"...Anything that the human is capable of
doing through the mind is duplicable pharmacologically.."
with Alexander and Ann
Alexander (Sasha) and Ann Shulgin stand on the frontier of designer
neurochemistry, developing a plethora of miraculous pharmacological keys
that unlock different aspects of the brain is hidden potential. They are
known to many as the authors of the underground best-seller
PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, the title of which is an acronym for
Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Alexander is a long-standing,
well-respected research chemist and professor of pharmacology at the
University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in
biochemistry in 1954. He is the author of 150 scientific research papers,
twenty patents, and three books. Although Alexander has been quite
outspoken regarding his Opposition to the so-called war on drugs, he has
been a scientific consultant for such state-run organizations as the
National Institute on Drug Abuse, NASA, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and
the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But in private, in his government-licensed research lab, he has
spent the last thirty years discretely--yet legally-designing hundreds of
new psychoactive compounds, particularly psychedelics. Along with his
wife, Ann, and a small, brave, and dedicated research group, they sample
each new drug as it is developed. Through the cautious escalation of
dosage, they discover and map out the range of each new drug's effects,
experimenting with the various aspects of their psychological and
spiritual potential. Most of Alexander ‘s psychoactive designer molecules
are unknown to the public, but a few, such as
2CB (an MDMA
analogue) and DOM (better known as STP), have received widespread
distribution. Their research continues to this day, and a new book,
TIHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved) is on the way. Their
previous book, PIHKAL, details their truly remarkable adventures and, for
those with a solid background in chemistry, provides the esoteric recipes
for recreating hundreds of Alexander's finely crafted magic molecules.
Alexander and Ann make a very compatible research team: they
complement on another; and their relationship reflects a deep commitment
to inner exploration. They are extremely warm, and anxious to share what
they've learned through their experimentation. We interviewed them at
their home in Lafayette east of Berkeley in northern California on May 19,
1993. Ann is strong, solid and grounded very much connected to the earth.
Before moving to northern California as a teenager she lived in four
countries. She worked as a medical secretary at the UCSF Medical Center
and has three children from a previous marriage, to Jungian analyst John
Ferry. She is presently a psychotherapist.
A wild electrical current seems to buzz through Alexander’s nervous
system, as evidenced by the white hair that seems to stand on end on his
head and face, and the excited manner in which he explains everything.
Alexander’s research laboratory, just a short walk from the main house, is
filled by a complex of interlocking flasks, glass beakers, plastic tubes,
heating coils, and countless bottles; it looks dramatic enough to be used
as a Hollywood movie set. The only chemicals that we sample, however; are
in the cheese sandwiches that we have for lunch before we begin the
interview. Even so, we do feel ourselves to be in an altered state.
David: What was it that inspired you to write
Alexander: I was inspired partly by the history of
Wilhelm Reich. I discovered that in his very last years he got into very
unusual and not totally acceptable areas of hypotheses, such as making
rains fall by means of electro-static guns and other such ventures.
The FDA filed a lawsuit against him for promoting radical equipment
that had not been approved by them. They put him in jail and he died
there. After his death the FDA took all his lab books and papers and
burned them. One of the reasons I wrote Pihkal was because I could
see the need to get a lot of information that had not been published into
a form that just could not be destroyed.
Ann: And I couldn't imagine him writing all that fun
stuff without my help. (laughter) I've co-authored one paper with
him before and discovered that it's a great ego-boost to do good writing
and I've never had anything published before. It became the most exciting
thing in the world to do, especially because it was pushing against the
My model and my hero was Castaneda
but what I wanted to do was bring in the personal which he failed to do -
marriage, kids, love, soup - every day reality. Our feeling about
psychedelics is that if you use them the right way, they enrich your
everyday life. You learn to think a different way about the ordinary
things you see.
Rebecca: What is a phenethylamine, why is it so special
and what role has it played in your research?
Alexander: There are a collection of neurotransmitters in
the brain and two of the largest families are the phenethylamines and the
tryptamines.And it turned out that all the known psychedelics around the
time I got curious in this area - back in the `50's and 60's - were either
phenethylamines ortryptamines. It's now been shown that this is a very
good guide. Nature said, "here are the two basic building blocks and if
you're going to do something with the brain it's going to be with one or
David: Why did the two of you use ficitonal names in the
book when the story was obviously autobiographical?
Ann: Among the drugs we were writing about some, like
are illegal. It was risky enough writing the book in the first place. We
didn't know what to expect from the establishment, if anything. Some
people late at night with baseball bats smashing up the lab was a
perfectly reasonable possibility. Using fictional names gave us a
The second reason was so that I could tell my children that the sex in
the book wasn't actually us. (laughter) Also, we didn't want to
jeopardize our next book. At this point, when not only has there been no
fire from heaven descending on our heads but the DEA itself is one of our
best customers, it's easy to look back and ask why were we worried.
