Book Review: Alexander Shulgin’s The Nature of Drugs

collage of the book cover for Alexander Shulgin's The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact

By Lex Pelger

A review of The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact (Synergetic Press, 2021), a collection of eight lectures given by the “godfather of ecstasy” Dr. Alexander Shulgin.

And so begins one of the best classes you’ll ever take…

“Most of you have already been exposed to drugs, and most of you will personally decide if you wish to become exposed again in the future. The goal of this course is to provide specific information concerning drugs, as to their actions, their risks, and their virtues. And that’s really what my role is, I’m a seeker of truth. I’m trying to find out what’s there. I am not an advocate for nor an advocate against drug use. I have my own personal philosophies that have no business in here. You’ll find that I am quite sympathetic with a lot of drugs that people say are evil and bad. But in truth, I want you to have enough information that you can decide for yourself whether this is something that’s your cup of tea, quite literally caffeine, or whether it is something you wish to stay out of.

“I’m going to have a theme for this whole course called “warts and all.” Namely, what is known about drugs, what is to be found out about them, what do they smell like, what do they taste like, what are the goods, what are the bads. Why is it so bad to use drugs? Why is it occasionally so good to use drugs?”

—Alexander Shulgin, The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact

The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact by Alexander Shulgin is out now with Synergetic Press.

What’s beautiful about this work—a volume of the first eight lectures from Alexander “Shasha” Shulgin’s popular course on drugs at San Francisco State University—is that for those of us who never knew Sasha, or only saw him briefly, it’s a window into a beautiful soul. Like Robert Sapolsky, he’s one of those extraordinary teachers of science who brings so many layers to the experience of how science actually works. Through his anecdotes and asides, he does away with science as a function of perfect observers, removed from their subjects with ideal impartiality and presents a messy system of egos, funding priorities, ‘novelty’ and blind groping towards the Truth.

Many of us know Dr. Alexander Shulgin through the landmark books he wrote with his wife Ann, PIKHAL and TIKHAL, which are a mix of autobiography, love story, and drug syntheses. Even more of us know him through his beloved compound MDMA, which he popularized and made famous. But this book, The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact, shows another side: a teacher of phenomenal worth.

I’ve been studying drugs for twenty years, but Sasha Shulgin’s lectures to his students still gave me new insights on almost every page. He has a way of making the complexities of pharmacodynamics accessible by turning the human body into a bathtub. He talks about how the water gets filtered, how it goes down the drain, and how that makes a difference in the drugs you take. The understanding he imparts of how drugs work is invaluable.

But what feels so special is the glimpses you get of the alchemical man himself. In these lectures, occurring in the Year of our Reagan 1987, he makes clear his opposition to the War on Drugs. The students taking his course might not have expected a year-by-year rundown of the increasing crackdowns since 1980, but that’s what they learned. And if you sit yourself in their seat as you read this book, imagine being a student in Reagan’s Amerika learning about the Drug War from a white-haired chemist who admits in the first lecture, out of the 250 known psychedelic compounds, to have tried about 150 of them. 

But he doesn’t look like Hunter S. Thompson. He looks like a tall kindly man with his pretty wife in the front row taking notes. He approaches chemistry as a ‘sacred art’. He rails against ‘holding laws’ that are simply used to hold people that the police don’t like the look of. He drops jokes constantly and calls his scribbled diagrams of molecules ‘dirty pictures’. I like to imagine myself in this classroom and I wonder if I would have been sharp enough to figure out that this was one of the greatest underground chemists of all time.

There’s a clue near the end, while he’s talking about his own history in industrial research and playing one of his imagination games with his students:

“Take, for example, how you define new sweetening agents, agents that you put in coffee that make coffee taste sweet. How would you go about finding them? It’s your job. You’re hired and you are working for Monsanto. “Find a new sweetening agent. We want to knock Nutrasweet off the market.” How are you going to find it? You’re right now at the nitty gritty of research; your task is to find a new sweetening agent. Here are our leads. Here are five materials that do cause sweet tastes, but this is too toxic, this has a bitter aftertaste, this one takes fifteen minutes to come on, this one causes cancer, and that one causes teratogenesis. We can’t use them. But we need one because we’re losing the market. Saccharine is not going to be available much longer. How do you find one?

