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Alexander Shulgin: American Hero

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher

November 30, 2022

merican pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin (1924-2014) was the epitome of what a psychoactive drug researcher should be -- and what they WOULD be were America not under the spell of Drug War propaganda. Not only did he introduce the MDMA empathogen (or entactogen) to psychologists in the 1970s, but he personally created and "test drove" over 200 psychedelic substances, whose use conduced to happiness, mental focus and self-insight. . He achieved these results because he was granted a kind of rare exception to Drug War prohibitions thanks to his pharmacological genius. Along with his wife Ann, he was the author of the revolutionary 1991 book "PIHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved." The title, by the way, is obscure on purpose, since Alexander knew that the use of the word "psychedelics" would virtually prevent the book from even being sold in Canada and America's mid-west.

Shulgin's research is a reproach to scientists everywhere, who have not only cowered under the threats of prohibition but also failed to admit to themselves or to the scientific community that they had self-censored their work due to Drug War prohibition. This is why we see articles in The Atlantic which discuss potential treatments for depression in which neither the author nor the scientists even mention the role that outlawed psychoactives could play in treating that condition. This is the worst kind of censorship imaginable, one in which the censored individuals fail to even recognize that their work is censored. At least Galileo knew that he was being forced to self-censor his work to agree with Church dogma. But scientists almost never admit that they have to censor THEIR work due to Drug War dogma: viz. the mendacious and anti-scientific idea that certain politically identified psychoactive substances can have no potential benefits whatsoever, not now, not later, not ever.

The fact that Shulgin "gets it" is clear from this damning observation of the status quo that he makes in the opening chapter of PIKHAL entitled "The Philosophy Behind the Writing of Pikhal":

"Our generation is the first, ever, to have made the search for self-awareness a crime, if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors."

Of course, no one's perfect. Shulgin's words are a wake-up call for myself as well. They remind me that I have been drawing a somewhat arbitrary distinction between Mother Nature's medicines and the synthetic substances that are inspired and derived from them. I've also focused on the idiocy of criminalizing Mother Nature, when perhaps the greater infamy, as Shulgin reminds us, is the criminalization of the search for self-awareness, the criminalization of our efforts to pursue the Platonic imperative of knowing ourselves.

The modest ambition of this essay is to bring Alexander Shulgin's work to the attention of those who have yet to learn of it. Mission accomplished, I hope. But I would like to conclude with one philosophical observation based on my reading thus far.

In Chapter 1, the semi-fictional protagonist, Alexander, recounts a surgical operation that he underwent for his infected thumb while in the Navy in World War II. Before the operation, he was presented with a glass of orange juice containing a gram of white powder and told that the substance was a powerful anesthetic. After drinking the substance, the sailor fell into a deep state of unconsciousness. Only later did he learn that the white substance was sugar and that his "anesthetic" was actually a placebo. This fact gave Alexander intimations about the great untapped potential of the human mind and eventually led to his decision to become a pharmacologist.

OBSERVATION: Most of the wonders that we ascribe to "drugs" are perhaps more accurately ascribed to the human mind. As suggested in the Doors of Perception, the role of psychedelic drugs in particular may be to help us activate different potentials that we already possess, not to foist upon us foreign thoughts and dreams that are somehow inherent in the substances themselves. Some psychologists erroneously conclude from this fact, however, that drugs are totally unnecessary for mental improvement and self-awareness. And so they make a virtue of Drug War necessity by promoting an endless list of drug-free self-help schemes to "open our minds," such as yoga, special diets, jogging, repeating affirmations, etc.

But let's not be naive. Most of us cannot go through painless surgery by drinking a glass of sugar water. Nor will the profound wonders of the mind ever be satisfactorily sounded by dint of willpower and exercise, except perhaps in the rare cases of Eastern monks who devote their entire life to achieving that drug-free goal. This is what I've tried in vain to tell my own therapists for the last 40 years. They always wanted me to run more, eat better foods, sleep more, sleep less, etc. I, for my part, wanted them to use the real politik of pharmacology, not because the counselor's anemic remedies could not work in theory, but because they almost never really worked in practice. And those who said they "did" work had what I considered to be very low standards for such alleged "success," unacquainted as they were with the profound epiphanies that psychoactive drugs can facilitate.

Author's Follow-up: September 30, 2023

Talking about failing to learn from history, despite Americans' fascination with documentaries about World War II, many still believe that the biggest threat to humankind in the 21st century are drugs like Ecstasy which help bring human beings together in a spirit of peace and love.

Next essay: The Lopsided Focus on the Misuse and Abuse of Drugs
Previous essay: How Scientific Materialism Keeps Godsend Medicines from the Depressed

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