Alexander: One of the things I did was to send a score
copy of the book to people within the DEA with covering phrases like,
`Here's a book that will provide you with a lot of information which may
be useful to you.'
David: What was their response to it?
Ann: They loved it. One of the higher administrators of
the DEA in Washington said, "My wife and I read your book and it's great!"
David: Sasha, how did you become a chemist?
Alexander: My doctorate degree is in biochemistry, but I
found that it didn't have the magic and the music of chemistry. In my
teaching class at Berkeley I would ask, "How many people are taking
organic chemistry?" And you'd hear this groan. Why? Because the typical
instruction would be, "Go and read pages 83-117 in the textbook and we'll
have a quiz on Monday." People hated it! Chemistry, however, is an art,
it's music, it's a style of thinking. Orbitals are for mathematicians,
chemistry is for people who like to cook!
Some of my colleagues would often have a goal and if something went
wrong they'd try and find out how else they could get it to go right. My
argument has always been, if something went wrong, Oh wow! Out of this
will come something unexpected. That led me into a very great curiosity
about the mind process which was greatly amplified by my first
Drugs do not do things, they are allowing you to do things. It's
not an imposition from the outside. People tend to say, "What did that
drug do?" or, "How did the drug do what it did?" or, "I took a drug and it
did such and such." In each instance this is giving up your power to an
inert white solid. The drug catalyzes and facilitates but it doesn't do
things. That puts it in perspective. You don't have to give credit to a
David: And it also encourages the person to take
Alexander: Completely. You can't live without that.
Rebecca: Do you ever find yourself making a judgment that
what you're experiencing is a quality of the drug rather than something
inherent in your own psyche?
Alexander: If I do then that experience is sure to be a
bummer!(laughter) Look at yourself in the mirror, it's a good
catharsis. It's me and the drug. It's a relationship which is
available to everyone. Everybody has the possibility of going into
some sort of ecstatic experience, at any time, without drugs, perhaps even
at the grocery store. Now there's a thought!(laughter)
Ann: If this were a property of the drug, it would be the
equivalent of the atom bomb! It's very useful for us that Sasha's
metabolism is just about as different from mine as it could possibly be. I
had a crisis week which was brought about by 40 mg of something which
turned out later to be absolutely inactive. That's the placebo effect
which can happen on any drug. But he's often taken a drug which he seems
to have a perfectly okay time on at an active level and I'll take it and
have a terrible time!
Rebecca: But haven't you found that these drugs do have a
certain character to them - a tendency to bring out a particular aspect of
Ann: The drug has a physical effect if nothing else, and
how my own individual chemistry and metabolism uses that drug might be
quite different than the way somebody else does it.
David: Do you think that the states of consciousness you
produce with your molecules could be produced by the endogenous
in the brain, or are you producing states of consciousness that are unique
and have never been and could never have been produced before without the
Alexander: I think they are deeply embedded in the human
Ann: (to David) I have a compulsion. It's a mother
thing. Could you put your left foot up please? (She ties his shoelace)
Alexander: I was asked almost the same question a few
years ago, so I made up a chart about telephones. The finger dial system
phone can be seen as an analog of the brain. All you're doing, if you dial
the number one and release it, is making one very fast break in the
integrity of the system. If you dial the six and release it, it makes six
breaks in the system. Then the relay gets broken three times when you dial
three, two times when you dial two and then five times, and you have the
number - 6325. You see, you make the circuit by the number of times you
break the relay. In fact, if you are very fast with your two fingers you
can dial 911 by hitting the cradle which gives you the dial tone 9 times
very fast and then once and then once again.
Then you have the push button system. Every time you hit a button
you're actually activating two frequencies simultaneously. They devised
frequencies so that there's no harmonic interference which could give you
a false signal. You're not imposing breaks in the system, you're
super-imposing two non-conflicting frequencies in the system.
I look upon this as the true analog of the human brain. The numbers
represent serotonin, dopamine etc. If you want a signal to come through,
you get this neurotransmitter combination which combines with this and
that and the next thing you know you have a thought process and memory.
But when they designed the system, they didn't make it three by four,
they made it four by four. These extra four stops have the rather
unimaginative names of A,B,C and D and to operate them there is a very
secret frequency of 1633 cycles per second. So if you play around with
these, you get into areas you wouldn't believe! The military and deep
computer language use these four additional stops. But they're not visible
on your telephone.
And of course, these stops represent your psychedelic drug
neurotransmitter which also gets you into weird places. All the wiring is
there but you don't have access to it because 2 million years ago it got
bred out of us because it didn't have survival value, in spite of what
Terence McKenna says. So the wiring
of the brain can use a psychedelic but the transmitter that makes it a
functional network is not available.