“Well, my philosophy, that people would cringe at, is to put a damp finger into it and taste it. [Laughter.] That to me is the heart of how you find a sweetening agent. Well, what if it’s going to cause cancer of the jaw? Okay, then you come down with cancer of the jaw, but you’ve found a sweetening agent. [Laughter.] So you have risk and you have reward.”

This was the same method he used to test MDMA when he first synthesized it a decade before these lectures. Unfortunately, only three months earlier, the feds had banned MDMA by putting it into Schedule 1. They also passed the Federal Analogues Act that would be used as a wide club against any “substantially similar” molecule (a phrase that makes him shake his head. “Is the taillight structure of a 1986 Pontiac “substantially similar” to the taillight structure of a 1984 Chevrolet?”). Despite these crackdowns, his wife in the front row would go on to lead an untold number of therapists into an alliance with MDMA and its chemical cousins like 2C-B. And their books PIHKALand TIHKAL would document a beautiful love story, fertilized by his psychoactives. He knew that the drugs that interested him couldn’t be found by testing them in animals. As an alchemist, he knew you had to stick your finger into it and taste it for yourself. 

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Shulgin’s First Taste

In his first lecture, he shares with the students,

“My first experience with morphine was with a wound I had during WWII and I was going into England. I was about three days out of England on a destroyer and was below decks and we were playing cards and killing the time until we got into England. I was on morphine pretty much all the time because this was one hell of a painful thing. And I was dealing with one hand, I learned to deal with one hand, and the guy in sick bay would come by and say, “Is your thumb still hurting you?” “Yeah, probably a little bit more than it had before. Whose deal?” You know, the next thing you’re dealing cards. The pain is still there. It’s a beautiful, powerful tool to treat pain because the pain is there, but it doesn’t bother you.”

As he doesn’t reveal in the first lecture, in 1960 Sasha first tried mescaline while a young chemist at Dow Pharmaceuticals. He said of the experience, “I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.’’ 

Chemicals can also catalyze profitability. The next year, he created Zectran, the first biodegradable pesticide. Dow could sell it by the ton. And as he said to his class—most likely with a wink and a Groucho Marx smile, “And industries love things they can sell by the ton.”

With his success, Dow was content to leave him alone in his lab, puttering around and doing just the kind of things he wanted. It was a chemist’s dream. And this dreamer dreamed up novel psychedelics.

As Hamilton Morris lovingly laid out, Sasha began with a simple modification to the mescaline molecule. He added one carbon to a side-chain and it became the psychedelic amphetamine that he called TMA. He continued experimenting and produced TMA-2 through TMA-6.  The last one eventually went on to become a moderately popular psychedelic in the US and Japan. 

As an alchemist, he knew you had to stick your finger into it and taste it for yourself. 

1963 marked the beginning of the end for the cushy Dow years: Sasha synthesized DOM (his PIHKAL entry here). By 1966, with LSD illegal, this psychedelic amphetamine started appearing on the street under the name STP (Serenity, Tranquility, and Peace). It earns its name. Shulgin himself said on 4 mg, “It is a beautiful experience. Of all past joys, LSD, mescaline, cannabis, peyote, this ranks number one.”

But the effects of DOM can last much much longer than LSD. You might have been enjoying the merry-go-round, but eventually you want to get off and let the world stop spinning. At 5 mg, he wrote, “The experience continued unabated throughout the night with much tension and discomfort. I was unable to get any sleep. I hallucinated quite freely during the night, but could stop them at will. While I never felt threatened, I felt I knew what it was like to look across the brink to insanity.” 

Unfortunately, just in time for the Summer of Love, some underground chemist dosed a batch at 20 mg of DOM per pill. On top of that high dosage, the full effects can take two hours to kick in and so it’s easy to imagine redosing because you don’t think it’s working. In Golden Gate Park at the huge and historic Human Be-In, thousands got way too high in trips that could last for three days. Within a year, the feds made DOM illegal and when Dow figured out the mind behind the molecule, they kindly showed Dr. Shulgin the door.

He went to his home laboratory in the hills outside Berkeley, California, and became a gentleman scientist in the vein of Ed Ricketts. But instead of the sea, Shulgin peered into the mind. He kept his Schedule 1 license by being useful to the DEA and funded himself with consultations and teaching. In plain sight of the authorities, he tinkered with hundreds of psychedelics—including the rediscovery of MDMA. 

