This story is part of When the Drugs Hit, a Motherboard journey into the science, politics, and culture of today’s psychedelic renaissance. Follow along here.
After a flurry of scientific research in the 1950s and 60s, all human psychedelic drug trials in the US were effectively banned with the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act in 1970. This moratorium on psychedelic research lasted until psychiatrist Rick Strassman’s DMT trials at the University of New Mexico opened the door for new psychedelic research in 1990.
Since then, a number of studies have looked at the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances. And in almost all of these trials, including Strassman’s landmark study, the drugs have been supplied by a single individual: Dave Nichols.
As a chemist at Purdue University, Nicholas was in the business of supplying America’s psychedelic research compounds from 1969 until he retired in 2012. He is perhaps best known for synthesizing the MDMA, DMT, LSD and psilocybin (the psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms”) that have been used in the new wave of psychedelic research. But most of Nichols’ career was spent researching psychedelic analogs, molecules which have similar structures or effects to their well-known controlled relatives.
Despite his academic pedigree, Nichols has come under fire for fueling a “designer drug” boom that resulted in obscure research chemicals making their way from the lab to the street and resulted in a few deaths along the way. But this is merely an unfortunate side effect of his research—anyone with access to chemistry journals and a decent lab set up would be able to reproduce his research. Nichols has also strongly condemned a number of designer drugs, particularly synthetic cannabinoids like spice, as dangerous for consumption.
In many ways, Nichols is like a contemporary Sasha Shulgin, the infamous chemist who co-authored TIHKAL and PIHKAL , which are essentially psychedelic cookbooks interwoven with a love story (indeed, Nichols was actually the first to synthesize a handful of chemicals described in PIHKAL). But whereas Shulgin was getting high on his own supply in his backyard lab, Nichols isn’t trying to spark a psychedelic awakening and was certainly not tripping in his Purdue laboratory.
“There was nobody else really doing what I was doing so it was fun and I didn’t have to worry about getting scooped.”
Still, life ain’t easy for a psychedelic scientist, so I caught up with Nichols to learn about how he became one of the largest producers of psychedelic research chemicals in the US, and what that experience was like at a time when there was zero tolerance for psychedelic research on humans.
Motherboard: How did you get started making psychedelic drugs?
David Nichols: I started in this field in 1969 as a graduate student, doing my PhD on mescaline analogs, basically. Then I got an academic position at Purdue and that allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted to follow, so I just kept working on psychotomimetics. I was lucky to get a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and that grant continued for about 29 years. There was nobody else really doing what I was doing so it was fun and I didn’t have to worry about getting scooped by someone else working in the same area because we were doing a pretty novel thing.
Was it hard getting approval to make Schedule I psychedelics?
Not really. When I made the MDMA it was before it was illegal so there wasn’t a problem with that. And with Rick Strassman’s DMT, I had a schedule I license for DMT already. Same thing was true with the psilocybin I made for Johns Hopkins. You’re allowed to make a Schedule I substance if it’s in collaboration with someone else who has a Schedule I license so that wasn’t that difficult. I had to get the Schedule I license in the beginning, which required getting everything certified, but it wasn’t as difficult as people might imagine.
The DEA never pushed back against your research?
I had a license for 15 different Schedule I substances. At one point they started getting really pushy. Do you have an active protocol? Do you need all these? We’d like to get some of them out of your lab if you don’t really need these 15. How often do you use them?
So I had to write a letter saying we don’t do the kind of research you’re used to. We don’t fit in a boilerplate. We do studies where we modify a receptor and mutate different amino acids in the receptor. We have a whole library of compounds we want to put in there and see what did that mutation do to the activity of those structures. We never know which compound we might need on any given day.
The DEA aren’t scientists, they’re basically policemen. At a certain point they started sending protocols over to the FDA, which is totally inappropriate. But anyway they’d ask if this [is] research worth doing. That’s an inappropriate question. If you’re qualified, you have an academic appointment, you’re respected, and you’ve got a CV, the DEA shouldn’t be asking whether this research should be done. Anyway, if they got feedback saying the project was worth doing, then they’d come and investigate your facilities. They wanted to see what kind of safe you were going to keep substances in, where the safe’s located. They’re basically concerned with diversion of controlled substances. They want to make sure if you get it, no one else can get it.
What was your security like for these substances you were making?
