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This weekend, in clubs, pubs and bars across Britain, a million young people will take Ecstasy.
With luck - and it will take a lot of good fortune - none of them will die horribly as a result. But what is certain is that many thousands will experience a bad trip, one which may ruin their health, and their lives, forever.
Last month, 15-year-old Stacey Laight became a terrible, historic and tragic statistic - she is believed to be the 100th young Briton to die from taking Ecstasy. Her death came just 13 years after the first British victim of 'E', and six years after Leah Betts died after taking the drug at her 18th birthday party.
Even at this moment, a 19-year-old university student is in a Newcastle hospital after a week desperately fighting for his life because he took Ecstasy.
Yet, the clamour to decriminalise some 'soft' drugs in Britain is fast becoming an irresistible force. New Home Secretary David Blunkett has signalled a debate into the decriminalisation of cannabis, a move supported by two former Home Secretaries and former Tory Deputy Leader Peter Lilley. In an experimental policy, Brixton police are not arresting people caught with small quantities of the drug.
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Even the ultra conservative Economist magazine this week seemed to argue for legislation, suggesting the harm to us all from drug related crime outweighed the personal risk to those who actually take drugs.
Opponents contend such action will soften any moves against Ecstasy - and lead to the drug also being decriminalised, as has happened in Portugal.
One man who may be watching the developments more closely even than anyone in Britain is a grey-haired, 76-year-old academic who lives 8,000 miles away in Lafayette, northern California.
He is Dr Alexander Shulgin, who, at first glance, seems a rather benign figure. The grandfather-of-five walks with a fragile shuffle, drives a battered old VW, has a passion for Mozart and plays the viola to the adoring following of young students who regularly visit him and his wife Ann at their picturesque white wooden home.
But while he may look like a gentle old relic from the Sixties, some claim this elderly professor is probably one of the most dangerous men on Earth. And there are many who think that Stacey Laight, Leah Betts and all the other unfortunate children who have died as a result of taking drugs, died by his hand.
For it was Shulgin who rediscovered the formula for Ecstasy, or to give it its full name, methyl-enedioxy-methylamphetamine, or in scientific shorthand, MDMA. Alexander Shulgin, a seemingly innocuous individual, is in fact the grandfather of Ecstasy.
The drug was first developed in pre-First World War Germany but its effect on humans remained unknown until he rediscovered it and began experimenting on himself 30 years ago. His discoveries were quickly taken up by the young people leading the counter-culture revolution which was breaking all the old taboos and boundaries in California in the late Sixties and Seventies.
He has written seminal books on drugs which have won a cult following.
But it is his latest project which is worrying parents on both sides of the Atlantic. The doctor has set up a website called Ask Dr Shulgin, where children from all over the world can e-mail for advice on Ecstasy and its effects. And his recipes for the potentially lethal chemical formula are now freely available on the World Wide Web. Teenagers with the right ingredients could create the drug in their own bedroom. They wouldn't even need to visit a dealer.
Shulgin remains unabashed at the carnage he has wrought through the test tubes of his laboratory. He continues to recommend decriminalisation of Ecstasy and urges British legislators to make it more freely available.
Doctor Shulgin says: 'If they keep it a Class A drug it is sad but I am heartened there has been a debate over lessening controls. It demonstrates a slow shifting of attitude. It may take time but Britain will eventually realise there's no danger from Ecstasy.
'I applaud the Brixton experiment. I think it's very healthy to explore the legalisation of cannabis, to see if it helps or hurts. The real trouble comes from the social damage done by enforcing these unfair laws which break up families when drug users are jailed. People are hurt far more by that than by the drugs.'
Shulgin has achieved cult status among the young after publishing a book on psychedelic drugs, PiHKAL, A Chemical Love Story which is a comprehensive list of drug recipes. The name PiHKAL is a sick acronym for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved.
He followed that with a further compendium, TiHKAL, Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved, and has recently completed a pharmacological encyclopaedia which will be published this autumn.
Leah Betts, who died
after taking Ecstasy
It is, however, his potential influence over easily-led teenagers via the Internet, a virtually universal medium, that is something many - both here and in America - find deeply alarming.