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Alexander Shulgin’s Definitions

From this unique perspective, the students in Sasha’s class got to learn about two of the trickiest problems in pharmacology and sociology:

  1. How do you define ‘drug’?
  2. How do you define ‘drug abuse’?

He begins, “Philosophy aside, what is a drug? The FDA has given a marvelous, marvelous, long legal definition that goes on for four paragraphs”. He continues to gently mock this FDA definition until he shares a better explanation from Professor Samuel Irwin: “A drug is any chemical that modifies the function of living tissue, resulting in physiological or behavioral change.” But Shulgin takes it farther:

“I would make the definition looser yet, and considerably more general. Not just a chemical, but also plants, minerals, concepts, energy, just any old stuff. Not just changes in physiology or behavior, but also in attitude, concept, attention, belief, self-image, and even changes in faith and allegiance. “A drug is something that modifies the expected state of a living thing.” In this guise, almost everything outside of food, sleep, and sex can classify as a drug. And I even have some reservations about all three of those examples.”

Cue the laughter. In these transcripts, you often see [laughter], and you know the transcribers are probably underreporting it. It makes you want to listen to the original tapes. Those lucky kids, getting to learn about ingestion methods from one of the great alchemists of the century. Sasha teaches on how we metabolize these drugs, how they sequester to different tissues, how we form bad habits with them and how we form good habits with them.

“If you can drink modestly, if you can use tobacco modestly and have a choice, have freedom of choice, and choose to do it and you have a good relationship with it, and it applies to alcohol, it applies to tobacco, it applies to LSD, it applies to herointhere is nothing intrinsically evil about any of those drugs. Drugs are not intrinsically evil. In fact, we are going to get into the question of what is drug abuse. The problems that are bothersome with the definition of the word “drug” are nothing compared with the ones that are to be faced with the word “abuse.””

He even had a collection of definitions of ‘drug abuse’. From his huge consumption of articles, essays and public talks, you can imagine the different versions collected in his files, like species of beetles pinned in a collector’s cabinet. He found they fell into “the four operative words: what, who, where and how.”

What a drug is…

  • a particularly lousy definition because drug abuse is linked directly to the shape of the molecule itself.

Who’s giving the drug…

  • following Szasz, if drugs from a doctor is drug use and if self-medication is drug abuse, then doctors stand between you and your drugs like priests did between you and God before the Reformation.

Where is the drug obtained…

  • according to Dr. Jerome Levine at NIMH, drugs from “illicit channels, and/or in medically unsupervised or socially unsanctioned settings.”
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And finally, how are drugs used?

“I personally believe, most strongly, that in the improper use of drugs lies their abuse. Dr. Irwin has phrased it thusly: “[Drug abuse is] the taking of drugs under circumstances, and at dosages that significantly increase their hazard potential, whether or not used therapeutically, legally, or as prescribed by a physician.

“People use drugs, have always used drugs, and will forever use drugs, whether there are physicians or not…

Any use of a drug that impairs physical or mental health, that interferes with one’s social functioning or productivity is drug abuse. And the corollary is also true. The use of a drug that does not impair physical or mental health or interfere with social functioning or productivity is not drug abuse. And the question of its illegality is completely beside the matter.”

And the Freedom Fighter in him isn’t slow to point out how these definitions are used to harm people in the real world via the War on Drugs. Plus, the sly wizard mentions the recent banning of MDMA as a textbook example of the misuse of drug abuse.

What a prof. He defines terms, rambles on to fascinating asides and uses brilliant metaphors. And of course, he made no secret of his dislike of midterms, finals and grades. He’s the kind of cool teacher who takes a Socratic poll on what kind of final to have and finally decides to make it an essay question where you have to disagree with him.

Buy The Book: The Nature of Drugs

All these lectures give the portrait of a courageous, beautiful soul. And with this book, the course is only getting started. There’s another volume still to be published where he will drill down into the various categories of drugs. 

Anyone interested in psychoactives should get this book and support the further compiling of Dr. Shulgin’s work. If you’ve ever spent $30 on any of his chemical creations, helping out by buying the book seems only fair. And you get to own a lovely portrait of someone whom we are very lucky for having lived and having taught.