David: How did you first start designing drugs, and from
where do the two of you draw this courage to take unknown substances into
Alexander: It doesn't take that much courage. You're not
foolish. You don't take a whole teaspoonful to see if you burp.(laughter)
You start out with a reasonable estimate of what you think might be an
effective level and you divide that by whatever number your wisdom and
judgment tells you.
David: Nonetheless, you're still venturing off into the
Alexander: Admittedly the first time is an unknown, but
you start with a level where it would be hard to believe it would have an
effect. Almost never are you surprised, and when you are surprised you
learn from it.
Ann: What takes real courage is being on the street or at
a Rave and somebody gives you a little packet of something and it doesn't
say what it is or how much it is.
David: Well some people would call that stupidity rather
Alexander: People call what I do stupid too.(laughter)
But Iknow what I have and I know its purity and I know I can take it a
Rebecca: You also have a number system which helps you to
measure your reaction to a drug. It certainly beats having to come up with
a barrel load of adjectives to describe what's happening.
Ann: Yes, and it's helpful to the research group also.
Everybody knows when it's not just a plus 2. Perhaps it's a plus 2.65.(laughter)
Alexander: It does have the value of being able to be
applied not only to psychedelic drugs but to anything from stimulants to
sedatives. At the first level you are aware of something going on but
you're not aware of how long it goes on. At the next level you're aware
how long it goes on but you can't give a name to what's happening.
At the third level, whether or not you know how long it goes on or can
give a name to what's happening, you don't choose to go out and do
anything else because you're not totally in command of your physical and
mental capacities. Each of these levels are different degrees of
acceptance of the drug's action.
Rebecca: What therapeutic value have you found for the
drug MDMA and
why was it made illegal?
Ann: I worked for two years as a co-therapist with a
highly trained hypnotherapist before MDMA was made illegal but
psychotherapy with any kind of psychoactive drug was still not generally
accepted in the medical community. The many therapists who were using it
did not publish because it was not widely known and accepted by their
One of the reasons that MDMA was made Schedule I so quickly was that
the DEA found it in a lab which was making something else illegal and
decided to sweep it in with the rest of the stuff. They knew nothing about
Alexander: One of the rationalizations for it having been
made scheduled was that a group in Chicago were studying the effects of
MDA and had found some serotonin neuron changes in experimental animals. A
member of this group was on Donahue and spoke about this. Immediately they
said, "Well if that happens to
has almost the same name, it's almost the same compound, maybe it would
also be a negative." In the report that came out it was stated that there
are a lot of similarities between the two drugs and that was one of the
rationales for immediate emergency scheduling.
David: But there actually is some evidence that MDMA
causes degeneration of the dendrites.
Alexander: Yes. It's temporary. The consequence of that
is not understood. It's also species-specific: monkeys do, rats do, dogs
don't, mice don't and the effects in humans are unknown.
David: So it's questionable as to how accurate the spinal
tap studies were which showed that there was less serotonin.
Alexander: The results are ambiguous. There were two
basic studies. One of them found no measurable changes. All of these were
people who were alleged to have used the drug recently, but they did not
make the very necessary check to see if the drug was in the person. If
it's not in the person you may be looking at long-term residues of
something which may not be MDMA. The other study showed no
significant difference but it was suggestive'. (laughter)
Rebecca: Describe to us some of the applications of MDMA.
Ann: The most valuable effect of MDMA is that it enables
insight. The patient or the client may regard the possibility of having
insight into himself as a very threatening thing. One of the problems that
most human beings suffer from is the suspicion that the core essence of
who they are deep down is a monster. There is this terrible fear that when
you get down to it the essential you is going to be discovered to be a
rotten little slime-bag.
MDMA, in some way we don't yet understand, removes that fear. It allows
you not only to take a really deep look at who you are but to show you tha
tyou're a combination of angels and demons and that they're all valid.
Apartfrom the removal of the fear, there is also a kind of good-humored
acceptance that this drug allows you to feel. There is a validation of the
self which is a miraculous and marvelous thing to experience. MDMA does
not remove common sense caution - you still don't cross the road at the
red light - but this deep-seated fear is gone.
It is also an extraordinary tool for discovering repressed memories.
When I was doing therapy, a great many of our patients were women who were
professionals in the child-abuse field. An extraordinary number of them
had gone into the field not knowing that they themselves had been sexually
abused as children. MDMA brought out these memories. It is a tremendous
uncoverer, but with the uncovering is a gentle, compassionate validation
We also worked with married couples. What it seems to do with two
people who are having problems is, it allows them to forget the
defensiveness of, you said that first, no I didn't, kind of thing. They
can drop all that and get hold of the feelings of love again.
One of the most moving things that happened was when Sasha and I gave
MDMA to one couple who ended up holding hands again and being able to
reaffirm the commitment they had. Two weeks later their older son was
diagnosed with leukimia. He died four years ago. They said that if they
hadn't had that day with MDMA, they didn't know if they could have
supported each other through what was an extremely difficult time. One of
the things I want to do in our next book, Tihkal, is to write about
psychotherapy with psychedelics.
