Assorted scribblings of a dog-eared music journalist

The Book Of E: All About Ecstasy | In Therapy And In Court | 2000

The metamorphosis of MDMA from a little known substance on the fringes of the early 1970s psychedelic underground to the most culturally significant drug of the final years of the 20th century begins with Alexander Shulgin – Sasha to his family and friends. Shulgin served in the US Navy during the Second World War, when he was still only a teenager, and returned to his home city of Berkeley at the end of the conflict in 1945 to obtain a PhD in biochemistry at the University Of California. He subsequently worked as a senior research chemist with the Dow chemical company, where he directed a variety of projects including the invention of a profitable insecticide. But Shulgin's personal interest was in psychoactive drugs, which he preferred to test on himself rather than on animals. His first experience was with mescaline.

'That day is forever etched in my memory,' he told British journalist Mark White in 1998. 'I saw colours that had never existed in my world before. I heard music that carried a message of intense, joyful depth and complexity. I viewed art that allowed me for the first time to truly understand the mindset of the artist. And – most important to me – I realised that all of this richness, the seeing and the understanding, was not created by a few hundred milligrams of a white solid. It was inside of me all the time.'

Shulgin left Dow by mutual agreement in 1965. With the development of an underground counterculture fuelled by psychedelic drugs, most particularly LSD, the company had become increasingly concerned at the nature of the chemist's main interest. At the same time, Shulgin was eager to free himself from corporate constraints and he immediately set about building his own laboratory in the garden of his home just outside Berkeley. Here, during the course of the next 30 years or so, he experimented with countless different psychedelics, inventing quite a few of them himself along the way. Much of his work is detailed in two weighty tomes, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TiHKAL: The Continuation, published in 1991 and 1997 respectively.

In PiHKAL, an acronym for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved, Shulgin records the syntheses and effects of 179 phenethylamine compounds, while in TiHKAL he focuses on the tryptamine family of hallucinogenic drugs, which includes DMT (dimethyltryptamine) and psilocybin mushrooms. Both books are co-credited to Shulgin's wife Ann, who he met in 1979 and married three years later.


Alexander Shulgin was introduced to MDMA in the late 1960s and in PiHKAL he assigns the drug number 109. His love of this particular phenethylamine is obvious from the following extract from PiHKAL, in which he details an experience with 120mg of the drug:

'The woodpile is so beautiful, about all the joy and beauty that I can stand. I am afraid to turn around and face the mountains, for fear they will overpower me. But I did look, and I am astounded. Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here and I feel I have come home. I am complete.'

MDMA didn't always evoke a positive response in Shulgin, though. On another occasion, he took 100mg to see if it would act as a stimulant, to raise him from what he called 'a dull, uncaring tiredness'. The result fell a long way short of satisfactory:

'I napped for a half hour or so and woke up definitely not improved. The feeling of insufficient energy and lack of spark that I'd felt before had become something quite strong, and might be characterised as a firm feeling of negativity about everything that had to be done and everything I had been looking forward to. So I set about my several tasks with no pleasure or enjoyment and I hummed a little tune to myself during these activities which had words that went: "I shouldn't have done that, oh yes, I shouldn't have done that, oh no, I shouldn't have done that, it was a mistake". Then I would start over again from the beginning. I was stuck in a grey space for quite a while and there was nothing to do but keep doing what I had to do.'

Despite these occasional negative experiences, Shulgin quickly became convinced that the benefits of the drug were way more than adequate compensation. He told the academic world so in numerous journals. His enthusiasm for the drug continues to this day, so much so he's been called everything from 'the father of MDMA' to 'the grandaddy of ecstasy'. As a further indication of his standing with the E Generation, he was voted into the Top 10 of the 'pre-millennial cultural aristocracy' alongside the likes of Oasis's Liam Gallagher and The Prodigy's Liam Howlett in a poll of 100 musicians, film-makers and novelists conducted by Select magazine in 1997.

But whatever the accolades, it's too simple to view Shulgin as being to ecstasy what Timothy Leary is to LSD. For a start, Shulgin's work was only possible by virtue of the fact he held a drug-handling licence from the DEA – although this was withdrawn following a raid on his home by around 30 federal and state law enforcement officers in 1994. The raid was almost certainly a delayed reaction to the publication of PiHKAL. Until then, he had friends in US Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA), some of whom attended his wedding to Ann, and officers would often bring confiscated substances to be tested at his laboratory.

The truth is that Alexander Shulgin has never seen himself on either one side or the other of the ecstasy debate. He merely conducted experiments and, with PiHKAL and TiHKAL, reported what happened. Although he has been drawn into the arguments over ecstasy in recent years, his interest is first and foremost chemical, not political.

