Underground History of MDMA: The Early Years

Explore the history of MDMA, from its origin to its rise in popularity, uncovering key moments and influential figures along the way.

Overview: The early history of MDMA, from its synthesis in 1912 to its emergence as a recreational drug in the 1960s, is a complex tale of scientific exploration, underground experimentation, and societal shifts. Key milestones include the synthesis of MDMA from safrole in 1960, its appearance in the underground scene in the late 1960s, and the establishment of clandestine labs dedicated to its production in the mid-1970s. Influential figures like Sasha Shulgin and Leo Zeff played significant roles in exploring MDMA's effects and promoting its potential therapeutic benefits. DEA activity and growing concerns led to MDMA's official scheduling as a controlled substance in 1985, marking a significant moment in its legal and cultural trajectory.

The Hidden History of MDMA

By the 1990s, MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), also known as “ecstasy” and “Molly,” had made its mark globally. Though, its journey from a pharmaceutical laboratory to the underground scene is a tale woven with history, experimentation, and societal shifts.

In 1912, German chemist Anton Köllisch (1888 - 1916) working for pharmaceutical company Merck became the first person to synthesize MDMA while searching for hemostatics (substances that control bleeding). This discovery led to the patenting of MDMA in 1914.

Despite earlier reports suggesting plans to market MDMA as an appetite suppressor, there were no actual indications or plans for such development. The patent and annual report presented MDMA only as a chemical formula, referred to as ‘Methylsafrylamin.’ The key point here is that Merck's original goal was to discover ways to create substances that stop bleeding, not to develop appetite suppressants.

Animal tests were conducted with MDMA in the late 1920s and throughout the 1950s, with the U.S. Army secretly investigating its toxicology in 1953–1954. In 1960, two Polish chemists published a paper outlining how MDMA could be synthesized, marking a significant point in its history. However, human studies didn't commence until the 1970s.

Also around this period, forensic labs started identifying MDMA in street samples, with its presence becoming more prominent in both forensic samples and clandestine underground labs.

This following exploration of MDMA’s underground history leans on researcher Torsten Passie's insights, particularly his breakdown of the drug’s underground history into three key periods: 1960–1969, 1970–1974, and 1975–1979. But before getting into the nitty-gritty of MDMA, Passie starts with the related substance, MDA. 

Unraveling the Past: MDA's Influence on MDMA's Journey

Before tracing the early history of MDMA, we must first pause and briefly discuss its chemical cousin, MDA (3,4-methylenedioxy-amphetamine). MDA, with its similar effects on the brain and a comparable yet longer-lasting and more psychedelic experience, played a crucial role in the pre-history of MDMA.

In the 1950s and 1960s, pharmaceutical companies tested MDA for certain medical indications. However, the pursuit was abandoned due to unwanted “central side-effects.” The stage was set for MDA to step into the spotlight as a recreational drug in the mid-1960s where it earned the endearing nickname, “The Love Drug,” for its euphoric and sense-enhancing effects.

By the end of the 1960s, large quantities of MDA were readily available as a research chemical from various suppliers. This era of accessibility came to a halt in 1970, however, when MDA was scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act.

Nevertheless, recipes for MDA found their way into underground chemistry cookbooks, and despite increased seizures of underground laboratories by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), production and use of MDA persisted and even surged during the 1970s.

Beyond its recreational appeal, MDA also played a significant role in drug-assisted psychotherapy, a theme that would echo with MDMA in later years. Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo and American chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin also conducted initial tests on MDA, while psychotherapist Leo Zeff began using MDA in psychotherapy during the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, MDA found itself part of one of the last government-funded research projects investigating drug-assisted psychotherapy.

The story of MDA sets the stage for the emergence of MDMA, offering insights into a substance that, despite legal challenges, continued to shape the landscape of recreational drug use and therapeutic exploration.

Next, Passie delves deeper into the trajectory of MDMA's journey, building on the foundation laid by MDA. 

The Underground Beginnings of MDMA (1960-1969)

Stepping back into the 1960s, the underground history of MDMA begins to take shape. The story kicks off in 1960 when Polish chemists Stanislaw Biniecki and Edmund Krajewski, from the Medical Academy of Warzawa, published a report detailing the synthesis of MDMA from safrole — a colorless essential oil found in sassafras and other plants. 

The appearance of MDMA as a recreational drug in the 1960s in the United States is shrouded in mystery. California-based psychedelic chemistry pioneer Sasha Shulgin claimed to have synthesized MDMA in 1965. Los Angeles-based writer M. M. Kirsch explored the emergence of MDMA in his book “Designer Drugs,” claiming that black-market chemists synthesized MDMA during the '60s, but deemed LSD and MDA more profitable ventures. However, both Shulgin’s and Kirsch’s claims have yet to be verified and remain somewhat speculative.