It is a concern the American authorities have been incredibly slow to realise. For many years they used Shulgin as their star witness at criminal drugs trials. In return, for more than 15 years, the US Government's Drug Enforcement Agency gave him a licence to make and study illegal drugs.
Shulgin wrote the classic reference book on US laws and drugs, Controlled Substances, A Chemical And Legal Guide To Federal Drugs Laws. Indeed, it was his expert testimony that led Spanish authorities to categorise Ecstasy as one of the least dangerous drugs, something of considerable concern to the British in view of the huge numbers of our teenagers who flock to Ibiza to attend drug raves.
But it was only when Shulgin pronounced his personal belief in psychedelics and advocated that all drugs should be legalised, that America realised the mistake it had made putting him on a pedestal. In effect, it paid him to analyse illegal drugs and he repaid it by giving the recipes to dealers and anyone else who wanted Ecstasy.
Federal Drugs Agents raided his lab and took away most of his equipment. He has now had his official permit revoked.
He is unrepentant about the havoc he has wreaked on society and the tragedy he has brought to families. 'I still haven't found anything like Ecstasy to this day,' he says. 'Deaths are extremely rare. Every so often you get some who are not at peace with Ecstasy, there have been several freaky cases of people having fatal reactions to all manner of drugs - aspirin, penicillin - but you do not get an hysterical reaction to those.
'If you have lots and lots of people who use peanut butter then there is bound to be someone who is allergic to peanuts, but you don't ban them. These people are one in a million, but the spotlight goes on the one extraordinary case and then people try to generalise that Ecstasy is a bad thing when it isn't.
'MDMA is one of the safest drugs I know. The danger has risen in recent years because the people manufacturing and selling the drug are too often adulterating it with other chemicals, or selling a completely different drug under the name of Ecstasy.'
He says he is still searching for new psychotropic drugs (drugs which affect mental activity) and still tests compounds on himself. Intriguingly, he no longer experiments personally with Ecstasy.
Shulgin says this is not because of the deaths or the controversy but because he wants to keep his mind clear for the many other drugs with which he experiments.
He says: 'It's my task to invent new drugs. I'm still a loner. What else am I going to do with my life?' But who is Dr Alexander Shulgin and how did he come to rediscover Ecstasy? And how did the drug fall into the hands of back street chemists who manufacture it in their millions for distribution to impressionable, thrill-seeking teenagers?
His story is an extraordinary one and provides a fascinating insight into drugs culture. After serving in the navy during the Second World War, Shulgin, a brilliantly gifted young biochemist, gained a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. After going on to do post-Doctorate work in psychiatry and pharmacology, he landed a job as a senior research chemist with the highly respectable and profitable Dow Chemical Company where he produced a successful insecticide.
Dow Chemicals allowed him huge freedom to use their labs to experiment and invent new drugs.
At this time San Francisco was in the grip of hippy culture and awash with drugs. It was natural for the inquisitive Dr Shulgin to want to be involved on the psychedelic scene.
Shulgin invented several hallucinatory substances. Dow, conscious of the need to conform to government guidelines, decided he was an embarrassment to the company and in 1966 he left. But he didn't stop working or experimenting.
At his home in Lafayette, he built a laboratory in which he created no fewer than 150 new drugs and experimented with many others, including Ecstasy which, as MDMA, had been patented in Germany as an appetite suppressant and then forgotten.
Shulgin was amazed at what this obscure drug could do. In scientific papers and later in the book PiHKAL he detailed experiments with Ecstasy in which he said 'the lightness and warmth of the psychedelic was present and quite remarkable ... and I developed a great respect and admiration for the material'.
And he claims to have used Ecstasy to cure the chronic stutter in one of his students and saw it relieve an alcoholic of his addiction. Dozens of amateur chemists followed Shulgin's published recipes. Dealers were quick to see the potential and turned Ecstasy into an industry.
Ecstasy spread to Europe, partly through the Orange people, the followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh, who were captivated by its ability to break down sexual inhibitions.