After MDMA was made illegal, all the therapists who had been using it
told us they would never quit. Of course, the entire method of using it
would change. They would have to know the patient for at least a year in
ordinary therapy before they even mentioned it. The patient would also
have to be able to deal with the fact that they would be committing a
felony. I've used the phrase that MDMA is penicillin for the soul,
because that is exactly theway therapists feel about it. It is already
used legally in therapeutic settings in Switzerland.
Rebecca: MDMA seems to work very differently to
traditional therapeutic drugs. Thorazine is designed to suppress
what's happening to the patient whereas MDMA opens it all up.
Ann: It also requires a different kind of training of the
therapist. Handling one particular person's psyche for six hours is very
different from fifty minutes.
a bad reputation because many people have become extremely violent while
under it's influence. Is there a drug, do you think, which could turn the
Dalai Lama into a raving sociopath?
Alexander: In my case PCP didn't release any aggressive
tendencies at all.
Rebecca: Why does it have this reputation then? Isn't it
perhaps more likely to cause aggression than say marijuana?
Alexander: PCP, like
Ketamine, is an anesthetic - people don't get feedback of pain. They
don't know that they're exceeding their normal capacities of muscle. So
the anesthetic aspects of it could allow violent behavior simply because
the person may not be able to feel the consequences of their violence.
David: I spent years working in psychiatric hospitals and
when somebody came in with a psychotic episode triggered by LSD (which was
very rare) it was far less extreme than one triggered by PCP.
Alexander: It's an entirely different action on the
nervous system. Most of the psychedelics as with most of the stimulants
are usually considered sympathomimetics - they imitate the
sympathetic side of the nervous system. PCP, Ketamine and
are parasympatholytics. Instead of actively participating in
encouraging one side of the nervous system, they fail to discourage the
other side of the nervous system when these two sides are in balance.
Things shift in a direction either because you're pulling a certain way or
else because you are releasing the restraints that keep you from going
The analogy I give is in the dilation of the eye. The pupil of the eye
is dilated because of two opposite things. One, you have things that are
pulling it open and you have sphincter muscles that try to keep it closed.
So, if you give a stimulant or a psychedelic, that activates the
puller-opener mechanism and the eye dilates. The sphincter muscles are
okay, they're just over-powered. If you force a light in that person's
eye, you get a reflexive closing down of the pupil, and then it'll open up
Now if you give something that craps up the sphincter muscles, like
Ketamine, the eye dilates because the radials are pulling it open and the
sphincters don't have any power to keep it from happening. If you flash a
light in that person's eye it doesn't close because the mechanism that
closes it doesn't work.
Rebecca: Why is it that the parasympatholytics: Datura,
Belladonna, PCP and Ketamine, have this reputation for being the
somewhat darker and weirder members of the psychedelic family.
Alexander: You have amnesia for what's going on in there.
There's a dream-like quality. You have an idea of what's happening but the
detail is elusive.
Ann: I have never experienced what could be called an
hallucination. The word hallucinogen is one we really don't like.
Alexander: I've talked to people to whom that has
happened. But the same thing can be said of finding Christ at a revival
meeting. Suddenly there it was!
Ann: I have a prejudice against anything that causes
amnesia. What's the point? If you can't remember, you can't learn
Alexander: There was a person who was giving his
impressions while on Ketamine. Just before he stopped talking entirely he
said, "I think I see it, I think I finally have it, in fact I know I have
it, it's completely clear, it's obvious..." This went on for hours, and it
turned out that it was the sole of someone's shoe!
Ann: I like your question; is there a drug which could
turn the Dalai Lama into a sociopath? I suspect that the Dalai Lama has
developed his own consciousness sufficiently that he is already aquatinted
with this animal. So he's already made his choices. During psychedelic
therapy, you eventually have to go to the monster and get to know it. The
Jungians go as
far as getting a good look at it and accepting that it's there. What we do
is, we go into it and look out it's eyes so that we become it.
The worst terror I think a human being can experience is when he or she
is facing doing that, because we're all afraid that we're going to get
stuck in the demon. What you have to realize is that you have already made
your choices of what side you're going to be on in this life. You have
basically chosen whether you're going to be a nurturing person rather than
a destroyer and soon.
Once you get inside the demon, the first thing you experience is the
absolute lack of fear and then you begin to recognize that this is
also the survivor aspect of yourself. There's a part that takes
care of you. Then it begins to transform, and you recognize its
quality of total selfishness - it's going to take care of you and nobody
else, right? - but it is your ally. And then you begin to recognize
its positive aspects.
David: That's interesting, because part of the
therapeutic process for people with multiple personality disorder involves
an understanding that each personality has a particular function.