Adding to the intrigue, Californian psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel noted in a 1986 paper titled ‘MDMA: Nonmedical use and intoxication’ that MDMA “remained relatively ignored until 1968 when nonmedical use first appeared in the western part of the US.” Yet, as with Shulgin and Kirsch’s earlier claims, Siegel failed to offer concrete evidence for his claim.

A noteworthy piece of the puzzle comes from the U.S. Army's animal studies on MDMA conducted in 1953–54. Declassified in 1969, this data remained unpublished until 1973, casting a retrospective light on the clandestine beginnings of MDMA.

MDMA's Underground Surge (1970-1974)

In the complex web of MDMA's underground history, the 1970s bring forth new revelations.

A pivotal moment occurred in 1970 when chemist Sasha Shulgin, very much renowned and championed today for his contributions to psychedelic chemistry, met with an unnamed chemist who was based in Los Angeles. This chemist sought Shulgin's expertise in synthesizing MDMA, later remarking in a letter that he had introduced MDMA to a friend of his who was both a psychologist and a “customer. ” 

During a conference at Stanford University in August 1970, a twist of fate brought Shulgin into contact with a young researcher who, coincidentally, perhaps, shared a name with the chemist's “customer,” and claimed to have traveled from the Midwest to study street drugs in San Francisco. While suggestive, there is no conclusive evidence linking this man to the emergence of MDMA in the Midwest. 

The first documented appearance of MDMA in the U.S. happened in August 1970 when the Chicago Police Department seized a sample. Following this:

  • The Chicago Regional Laboratory of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) confirmed MDMA's presence in street samples in May 1972.
  • A significant seizure in Cedar Hill, Tennessee, in April 1973, uncovered over 890 grams of pure MDMA, initially thought to be producing MDA by DEA officials, highlighting early confusion.
  • In 1974, DEA labs analyzed MDMA street samples from Champaign, Illinois, and Aspen, Colorado, providing more evidence of its growing presence.

While Passie's focus is primarily on the U.S., his paper notes MDMA's appearance in Canada during this decade. Dr. Keith Bailey and colleagues in Ottawa, Canada, submitted a scientific manuscript in August 1974, identifying MDMA as one of five N-methylated analogs of psychedelic amphetamines.

By early 1976, a laboratory producing MDMA in Ontario was raided, leading to its scheduling in Canada in June of that year.

Underground Evolution: MDMA from 1975 to 1979 

As the mid-1970s unfolded, a group of entrepreneurial chemists in Marin County, California, established a lab dedicated to manufacturing MDMA. This secret operation, active until the 1980s, marked a significant chapter in MDMA's journey.

It was during the mid 1970s that Shulgin reignited his interest in MDMA, sparked by encounters with two significant individuals referred to pseudonymously as “Marty” and “Flip” in his labaratory notebook.

Marty was a young student interested in drugs like MDMA, noting a significant “amphetamine-like component” to MDMA in self-experiments. Shulgin documented Marty's findings in his laboratory notebook, highlighting noteworthy observation of MDMA's effects. 

At the same time, Shulgin encountered another man who he referred to as “Flip.” He detailed Flip's experiences with “N-methyls,” particularly MDMA, in his notebook. Flip's experiments with varying MDMA doses revealed distinct effects — doses up to 75 mg induced a “fuzzy” state, and 100 mg and 150 mg made him more active. According to Passie, it's highly likely that Flip was a colleague from the University of San Francisco, potentially involved in synthesizing drugs like MDMA in the 1970s.

These encounters with “Marty” and “Flip” played a crucial role in deepening Shulgin's understanding of MDMA'seffects and laid the foundation for further exploration and research into the substance.

Elsewhere in 1975, forensic detections in Gary, Indiana, and submissions to PharmChem Laboratories hinted at the drug's growing presence on the street. Analysis Anonymous — a confidential drug testing service of PharmChem that later grew into one of the largest drug testing laboratories in the world — received its first sample of MDMA in 1975. 

The term “ecstasy” started to gain traction in 1981, coined by a former theology student named Michael Clegg. In 1981 it was also revealed in the underground magazine WET that early distributors of “ecstasy” reportedly started widespread production of the drug  in 1976.

Despite their impact, forensic labs run by the DEA found no MDMA that year. However, a forensic lab at the Texas Department of Public Safety not associated with the DEA reported the first samples of MDMA in Texas, while PharmChem Laboratories reported five submissions of MDMA in 1976. 

Shulgin's Early Experiences: From ‘Low-Calorie Martini’ to MDMA Magic

In 1976, a student of Sasha Shulgin’s pseudonymously named “Klaus,” set up a lab for MDMA production. Klaus revealed interesting personal transformations to Shulgin, including that experimentations with MDMA helped him cure his stutter.

Shulgin's relationship with MDMA took a turn when he learned more about the substance from one of his students around mid-1976. At this time, Shulgin was involved in providing graduate courses on forensic toxicology at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

In his and his wife Ann’s influential book, PiHKAL, Shulgin shared a notable account involving a student named “Merrie Kleinman.” Merrie, who reported trying 100 mg of MDMA with two close friends, offered scant details about the experience, but hinted at its emotional intensity and the overall positive response from all three individuals involved.

