The Nature of Drugs Volume Two: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact

Alexander Shulgin 
Transform Press, £24.99

Transform Press was set up in the early 1990s by Alexander Shulgin and his wife, Ann. They self-published books including PiHKAL, which is an acronym for ‘Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved’. Shulgin, a member of Mensa, was a creative organic chemist credited with developing the first biodegradable pesticide, Mexacarbate. Later he became a prolific drug designer and tester, and known as ‘the godfather of ecstasy’ for having discovered and shared a simplified production pathway for 3,4-methylenedioxy methamphetamine, or MDMA. He was also an advocate of decriminalising drugs. All this made him a captivating university teacher with an encyclopaedic knowledge.

Published posthumously, The Nature of Drugs is available from Transform Press in two volumes, based on lecture transcripts from the 1980s. Volume two covers depressants, intoxicants, deliriants, psychedelics and prescription drugs. It is beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings by Donna Torres, along with some plates of original lecture notes and blackboard sketches of chemical structures, although all of the figures lack captions.

Shulgin himself was not happy with the extent to which people took and became dependent on recreational drugs, but surely it doesn’t take a genius to realise that publishing recipes for wonder drugs is likely to lead to problems. Since deaths associated with ecstasy have been on the increase this century in many countries around the world, one cannot but lament that the talent, passion and energy of such an influential scientist was not focused on something more worthwhile and less hedonistic.

Dr Alex Waller FRSB