How A Scientist Of Psychedelics Became The 'Godfather Of Ecstasy'

The man known as the "godfather of ecstasy" has died at the age of 88. Scientist Alexander Shulgin rediscovered a chemical known as MDMA, which was eventually adopted as the club drug ecstasy. Rick Doblin, the president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a friend of Shulgin, reflects on the man's unconventional legacy.

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The man known as the godfather of ecstasy died this week. Alexander Shulgin, Sasha to his friends, was 88. The chemist and pharmacologist did not invent ecstasy. The drug first known as MDMA was synthesized in 1912 by the German chemical company Merck, but it was not tested in humans. More than a half century later, Shulgin rediscovered the chemical, tried it himself and began talking up its therapeutic benefits. Only later did MDMA gain popularity as a club drug and come to be called Ecstasy. Joining us to talk about Alexander Shulgin's unconventional legacy is Rick Doblin. He is the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and a friend of Alexander Shulgin's. Tell us a little bit about Alexander Shulgin - what kind of character was he?

RICK DOBLIN: Well, Sasha was a character for sure. You know, he was a Harvard dropout who joined the Navy in World War II. He was someone who people revered for his work developing not just MDMA, but hundreds of other psychedelics.

And he was really courageous both in the way that he was willing to develop molecules that have never existed before, try them first on himself and a small circle of friends - and then speak about them to all aspects of our society - from the DEA, from the toxicologists, from people at emergency rooms, to underground psychedelic psychotherapists.

CORNISH: And we should mention he started out working for Dow Chemical. Actually, created a pesticide. That's where he first encountered MDMA. And what were his hopes for the drug?

DOBLIN: He hoped that it would revolutionize psychotherapy. MDMA is not a traditional antidepressant or a traditional psychiatric medication where the medication is the treatment. MDMA is enhanced and requires psychotherapy to be maximally effective. So he hoped that one day there would be FDA approval for the legal prescription use of MDMA and also other psychedelics.

CORNISH: And of course it came to be known as an illegal recreational drug, known as Ecstasy. What was his reaction to the criminalization of the drug?

DOBLIN: Well, it was deeply disappointing and depressing that this substance that had remarkable therapeutic potential. And of the hundreds of psychedelics that Sasha has developed, he felt that none of them had the therapeutic potential that MDMA did. And once around half a million doses had been used in therapeutic settings and there were enormous number of anecdotal reports of remarkable healings, for it to become criminalized, that's when he really got depressed.

CORNISH: Alexander Shulgin - he wasn't exactly a Timothy Leary type character, right, the great advocacy of LSD - what do you think his legacy will be?

DOBLIN: The legacy of Sasha will be, on the one hand, this incredible nuanced understanding of consciousness, spirituality, psychotherapy, love and the depth of human emotions. That's what Sasha was really committed to - was trying to piece apart how it is that these molecules can open us up to parts of ourselves. And on the other hand, he was a staunch defender of the right of individuals to explore their own consciousness at sometimes great risk to himself.

CORNISH: Rick Doblin, thank you so much for talking with us.

DOBLIN: It's been my pleasure.

CORNISH: Rick Doblin is president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

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