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OBITUARY: Shulgin, ‘Godfather Of Ecstasy,’ Dies In Lafayette

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Gerald Varcak

1925 – 2014

Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a biochemist and former Dow Chemical Co. researcher whose trend-setting work with the drug MDMA branded him as “the godfather of ecstasy,” died June 2 at his home in Lafayette. He was 88.

An outspoken advocate of the use of drugs in treatment therapies, Shulgin designed hundreds of psychotropic substances which he tested on himself and friends, working with his wife out of a sanctioned laboratory in their Lafayette home.

“I have little insight as to how these remarkable compounds do what they do,” Shulgin wrote in a 2005 article in MIT Technology Review. “My hope is that psychedelic compounds may be the tools, or may lead to the discovery of tools, that can throw some light on elusive questions about how the mind works.”

Shulgin began focusing on a compound patented in 1912 by German drugmaker Merck and called MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, in the 1970s. Ten years later illegal street versions of the drug – known in the clubs where they were favored as ecstasy or molly – became widely available and popular with college students and patrons of urban rave parties who appreciated the drug for the feeling of intimacy, euphoria and seemingly endless energy it provided. Dozens of deaths attributed to the drug prompted a harsher look at its use and brought Shulgin’s work into question. His home lab was raided by DEA agents in 1994. He was fined $25,000 for possessing controlled drugs the agency charged he had failed to report to authorities.

Shulgin was born in Berkeley. He attended Harvard University, leaving college in 1943 to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war he resumed his undergraduate work at Berkeley, receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954. He completed post-doctoral work in psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California at San Francisco.