About the Author

Lex Pelger. With a background in biochemistry, Lex Pelger writes and lectures about the science of psychoactives. He’s written three graphic novels about the endocannabinoid system based on Moby-Dick and hosts the Lex Files podcast about spirituality and psychoactives. Follow him on Twitter @TheLexFilesShow or join his No Nonsense! newsletter.

PT249 – Hadas Alterman, Serena Wu, and Adriana Kertzer of Plant Medicine Law Group

In this episode, Joe interviews Hadas Alterman, Serena Wu, and Adriana Kertzer: three lawyers who came together to form Plant Medicine Law Group, a law firm serving the cannabis and psychedelic space.  

They discuss their individual paths towards psychedelics and each other, who they hope to serve and work with through the firm, adversarial relationships within the psychedelic ecosystem, and what they’re most excited about in the future, ranging from bringing psychedelic knowledge to traditional Chinese frameworks to working on a Measure 110-inspired decriminalization plan for New York. 

They also talk about the problems with “manels” and “wanels” dominating the event circuit, Tina Fey, law accepting the concept of emotional harm, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the idea of using psychedelics for dispute resolution cases, and the issues with bringing new religious exercises and concepts to judges who came from traditions and viewpoints based only on the three major religions.  

Notable Quotes

“For me, being Chinese American, I don’t see a lot of Asians in the psychedelic space, and it was hard for me to come forward and be public about coming out with this law firm as well as coming out with my own story about my experiences. But the thing is, I thought: If I’m not saying something and I’m waiting for someone else to say it, then I can wait a very long time. So instead of waiting, why don’t I become that person that I’m hoping to model after or look up to?” -Serena

“If we’re not all here exchanging value within the market, for goodness sake, what are we doing?” -Hadas

“I really hope to see, one day, for certain types of disputes, psychedelic-assisted dispute resolution. I can see this working really well with certain types of family law. I would be very interested to see this in corporate settings, although I think we’re a ways off. I just feel like this basic underlying concept of oneness is inherently at odds with the traditional Western legal system because when it’s you against someone else, that’s bifurcated- that’s two. So what would the law look like if we weren’t two; if we were really treating each other as one?” -Hadas

“I’ve been compiling a list of references to psychedelics in contemporary television shows, movies, music, and fashion, and I think that we’re really seeing a moment in which, on the negative side, you have a mental health care crisis and real proof that the current medical system is failing us and that SSRIs are not the only answer; and on the other hand, you’re seeing cultural production that is normalizing or creating curiosity around psychedelics, such that a book like Michael Pollan’s [is] not landing on an empty table of cultural production. There’s a lot that’s happening, even in music videos, that makes it so that a book like that creates a tipping point (but it’s not the only thing that creates a tipping point) that then creates a kind of momentum that, in my opinion, creates legal change.” -Adrianna


Twitter: @law_plant

Instagram: @womeninpsychedelics

Instagram: @jewwhotokes

Chacruna’s Community Forum Series: Why Religion Matters: The Need for Faith-Specific Psychedelic replay (the event happened in March)

NYMHA: New Yorkers for Mental Health Alternatives (previously Democratize Healing)

Psychedelic Bar Association

Summit at Sea

About Hadas Alterman, Adriana Kertzer, and Serena Wu

Hadas Alterman is an Israeli-American attorney, born in Jerusalem and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a J.D. from Berkeley Law and a B.A. in Community Studies/Agriculture & Social Justice from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Prior to founding Plant Medicine Law Group, she worked with a leading cannabis law firm in San Francisco. Hadas was the Policy Director of NYMHA, an organization that she co-founded that successfully lobbied for the introduction of a New York bill to decriminalize psilocybin by statute, and is a Board Member of the Psychedelic Bar Association. She also serves on the Equity Subcommittee of the Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board.

Serena Wu is a Chinese-American lawyer, born in Hainan and raised in Los Angeles. She has a J.D. from Harvard University Law School and a B.A. in Media Studies from University of California, Berkeley. Serena began her legal career at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP in New York City as a litigation associate, and is deeply committed to increasing equitable access to alternative healing, including psychedelic plant medicines. She is the founder of @womeninpsychedelics, an Instagram account that showcases the contributions, voices, and experiences of women in the psychedelics space, and Asian Psychedelics Society (“APS”), a group dedicated to discussions about psychedelics and mental health in the AAPI community.

