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Travels in the New Psychedelic Bazaar

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There are a few interlocking strands in this new drug culture, many familiar from previous movements, but this time woven in a different way. To start with, there’s the media and its fantasies (“MDMA makes holes in your brain”), and gurus delivering hoary mystical lore (“There is a cosmic mushroom mind”). And one could argue that drugs are an essential part of the futurist spirit of the moment, in full swoon with tech and science, and “now in the mainstream blossoming of the mid-nineties underground ‘techno pagan’ culture,” as author and psychedelic historian Erik ­Davis puts it. The process of selecting, sampling, and sometimes resynthesizing drugs is also connected to the do-it-yourself culture of computer hacking, another democratized technology. Many of these new experimenters feel that simply by journaling their experiences on the Internet, they are adding to the sum of scientific knowledge about these ­compounds—which, to a certain sort of person, means progress.

There has never been a time when we’ve been more open to the recognition that, as Hamilton Morris says, “everything is chemical in the world,” so there’s no reason to think that putting “chemicals in your brain, which is made of chemicals, is bad.” The right to put drugs in one’s own body is one that some people hold dear, a form of “cognitive liberty.” In the drug community, there’s utopian talk about what the future portends. “Every few months, we hear from someone who has just received their Ph.D. in pharmacology, chemistry, neurology, or psychology,” say the Erowids. “In 40 years, they will be senior researchers … The 2010s will be to the 2060s what the 1960s are to today.”

But there’s another way of looking at these preternaturally colorful developments. National emergency-room visits, the accepted metric for drug trends, found a record 49 novel compounds in 2011. “We’re starting to get a big-time problem with these new drugs,” says Rusty Payne, an agent at the DEA’s national office. “It turns out that we, as Americans, have an appetite for silly things like synthetics.”

For the wizard, Morris, and Pelger, the contemporary psychedelic idol isn’t Timothy Leary’s preacher man, or Terrance ­McKenna and his shamanic plants, though he’s beloved by those into ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew that Allen Ginsberg described as “a big wet vagina” or “great hole of God-nose.” Instead, it’s the original underground psychonaut and tinkerer: Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a Harvard-educated Dow Chemical scientist who left the company shortly after he discovered that MDMA had psychoactive properties (it’s thought that it was synthesized by Merck in 1912, by chemists looking for drugs to stop bleeding), and has basically been a one-man R&D department for synthetic drugs for the past 50-odd years. In his home lab in the Bay Area, which for decades was semi-­sanctioned by the DEA (agents liked to be able to call him when something esoteric crossed their paths) and ignored when the politics in the country started to change, Shulgin made over 100 completely novel drugs and many more variations on a theme. He tried them himself, along with a small circle of friends called his “research group” and his wife, Ann, whom he seduced through chemistry. After imbibing his compounds, the couple engaged in “absolute truth-­telling,” with Rachmaninoff forming “huge petals of sensuous violet and pink, with a stamen of glowing yellow,” finally stripping their dressing gowns for lovemaking and then sitting quietly to type “experience notes” and eat a bowl of thick Dutch split-pea soup.

The Shulgins might sound like Santa and Mrs. Claus, but Sasha’s choice to publish all the recipes for the drugs he made in two enormous “cookbooks,” titled PiHKAL and TiHKAL (“Phenethylamines [or Tryptamines] I Have Known and Loved”), was actually quite subversive. Not only did he often refrain from using illegal “precursor chemicals” when chemically composing his drugs, but he was also able to retain legal use for awhile for most of them even under the Federal Analog Act of 1986, which says that any chemical that is “substantially similar” to a controlled substance is illegal.

In fact, the recipes in his books formed the entirety of the designer-drug market in the nineties. The most popular was 2C-B, a euphoriant Shulgin described as “unbelievably erotic, quiet, and exquisite.” For these drugs, and other phenethylamines, Shulgin substituted around the phenethylamine skeleton, adding different groups of molecules to create brain stimulants, ­central-nervous stimulants, or more and more serotonin, which starts to create hallucinations. “I like Shul­gin’s 2Cs a lot,” says Chemical Ali. “2C-D is strictly visual; 2C-P is twelve hours long; 2C-B is my favorite, because it’s an ecstasylike experience—not that you’re in a cuddle puddle or anything, but you do feel good.”


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