Moreover, while not denying the importance of Shulgin's role in sparking up the pilot light, his part in the story is perhaps not as critical as that of his close friend 'Jacob'. At least that's what he's called in Myron Stolaroff's 1996 book, The Secret Chief: Conversations With A Pioneer Of The Underground Psychedelic Therapy Movement. 'Jacob' was Leo Zeff, a highly respected elder statesman of American psychology. Zeff's use of LSD and lesser known substances such as ibogaine in the treatment of many of his patients put him at the forefront of the psychedelic therapy movement during the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1970s, when Shulgin introduced him to MDMA, he was close to retirement. But he became so convinced of the drug's therapeutic potential that he spent the next few years criss-crossing the country, introducing MDMA to several hundred American therapists and several thousand patients.

Zeff, who died in 1988, called MDMA 'adam'. It was under this name that an estimated half a million doses were administered to patients suffering from trauma, depression and other psychological conditions between 1977 and 1985. Adam wasn't a cure, not in the traditional sense anyway, but the therapists discovered the drug's empathogenic effects made patients suffering from even the most difficult psychological conditions communicate more easily and more openly, thereby facilitating more beneficial psychotherapeutic treatment.


Among those using MDMA in this way was Dr George Greer, who ran a private practice in New Mexico and was also employed as a consultant psychiatrist at the state's main penitentiary. Assisted by his wife, Requa Tolbert, a psychiatric nurse, Greer began giving MDMA to patients in 1980 and continued to do so until 1985, treating a total of around 75 people with the drug during those five years. He was also responsible for what was then the most detailed medical report on the drug's effects on humans, MDMA: A New Psychotropic Compound And Its Effects In Humans, which he published himself in 1983. The basis of this was a study of 29 people given doses of 75 to 150mg of MDMA in a series of clinical sessions in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Francisco, California, between 1980 and 1983. The drugs for the sessions were synthesised at Alexander Shulgin's laboratory.

Greer reported that every one of the 29 subjects experienced some form of benefit from adam during their sessions. All noted a positive change in how they felt about themselves, as well as about others present and the world in general, and 22 of the subjects also said they could think more clearly and had greater insight into personal difficulties. Equally significantly, a questionnaire filled out by each patient some nine months after their last session suggested many of these positive effects were enduring. All except one claimed their personal relationships had improved since taking MDMA, and many also described positive changes in attitude (23 patients, with 11 of them specifically mentioning higher self-esteem) and mood (18 patients). In addition, six people reported drinking less alcohol in the months following the sessions, six said they decreased their cannabis intake and five decreased their caffeine intake. One subject claimed to be using less LSD than he had before.

Writing about the study in the Journal Of Psychoactive Drugs in 1986, Greer and Tolbert noted:

'In general, it is reasonable to conclude that the single best use of MDMA is to facilitate more direct communication between people involved in a significant relationship. Not only is communication enhanced during the session, but afterwards as well. Once a therapeutically motivated person has experienced the lack of true risk involved in direct and open communication, it can be practiced without the assistance of MDMA. This ability can not only help resolve existing conflicts but can also prevent future ones from occurring due to unexpressed fears or misunderstandings.'

Although MDMA was never made commercially available to the American medical profession, lots of chemists were more than willing to manufacture the drug to meet the escalating demand from therapists in the early 1980s. They didn't think anything of it. It wasn't a big deal. It was all above board. While MDMA had effectively been outlawed in the UK since the 1971 Misuse Of Drugs Act, which banned all amphetamine-related substances, it remained completely legal in the US – and nobody there seemed to even question that it should be otherwise.

The situation changed dramatically in 1984. With increased therapeutic use of the drug came increased recreational use – up from 10,000 doses per year in the mid-1970s to an estimated 300,000 doses every month in the early 1980s. By 1984, this figure had rocketed to perhaps as many as two million doses a month. By now too, DEA agents had reported that MDMA was available on the streets of 21 American states. Most recreational users knew the drug as ecstasy, but it was also sometimes called E, XTC or X. Alongside the usual suspect urban centres, such as New York City and Los Angeles, it was prevalent in college towns and on university campuses, especially those with traditions of progressive thinking. Which makes sense, seeing as how many of those who had been manufacturing the drug for therapeutic use were university chemists, some with experience in producing LSD in the 1960s.

In July 1984, having decided that this could not be tolerated any longer, the DEA announced a proposal to clamp down on MDMA. They did so as heavily as possible, by placing the drug into the Schedule I classification as laid down by the 1970 US Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Of the five Schedules available under the CSA, Schedule I is the only one to ban a substance completely, with manufacture, sale and use strictly forbidden. Severe constraints are also placed on any research involving Schedule I drugs, which are classified according to three conditions:

'(a) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse; (b) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; (c) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.'

