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It was they who helped popularize MDMA--a signal event in the history of recreational drugs. Ecstasy is easily the biggest advance since LSD. It changed not only the party world but the shaman world, where it was used by psychologists who believed it had therapeutic value. Since MDMA was banned in 1986, scientists have looked for compounds that have the same effects without damaging neurotransmitters, as MDMA can. They haven't had much success.
So today's nonmedical drug research tends to focus on new uses for old substances. That effort is led by Richard Doblin, who runs the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies out of his Belmont, Mass., home. Founded the year MDMA was outlawed, the association uses its $530,000 yearly budget to assist scientists who, with government permission, study the risks and benefits of a wide variety of nonmedical uses for psychedelic drugs and marijuana. Such research is highly political, however, and it can take years for a research protocol to be approved.
The new drugs that appear on the market usually do so after underground chemists read scientific papers and decide to cook something up. Scientists studying how cocaine works in the brain, for example, have developed a version 100 times more powerful. The recipe is available in academic journals, waiting to be exploited.
But the chemicals needed to synthesize such drugs are tracked by authorities, a change from the Shulgins' day. And even if the ingredients were widely available, the scientific expertise is not. According to David Nichols, a student of Shulgin's who is now a professor of chemistry at Purdue, "The underground chemist is typically not going to discover a completely new psychoactive substance. The kinds of things that are easy to make, by and large, have been made."