Adriana Kertzer is a Brazilian-American attorney, born and raised in São Paulo. Adriana has a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center, a B.A. from Brown University in Judaic Studies and International Relations, and an M.A. from Parsons The New School for Design. She began her legal career as a corporate associate on Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s Latin American capital markets team. She was Senior Advisor to the Senior Deputy Chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts under President Obama, is on the board of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and is the author of the book Favelization: The Imaginary Brazil in Contemporary Film, Fashion and Design. She is passionate about Jewish psychedelic culture, leads the interfaith working group Faith+Psychedelics, and founded @jewwhotokes, an Instagram account that explores relationships with cannabis and psychedelics in the Jewish community. 

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PTSF64 – The First Woman to Take Acid, The Drug Policy Reform Act, and Indigenous Language Extinction

In this week’s Solidarity Friday episode, Michelle, Kyle, and Joe review the most interesting articles and recent news in the world of psychedelia. 

They first talk about Chacruna’s article highlighting not only the world’s first trip-sitter, but also the first woman to take LSD, Albert Hofman’s assistant, Susi Ramstein. They then look into the new Pill-iD app coming out in the UK, which will match user-submitted pictures of MDMA with pictures from their database, using machine learning to determine purity and strength. While this is good (especially in a post-quarantine environment of people very eager to chemically celebrate their ability to be together again), how much can we really know without any chemical analysis? And how much should we trust their database?

They then revisit their discussion on California’s Senate Bill 519 (turns out it does mean legalization after all, but if so, why is “decriminalization” used in the bill’s title?), excitedly discuss the first all-drug decriminalization bill being submitted to Congress (the Drug Policy Reform Act, or DPRA), talk about psilocybin being studied for anti-inflammatory effects and Robin-Carhart Harris’ recent interview with Court Wing, and finally, get into the very real and often not-talked-about importance of ancient and Indigenous language and the danger of losing it: Are we going to lose more knowledge from the loss of language than from the destruction of habitat?

Notable Quotes

“The argument here is not only the human cost, [but] the real financial cost of an overdose is extreme, relative to getting ahead of this. So cities and governments can save money by offering this. Less dead bodies to pick up with your EMTs, less situations of overdose to respond to.  …If we can do harm reduction [and] say, ‘Hey, these are people too,’ we also save money, and we save lives, and we get those lives back into society in a hopefully meaningful way.” -Joe

“The bill is damning of the drug war, of criminalization, [and it] talks about how criminalization and the drug war have added more harm to consumption. And the fact that it passed the California Senate means that these politicians are starting to catch on to how brutal this has been. And in this post-BLM, post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor era; hey, you guys have got to clean your act up, otherwise, you’re going to have riots on your hands.” -Joe 

“If this bill does pass, I feel like that’s sending a message to the whole world that we can be rational again. This wasn’t rational, this wasn’t based on science, and a lot of people mistrust us now because of that. …What would we be showing young people if we did this? …Not that we need more respect for authority, but we could respect authority at all if they could show us that they could rule or govern us in a rational, science-based way.” -Michelle 

“If we ever get to the point in human civilization where things start to collapse and we need to understand the environment [and the plants] a little bit more, we’re going to be very lost. Just going outside and looking around you, what plants do you know? What stories do you know about the plants around you? Do you know what’s edible? Do you know what’s medicinal? All these things that you call weeds are actually edible plants or have really great medicinal value. Do you know the story of the landscape in which you live in?” -Kyle

Links Susi’s Tram Ride: Recognizing the First Woman to Take LSD Pill-iD App Lets Users Scan MDMA Pills To See What They Contain Drug-smuggling tunnel to Mexico found under abandoned KFC in Arizona

SB-519 Controlled substances: decriminalization of certain hallucinogenic substances (the actual bill) First All-Drug Decriminalization Bill to Be Introduced in Congress Summary of the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) of 2021 Silo Pharma Announces Collaboration with University California San Francisco to study Psilocybin as an Anti-Inflammatory agent in Parkinson’s and Bipolar Patients UCSF Launches Translational Psychedelic Research (TrPR) Program Psilocybin for Depression: A Q&A between Robin Carhart-Harris & a Psilocybin Study Participant Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge


Psychedelic Medicine: The Healing Powers of LSD, MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca, by Richard Louis Miller

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari

The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic: The Parallel Lives of People as Plants: Keeping the Seeds Alive, by Martín Prechtel

Drug testing resources:

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