rise — for example, they cite a fifteen-fold increase in the amount of MDMA tablets seized by the agency in the last five years. According to the most recent federal National Household Survey on Drug Use, in 2000 roughly one million Americans over age twelve were current users of what they called a “hallucinogen,” a category that includes LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, and MDMA.
In this climate, research drugs are sometimes misrepresented by dealers as legal alternatives to scheduled substances such as mescaline or Ecstasy, or sold under the name of better-known drugs in order to boost sales. Because sale of an analogue is only prosecutable if done for human consumption, research drugs are sometimes sold with a wink and a nudge. For example, online catalog JLF Poisonous Nonconsumables — the source from which Robbins’ dealer allegedly bought his 2C-T-7 — has its disclaimer right in its name. In addition, before site visitors are allowed to do their shopping, they must click on a page-long warning that instructs: “Do not eat, drink, inject, inhale, insert, absorb, snuff, snort, smoke, slam, or ingest in any way. Do not stick, put, or throw into your or another person’s mouth, nose, ear, eye, anus, urethra, vagina, or any other orifice or port of entry that may exist on your or another person’s body.” This cheeky disclaimer didn’t sway the feds, who served JLF’s owner with a thirteen-count federal grand jury indictment last September and have forbidden him to continue selling several catalog items, including 2C-T-7.
What next for 2C-T-7? If the DEA decides to schedule it, as has been suggested by some press coverage, the process would take six months to a year, during which there would be hearings and public comment. The Department of Health and Human Services would evaluate the drug’s risk to public health and likeliness to cause dependency. However, no matter which way the hearing goes, the DEA retains ultimate authority to decide what class a drug will fall into. The agency is notorious among drug-policy-reform activists for listing MDMA as Schedule I after the judge had recommended it be put in Schedule III, which would have allowed it to be used for medical testing. Even if 2C-T-7 remains unscheduled, it will probably become more difficult for dealers to pass it off as legal once it becomes more familiar to local police.
For Sasha and Ann Shulgin, 2C-T-7’s transition to street sales has been tremendously disappointing. They’ve been exceptionally open to answering the queries of just about any media outlet that’s contacted them wanting to know more about 2C-T-7, and they’ve repeatedly made two points clear: 2C-T-7 was never meant to be a recreational drug, and they’re not making money off of it, just as they have never made money from the street sales of any of Sasha’s creations. “I’m disturbed by the fact that you get someone who wants to make a pile of money and doesn’t give a damn about the safety or the purity,” says Shulgin sadly. “It’s a motivation that I’m uncomfortable with. People using psychedelics, I’m not uncomfortable with it. I consider it a very personal exploration. But I’m very disturbed by the overpowering of curiosity with greed.”
There is a passage in PIHKAL that seems to foreshadow the biggest question raised by 2C-T-7’s transition from the lab to the dancefloor. In it, “Alice” asks “Shura” if publishing information about his discoveries in scientific journals will encourage people to turn them into street drugs. “There’s no avoiding the fact that a lot of idiots who don’t know diddly-squat about chemistry are going to go to work to make some of those drugs — the easier ones — for sale on the street,” Shulgin’s alter-ego responds. “And people are going to take them at parties and use them in stupid, irresponsible ways.”
Both in print and in real life, when Sasha Shulgin talks about what’s become of his more wayward creations, he seems weary and somewhat sad. He’s merely planted the tree; he can’t help it if people choose to put forbidden fruit in their mouths. “I do not feel responsible,” he says. “I think I’m doing more good than harm.”
But this is not the first time one of his drugs went famously commercial. In 1967, a research compound he’d named DOM got loose. Shulgin suspects this occurred after he described it in a lecture at Johns Hopkins University. He didn’t recognize the street name it had been given — STP — and certainly had no reason to believe his chemical was linked with the strange overdose cases that were turning up in San Francisco clinics. Street dealers were distributing STP in twenty milligram doses, what Shulgin calls a “whopping” amount, and users were re-dosing too quickly because they were used to drugs like LSD that had a quicker onset. The result was that STP became known for producing fabulously bad trips. “I was in medical school at the time right above the Haight-Ashbury, and I’d go down Haight Street memorizing for an exam and all around people were stoned on a drug I had made years earlier. It was the strangest feeling,” he says. “It took the better part of six months for information to filter into the literature of what it really was, and then I realized it was my compound, and I was very uncomfortable with the fact that this was not what I had intended at all.”
