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Full Program Transcript: Narration: Are our drug laws too restrictive? Could substances like LSD and ecstasy actually have therapeutic uses, which we?ve never discovered because it?s illegal for scientists to do research on them? Chemist Sasha Shulgin thinks so. He?s the man who introduced ecstasy to the world, and over the years he?s found 100s of hallucinogenic compounds in his backyard laboratory.
We caught up with him on his latest project ? looking for the hallucinogens in cactus plants. Invariably what happens is, he discovers the substances, he tests them on himself ? and then the Drug Enforcement Agency bans them. No further scientific investigation for potential good can be done.
Ecstasy, for example, was being used for therapeutic purposes in the 1980s ? and was showing great potential. Psychiatrists gave it to people who were suffering Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, to help them open up. But the therapy ? and any scientific investigations into its worth ? was abruptly stopped when he drug became illegal.
Sasha believes there is great medical potential in many of the other substances he?s found as well.
Graham Phillips: I?m in a little town just out of San Francisco?looking for mind-altering drugs - in cactus. Backyard chemist Sahsa Shulgin is showing me how to find the active ingredients in these hallucinogenic plants.
At 78, Sasha?s discovered hundreds of hallucinogenic drugs from all sorts of plants and other sources ? right in this laboratory. He finds them?tests them on himself ?and because of our drug laws, they?re then banned. These laws are wrong says Sasha, because it means scientists can?t further investigate his discoveries. And drugs from LSD to ecstasy could have great medical potential.
Graham Phillips, Reporter: You think there are benefits for humanity from these psychedelic substances?
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: The potential is immense. Being able to get into aspects of your forgotten childhood. Get into things that you know to be so but have so repressed them and you?ll not acknowledge them to yourself ? it?s the value of therapy work in opening the barrier to communication. All of these have immense medical potential.
Narration: At the moment he?s looking for new drugs in cacti, because many species have never been chemically analysed before.
Graham Phillips: So what will we find in this one?
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: I really don?t know it?s never been looked at.
Narration: Sahsa gets a hint if a cactus is psychoactive from other fields of science.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: Well it?s about anthropology and sociology. People who mix with the Indians find out what they use over the centuries, why they use it how they identify it and what they call it.
Narration: To analyse a new cactus, Sasha chops up a small sample. He then adds a solvent to extract the cactus?s active compounds, and grinds the skin and gooey insides to a pulp. Then he heats the mixture in a vacuum, so the solvent boils off ? leaving behind pure cactus residue.
Graham Phillips: So that green there is what we want. That?s the cactus extract.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: That?s the extract of the cactus. That?s just a film of alkoloids; I doubt if there is more than a few micrograms there.
Narration: The few milligrams will be sent off for chemical analysis?to see if today we?ve discovered a new hallucinogenic drug - or medicine, if you believe Sasha.
Narration: But could these substances really be therapeutic? We went to New York for a second opinion?to the prestigious Bellevue Psychiatric Emergency Room, where Dr Julie Holland agrees with Sasha.
Dr Julie Holland, Psychiatrists: There is a worldwide group of psychiatrists and other medical doctors and therapists who do believe that there are certain hallucinogens which may be therapeutic if used in a medical setting, in a safe sort of psychiatrically supervised setting. ?
Narration: Magic mushrooms could treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and peyote cactus could help alcoholics. And one of the drugs Sasha has unearthed shows particular therapeutic potential, says Julie?MDMA, better known as ecstasy. It?s become a drug of abuse where high doses and unknown purity can make it dangerous - but Sasha introduced it to the world back in the 1970s as a potential medicine, and was the first human to try it and publish the results.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: I made the material and found that indeed it was a fascinating activity but not psychedelic it was more of a ? almost more of a stimulant but it had this opening up character that was unique? I?d never seen it before.
Narration: Ecstasy?s ability to allow people to open up is now legendary, but Sasha told some psychiatrists about it back in the 1970s. By the1980s many were actually giving it to their patients during counselling.
