Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

He sits relaxed in his foldable chair in a tropical spot in Mexico. Lines of palm trees decorate the white sand beach behind him and he is wearing a blouse and linen pants, obviously appropriate attire for such a place and time. Calm and composed, and not at all looking the way an older man who has “guinea-pigged” over 230 psychoactive drugs is expected to look, Alexander Shulgin is interviewed by Luc Sala, a Dutch author that does most of his research on psychedelic drugs.

“You have to realize what I’m searching for, which is not for altering consciousness, or for having fun or for enjoying this or for discovering that,” Shulgin said. “I’m looking for the tools that can be used for studying the mind and other people then will use the tools in finding out the aspects of the mental process and how it ties to the brain.”

Psychedelic drugs and Alexander Shulgin. It’s nearly impossible to refer to one without the other. Known as “the godfather of ecstasy,” Shulgin popularized MDMA and created, or as he calls it, “synthesized,” over 230 psychoactive compounds. 2C-I is one of them.

Users doing their own “research” — through experimentation with these drugs — are responsible for the relative legal ambiguity of 2C-I.

The limited laws that pertain to 2C-I, the ease of accessibility through online purchase, and the relatively little history of the drug create a legal gray area that makes “new-wave psychedelics” — well — trippy.

2C-I, known to chemists as 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodophenethylamine, and to Alexander Shulgin as one of his “babies,” is slowly breaking out of its “underground shell” and making its way into the drug world. Not just the medical and scientific drug world, but a world of psychedelics that is classified as “designer drugs.”

Mescaline, the principle active agent in peyote, was the first known psychedelic. It was used for thousands of years among Native American tribes, ritualistically and medicinally. Indigenous tribes all over the world called it the “sacred medicine,” and used it to combat spiritual and physical battles. However, mescaline was not synthesized as a psychedelic drug until 1919 and did not emerge until the 1960s when experimentation with psychedelics became prevalent.

Mescaline belongs to a family of compounds known as “phenethylamines,” which includes the 2C family and more well-known drugs like MDMA, MDA, and amphetamine. Phenethylamines are structurally close to dopamine, which is naturally occurring in the brain, and is involved with the sensing of pleasure and “reward.”

2C-I belongs to a family of 29 “2C” compounds, which include the more notable 2C-B, 2C-E and 2C-T-7. These are designated Schedule I drugs, or “dangerous with a high abuse potential and no known or accepted medicinal applications,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Designer drugs, as defined by Donald Cooper from the Drug Enforcement Association, are often drugs that are “designed” to get around existing drug laws by modifying or tweaking the molecular structures of already established illegal drugs, or finding an entirely different chemical structure that produces a similar effect to an illegal recreational drug. Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, such substances were sold as “research chemicals.”

2C-I falls into a gray zone. Special agent Casey McEnry from the San Francisco field division of the DEA, explains the drug’s ambiguous legal situation.

“2C-I is currently not scheduled under the Controlled Substance Act,” McEnry said. “However, if it is determined to be structurally similar to 2C-B, which is a Schedule I controlled substance, it could potentially be prosecuted under the Controlled Substance Analogue Act.”

If 2C-I were to become a Schedule I drug, it would mean that it is not considered legitimate for medicinal use or human consumption. Other drugs that fall into this category include marijuana, heroin and mescaline.

In several countries in Europe, such as England, Germany and France, 2C-I has already been made illegal. However, no deaths have been reported.

In order for 2C-I to be banned, it would have to meet certain specific requirements, McEnry said.

“Based on my research, it appears that for prosecution under the act the key would be ‘intent for human consumption’,” McEnry said. “This can be proven in a variety of ways, including the way it is sold, methods of marketing and representations made by the seller or provider of the substance.”

UCSC sociology chair Craig Reinerman, who focuses his research in drugs and society, said psychedelics are difficult to analyze. The easiest way to describe them, he said, is as “the technology of the self,” a term coined by Michel Foucault. Foucault was a French sociologist and philosopher fascinated by the human mind.

Reinerman said that people viewed psychedelic drugs through the lens of the cultural context in which they were introduced.

“LSD was a new drug, introduced at a particular moment of social upheaval, rebellion and so it became associated with a feared group, which is the same for all other drug scares and drug wars,” Reinerman said.

This description also expresses the fears that have become apparent due to the popularization of designer drugs.

“[Users were] people who were questioning basic American values. These were people who were protesting against American’s foreign policy. These were people who were attacking capitalism and the corporate order,” Reinerman said. “These were not just seen as misguided victims who became addicted to something.”

Luc Sala, the Dutch author fascinated with psychedelics, asked the famous drug designer Alexander Shulgin how his fascination with psychedelics started. He described his first-ever experience with “that other world.”

