Love and Other Drugs by Michael Martin (c) 2010 (for Interview Magazine)
(see link for actual interview)Over the past four decades, Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin has created more than 200 psychedelic drug compounds, many involving MDMA—better known by its street name, ecstasy. The Northern California–bred scientist is the subject of a new documentary, Dirty Pictures—so named for the sketches of chemical compounds on the vials in Shulgin’s lab—though he is hardly a hedonist. Although the gray-bearded, tremulous-voiced Shulgin looks every bit the wizardly counter-cultural alchemist, the film depicts him as a serious researcher intent on expanding the frontiers of the mind; to him, psychoactive drugs are a gateway to true self-understanding and a potential salve for depression.
A former chemist for The Dow Chemical Company, the 85-year-old Shulgin left the corporate world in 1965 to pursue his preferred research, which he conducts from a ramshackle lab in the back of his Berkeley-area bungalow. (Shulgin won’t reveal the exact location of his house—though, he says, he no longer works with MDMA or other classifiably “illegal” drugs.) He met his wife, Ann, in 1979, and they immediately bonded over a mutual interest in visionary plants. At age 79, she is his research and writing partner. Dirty Pictures shows the Shulgins’ sampling new drug compounds with friends and associates—they call this experimenting. These scenes are intercut with the Shulgins’ travels—to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, to Egypt, to a symposium in New York City—and interviews with an amiable DEA agent and a chemist who’s developing psychedelic drugs for use in medicine but has never actually tried them himself.
In 1991, the Shulgins published the book PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, which describes their relationship and work—a bit too explicitly for some, who saw it as a drug cookbook. Coincidentally or not, three years later, the DEA raided their home and lab but found nothing illegal. Still, Shulgin was asked to surrender his DEA Schedule 1 license and was fined $25,000. A sequel, TiHKAL, followed in 1997, and now the pair are finishing up a giant index of psychoactive drugs. In a three-way chat, Sasha, Ann, and their assistant Tania discuss the mind-bending nature of their life’s work.