Dare We Do Better? Drug Education for the MAPS Movement

Education is a key pillar of the MAPS mission to create safe and legal contexts for the use of psychedelics and marijuana in society. To date, people in the U.S. and beyond have primarily been exposed to fear-based, abstinence-focused drug education. Dare we do better? 

With the launch of MAPS’ Psychedelics Fundamentals course, we are setting the foundation for modern drug education: balanced, fact-based, trauma-informed, and rooted in harm reduction practices. As psychedelics enter the mainstream, and more people see documentaries like Netflix’s How to Change Your Mind, MAPS is doubling down on our commitment to provide best-in-class drug education. Since launching in July 2022, 1,500 students have enrolled in Psychedelic Fundamentals and we expect to reach many thousands more. 

For too long, people who use drugs have been stigmatized. Government agencies have masked anti-drug propaganda as education. These programs propagated through school curricula and then trickled into dinner-time conversations between families. The powerful image of an egg frying in a hot pan, coupled with the message, “This is your brain on drugs,” became iconic for the D.A.R.E. generation. You may have been asked to write a purity pledge in middle school (see picture from Liana Gillooly, MAPS’ Strategic Initiatives Officer, for her essay). D.A.R.E.’s propaganda has impacted me too. Before learning about the therapeutic use of psychedelics, I remember telling my friend with great certainty, “They call it acid for a reason… it’ll ruin your brain!” What starts as fear-based education trickles into the culture at large, and stifles open conversation – between friends and family – about risks, benefits, and harm-reduction. Without open and honest conversations, research into psychedelics was nearly impossible for decades.

“This is your brain on drugs.” Partnership for a Drug-Free America. 1986
D.A.R.E. Essay by MAPS team member Liana Gillooley. 1999. 

The public narrative of psychedelics and marijuana has shifted, though.  From once being associated with the counterculture in the 60s, it is now common to see media that associates psychedelics with wellness, mental health research, and future medical models. While this is an improvement, there is a need to acknowledge that people will explore drug use on their own, for whatever purposes they desire. In Drug Use for Grown Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, MAPS Board Member Carl Hart, Ph.D., writes: “Clearly, many people consume psychoactive substances ‘in the pursuit of happiness,’ a right the government was established to secure, to protect. So why then is our current government arresting one million Americans each year for possessing drugs? Why are so many drug users hiding in the closet? This reality does not align with the spirit of the Declaration [of Independence].” When a government criminalizes people who use drugs rather than providing honest and nuanced education about how to minimize the risks — and perhaps even maximize the benefits — of substances, , MAPS and our allies must step up to the challenge. As the leader in psychedelic research and medicalization strategies, MAPS aims to introduce a common language and a fact-based, scientific understanding of risks and benefits for potential explorers. 

MAPS also aims to provide psychedelic harm reduction education and peer support for safer psychedelic journeys. Since 2012, the Zendo Project, a program sponsored by MAPS, has provided psychedelic peer support and harm reduction services at festivals and other events. In fact, Psychedelic Fundamentals was born out of the Zendo Project vision “where communities are educated, resourced, and engaged in applying harm reduction principles to support individuals, exploring psychedelic states; recognizing that challenging experiences can be opportunities for self- exploration and healing.” The insights from Zendo Project’s on-the-ground work are interwoven throughout the course. 

Psychedelic Fundamentals is the first course in a series of digital education opportunities from MAPS. The two-hour course is video-based and it’s the perfect starting point for those who are considering psychedelic use, seeking information to support a loved one, or interested in how psychedelics work and what benefits and risks they may provide. You can purchase the course at maps.org/learn and complete it in your own timeline. 

 In the course, we introduce:

  • Ordinary and non-ordinary states of consciousness
  • A brief history of psychedelics, from the earliest known human uses to today’s cutting-edge research
  • How psychedelic compounds mimic naturally-occurring neurotransmitters, and how they’re able to create conditions for positive changes in thought patterns
  • The similarities, differences, and therapeutic uses of four common psychedelic substances: psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and ayahuasca
  • The careful planning that increases the likelihood of an safer psychedelic trip

This launch is only the beginning. Our team is actively planning and raising funds to develop our next set of lessons. The next round of courses will be “deep-dives” into popular topics like integration, peer support, trip planning, science, and professional opportunities in the psychedelic field. Honest and informed public education is necessary for individuals who choose to use psychedelics as well as the psychedelic movement itself. It’s our sincere hope that you share this course with friends and family members. Together, we can create opportunities for shared understanding and safer exploration. 

Special thanks to: Sara Gael Giron, Ryan Beauregard, Chelsea Rose Pires, Bryan Lang, Brian Broom-Pelz, John Poncini, Kynthia Brunette, Bryson Voirin, Keila Torre-Santiago, Rick Doblin, Kris Lotlikar, Betty Aldworth, Wes Hale, Kelsey Laird, Vilmarie Narloch, Patrick Shea, Melissa Salpietra, Stephen Silvius, and all our team members and advisors for their contributions to this project. Thank you to our donors for making this work possible. Your support makes our work possible. 

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1  “Psychedelic Fundamentals,” MAPS. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://maps.org/psychedelic-fundamentals/ 
2How To Change Your Mind, Three, “Chapter 3: MDMA,” directed by Lucy Walker, presented by Michael Pollan, aired July 12, 2022, on Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/80229847
3 Carl L. Hart, Drug Use For Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. New York: Penguin Books, 2021. 
4 “Homepage,” Zendo Project. Accessed August 26, 2022. https://zendoproject.org/

Shirelle Noble (she/her) is a systems-thinker who brings 13+ years of strategy, marketing, operations, and product management experience to the emerging commercialization era of psychedelics. Shirelle is the former Director of Digital at MAPS, where she led a 2-year digital transformation project and launched MAPS’ first online education course, Psychedelic Fundamentals. Shirelle recently joined the Beckley Academy as the VP of Marketing and Operations, where she will be developing online psychedelic therapist training programs. Prior to MAPS, Shirelle co-founded The North Star Project, a non-profit think tank focused on ethical business in the field of psychedelics. Shirelle began her career as a consultant at Bain & Company and has BBA in Finance and a BA in English from The University of Texas at Austin. Shirelle is a “third culture kid,” raised by Indian/Persian parents in Indonesia, Australia and the USA. She loves to read, travel, hike, dance, DJ, participate in dusty art projects, and pull pranks on people.