The proposal to classify MDMA as Schedule I horrified the hundreds of therapists who'd been using the drug, but George Greer had seen it coming. He knew all too well about the spread in recreational use. He also knew that, as a result, the DEA would sooner or later exercise restrictions over the substance. He even agreed that MDMA should be a controlled drug, but he believed that the extent of any restrictions should be partly determined by its medical value and that it should be classed as Schedule III, allowing it to be available on prescription and for research purposes.

Greer's fear that the DEA wouldn't take the drug's medical potential into account in any scheduling decision was the chief impetus behind him making his experiences with the substance public in MDMA: A New Psychotropic Compound And Its Effects In Humans. He was also concerned that MDMA hadn't undergone any formal research and initiated moves to rectify this. He asked two American pharmaceutical companies for funding, but drew blanks with both. He next approached the US Food & Drug Administration for help, but again to no avail.


Enter Rick Doblin, then a 31-year-old student of psychedelic therapy. Doblin had decided to pursue a career as a psychedelic therapist at the age of 18, partly by choice, through his own experiences with LSD, mescaline and hallucinogenic mushrooms, and partly as a result of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Resisting the draft made him a criminal and, as such, most professions were closed off to him. Psychedelic therapy was different, however. Not that Doblin was in any great hurry, which is why he spent much of the 1970s working as a builder – 'getting a grounding in the material world' as he puts it. It wasn't until 1982 that he returned to his studies by enrolling in a workshop with Californian psychedelic therapy guru Stanislav Grof. It was at this point that he first came across MDMA. Like Dr George Greer and so many others before him, Doblin was immediately impressed with its therapeutic potential. But also like Greer, he realised it wouldn't be long before the authorities came down on the drug.

'It was inevitable,' says Doblin, who is now president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Florida-based research and educational organisation. 'Knowing this, I helped to found the Earth Metabolic Design Laboratory, which supported efforts for MDMA research. We wanted to be able to say to the government, "Here's a scientific study, here's some data, preserve this for the therapists at the very least". The announcement of the proposed criminalisation of MDMA was followed by a 30-day "comment period", and within that period I walked into the DEA's headquarters with petitions signed by the most prominent people willing to speak publicly about the medical value of the drug we could find. We then asked for a public hearing. If nobody had gone in over that period, MDMA would have been made illegal on Day 31.'

Instead, the DEA's administrative law judge, Francis Young, agreed to the petitioners' request. He ordered three hearings to take place in Los Angeles, Kansas City and Washington DC between June and November 1985. During the months running up to the first of these, Greer, Doblin and Lester Grinspoon, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a long-time proponent for the medical use of marijuana, gathered evidence, witnesses and money. The DEA were busy too, even lobbying the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, and asking them to impose an international ban on MDMA in the certain knowledge that the US government would have to comply with this. Doblin promptly took a flight to Switzerland to argue against any such moves.

Doblin also spearheaded a media campaign to put over the challengers' case. The first major article about the drug appeared in Newsweek magazine in early 1985 under the title 'Getting High On "Ecstasy"'. It included an interview with a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, who claimed that 'A monk spends his whole life cultivating the same awakened attitude MDMA gives you', while Massachusetts therapist Dr Richard Ingrasci cited the case of a woman suffering from 'a phobic dread of infections' who was cured after a single two-hour session with the drug.

'The American media were initially very sympathetic to MDMA,' says Doblin. 'Part of the reason for that was because people who didn't fit the stereotype drug user were willing to talk about the benefits they got from it. People like Brother David Steindl-Rast. There was positive publicity about MDMA on national TV too, on the Phil Donahue show. We even had a couple of middle-aged women suffering from cancer who said that one dose of MDMA had helped them come to terms with their illnesses and that they'd want their children to take it if they were ever in a similar situation. Parents talking about how they wanted their kids to take a drug? It was incredible. It must have been extremely frustrating to the DEA.'

Indeed it must. Part of the DEA's difficulty was that their attention had been completely focused on the recreational use of MDMA. They knew all about 'ecstasy', of course, but they'd never heard of 'adam'. They had absolutely no idea that the drug was also being used by the medical community until Doblin walked into their offices with the psychiatrists' petitions. DEA pharmocologist Frank Sapienza admitted this was so in the Newsweek article. Nevertheless, the authorities remained steadfast in their determination to outlaw the substance, claiming it was now available on the streets of the majority of states.