It seems incredible that Ecstasy could make the huge jump from the favoured mind-altering drug of a bizarre religious sect to the suburban bedroom of Leah Betts. Yet it appears that this is the case and that the popularity of the rave scene is to blame for the influence the drug exerts on teenagers. Adolescents, their senses heightened by the hard driving, monotonous thrust of the house music, whipped up by strobe lighting and frantic dancing, were offered a stimulant that took them higher than any amphetamines before. At the peak of Acid House culture, Ecstasy became essential for a good night out - but it also began to claim the lives of young people.
Yet Shulgin says: 'I'm quite confident there will come a time when Ecstasy will be recognised for its medical value. There are so many benefits to this drug that we cannot overlook. I believe a lot of politicians are against consciousness expanding drugs like Ecstasy because they all fear the axe murderer within themselves and are anxious to repress that side of their personality.
'The hysteria in England is so appalling. England has a very loud tabloid press which doesn't care about the truth, it only cares about what makes headlines. I don't care much any more what anyone thinks of me.
'The appropriate use of certain consciousness-changing chemical compounds can be valuable tools for the study of the human mind. I gave Ecstasy to my own son. It became one of the most important days of his life - uncovering the deep grief and trauma from school problems which had been festering inside him for a long time.
He adds: 'I really have one message and that is that all drugs should be made legal. But I do not believe that drugs should be made available to children and I don't think they should be used as an excuse for bad behaviour.
'People who use drugs have a moral obligation to find out as much as possible about their effects before taking them. And such information should be made readily available. Those using drugs should be perfectly responsible for any of their actions while under the influence of them, in the same way that someone who uses alcohol is responsible for anything that might occur as a result of their drinking.
'I do think it is a great shame that MDMA has been side-tracked into the Yahoo! generation . . . when it could be of so much benefit to the world of therapy in a controlled environment.'
There is no doubt that Shulgin believes what he says, that he is convinced of the benefits of mind-altering drugs. But, sadly, few of the millions of teenagers who take Ecstasy will approach the drug in the academic way that Shulgin prescribes.
Shulgin says he has never seen anyone die from Ecstasy. If he had, it is unlikely that he would be as sanguine.
This is what it does to those like Leah Betts who die from it. First, she will have ignored warning signals of thirst and exhaustion. Next, the drug will have raised her body temperature and, combined with dancing, made her dehydrate.
Her body will then have stopped sweating to curb fluid loss and become dangerously overheated. The build-up of water in Leah's body will have made her brain swell and become pressed against the skull, irreversibly damaging the sections of the brain that control the heart and breathing, leading to a heart attack or respiratory arrest and death.
This month's inquest into the death of Lorna Spinks made equally horrifying reading.
She died after taking a lime-green Ecstasy tablet bearing a euro symbol. Within hours of swallowing the drug her mouth foamed, eyes bulged and blood overheated so much that it ran through her veins 'like hot water'. She was just 19.
Despite the action of America's Drugs Enforcement Agency to revoke Dr Shulgin's permit, he is still regarded as an expert from whom governments seek advice on contemporary drugs problems.
Only recently, he was a crucial witness in a court case in Spain in which he argued so persuasively that Ecstasy was benign that the Madrid government says it will now remove it from the country's list of Class A Dangerous Drugs.
When we told Janet Betts, stepmother of Leah, about Dr Shulgin, she said: 'I believe him when he says he is very sorry that it is being used in the wrong way. I am sure Ecstasy could have a medical use. It may be like morphine that has a use in medicine but you don't want heroin to go on sale.
'Unfortunately, however, Ecstasy is used irresponsibly by a great many people. Leah bought that pill. Nobody made her do it. But she paid the ultimate price.'
Janet Cousins, whose daughter Helen nearly died after taking Ecstasy at a New Year's Eve party in Peterborough in December 1995 is not so tolerant. 'Shulgin has made an evil thing that has caused so much suffering. It is a terrible shame that he even invented it. It is deadly. It is evil. I can't see that it can be a benefit to anybody.'
None of the 100 deaths from Ecstasy so far recorded seems to have slowed the popularity of the drug. A million people in Britain continue to take the drug every week. It is inevitable there will be more deaths.
It is also unforgivable that Dr Shulgin appears to accept no responsibility and shows no remorse for the loss of life that his experiments in a California laboratory 35 years ago have led to in British homes up and down the country.
by PETER SHERIDAN, Mail on Sunday
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