Sasha's Peyote & Mescaline Files
Excavating and Digitizing the Cactus Papers
Citation: Trout K. "Sasha's Peyote & Mescaline Files: Excavating and Digitizing the Cactus Papers". Erowid Extracts. Feb 2016;28:12-17. Online edition: Erowid.org/culture/plants/peyote_article6.shtml
Claims of Peyote AddictionAmong the more outrageous popular accounts in Sasha's files was a 1961 pulp magazine asserting "most peyote-chewers are bohemian types" and claiming that "America's Baffling Sex Button" grew "wild in many parts of the US. This 'Orgy Drug' causes hallucinations and wild desires yet many states still don't have a law against it." It is fascinating to note that these erroneous popular-press accounts of peyote's effects historically coincided with legislative attempts to restrict the use of peyote. Just as exaggerated news stories about "new drugs" are used today to influence public opinion and law, Sasha's files document that this had also occurred nearly a century ago, with peyote as the target. When Native Americans, anthropologists, and other professionals opposed anti-peyote laws, Congress took another tack in 1935 and included treatment of "peyote addicts" as part of the stated reason for the creation of the federal Narcotic Farms (i.e. prisons). In a letter from 1945 found in Sasha's collection, Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier had been told by the Assistant Attorney General that they could find no evidence in their records that the "narco farms" had ever treated a peyote addict during their first decade of operation. Considering all of the words that have been written about peyote's lack of addiction liability, one might think the matter was settled. Nonetheless, in 1997, a judge ruled against Leo Mercado of the Peyote Foundation in a civil case, stating that Mercado had "demonstrated himself to be an addicted user of peyote" who presented himself "as some carny offering cotton candy for any and all to use." Crazily, even in 2015, one can find "peyote addiction treatment" offered by commercial drug treatment services. 1,2
Military FilesSasha's mescaline files include declassified FOIA material concerning the work at Edgewood Arsenal with mescaline, MDMA, and related molecules. The documents contained surprisingly few answers to Sasha's questions as to why they were interested in mescaline and MDMA, or what the US Army researchers had learned. Among the military-related papers were several publications in the scientific literature about an aziridine that contains a mescaline moiety, as well as a patent issued to the US Army regarding its potential as an "incapacitating chemical weapon agent".3,4,5
Archival ComplexitiesOnly a small fraction of these documents are rare or unique. What I'm digitizing is simply Sasha's personal research library, mostly comprising the output of photocopiers, microfilm printers, and fax machines with a wide range of quality. The best quality prints are generally journal reprints that authors had sent to Sasha. A good portion of the literature is well used or in relatively bad shape for scanning, due to the paper itself, or irregular margins. Some of the photocopies are forty to fifty years old and they show it. A few of the early copies, including reprints, were printed on tissue-thin paper to reduce the cost of mailing from France, or have darkened dramatically, changing from white to brown over the decades. A number were printed on a 3M Filmac microfilm reader–printer at the Dow Chemical facility where Sasha worked, using a curiously special paper. These prints, with their irregular manually-torn edges and randomly exposed shiny silver spots, aren't just weird looking; the paper is also electro-conductive and fragile. So fragile, in fact, that our sheet-feed scanner dug a series of distinct grooves down every page unless a sheet protector was used for each individual sheet. This is the only paper I have ever encountered that came with a warning to avoid contact with electrical circuits. In 2015 these brittle silvery papers look really archaic. But when Sasha acquired them while working at Dow in the 1960s, this was a new technology (released by 3M in 1958). Somewhat analogous to photocopy devices that use electrostatically charged drums or bands to transfer images, 3M's Filmac process created copies of photographic images by charging an unusual metallic layer located inside the "paper" itself. Some of the pages in Sasha's library are difficult, or in some cases impossible, to read, even with close scrutiny, but we have done the best that we can to faithfully digitize or otherwise record what's been found, even when the occasional page requires manual transcribing of the contents.
Unique ItemsThe unique content has been fascinating. I found a scientific paper for which Sasha had served as a peer reviewer. One letter from Sasha to a close friend comments on his having recently invited long-time friend Ann Perry to move in with him. Ann later married Sasha to become Ann Shulgin. There are discussions of many well-known molecules while they were still in the discovery or development process, such as the TMAs, in some cases even prior to their first synthesis or bioassay. There was also a special copy of Bruhn & Holmstedt's 1974 "Early peyote research: an interdisciplinary study", that was sent to Sasha by Jan Bruhn. This was obviously a limited edition item, as it was accompanied by a set of black and white photographic plates that had been manually glued into place. Ann and Sasha's transition in correspondence technologies is revealed in their comments about their "new machines" that rapidly replaced pens and mechanical typewriters. Sasha's practice of correcting typos by typing the letter "X" over the errors became a thing of the past. The files paint a fascinating portrait of Ann and Sasha's lives and personalities. Sasha didn't just keep copies of the letters he received from friends; he filed them coupled with copies of the letters that he had written to them or that Ann had written. As curiosities go, I was struck by Sasha's "Drugs of Perception" talk that he presented at a Santa Barbara LSD conference in 1983. The contents of his thoughts in that piece were memorable enough, but a copy of the presentation had been given to Sasha by Michael Horowitz, Timothy Leary's archivist, after it was, for some reason, autographed by Timothy Leary. The 1983 talk was later referred to in his famous essay "Why I Do What I Do", which was published in 1996 as part of "The Pioneers of Reform" conference proceedings for the 10th International Conference on Drug Policy Reform.
