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Remembering Sasha Shulgin with His Psychonaut Friends at Erowid

Alexander Shulgin, the "Godfather of Ecstasy," died Monday from liver cancer. He had reached 88 years old despite decades of putting as-yet-untested psychoactive chemicals into his body. He'll be missed.

Image created by Alex Grey

Alexander Shulgin, whose obituary headlines all seem to call him the "Godfather of Ecstasy," or the "Godfather of Psychedelics," died Monday from liver cancer. He had reached 88 years old despite decades of putting as-yet untested psychoactive chemicals into his body. He'll be sorely missed by those the world over who benefit from his drugs. This includes those who need drugs like MDMA for medical reasons, and those who just like to monkey around with their own brain chemistry.

He should rightly be known as a one-man pharmaceutical empire, having synthesized and tested hundreds of original drug compounds in his own lab. He also pioneered responsible, personal psychopharmacology.

He leaves behind legions of devotees, including most of the people who brand themselves "psychonauts," the annoying ones and the friendly chemistry nerds alike. His enormous volumes of personal narrative and chemistry, like Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story and Tihkal: A Continuation, may be bookshelf decorations for some stoners, but they're also packed with weighty, worthwhile stuff for those who actually crack them open.

Erowid, an organization that compiles information about psychoactive chemicals, had spent days tweeting prolifically about Shulgin after news broke that his health was in decline. Erowid is among the groups that have been most active in championing and disseminating Shulgin's research. They have been heavily involved in archiving his life's work, and their team had appeared with him publicly a number of times.

Not only did Erowid grieve on Twitter, but they also altered the front page of their site in tribute. Then they issued a tweet to announce Shulgin's death to the world and they in a line from the Buddhist text Heart Sutra

Contacting Shulgin's wife, Ann, seemed gauche, so I hit up Earth and Fire Erowid, the mysterious pair that runs Erowid, and found that, indeed, they had a longstanding relationship with Sasha Shulgin, as he was known to his friends. We had a brief conversation about his legacy, and whether he was really the "godfather" of anything.

Earth and Fire Erowid. Screencap via Vimeo user Maps: Psychedelic Science

VICE: My condolences for the loss of your friend. 
Fire Erowid: Thanks. It's a happy/sad day.

How did you get to know Sasha?
We didn't know anything about Sasha when we started Erowid, but we met him soon thereafter (within a year or so). For a decade, Sasha was one of our primary go-to chemistry experts. He was willing to answer questions we had about chemistry to help our understanding and, therefore, our building of chemistry-related resources on Erowid. Most of my knowledge of chemistry comes from watching Sasha's lectures and talking with him over snacks, as he drew "dirty pictures" (chemistry molecules) in the air or on a scrap of napkin. He was a fine teacher.

Perhaps more important, Sasha's humble expertise set an incredible example for how to be a popular public figure and run a resource used by millions of people, without becoming jaded or annoyed at the pressure of followers, fans, and admirers.

Were you near him when he passed?
We were not nearby physically. We knew that his health was failing rapidly, and we received word from the Shulgin team by phone about an hour and a half after Sasha moved on.

What do you see as his legacy, beyond the "Grandfather of Ecstasy" label?
Most of us who knew Sasha hated the "Godfather of Ecstasy" label. Just a little too cliché and oversimplified. Sasha was warm, cheerful, humble, incredibly intelligent, and a skilled, creative chemist. He saw the value in exploring the ways that chemicals affect the human mind, and he wasn't afraid to put his energy and chemistry skills toward the long and complicated process of creating new chemicals he thought might have slightly different (and therefore differently useful) effects.

The only practical way to test to see if a chemical is psychoactive, without millions of dollars in research funding, is to have a human try it. Sasha was confident enough in his creations, skilled enough as a chemist, and careful enough in his practices, to be able to try the chemicals he created and determine which had potential.

This may surprise you, but I've never done MDMA. If, hypothetically, I had two little tan MDMA pills in a bottle in my medicine cabinet, what do you think Sasha might say to prepare me for the experience?
I don't know what Sasha would say. I'd say be careful. It might not be MDMA. Until you know it is, any other suggestions are moot.

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