My office had a two-inch solid oak door that had a key lock that would’ve been difficult to pick. Inside my office I had a big, heavy steel fireproof file cabinet. In addition to the regular pushlocks, it had a hasp welded on top with another place welded on the bottom so that a one-inch steel bar could fit in front of the drawers with a padlock on the top. To get in that you’d have to be able to break through a solid oak door, then pick or cut off a substantial padlock, and then use a crowbar or something to break open the file cabinet.
Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Tripping on Acid
How long did it take you to get your license?
That can take six months to two years depending on how you appear to the DEA. It’s supposed to be a non-political process, but I’ve known people who’ve taken two years because the DEA said they lost their inspection forms after doing an inspection. You don’t know if these things are willful are not. I’ve always had the impression that the DEA doesn’t appreciate having to do Schedule I. They think these things are so dangerous, why should we be working with them. But that’s just my own impression.
This was back in the 70s. Do you think studying psychedelic drugs has gotten easier?
I think the DEA has gotten more stringent. When I first started the process seemed more transparent and I didn’t have any trouble getting a license. I’ve talked to many people over the years who’ve really had a difficult time. Also the DEA didn’t used to send the protocols to the FDA to get a ruling as to whether they were worth doing or not. It’s like the DEA saying, “we don’t trust you, we need to get an outside check to make sure you’re a legitimate guy.” They’re real suspicious.
Outside of your lab, who else was synthesizing psychedelics?
I don’t know that there were that many people just making things. We generally made them because we had a certain hypothesis. So when we were doing the MDMA work, we were trying to develop a molecule that had MDMA-like activity but which was completely new so we wouldn’t have to worry about the stigma of it being a research chemical or drug of abuse.
That was what drove a lot of the MDMA research. We basically were trying to understand the features of the receptor that were necessary for activity. It was a pretty complex program designed to understand how the molecules were interacting with biological targets. We didn’t just make compounds like Sasha Shulgin, just to see what we could make and take. He was an alchemist, not a scientist. We had specific hypotheses, we made the molecules with specific ideas of what we wanted to figure out. I don’t know anyone else who was really doing that with respect to psychedelics.
“I think it’s because of the internet that these things have just proliferated.”
A lot of your work was focused on psychedelic analogs. In recent years, the DEA has really been cracking down on analogs. Why do you think this is?
Well, there are a lot more analogs out there than people are aware of now. In fact, a lot of the things I’ve made are now called designer drugs and are out on the street. But they don’t have to cause any damage, they don’t even have to be problematic. All the DEA has to do is suspect that they have abuse potential, then all of a sudden say we better control this. They don’t wait for something to show up as a problem, they try to think of everything possible.
I think they can probably wait and see until these things are showing up on the street in a significant amount. They can quickly schedule with emergency scheduling. But they claim it makes their life easier if they have these things scheduled already, but it does shut off legitimate research. If these things have medical potential, nobody is going to look at them. So then that means they’ll only be examined in the context of being drugs of abuse. So any potential benefit will never be studied.
A lot of the chemicals made in your lab have shown up on the street. How did it feel to know people were recreationally taking these obscure compounds you created?
I was surprised. Some of the things we made were not that simple of a synthesis to carry out. So when these things showed up, I thought, “wow, someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to make these.” We published a lot of these things years ago, but they just started showing up in the last few years.
I think it’s because of the internet that these things have just proliferated. Now people can go on sites like Erowid and read about these different substances and say, “oh, that sounds interesting,” and there’s people that sell the stuff so they can go buy a sample. That didn’t used to happen. They used to have to go to a library and do some actual research.
Were pharmaceutical companies showing any interest in psychedelic analogs when you were working in the lab?
Drug companies have stayed away from this field entirely. It was the case in their research that if they found a molecule that activated the serotonin 2A receptor, which is the target for psychedelics, it was a kiss of death for that molecule right off the bat. I think the drug industry has been very circumspect about things hitting targets that could be drugs of abuse. I don’t really think that the drug industry as a whole sees these things as any sort of profit source for them now or in the future.
In terms of the paradigm, using psilocybin once or twice a year maybe, isn’t the model that the pharmaceutical industry follows. Most of the research chemicals are like that. They’re analogs of psychedelics. But pharmaceutical companies are looking for a pill you take everyday for the rest of your life. That’s how they make their money.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.