Inspired by these accounts, Shulgin embarked on his own exploration of MDMA, commencing in late 1976 through deliberate and mindful self-experimentation. This period marked the beginning of his personal journey into really understanding the nuances of MDMA experiences.

Shulgin's personal exploration of MDMA unfolded with deliberate steps. He began self-experimentation with a modest oral dose of 16 mg on September 8, 1976. Subsequent doses, including an 81 mg oral intake on September 27, 1976, and 100 mg on October 5, 1976, revealed varying effects, ranging from an “alcohol-like intoxication” to a state of “fine control.”

As the year progressed, Shulgin, alongside chemist and coiner of the term “entactogen,” David Nichols, brought MDMA into the scientific spotlight. During a National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) scientific conference in Bethesda, Maryland, on December 21 and 22, 1976, they discussed MDMA in their paper, “Characterization of three new psychotomimetics.” The term “psychotomimetics” was used to refer to psychedelics during this time as they were thought to mimic or induce effects similar to psychosis. 

In this early mention, MDMA was described as a recently found street drug, evoking “an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.” Interestingly, Shulgin and Nichols compared the effects of MDMA with marijuana, psilocybin, and low levels of MDA.

The language used by Shulgin during his initial experiences to describe the effects of MDMA was notably modest. Even when introducing the substance to Leo Zeff in mid-1977, Shulgin referred to MDMA as his “low-calorie martini,” which, as Ann would later point out, suggests that he was yet unaware of its “magic.”

Providing additional insights, Ann highlighted that Sasha initially thought of MDMA as no different to other drugs within the phenethylamine class, and noted his lack of enthusiasm during his early experiments. It was only when Sasha heard of Zeff’s reaction to the effects of MDMA in mid-1977 that his perspective shifted. 

From Underground Labs to Legislation

In a significant turn of events on February 2, 1977, the DEA executed a raid on an underground laboratory in San Francisco, unearthing 150 grams of MDMA along with 1.7 kg of 3,4-methylenedioxy-beta-methylbeta-nitrostyrene, a synthetic intermediate just one step away from MDMA itself. Additional precursor chemicals to MDMA, including 412 grams of Piperonal and 1000 ml of Methylamine, were also discovered during the raid.

Throughout 1977, street seizures of MDMA persisted, with notable incidents in Martinez, California, and a substantial seizure of 1,730 grams in New York City on August 10, 1977. The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) issued its first report on MDMA during the second quarter of 1977, shedding light on its emerging role in drug-related visits to hospital emergency departments and drug-related deaths.

Meanwhile, forensic laboratories in non-federal capacities reported MDMA samples from North Carolina and Texas.

One particular discovery in 1977 was the revelation of a functioning MDA laboratory in Redwood City, California. Operated by the notorious underground drug chemist William Leonard Pickard, the laboratory aimed to circumvent the legal restrictions on MDA by creating a chemical relative, MDMA. Pickard's endeavors underscore the persistent pursuit of “legal MDA alternatives” within the underground drug community.

In mid-1977, Sasha Shulgin shared MDMA with Leo Zeff, known as the “secret chief” among a group of underground therapists using psychedelics in psychotherapy. Zeff's enthusiastic response marked a turning point, as he postponed retirement to disseminate knowledge about the therapeutic potential of MDMA among his peers.

The following years saw heightened DEA activity, with substantial MDMA seizures in California, including 1,811.5 grams at the San Francisco airport in May 1978 and 2,258 grams in San Rafael on August 10, 1978.

Notably, 1978 also witnessed the controversial psychologist Timothy Leary's first MDMA experience. Describing MDMA as an “empathy-generating drug” in 1985, Leary’s glowing reports delivered both publicly and privately served to increase interest and expand the distribution of MDMA.  

During this time, Shulgin and Nichols delved into the scientific exploration of MDMA's different forms, known as enantiomers. Enantiomers are like mirror-image versions of a molecule, they have the same chemical structure but differ in how they are arranged. Shulgin and Nichols' experiments with these variations in humans significantly enhanced our understanding of the effects of MDMA.

By 1979, PharmChem received 12 submissions of street samples containing MDMA, reflecting the substance's continued presence and public interest in its use. Additionally, DEA labs detected MDMA in street samples from various locations, highlighting its spread across different regions of the United States.

In these years, the DEA's proactive measures, scientific inquiries, and the involvement of key figures collectively shaped the evolving landscape of MDMA. In 1983, as MDMA use surged, concerns about its impact on the youth prompted U.S. senators to advocate for its scheduling by the DEA. Responding to these concerns, the DEA initiated the necessary procedures, leading to the official scheduling of MDMA on July 1, 1985.

This marked a significant turning point as MDMA shifted from being a relatively obscure chemical to a controlled substance. It set the stage for a complex legal and cultural narrative that would unfold in the years ahead.

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