Things haven’t changed much in the intervening decades. The ascendance of 2C-T-7 has shown that the chemist’s creations are still turning up in situations so vastly unlike those sedate weekends on the Farm, and being used in strikingly different ways. The Shulgins say it alarms them to hear about young people taking drugs in large doses, in potentially dangerous combinations, or via methods they never used, like snorting — especially when the drug in question is something they once liked. “I cringe when I hear about something new like the 2C-T-7,” says Ann, “because all of the 2C-T’s are really, really nice materials. They’re very very pleasant and friendly.
“If we could control the way it was used,” she sighs, “this would be a heavenly world.”
While he’s essentially in it for the thrill of the unknown, Shulgin also believes that some of his inventions might turn out to have medical or therapeutic applications if given further study. As an example, he mentions Aleph-4, a particularly unpleasant chemical that produced a totally emotion-free state. “You couldn’t feel sorrow, you couldn’t be angry, you couldn’t be happy,” he says. “You were a piece of cardboard.
“I’m creating tools to study the function of the mind — not the brain, the mind. And here’s a good example — total lack of effect. That is a rare but real clinical thing, and here’s a drug that produces that state. Can’t you see the joy I would have by putting a radioactive tracer on it and sticking it into a person who had that medical problem and to another person who is a control who didn’t have the medical problem and seeing this goes up here, but that goes over there?
“Ah!” he sighs, his voice dropping lower. “That would be marvelous!”
Another compelling example is a drug called DIPT that is remarkable among psychedelics for its auditory, as well as visual, effects. In fact, after tasting DIPT for the first time, Shulgin only noticed the onset of the drug because he happened to be listening to the kitchen radio, which suddenly sounded terribly out of tune. “I assumed it was probably some little group somewhere,” he remembers. “It turned out to be the Philadelphia Symphony, which is very excellent. It was me who was out of tune!”
In TIHKAL, Shulgin had expressed great interest in learning how DIPT might affect the brain’s auditory processing centers. And years later, he is still wondering aloud if studying DIPT might have other benefits. For example, could it cast some light on schizophrenia, which usually results in auditory, rather than visual, delusions?
Shulgin doesn’t seem likely to stop inventing new compounds, either, and he says he’s not looking for anything in particular. “I don’t have a holy grail. I’d just like to find something new,” he says. “If it’s never been made before, of course it’s never been tasted before. And if the structure is similar — not substantially similar, but similar — to other things that are active, it’s so damned intriguing to know if it’s going to be active and what it will do. The motive is to satisfy the curiosity. And once you’ve found the answer — ‘Oh hey, it’s kind of neat,’ or ‘Oh my, I’m on the edge of convulsions,’ or ‘Oh my, I went to sleep’ — you’ve answered the question.”
But the Shulgins’ days of experimenting with 2C-T-7 and chemicals like it are behind them. After five decades of fascination with lab-made synthetics, Sasha Shulgin has turned his attention to botanicals, in specific a rather unexplored type of cactus alkaloid called isoquinolines. The hill behind the Farm is speckled with more than one hundred cactus plants, and the beakers in his lab are now lined with a sludgy olive-green residue. He’s at work on the manuscript for a third book, one the couple jokingly refers to as QIHKAL.
“Most of the cacti out there are not known by anybody to do anything,” says Ann, indicating the hillside slope. “It’s all new,” agrees Sasha Shulgin, who very excitedly pulls down one of the many notebooks from his laboratory shelf and opens it to a page in which he has pasted a jagged graph: a mass spectrometer printout of the chemical makeup of one species of cactus. Each peak represents a compound in need of a name and analysis, a compound that might turn out to do something new and unusual and previously unobserved.
“And you don’t know what it will do,” Ann adds gently, in a tone that’s half statement, half question.
“I’m going to find out as much as I can,” says Sasha, smiling broadly. “That’s my whole art.”