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"Dr. Ecstasy" laments the rave drug's notoriety

Fri Dec 2, 7:02 PM ET

Alexander Shulgin, pharmacologist and chemist known for his creation of new psychoactive chemicals, is interviewed in Cambridge, Massachusetts December 1, 2005. Shulgin has synthesized and bioassayed (self-tested) hundreds of psychoactive chemicals, including MDMA, which became known as the drug Ecstasy.

The scientist who introduced Ecstasy to the world in the 1970s fears the drug's notoriety and popularity at nightclubs is destroying any chance that it might be used to treat the mentally ill.

"It's very excellent potential for being used as medicine has been badly jeopardized," Alexander Shulgin, said after defending the merits of mind-altering drugs at a symposium on the human brain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week.

"It's gone out of control," lamented Shulgin, a tall Californian with a mane of white hair and a Santa Claus-like beard, who is widely known as "Dr. Ecstasy."

A psychopharmacological researcher who once had a license from the U.S. government to develop any illegal drug, Shulgin believes so strongly in the power of psychedelic drugs in unlocking the human mind that he plans to publish a 1,500-page encyclopedia next year of all his creations.

The 80-year-old former lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, who self-tested many of his experiments and admits to more than 4,000 psychedelic experiences, finds little comfort in Ecstasy's image as the drug of choice at all-night nightclub dance parties or raves.

"These rave scenes have added kindling to the fire of governmental disapproval," he said.

Use of the drug, known for inducing euphoria and energy while reducing inhibitions, surged 70 percent from 1995 to 2000, according to United Nations data.

Ecstasy-related deaths, while relatively rare, make enough headlines to force authorities to regularly issue health warnings. Australia's National Drug and Alcohol Research Center in April said users risked harmful psychological effects.

Tracing that rise of the drug leads straight to Shulgin. A gifted biochemist and former National Institutes of Health consultant, he unearthed a formula for MDMA -- a synthetic drug with psychedelic and stimulant effects -- in a 1912 chemistry text and synthesized it into Ecstasy in 1976.

After testing it on himself, he became convinced of its power to treat mental illness. He gave the drug to psychotherapist and close friend, Leo Zeff, who sampled it, agreed, and passed it to hundreds of other therapists.

Shulgin, who had already quit a senior job at Dell Chemical after sampling mescaline in 1960 in a life-changing introduction to psychedelic drugs, enjoyed a period of celebrity as a cutting-edge chemist.

He described his first experiment with psychedelic drugs as a "very delightful experience" in which he could "see clearly what he could not appreciate before."

Ecstasy was used in its early days as a treatment for depression and other illnesses, but that ended abruptly in 1986 when it was banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Recently, however, Ecstasy has had a modest comeback in clinical therapy. U.S authorities gave researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina permission last year to use MDMA in a small study of patients suffering post-traumatic stress.

In August, researchers at Duke University in North Carolina found that amphetamines, including Ecstasy, reversed the effects of Parkinson's disease in mice, raising the possibility of exploring related treatments for humans.

Meanwhile, Shulgin, whose involvement in psychedelic drug research spans 40 years, is at work compiling his encyclopedia on 1,000 psychedelic compounds. It is modeled on the Merck Index of chemical properties.

"It will be everything that is known to be, has been tried but not found yet to be, or should be tried because they are apt to be psychedelic," he said of the work, which he expects to self-publish by the middle of next year.

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