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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

How a DEA Enforcer Became the Godfather of the New LSD Revolution

4 Substance

Shulgin hard at work Photo via

Shulgin, hard at work Photo via

In 2000, the DEA busted two men who had an LSD production lab in a missile-silo in rural Kansas. The silo was psychedelia’s equivalent of an oil gusher, supplying an estimated 90% of the world’s acid. Following the agency’s “Operation White Rabbit,” the pipelines ran dry and, for the first time since the hallucinogen was popularized in the mid-1960s, planet Earth faced a psychedelic winter—the death of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, as Burning Man turned into Boring Man.

The winter was a short one, however. Within five years, new LSD labs sprang up selling new types of the drug dazzling and blinding in number and diversity. Also on offer were analogs of mescaline, psilocybin, DMT and other hallucinogens that had long been banned. To participant-observers of this subculture, like James Oroc—the author of Tryptamine Palace and A Journey From Burning Man to the Akashic Field—the dawning of Psychedelics 2.0 promises to usher in a kinder, gentler—and saner—revolution. One of its benefits is the growing scientific research into the potentially therapeutic effects of MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD into disorders of the brain, including schizophrenia, PTSD and addiction, and the despair that often comes with late-stage terminal disease.

The history of LSD’s second coming is predictably rich with colorful/shady characters, none more so than the chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, who Oroc calls “our one and only Psychedelic Godfather.” Shulgin first made his mark at Dow Chemicals, producing the first biodegradable pesticide. After taking a job in the early 1970s at the University of California at Berkeley, he learned of the recreational drug MDMA from his students. Having tried mescaline in the late 1950s and “learned that there was a great deal inside me,” he was already sympathetic. He did the “love drug” and loved it, dubbing it his “low-calorie martini.”

“From his remarkable home-lab that looks more like a garden shed, Shulgin would discover, synthesize and bio-essay over 260 psychoactive compounds during the following 35 years, often publishing the results in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature and The Journal of Organic Chemistry,” Oroc writes.

The story takes a most interesting turn. The DEA got in touch with Shulgin, seeking his expertise in its criminal investigations and legal cases. A deal was struck: Shulgin was put on the payroll and granted a special license to pursue his otherwise illegal development of MDMA and LSD derivatives. Then the intrigue begins. How Shulgin became an enforcer for the DEA to a target of the agency to the Godfather of the Second Psychedelic Revolution is an epic tale—one that, as Oroc brilliantly explains, could only happen in America.