Sasha's OrganizationSasha's journal articles, hand-written notes and references to other locations in his library were organized in folders. Each folder contained a year or a range of years. In some parts the division was based on the number of papers appearing during that one year, but several folders had such an incredible number of papers crammed into them that it seemed like they would have been subdivided into more manageable sizes. There were also seemingly random insertions of out-of-sequence papers from other years peppered throughout the folders. Perhaps those papers had been placed together based on topical linkages related to Sasha's writing projects. Papers intended for use in his never-finished peyote book were organized in reverse chronological order, and alphabetically by author. To aid with navigation, indexing, and his own internal referencing purposes, Sasha assigned a four-digit number to each publication that he intended to use in the book. That number was generally written in pen on the top of each article, but in some cases it was assigned to an entire folder containing multiple items. In the references of a good number of the published articles in his library, Sasha manually inserted his own numbering system alongside citations. He also crossed out references that were not pertinent. Part of this may have been how he kept track of papers that he had in-hand for a particular project versus those he still needed to obtain, but it's also clear that he commonly used those numbers as a form of shorthand to refer to references elsewhere. Some entries in his files are nothing more than a sheet of paper bearing a note referencing a given number or Chemical Abstracts entry located in some other project file, or a book in his library.
Sasha's mescaline files include declassified FOIA material concerning the work at Edgewood Arsenal with mescaline, MDMA, and related molecules.
NetworkingCorrespondence about obtaining a reprint of a published paper accompanies many of the papers. A common example might include the abstract that brought the paper to Sasha's attention, a photocopy of it that he had acquired for use, a copy of a letter or a note or the date requesting a reprint from the author, and finally, the actual reprint sent to him by that author. Sasha commonly wrote for reprints even when he already had a copy of the article. He kept a stack of pre-printed reprint request cards on hand for that purpose. He used these as a convenient method of professional introduction to other chemists working in areas of interest to him. Over time, this practice helped acquaint Sasha with almost everyone in the field and he became widely known in the process. A large number of the reprints include a signature and best regards or sometimes a more personal note from the author. In some cases, a friendship between Sasha and a colleague like Jan Bruhn developed over their years of correspondence. Sasha's interest in psychoactive-related court cases is evident in some files; the charges brought in 1987 against the owner of Nightbloomers for selling live cuttings of Trichocereus pachanoi was well documented, along with his pleasant surprise at a positive outcome that he clearly did not anticipate.
One letter from Sasha to a close friend comments on his having recently invited long-time friend Ann Perry to move in with him. Ann later married Sasha to become Ann Shulgin.
AccuracyAmong the jewels that have been discovered in this process are some that capture how Sasha regarded the importance of accuracy in information published about new or ongoing research. While reading Sasha's files, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a manufacturer of research chemicals. He emphasized that the first bioassayists pay an inordinate amount of attention to the minutiae of their own early experiences with a substance, resulting in an overweighting of their observations. We discussed that only when enough people have ingested a molecule enough times that they can actually experience the drug on its own terms does the pharmacology become fully revealed. Seeing Sasha's notes on the results of his research group supports this, as does Sasha's cautious approach to reporting the activity of new or under-explored molecules. For instance, questions have been raised online about the differences between what Sasha was willing to say about the Cardon cactus in print or in public lectures compared to what he said in private conversations or to small groups. His files indicate that he deliberately omitted details from public presentations when he didn't feel they had been sufficiently established.
Lophophine AmbiguityOne curious thread in Sasha's correspondence concerns a molecule named lophophine. Sasha was intrigued by this molecule, due to its apparent absence in peyote. As it was an obvious intermediate for several isoquinolines, the lack of its detection had caught Sasha's attention. He wrote a friend that he suspected the activity of lophophine would fall in between mescaline and MMDA based on its structure. Then in 1966, he made comments suggesting that subsequent bioassays supported that. In another letter from the 1960s, after describing the results of animal toxicity studies he had commissioned, Sasha commented on finding "a not-unexpected amalgamation of the color-effects of mescaline and the benign lack of anxiety of MMDA."
Sasha's dirty pictures and handwritten notes appear scattered throughout the papers.
Clearly with lophophine Sasha experienced ambiguous results that nonetheless included something that caught his attention.
Knowledge in Black and WhiteSasha has commented (in the film Dirty Pictures, for example) that it was the rise of public interest and popular drug use during the 1960s that lead to he and Dow parting ways. The archives provide contemporaneous details on this and suggest Dow was concerned about liability.
...Sasha described a Dow legal team visiting him to express concern about the safety of his work—not for his safety but the safety of Dow.