Ann: Absolutely. This is why I believe that all
psychedelic use, even if it's at a Rave, is part of a spiritual search. My
suspicion is that psychedelics are going to be accepted, if they ever are,
only when they are seen as tools for spiritual development. But the
trouble is that the West basically treats the unconscious as the enemy -
as if only an ax-murder will be found in there! For God's sake repress it!
David: Because drug use can present serious problems,
every society needs a well thought out drug policy. The American
government's personification of drug users through the criminal justice
system has, in the face of rational thinking, been a totally unsuccessful
attempt at fighting drug abuse and has seriously eroded many of our
constitutional rights. What do you see as the cause behind this zealously
fought War on Drugs and what
kind of drug policy do you envision for a tolerant society of the future?
Alexander: Well two changes I see as indispensable. One
is the laws will have to change and that is going to require the other
part which is honest education and distribution of information about drugs
and their actions. The way the term `abuse' is used nowadays is that it
means any use of a drug which you don't approve of.
David: For a long time I thought all drugs should be
legal and available to everybody until I read Mark Kleiman's book
Against Excess. The cost of drug abuse to the taxpayer is a point
he brings up.
Alexander: Well if someone has a drug abuse problem and
he requires medical treatment, is that worse than having a drug abuse
problem and being in prison, which also puts as strain on the tax-system?
One of the reasons you can't rationally pin-point harm reduction is
because you cannot measure harm. What is the harm of a person using a drug
which is not approved of by society? To one person - trivial, to another
person who's son has just died from an over-dose, immense.
So you can't put a quantitative value on harm. Also, if you want to
reduce harm (and this is the argument for the Drug War) you can't put a
number on the reduction. Lastly, the thing you do to reduce harm, itself
does harm. If you remove drug laws you have ten thousand unemployed
law-enforcement people -and they are going to see that in an entirely
different light. On the other hand, they passed a law in Florida that if
you're on welfare and you go into pre-natal care and test positive for
illegal drugs in your urine, you may suffer the confiscation of your
child. A woman, instead of facing the possible loss of her child, just
won't go in for the pre-natal exam. What's the harm? You can't calculate
What would be the damage to society from changing the drug laws? If you
look at it through one lens you can see that it's going to be horrendous,
and if you look through another lens you can see that it's going to be a
Rebecca: I was in a hardware store and there was this big
sign up which read, "We ensure that our employees are tested for drugs." A
strong 1984 feeling came over me. What do you think about urine
Alexander: It's intolerable! There's no basis for a urine
test unless there's a reason to believe that a person's incompetent in
David: Even then you should measure their performance
nott heir urine.
Alexander: Exactly. If you run a bus into a group of
pedestrians and you stagger off the bus and go into the nearest bar for a
drink, there may possibly be reason for a urine test. If a person is going
to fly an airplane and before he boards the plane you take a sample of his
urine and send it off to Florida for analysis it doesn't protect the
people on that flight atall!
You have no protection even today for the presumption of innocence.
That doesn't exist in the constitution. Taking of a urine sample is a
presumption of guilt.
Rebecca: The drug laws haven't changed anything in the
constitution, so why are we all getting this nasty feeling that our
constitutional rights are being eaten away?
Alexander: It's how they are being interpreted.
The perversion of the laws which were written with good intent but which
have been allowed to be eroded is something which the constitution can't
even touch. I can show you the original writings of the social security
law which says that your social security number should remain private.
The original laws of income tax documents say that your submission of
an income tax form to the federal government shall be a private
correspondence. Needless to say that has been scrapped. You now have to
get a fingerprint to obtain a driver's license, but California State Law
states that a fingerprint serves one function only - to identify a person
in the conjunction with a criminal charge. The measures which they
can go to is frightening.
Rebecca: You talked in Pihkal about how racism has
been one of the root causes of prejudice against various drugs.
Alexander: Right. The connection between racism and drugs
started in the public consciousness with the building of the
Trans-Continental Railway. To save on labor costs we hired Chinese
immigrants and they brought with them the practice of opium-use. More and
more regulations were put into place to limit and control access to opium
which was soon considered a social evil. The marijuana laws were put into
effect to control Mexicans coming over the border and cocaine is nowadays
very much associated with blacks in the inner cities.
Rebecca: What benefits have you both received from taking
Alexander: I think I've learned about myself a little
more thoroughly from the inside out and I've learned to take myself a
little less seriously. I've also learned not to take anything I hear as
gospel - even if I say it myself! (laughter)
Ann: Psychedelics have allowed me not only to explore
myself and my own levels of consciousness to an extraordinary extent, but
by doing so I feel that I'm beginning to understand what the human
consciousness is. I also have a compulsion to understand what the
universal consciousness is - let's aim as high as we can! (laughter)
The exploration is never dull.
