Why is MDMA banned in most countries?

Hopefully he was able to throw in something nice one last time before he succumbed to liver cancer at around 5 a.m. in Lafayette, California last Monday. It is said that he left this world gently, surrounded by his family and best friends. Alexander Shulgin, 88 years old, an American biochemist and pharmacologist, better known as the godfather of ecstasy, died.

He was not the father of the most famous party drug in the world, as is often rumored, but just a scientist who recognized the psychoactive potential of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA) and discovered a new, simpler synthetic route. MDMA actually comes from Merck's laboratories. It was the by-product of a blood thinner that had been filed for patent back in 1912.

Shulgin, born June 17, 1925 in California, the son of Russian immigrants, started as an industrial researcher after serving in the US Navy and studying biochemistry at the University of Berkeley. It was a time when stories that sound unbelievable today were possible: after Shulgin developed the highly profitable pesticide Zectran for Dow Chemicals, his employer allowed him to deal with any chemical he was interested in. Shulgin was particularly interested in the psychedelic connections.

Chemical love story

A chemical love story began, this is also the subtitle of the book PHIKAL, an English acronym for "Phenylethylamine I knew and loved", written together with his wife Ann. Half autobiography, half textbook, it describes the development, chemical structure and effects of 179 psychoactive substances. Critics called the work a drug cookbook.

In total, Shulgin synthesized - soon he was working in his adventurously junk home laboratory - over 200 synthetic mind-altering substances, all of which he tested himself. Ultimately, however, he became famous through MDMA, whose street name is Ecstasy. The drug relieves anxiety, increases drive and mood up to euphoria. With ecstasy, most people can get close to other people at ease. In contrast to classic hallucinogens such as LSD, the boundaries of the ego do not dissolve and the duration of the effect remains limited.

After Shulgin demonstrated the effects of MDMA to psychotherapist Leo Zeff, it quickly spread among psychologists and therapists who used it in their treatments. Many regretted it when MDMA was gradually banned in most countries from the mid-1980s, especially since the pure drug is probably not particularly harmful in normal consumption - despite ongoing discussions about long-term effects - compared to alcohol, for example.

But the ravers had discovered the substance, they tended to overdose and risky mixed consumption. Contaminated pills came on the market. Above all, however, permanent dancers ignored the greatest danger of ecstasy: Because it has a dehydrating and temperature-increasing effect, and at the same time weakens the feeling of thirst, there is a risk of overheating of the body, which can be fatal.

Shulgin disapproved of this development, although he advocated the release of all drugs and became a cult figure of the psychonauts: "Anyone who picks up a psychedelic drug just to get turned on on a Saturday night can end up in a bad place, psychologically speaking", he said. But at the same time he defended the beneficial potential of hallucinogens and entactogens. It has also recently been rediscovered by academic researchers. Initial studies are also looking at how MDMA and LSD alleviate the suffering of end-stage cancer sufferers.