Dr Julie Holland: It was being used in a few different ways. It was being given to couples in couples? therapy to help the communication between two people. It was used in individual therapy especially people who had post traumatic stress disorder, people who had been through something very traumatic who needed to talk about it.
Narration: In Boulder Colorado Marcela was given MDMA by her therapist. After being raped as a teenager, for years she?d been suffering the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
Marcela: I could be in class, I could be walking down the street, I could be at a party? I could be anywhere and something would trigger and I would start crying. I would be completely afraid and people just though I was crazy.
Narration: Just remembering the rape made her so scared she couldn?t talk it through and deal with it. But MDMA allowed her to beat her fear.
Marcela: MDMA takes away that fear. So in that moment you know you?re afraid. But it?s almost in that moment that you?re looking at yourself from the outside being afraid.
Dr Julie Holland: You know therapy takes a long time. It takes a long time to establish some trust with a therapist. It takes years and years to really get to the bottom of what?s going on. Here?s a medicine that can make it happen in one or two sessions.
Narration: MDMA works by boosting serotonin levels in the brain.
Dr Julie Holland: Most antidepressants increase serotonin levels, they help you feel happy and relaxed. MDMA is sort of like an immediate acting antidepressant and an anti anxiety medicine.
Narration: But since 1985 the Drug Enforcement Agency has prevented psychiatrists giving MDMA to patients.
Dr Julie Holland: The DEA decided that the drug needed to be made illegal because it was being abused and all these psychiatrists and therapists started coming out of the woodwork saying excuse me I was actually working with this drug, I was using it and my patients and I was having some good effects and if you make this illegal I?ll have to stop what I?m doing and can?t we at least research this.
Narration: Julie?s written a book on ecstasy and is campaigning to have the law changed, so it can at least be evaluated as a therapy.
NARRATION: I went to Washington to see if we could find someone to respond to the scientists? comments. We went to the DEA ? the Drug Enforcement Administration; we went to NIDA ? The National Institute On Drug Addiction. Neither would comment. Indeed the DEA just referred us to NIDA and NIDA just referred us back to the DEA.
Narration: In fact we had trouble finding anyone who would comment.
Dr Julie Holland: I would say that the DEA and NIDA are definitely holding back scientific research. In America there is a real, I don?t know ethos that you know potent psychoactive drugs simply need to be made illegal and that?s the end of it and they?re not adequately studied. They?re not adequately studied to look at both risks and benefits.
Narration: Meanwhile, Sasha?s been having some success in his search for new mind-altering substances. Mescaline is the well-known active ingredient in cactus; he thinks he?s found another ? n methyl mescaline.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: It?s been synthesised many years ago, but it?s never been tried by man. I know no medical or experimental testing with it. It?s a simple compound to make. So I?m going to make the compound and see if it?s active.
Narration: Sahsa will see if it?s active by testing it on himself. He keeps meticulous notes, and scores every drug he tries on a scale of one to three. A Plus One means very little effect. A Plus Two is when definite visual effects kick in.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: At the one hour point definitely things were moving around a little bit ? rather interesting ? in fact colours were enhanced to some extent.
Narration: Plus 3 is when the full hallucinations begin.
Dr Alexander ?Sasha? Shulgin: Oh my god ? plus 3. Don?t drive a car. Don?t leave. Be sure you have a babysitter because you can?t go beyond that ? that means you are a mess? you are investing the day in that experiment.
Narration: Whether any of Sasha?s hallucinogenic drug discoveries will help people, remains to be seen. But if you believe the campaigners Sasha?s most famous drug, MDMA, holds definite promise.
Dr Julie Holland: We don?t have anything like this in psychiatry where you can give something to help the therapy go better, faster, quicker, be more efficient. If nothing else you?d think that the insurance companies would be interested in this because it?s certainly cost effective. People could be getting better a lot quicker.
-------------------- The very nature of experience is ineffable; it transcends cognitive thought and intellectualized analysis. To be without experience is to be without an emotional knowledge of what the experience translates into. The desire for the understanding of what life is made of is the motivation that drives us all. Without it, in fear of the experiences what life can hold is among the greatest contradictions; to live in fear of death while not being alive.