There are so many kinds of knowing, and the kinds of knowing that have
the most impact are unexplainable. But I like to try to put into words the
incomprehensible things that I find. These same experiences are in
everybody's psyche, so if I find the right words I may be able to elicit
some sort of response from the unconscious of the reader and perhaps
encourage people to b eless afraid of understanding themselves.
Rebecca: What would you say to someone who suggested that
drug use was simply a form of escapism?
Ann: It is amazing to me that people use the term
`escape' in association with psychedelics. I've found them to be the most
incredibly hard work and I've never escaped with any psychedelic
Alexander: The same thing could be said about going to a
symphony orchestra and listening to concerts or going to church. These
could also be looked upon as escape.
Ann: The fact that we use the word escape that way
implies that everybody in this culture regards what they call reality as a
grim and miserable thing.
Alexander: `Eu' as a prefix means normal. Euthyroid means
you have a normal thyroid function. The word euphoria means that this is
the way you should feel. If you don't feel the way you should feel that
would be dysphoric.
Ann: This culture regards a state of euphoria as
Rebecca: Have either of you had to face the problem of
Alexander: I have with nicotine but not with any of the
other substances I've used.
Ann: The whole idea of using psychedelics is to train
yourself to a different kind of perception which you should be able to use
without drugs. Most spiritual teachers say that you should develop the
altered states in a `natural' way and not use drugs to do it. Sasha says
that is the equivalent of saying you should never go to a symphony or
listen to a recording. You should produce the music yourself and you
should not use any other tools besides your own body.
Well heck! Life is made interesting by giving yourself different forms.
Yes it's wonderful to sing and play the flute yourself but it's also
wonderful to go to a symphony.
Rebecca: You do need to be disciplined and motivated to
reproduce that state when you're not on the drug.
Ann: Right. You must have an incentive to develop your
own abilities. Insight is something which I've found can be learned. You
can learn to observe your own thoughts. You begin to get a different
relationship to time and to yourself and to the mayfly. These things don't
need drugs, but drugs can show you where you can go.
Rebecca: Although you both believe strongly in
legalization, you do think that some guidelines must be established for
Alexander: Absolutely. Giving a drug to a person who is
not developed enough to use it in the opinion of people who have worked
with it, giving a drug without consent, giving out false information about
a drug - all these need to be controlled.
Ann: I'd like to make the rather obvious comparison of
psychedelics with sex. Nobody in their right mind would say that sex is
bad for us, but no one would advise someone under a certain age to try it!
There is a certain stage of growth you need to go through before you're
ready for either.
David: Terence McKenna claims that there is a spirit or a
conscious intelligence that dwells within certain psychedelic plants. In
Pihkal, you discuss how at times you've felt the presence of some
entity or force guiding your work. Do you see this as being related to
what Terence has claimed and how do you explain this phenomena?
Alexander: I think this is like the intuitive going
through a darkroom without lights on and being able to find the door. You
don't see in the dark and yet you know there's a door there. As you get
more and more experienced at working with plants or working in the
laboratory and designing new structures, you get more of a feel for why
they are and what they are.
One of the beauties of organic chemistry is that you cannot make a
relationship between a continuing change here and a continuing result
there. You cannot extrapolate from one molecule to another with any more
confidence than you can extrapolate from one plant to another. So you
begin to assign certain characteristics to what you're working with. Is
this talking to leprechauns? No. But it has some of the smell of that.(laughter)
Ann: I think that there are forms of energy that some
people see as elves or fairies. Whether they see these or not seems to
depend more on whether the culture they live in allows for seeing such
things. The Irish are famous for it. Is this because a certain kind of
energy associated with natural things is translating itself telepathically
into an acceptable form for the human who is looking at it? It's an open
Alexander: How do you discover the action of a molecule?
A molecule when it's hatched is like a baby. There's no personality there.
As the baby develops, your relationship to the baby develops, and
eventually it forms into something of its own shape and character.
The first time I made MDOH I distilled it as I like to do before I make
the salt. I found that it began a threshold activity at around 80mg, but I
didn't know that something was amiss. I ran some tests and discovered that
when I did the distillation of MDOH I had gotten it sufficiently hot to
split up the hydroxy group. I had made a mixture of the base without the
hydroxy group which had gone on to the MDOH and become an oxine. The
material I was left with was MDA. So I had accidentally rediscovered the
property of MDA.
I went back and made MDOH again keeping the vacuum temperature down,
and I came out of it with a brand new compound that I never would have
made before. So from a divorced position I had to come back and
reinstitute a rapport because the material I had thought I had met, I had
not met. You don't discover these things, you interact and develop them
together. If you want to incarnate elves into the materials that's fine,
but either way it's a relationship.
Rebecca: That sounds very similar to the way alchemists
viewed their work.
