Blog Post

RIP Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin: "Godfather of Ecstasy" and Drug Policy Reform Pioneer

Jag Davies

Sasha Shulgin, who passed away Monday at the age of 88, was many things to many people. He was not just a pharmacologist, author, and medical chemist, but a pioneer in drug policy reform.

Best known for introducing MDMA to psychologists in the 1970s, and for synthesizing more than 200 psychedelic drugs, Shulgin was previously a chemist for Dow Chemical before he moved on in 1965 to pursue his own research. This led him to publish the apparently-evergreen books PiHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved) and TiHkal (Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved) with his wife, Ann.

Shulgin is also a longtime member of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Honorary Board. Twenty-five years ago, he joined DPA’s Ethan Nadelmann, who was then a professor at Princeton, in a seminal working group of academics and intellectuals who set out to envision the future of drug policy and alternatives to prohibition.

When Congress passed the Federal Analogue Act in 1986 – right at the height of the U.S. drug hysteria – it essentially criminalized Shulgin’s life’s work. Sasha passionately believed in the need for reforming drug laws and ending the drug war. He wrote a few years ago:

“I strongly advocate the repeal of all federal drug laws. The states then would be free to add this, or remove that, according to the wishes of its population. Eventually all state laws prohibiting drugs would, in time, also be repealed. Oh, some will have to remain – the giving of drugs to minors, or to people without their consent, or driving a car while intoxicated. But the war on drugs is an abysmal failure and must be retired.”

Sasha’s perspective was rooted in the principle of human freedom – and the right of each and every one of us to sovereignty over our own minds and bodies. That principle is fundamental to Sasha’s legacy. (And a principle articulated in DPA’s mission and vision.)

Sasha also recognized that this principle did not just extend to people who learn and benefit from marijuana and psychedelics. He recognized that this principle needs to extend to the entire world of psychoactive substances. He recognized that even with substances that can be more dangerous and problematic, the government should not be able to intrude on people’s sovereignty, if we are to live in a free society.

It’s striking that Sasha was able to achieve so many epic accomplishments despite the vicious and relentless nature of the war on drugs.  While Sasha didn’t end up behind bars, hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested or imprisoned for producing or even just possessing one of the substances that Sasha discovered.

Perhaps in the future, our society can evolve to the point where we welcome geniuses like him rather than marginalizing them.

Jag Davies is the publications manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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