By mid-1985, the DEA were also fully aware of how MDMA was being used as a dance drug at places like the Saint in New York City and the Starck Club in Dallas, where they'd conducted undercover operations in February and March. They declared they would not wait for the outcome of the hearings before acting. Drawing upon a 1984 amendment to the CSA which permitted a one-year emergency scheduling of any new narcotic, the DEA ordered MDMA to be placed into Schedule I. The ruling was effective from 1 July 1985.


In the meantime, Judge Francis Young's hearings were underway, with Young taking evidence from more than a dozen psychiatrists. George Greer was the challengers' star witness and his testimony was supported by three other New Mexico psychiatrists, all members of the state's medical peer review committee. The most senior, Dr Rick Strassman, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, told Judge Young that Greer 'has included the appropriate safeguards and has not experienced significant adverse reactions to this form of treatment'.

Strassman concurred with Greer's belief that all of his patients 'experienced significant benefit' from MDMA. Dr Richard Ingrasci also took the stand, testifying he had given the drug to some 100 patients with none of them suffering any apparent harm. Others lending their weight to the argument included Dr Norman Zinberg, an associate of Professor Lester Grinspoon at Harvard Medical School, and Dr Morris Lipton, deputy editor of the American Journal Of Psychiatry.

Having only recently learnt about the medical use of MDMA, the DEA's lawyers, Stephen Stone and Charlotte Johnson, struggled to counter these testimonies. Their position wasn't helped by the fact that, to achieve their aim of making the drug Schedule I and banning it outright, proving the CSA conditions of 'no currently accepted medical use' and 'a lack of accepted safety... under medical supervision' were much more important than proving 'a high potential for abuse'. The latter was a condition of Schedule II as well as of Schedule I, while the two medical considerations were only pertinent to the Schedule I classification. And as far as the DEA were concerned, if MDMA was anything other than Schedule I, it might as well be available from vending machines on every street corner.

In the event, Stone and Johnson had just one central line of attack open to them. Much of it came down to semantics. It revolved around MDMA having not been approved as a commercial drug by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which the DEA lawyers claimed was required under the US Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA) of 1938. No approval by the FDA, they argued, meant 'no currently accepted medical use' – the key words here being 'currently accepted'. By the same logic, 'no currently accepted medical use' meant there must be 'a lack of acceptable safety... under medical supervision'. It was as simple as that. Full stop. Case closed. But not as far as Judge Young was concerned.

'There is no denying that such a situation would greatly simplify the scheduling task of the DEA staff,' he noted in his report, which was published in May 1986. 'It provides a quick solution to the problem for the DEA. It provides a certain answer. But it is wrong.'

Young's report went on to declare that the FDA's remit did not extend to establishing what was or was not 'accepted medical practice'. Moreover, the FDCA wasn't designed to impose legislative restrictions on physicians. Both the FDA and the FDCA were merely concerned with the trading procedures of a commercially available product. The DEA's contention that 'there is no legitimate commercial manufacturer of MDMA in the US' was of no importance, said the judge. If it was, he added, 'use by physicians is reduced to being determined by, and therefore equated with, a businessman's or corporation's determination of the economic feasibility of mass production'. What was and was not 'accepted medical practice' could only be established by physicians themselves, he ruled.

Balancing the legal ponderings and neat semantics of the DEA against the medical profession's eight years of experience with MDMA, Young declared that the drug did not meet the conditions for Schedule I. He didn't accept the bulk of the fragmented evidence for 'a high potential of abuse' which the DEA had presented either. That MDMA was a phenethylamine with a similar chemical structure to several Schedule I drugs, most notably MDA, didn't establish any degree of abuse potential. Eight other phenylethylamines hadn't been placed into any Schedule at all. It was similarly irrelevant that the drug was classed as a central nervous system stimulant. So was caffeine. Young also cast doubt on the testimony of the DEA's witness from the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in California, who said the clinic was currently treating three to four people with MDMA-related problems a month. According to the judge, this figure was 'unreliable'. As were claims that the drug was associated with two deaths, one in Seattle, Washington, and the other in Santa Monica, California. After studying the toxicology reports, he ruled that the involvement of MDMA in these deaths was 'questionable'.

Judge Francis Young's report concluded that MDMA should not be classed as a Schedule I substance. He also said it shouldn't be considered Schedule II. Instead, Young agreed with George Greer and recommended the drug be placed into the Schedule III classification.

There was to be very little cause for celebration for Greer, Doblin and Grinspoon, though. The judge's recommendation was just that – a recommendation. As such, as far as the DEA were concerned, it could easily be ignored. And ignoring it is precisely what they did. In November 1986, six months after the publication of Judge Young's report, the DEA ordered the temporary placement of MDMA into Schedule I to be revoked in favour of its permanent placement into the very same classification. It has remained a Schedule I substance ever since.

sidebarmail sidebarfacebook sidebartwitter