Alexander: Very much so. I was listening to Terence
McKenna years ago at Esalen. He was talking about how if a drug comes from
nature it's okay, but if it comes from a lab it's suspect. Suddenly he
realized that I was sitting in the audience. (laughter) In essence
I said, "Terence, I'm as natural as they come. To me it's not any
different making a chemical in the laboratory that's new and that you can
get to learn and interact with than it is interacting with a plant."
David: As John Lilly said, "Plants are chemists too."
Ann: Exactly, and some of them will kill you. Just
because it's natural doesn't mean it's benign.
Alexander: I've studied alchemy a bit and it's very much
about feedback. Who cares if you melt and fuse lead ten thousand times? At
the end of it you don't come out with anything but ten thousand times
melted and fused lead! But the doing of it - that's meditation.
David: Do you see a relationship between alchemy and
Alexander: Yes. They are both teachers. A shaman is a
person who allows you to be healed by the interaction with himself, and
alchemy is the same way.
Sheldrake proposes the idea that the characteristics of a compound
develop through time creating a morphic field which influences all similar
forms. Because of this idea people like Terence McKenna suggest that newly
developed drugs are soulless compared to something like
which has been used by shamans probably for thousands of years. How do you
respond to this?
Ann: That's like saying a newborn baby is soulless. There
is a soul there, it just has to learn to relate.
Alexander: Initially I had a scientific reluctance to
Rupert's theory, but I've seen how he does it and I've grown to like the
idea. He has complete candidness and honesty. He's trying to find things
that don t fit into his theory - and that I like.
Rebecca: Have you experienced parallel discovery?
Alexander: Secrecy is anathema. Everything you do you
share. But I remember the first time I got into sulfur. Nothing was going
right, just black tars and terrible smells. I was working with a person in
Indiana along the same lines and about the same time we both developed
separate psychedelics. It was almost as if the stars had aligned.
Rebecca: Both of you emphasize an omnijective view of
reality rather than a strictly objective or subjective view.
Alexander: I'm reading a marvelous book at the moment
which talks about how up to the time of
there was a complete synthesis of religious orthodoxy and science because
it was part and parcel of the church. They broke apart because of Galileo
Copernicus' contributions, and in a sense we've reconverged back to a
synthesis of Genesis and the Big Bang,
to a dogma which everyone takes on faith. And you don't allow the
Rebecca: I interviewed the head of the
Flat Earth Society,
and I found it very liberating to allow myself to question something so
engrained as the roundness of the earth! (laughter) In your book
you both describe many mind-expanding experiences when you developed a
sensitivity to the sacred life-forces. With this consciousness in mind how
do you feel about the practice of vivisection?
Alexander: I believe there are times when it is
necessary. I used to do all my studies on rats and dogs but I wasn't
learning enough to justify it so I stopped entirely. I think if it's
possible to extend a person's life at the expense of an animal then I
think it's justified. Until recently pigs were essential to maintain the
life of people with diabetes. If you were a total vegetarian would raising
pigs to obtain insulin be justified to protect the lives of people who
Rebecca: No it wouldn't. I know of a woman who claims to
control her diabetes without insulin by eating something called `bitter
melon,' which is native to Sri Lanka. There is much evidence to suggest
that there is a vast reservoir of untapped medical lore and resources on
Ann: One of Lauren Van der Post's books is about a race
of pygmies in Africa. Before they kill an animal, they send out a deep
thanks and gratitude to it asking to be forgiven for the fact that they
are going to kill it. In a sense they enter an emotional contract with
that animal. My feeling is that animal experimentation is necessary in
this culture but I would pass a law that the only people allowed to work
with animals in a laboratory would be those who love animals. If you love
an animal you are not going to be able to stand giving it pain.
In laboratories people are encouraged to not form any kind of
attachment to the animals they're using. I think the opposite should be
the case. Using an animal's pain to develop cosmetics is inexcusable, but
when it is to save lives I think that is a different question. I believe
that the whole environmental movement started with the taking of
psychedelics in the `60's, because the first experience that everyone has
is the oneness of nature.
Rebecca: Do you believe that there might be a
teleological reason for why
Ann: Sure. How on earth did anyone ever discover the
psychedelic properties of the peyote cactus or something that's only
active as a snuff? Have you ever tasted peyote? Your instinct says, that's
poisonous! Considering the fact that we create consensual reality, some
part of us may have assigned certain plants the ability to open those
Alexander: The evolution of the animal and plant kingdoms
seem to be complementary to one another, but whereas you have the origin
of the human in the Old World, 90 per cent of psychedelic plants have been
seen natively only in the New World. It's certainly not from a lack of
diligence in searching for them!(laughter)
Rebecca: That's interesting. What procedures do you use
when testing out a new drug and what do you do if everyone's experience is
Alexander: When I test a new drug on myself I use
extremely small levels with much space between each time to eliminate the
effects of tolerance. When I get up to a level that I feel comfortable
with, Ann and I share it and see if indeed we have the same responses.
