Today, most of Shulgin’s compounds are gone—he supposedly burned many of them, which Morris, the self-styled drug historian, expresses dismay about, because “to burn such a thing would be like burning a painting.” Now 87, Shulgin has had multiple strokes and is suffering from dementia, and friends are soliciting donations for his care, reminding others to “think of all the ways that your life, and the lives of others, have been healed, transformed, and bettered by this wonderful man.”
Before he became incapable of inventing new drugs (colleagues don’t believe that Shulgin’s drug use added to his dementia), the research-chemical market started to change. Things ramped up in 2000, in part because the DEA managed to catch William Leonard Pickard, thought to have been the biggest LSD manufacturer in the world. Pickard’s lab, with Persian rugs and a $120,000 stereo system, was located in a decommissioned missile silo near Topeka, Kansas. The DEA claimed the lab was capable of producing 2.8 billion hits, though Pickard disputed this figure, claiming he only had precursor for 15 million hits. Acid suddenly became very scarce in the U.S. Users had to become open to trying new drugs. At the same time, online forums like Bluelight and Drugs-Forum introduced locked advanced-chemistry sections, where chemists of all stripes—from university professors and Ph.D.’s to amateur hobbyists like the Wizard—were able to communicate for the first time.
On a recent evening, I went to tea with Morris, a handsome 25-year-old with the desiccated–Ivy Leaguer look of a Vampire Weekend musician, and the six-one, 120-pound form of someone who couldn't care less about normal sustenance—often he just drinks a mix of vegetable and protein powder shakes for lunch and dinner. “When I was younger, it seemed impossible to me that one human being could make so many novel compounds—Shulgin’s work, I thought, would take 100 lifetimes—but the truth is, one committed chemist working in a lab can make a new compound almost every day, and very quickly will make hundreds,” says Morris.
We’re talking about the evolution of the synthetics industry, which Morris has been closely watching and chronicling for Vice magazine. Morris says that, with notable exceptions like some designer benzos, Ph.D.’s at mainstream university labs made most of the big innovations in post-Shulgin synthetics, mostly while developing drugs for other purposes. For example, the N-bomb was a product of a Free University of Berlin chemist who was researching schizophrenia. “Synthetic cannabinoids” were discovered by Clemson University professor John W. Huffman when he probed cannabinoid receptors to regulate nausea and appetite during cancer treatment.
Patents for these drugs are easy to find on Google Patents. That’s where many underground chemists and research-chemical vendors look for new drugs to synthesize, in hopes that their quasi-legal nature will help them get rich while staying out of jail. Once the drugs are on the market, gray-market tinkerers take them into their own labs or study them and make modifications—some members of the advanced-chemistry forums made variations on Huffman’s synthetic-pot group, for example, each with its own trip.
Academic researchers aren’t happy about this, for the most part—the theft of his patented drugs, Huffman has said, is a “royal pain in the rear end.” They truly did not intend that these drugs would be taken by humans. There aren’t even tests on rats for some of this stuff.
But with no FDA, making large batches of these drugs is surprisingly easy. All you have to do is send a CAS number (chemical I.D.) to the one country in the world that’s best at making all sorts of weird chemicals, from HGH to soy sauce to the plastic goo that forms Walmart toys—China. Morris has checked out a couple of Shanghai labs where vendors outsource drug production and says they make other drugs there, like off-market Viagra. “The [Chinese plants] may not be up to the standard of a Merck pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, but many are producing high-purity products, with surprisingly few compounds containing dangerous contaminants” or misidentified ones, he says, describing standing on a shipping dock with barrels of synthetic pot doubtlessly headed for the U.S.
For most underground psychonauts, direct-from-China is now the preferred source of drugs, other than a clandestine chemist who can be trusted, and with China in the picture, there are fewer and fewer of those in the U.S. “Clandestine chemistry is a dying American folk art,” says Morris.
Says a law-enforcement official, “China’s a mess. We’re not going to go over there and just tell them they’re dropping the ball. It’s being done, but sensitively. It’s a monster challenge.”
Underground psychonauts like the Wizard and Chemical Ali might not be as accomplished researchers as Huffman, but they think about their drug use as research, too, and keep their own notes on their experiences, just as Shulgin did. Unlike some users’ “trip reports” on the forums, which say things like “in the presence of the God-head I forget who and what I am,” “the time has come for change, and the change is paradise,” “I felt like my heart was being flogged by a miniature devil,” or declare “nothing made sense!!!,” the Wizard’s usually kept things light. His report on 16 milligrams of 2C-E reads: “At 1:30am, Tera, my girlfriend, has vomited two times now. (Sidenote, she vomits on everything, including water.) We have been listening to a wide range of music, however the choice songs of the night were ‘Lodi Dodi’ by Snoop Dogg and ‘The fluffy little clouds’ by the Orb. What a combination, eh? Paul compares it to 5 hits of LSD and 75mg of MDMA. Tera and I disappear occasionally through out the night for the sexual escapades that 2c-e always has on us. At about 3am, we go back upstairs and Paul and I rant a while about the U.S. government and such. (Sidenote, pre-rolled joints are required if you plan to smoke weed during your trip, LOL.) Overall, the experience was wonderful, however I still prefer the 20mg dose, as it’s almost double the intensity.”