A Review of Pihkal
I wish to whisper into your ear a thought that has been recurrent in my mind since I first read this book. That is that this massive volume, whose first printing is already sold out, might well be the most important document of this century!
The first half of PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved), by Alexander and Ann Shulgin (Transform Press), is a thinly-veiled biography of one of our greatest "white shamans," a chemist in this instance, and of his seduction by his second wife, Ann. The second half describes synthesis routes, dosage recommendations, and comments about the duration and qualities of 179 semi-synthetic molecules which have been both "known" and "loved" by seasoned psychenauts.
Well over a decade ago, I asked Sasha (a Russian nickname for Alexander) whether he ever intended to write a book about his astonishing psychedelic investigations. I had known by then that he had produced scores of papers for mostly chemical journals, that he had been a consultant for several governmental panels and for private interests like PharmChem, and that he taught courses on forensic toxicology at San Francisco State and U.C. Berkeley. His reply was that he hoped some day to produce a text relating to mescaline, which is what we have now.
The investigative technique used by Sasha is impeccably traditional. He has specialized in what are largely analogs of the mescaline molecule (the simplest of the "one ring phenethylamines"), all of which are fairly easy to synthesize, in contrast to the four-ring indolic psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, harmaline and ibogaine. After he has concocted one of these compounds that he suspects might produce significant mental activity, he tries a very small amount. He then tries it every other day, doubling the dosage, until and appropriately intensified experience appears to have been reached. After his return to "baseline consciousness," he then examines the specimen's effects once again to try and discover its promise.
If it seems that there's something going on here, Sasha recommends it to his wife, hoping to get her reaction. Once she has concluded that the molecule in question may be an excellent candidate for being "loved," 11 associates who have been with this master chemist for a score of years all take it together with the Shulgins.
The story told in these pages was originally sparked by a 1960 mescaline trip that quite astonished Sasha. His description of that odyssey appears both here and in his "Twenty Years on a Never-Ending Quest" in Grinspoon and Bakalar's Psychedelic Reflections. In a nutshell, Sasha was knocked out by the realization that the simple mescaline molecule wasn't the source of his dramatically-enhanced consciousness, but it had nonetheless given him an "access code" to complex thoughts that were already in his mind.
Shulgin, who normally shuns public appearances, electrified a "Psychedelic Conference" at the university near Santa Barbarbra in the early '80s when he explained, at his wife's insistence, "What I Do and Why I Do It," coming close to tears at the end. He spoke then about the classic battle between life and death forces ("eros" and "thanatos," in more classical terms), and asserted that in this fight he would do as much as he could "as quickly as possible." Although most of the second half of the book, synthesis routes, et al., may be largely unreadable to those untrained or uninterested in the vocabulary of chemistry, its distribution undoubtedly sets this volume widely apart from ordinary kinds of writing with thanks, no doubt, to present and future alchemists.
Shulgin's first important invention had to do with his synthesis of a molecule called "DOM," which had been new to him and which eventually showed up a few years later as "STP;." Now recalled in horror, or favor and gratitude in smaller circles, this compound some 200 times more powerful by weight than mescaline played a prominent role in psychedelic history, as 5,000 very powerful doses were distributed at the first Human Be-In in mid-'60s San Francisco. Unfortunately, instead of the 2-4 mg. dosage Shulgin originally recommended, the stuff was given out in 15 mg. tablets. Effects of this particular psychedelic come on in wave-like fashion (much like thinking you're at the top of a mountain while hiking, only to find that it's but the top of a ridge, and that another "mountain top" now is visible). Intensity and duration here are closely dose-related. In the Be-In case, many swallowers went on a three-day, wild odyssey that they hadn't anticipated, thus making sense of the idea that "This psychedelic thing might go too far," or at least further than some wanted to go.
Another Shulgin contribution of great import to the history of psychedelics came along as a result of publication of his first article about MDMA, co-authored with an important colleague, psychopharmacologist David Nichols of Purdue University. This substance -- also known as "Ecstasy" and "M&Ms," -- among other names was originally patented by the Mercke firm in Germany in 1914. It's not clear yet that it was ever tried then, but it probably would have been forgotten had not Shulgin been taken by the beauty of its molecular structure some 65 years later. By 1985, even Newsweek had found out about it, and publicized in what soon became a heavy media barrage. By the end of that summer, MDMA had been banned.
What are the chances that some of these semi-synthetics will become "drugs of choice" to a sizable percentage of the population, even of, say, one percent of 16- to 24-year-old persons? Will some of these be used in ways like or unlike Shulgin's anticipations? Are these likely to be socially benign in their effects? Could any of them turn out horrific? How do they stack up against Sasha's assessments of what he does and why he does it?
These phenethylamines are "soul drugs," little pieces of matter that can induce an air of "revelation," substances that produce mirroring, rippling effects; things that intensify the experiences of individuals; "sacraments" that can make the user "fraught with thought and suffused with love." As Al Hubbard, one of the major Johnny Appleseeds of LSD, used to say: "If you don't believe the psychedelics work, just try one!"
After 1) use of dozens of "natural" psychedelics from pre-history until now; 2) dabbling in mescaline since its synthesis by Arthur Heffter, the first "artificially concocted psychedelics," at the end of the 19th century; 3) nearly half a century of LSD use since discovery of its psychoactivity in April, 1943; 4) massive acquaintance with psilocybin mushrooms for the 1970s on; and 5) a decade's substantial employment of MDMA . . . will additional "psychedelic waves" wash over us? Can we expect further psychedelic winners?
Phenethylamines are particularly fascinating in that they are only partially indolic, meaning they can be constructed reasonably easily, unlike the case with LSD, ibogaine, harmaline, psilocybin, DMT and other classic psychedelics. These molecules, which exhibit elements of both mescaline and amphetamines, all tend to enhance the qualities of "affinity" (though with different "tonalities").
Perhaps the most arresting idea suggestive of what might lie ahead in a kind of calculus about eventualities comes from computer whiz kid Steve Jobs. Asked why IBM, with all its hired brains and money hadnít first come up with the personal computer, Jobs allegedly responded: "Perhaps they didn't take enough acid."
Apocryphal or true, this comment emphasizes how psychedelics affect n important segment of world citizenry. These analogs from Shulgin, more specific than classic psychedelics and without the usual emphasis on "ego-death" or "hallucinations," may open up mystical, artistic and problem-solving areas for millions here in the US, and may hit millions of semi-dormant minds world-wide.
That's why I say this could be the most important book of the century.
Peter Stafford lives in Santa Cruz, California and is the author of three books including LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic written with Bonnie Golightly (1967, Award Books), Psychedelic Baby Reaches Puberty (1971) and Psychedelics Encyclopedia (First Edition, 1977, And/Or Press, Second Edition, J. P. Tarcher Books, 1983 and Third Edition Ronin Publishing, 1992). Peter first took peyote in the early 'Sixties and was an editor of Crawdaddy, the first rock magazine.
Last Updated: Tuesday, June 06, 1995