Then we introduce it to individuals within the research group.
We often find that some of the materials have radically different
responses within the group. I had to abandon a whole family of compounds
which I called the Alephs because they were too erratic. Someone would
have an over-stimulating experience on 2 mg and someone right next to them
on 7 mg would experience nothing at all! We also have the occasional
idiosyncratic difference from day to day of one person to one chemical.
TMA6 was a compound I had worked on and abandoned because it was not
that interesting. We were exploring it because it was an opening to a new
family of compounds. It was clearly active. You knew you were in an
altered place, but you couldn't give it a name or a character. There were
no visuals and no time distortion - nothing. So we threw it open to the
group, and we were all up against the wall! When I went to take a pee in
the bathroom the wallpaper came out and shook hands! (laughter)
Everyone had an intense experience.
Ann: Sasha goes through the boring stuff - tiny bits
increased very gradually over weeks and weeks. I come in at the exciting
point.(laughter) There are certain things that if we find, we don't
pursue use of the substance. For example, if my emotions are flattened,
it's an absoloute no-no to go on with it. Also, if we're not interested in
touching each other then there's something wrong. Also, of course, you
learn to spot signs of impending nervous system trouble, like the
possibility of a convulsion.
Alexander: It's like soldiers marching across the bridge.
If you break step, you're not going to have the rest of the bridge getting
to some resonance which could lead to a catastrophic event. You search out
your thought patterns and abort them before they come to any consequence.
Then you start another thought pattern and stop it. If you don't let
things consummate that diffuses things and pretty soon you realize that
it's not necessary any more. The other answer is phenobarb which is much
Ann: The group doesn't get any of these things until
we've gone up to a plus 3 and usually beyond that to the point where it's
So we know for sure that it's not going to attack our nervous systems.
David: What are some of the basic guidelines that you
would recommend to an individual who was experimenting with psychedelics?
Alexander: Learn everything you can about the material
and stay away from all information that's clearly geared to encourage or
discourage its use.
Ann: Doing your first experience with a very trusted
friend who has taken this substance before is very important. That sort of
companionship can turn a very bad trip into a very good learning
experience. Your psyche is very eager to have you learn things and if you
can develop an acceptance and a calmness you can overcome a lot.
David: What type of drugs do you see being developed in
the future and how do you see pharmacological tools being used to expand
potential in the areas of creativity, intelligence and spiritual
Alexander: In this direction I think anything that the
human is capable of doing through the mind is duplicable pharmacologically
- it's all chemistry upstairs. I think anything from insight to paranoia
to joy to fear can all be reproduced chemically.
The fact that there are specific receptor sites for specific materials
in the body which duplicate the actions of drugs from outside the body
implies that those receptor sites at which these drugs operate are there
because the human produces one for that same purpose.
Ann: I think that depending on the way you interact with
any particular psychedelic, creativity and imagination can arise.
Basically you're giving yourself permission to use these powers. I can't
see a particularly creative psychedelic.
David: But they may be developed with more specificity.
You developed a drug whose only property was to create auditory
Alexander: Right, that's a good example. I'm intrigued by
that one because most of the spontaneous schizophrenic states have
auditory rather than visual components. If there is a physical correlate
to schizophrenia you could deposit this material in a person and see where
it accumulates. You could play strange noises and see if it accumulated
faster or slower.
Rebecca: How many psychedelics have you synthesized?
Alexander: Around 100.
Rebecca: And how many of those are illegal?
Alexander: About fifteen. The analog law will label a
drug illegal on the grounds of it being "substantially similar" to an
already existing illegal drug. I was once asked in a drug case down south
if two drugs were substantially similar. I said that the question had no
meaning. The chemist, who came from the Ventura County crime lab, said
that two things are substantially similar if they are over fifty percent
identical. I just abandoned ship at that point. It's a lot of gibberish!
David: How has your relationship influenced your
Ann: If you're going to do psychedelic exploring the
ideal is to have a partner who is on the same wavelength. There is,
needless to say, a certain amount of vulnerability when you take these
substances, and you have to totally trust the other person. The only
disadvantage is that I suspect we pick up each other's responses a little
faster than we should.
Alexander: I had one experience that really startled me.
I got up in the morning and went to wash the dishes from the night before,
and I realized I was not at baseline. It was nice, but I was wondering,
"What caused this?" Sasha came in, and I was wondering if I should say
anything to him when he came up with the information that he had taken a
sample of a new drug that morning!
David: Do you think you might have been exuding
pheromones, which the
other person was picking up?
Alexander: That's possible, but you're normally unaware
of the extraordinary vocabulary of body language. Just the way people
carry themselves or the way they respond to a stimulus can give them away.
And if Ann's washing dishes, I know we've got a problem. (laughter)
David: What projects are you currently working on?
Alexander: Tryptamines. (laughter)