“I suddenly found myself in an extraordinary, physical world around me, visual, sensory world of color, of interpretation, of motion, of form, of shape,” Shulgin said. “The drug allowed me to realize, express, to appreciate. It was there all along and I was totally blind to it. It catalyzed the opening of my own viewing, and that caught my fantasy.”

Often used recreationally, 2C-I is an overtly LSD-like psychedelic, tending to have more visual and intellectual effects, users say.

Hana Lurie, a fourth-year psychology student at UC Santa Cruz, experienced the effects that Shulgin described when she first experimented with 2C-I. She was with a close friend who was more experienced in the use of psychedelic drugs the first time she tried the drug. She had not tried any psychedelic drugs before.

Lurie adjusts herself in her chair, with a pensive look in her eyes. Her face becomes serious as she starts talking about the trip.

“The first thing I noticed was that I could feel my breathing … I’m trying to find a word … It was much more noticeable,” she says. “It felt good to breathe — I could feel the oxygen floating through my lungs and pumping through my body […] It came on very slowly, and I was still really aware and functional.”

Lurie struggles to find the right words to further describe her experience. She pauses and hesitates, mumbling a bit. After a few moments of silence, she takes a big gulp of her coffee, laughs and continues.

“God, it’s so hard to describe that feeling, it’s so difficult to describe psychedelic drugs,” she said. “Everything I touched and felt would shoot through every cell in my body … It’s really hard to articulate.”

It is strange to sit in the coffee shop where we are sitting, talking about another world of consciousness. Life is so normal here while students study and baristas serve up lattes behind the counter. Lurie is quiet. Her eyes light up when the background music triggers a thought, a memory —“Viva la Vida” by Coldplay starts playing.

“I ruled the world on 2C-I,” Lurie said. “It’s weird how when you have a drug trip, afterwards you remember the exact feelings, but a few years later you only remember very specific parts of it, like the parts that affected you the most, you know?”

Lurie said she was never worried about the legality of using the drug, trusting her friend at the time — he had purchased it online. Later, Lurie purchased it herself together with a friend. Cost-wise, Lurie said it is an “investment” but definitely not out of reach for her student budget.

“I wasn’t worried about getting in trouble, but I was absolutely shocked about how easy it was for us to purchase,” Lurie said. “I was somehow expecting the website owners to do some sort of check, a check that we were actually using it for research purposes and not recreationally or for selling purposes. But no.”

Greg Smith*, the owner of an online company that sells a variety of research chemicals, including 2C-I, said that verifying the intentions of 2C-I buyers is not always feasible.

“It is difficult to distinguish between a university researcher and some kid who is looking for a fix,” said Smith, who wishes to keep his name and the name of his company anonymous for security.

Smith said that although distinguishing between research and recreation use is difficult, his company regulates the purchase of 2C-I and other designer drugs based on certain criteria customers must meet.

“It would be naive to think there aren’t people who use the products we sell for illicit purposes,” Smith said. “However, we take every precaution we can in preventing the chemicals from being used in an illicit manner. If we’re provided with a name which matches one of our customers, and we’re told they’re using the product illicitly, the account is immediately banned.”

However, he said, the website is protected.

“We also don’t allow our products pages to be indexed by search engines to try and prevent individuals who may be looking for chemicals for illicit purposes from finding our products easily. I would rather those individuals buy from a competitor.”

The legal paradox of 2C-I is made evident through the willingness of sellers who responded — or didn’t — to queries about participating as sources for this article.

An anonymous representative from EastCoastChems stressed via e-mail the importance of expressing this issue in the right light.

“We wish the important potentialities of 2C-I were more emphasized over its mere availability. In fact, we really wish research chemical articles were limited to scientific journals rather than being placed publicly where hyper-conservative folks will be outraged, or where criminals will be tempted to acquire some for the wrong reasons.”

Whether the legality of this drug stems from a good place is hard to identify. The online seller Smith explained:

“The inventor of a drug has a period of uncertainty to bring the product to market and sell it commercially before other chemical and drug manufacturers can make generic versions of the chemical.

“That’s where the majority of my customers are — taking part in researching the products properties to ensure lawmakers and policy-makers can make informed decisions regarding where and if the chemicals should be scheduled or controlled.”

This may be the stage that designer drugs are now in: The laws are ambiguous, there is no definitive or developed user culture, not enough history. 2C-I is not only straddling the line of legality, it’s also straddling the “make it or break it” line as a psychedelic substance.

Alexander Shulgin explains that the fact that designer drugs are so ambiguous and there really are no rules may solely accentuate the potentialities that 2C-I has in its current legal state. To him, it is a good thing, whatever side of the legal line 2C-I might end up on.

Despite public antagonization and governmental opposition, Shulgin’s scientific integrity has remained intact.

With all the confidence in the world that his way is the right way, still relaxed in his beach chair in Mexico, he simply says:

“Sometimes you have to disrupt something to see how it works.”


*Names have been changed