2C-T-7's Bad Trip 

Sasha Shulgin invented 2C-T-7. Then he published the recipe. It was only a matter of time before his drug turned up on the tongues of non-scientists.

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In 1966, Shulgin left Dow to attend medical school at UC San Francisco. But he only stayed for two years; it turned out he was more interested in learning how the body and brain worked than learning how to repair them. So he set up a home lab and hung out his shingle as a consultant, beginning his curiously interdependent relationship with the DEA. Despite Shulgin's persistent interest in sampling drugs and the agency's persistent interest in stopping people from doing so, the two parties developed a surprisingly close relationship. Shulgin wrote a handbook on the Controlled Substances Act that became a standard desk reference for DEA employees, and he later would serve as an expert witness for both the prosecution and defense in DEA drug trials. In return, the DEA granted Shulgin a license to handle certain illegal drugs, which was subject to a rigorous annual inspection. Shulgin also became a university instructor, teaching classes in forensic toxicology at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University.

Sasha and Ann met in 1978 at a weekly discussion group in Berkeley. At the time, Ann was a divorced mother of four; Sasha's wife of thirty years, the mother of his son, had passed away the year before after a stroke. Ann, who had tried peyote and been extremely moved by the experience, was eager to trip again and pelted the chemist with questions about his work. He soon invited her to the Farm to try MDMA, now better known as Ecstasy (a name they both dislike, since a good portion of what is marketed as Ecstasy is not truly MDMA).

Shulgin had begun experimenting with MDMA as early as 1967. Although MDMA is the drug that made him most famous, it is not his own invention. The compound was created in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck, only to fall into obscurity. Shulgin helped repopularize its use, claiming that it might have value as an antidepressant since it allowed people to look deep inside their own psyches without reservation. In Ann he found a willing partner in exploration. As a lay therapist, Ann joined the movement of psychologists and psychiatrists who claimed that MDMA was a powerful therapeutic tool that could, for example, help rape victims or war veterans open up to a therapist.

Ann soon became a regular in the most unconventional part of Shulgin's research. Unlike university or pharmaceutical company scientists, Shulgin is his own prime test subject. But one does not survive swallowing untested drugs for more than forty years by luck alone. Shulgin developed a painstaking system. He swallowed only minute amounts of untried chemicals, letting 48 hours go by before boosting the dose, usually by a factor of two or less. He learned his own body's warning signs -- never let your thoughts fall into a rut; never stare too long into a mirror while on MDMA; watch out for anything that provokes jumpiness or sleepiness at a low dose. He developed a scoring system in which the effects of new materials were rated from "minus," or "no effect," up to "plus four," a "one-of-a-kind, mystical, or even religious experience." Once he concocted something promising, he would invite a half-dozen friends to spend a day sampling it with him. This, too, had rules. No one who was sick, on medication, or had taken any other drugs within the previous three days could partake. The group would bring food and sleeping gear for an overnight stay. The safety rules were strict: a hand signal meant the speaker was about to raise a real-life safety concern, each participant could veto group suggestions that might affect their experience, and people not in established relationships were discouraged from sexual behavior. The friends generally spent their time eating, walking in the garden, listening to classical music, and paging through picture books. Like Shulgin, they'd start with tiny amounts of a new drug and slowly boost their doses. Afterward, the participants were expected to share their impressions with Shulgin, who made it clear he was a researcher, not their personal candy-man.

If Shulgin's tasting weekends weren't lab protocol, they certainly weren't wild drug parties, either. "Use them with care, and use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool," Sasha Shulgin once said of phenethylamines. "Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place psychologically."

Even as the Shulgins' collaboration deepened -- they were married by a DEA agent in 1981 -- the laws surrounding their work were changing rapidly, largely in response to the behavior of other drug enthusiasts whose experimentations were less scientific. In 1984, the federal government listed MDMA as a so-called Schedule I drug, barring it from future clinical testing as a substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. The loss to the Shulgins was enormous. They believed a powerful tool was taken from researchers because of the government's overreaction to MDMA's increasing prominence in nightclub culture. Why, they asked, were limitations on medical research being set by the DEA, a law enforcement agency?

The following year, the federal government went even further, passing the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act as a reaction to the proliferation of designer drugs such as heroin analogue China White. The Analogue Act criminalizes the sale or manufacture for sale of any chemical with a structure or action "substantially similar" to that of a Schedule I or II drug.

In a letter published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Shulgin complained that the law has a "carefully worded vagueness," which allows the government to arbitrarily decide which chemicals to okay and which to squelch. "By designing the net which has a completely variable mesh size, one can catch whatever fish one wishes to and let escape another fish that is not wanted," he wrote.

Regulators say the law is fairer than that. "I wouldn't say it casts a wide net," says one official from the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's a very narrowly crafted law that only affects substances that are not being studied for use as medicines for humans, but are being manufactured or distributed for human consumption outside of approved research, have been found on the street, and which are likely to meet the findings for control under our laws in the future."

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