AlterNet: Meet Rick Doblin, Psychedelic Pioneer Who Has Expanded the Boundaries of Medicine

Summary: AlterNet profiles MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., featuring an interview with Doblin about the history of MAPS, the past three decades of psychedelic research, psychedelic harm reduction, and the future of psychedelic medicine. "I think that’s been my main experience over the past 30 years: Trying to argue for psychedelic research, for marijuana research, for ending the drug war, and sort of the deeper aspect of it—which is this global spirituality. Psychedelics can help people have these unitive mystical experiences, and how those have political implications in the direction of peace and tolerance and understanding," explains Doblin.

Originally appearing here.

When Rick Doblin founded his psychedelics research and education organization in 1986, he was a young therapist-in-training and proud Vietnam War draft-resister. The organization was his response to a decision by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to list MDMA (aka Molly or Ecstasy) as a Schedule I, felony-offense drug.

Prior to MDMA’s illegal status, Doblin had witnessed its healing potentials first-hand during sessions with people. He, along with a niche contingent of therapists in the early ’80s, had found that MDMA—which was originally synthesized for pharmaceutical use in 1912— seemed to help people open up about blocked or buried feelings and traumas. But the government’s crackdown on MDMA arrived after the drug made its way onto the dance floors of mid-’80s nightclubs and became wildly popular in recreational settings.

Thirty years later, Doblin’s nonprofit, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is arguably responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in the recent history of health and psychology. It has sponsored unprecedented human clinical trials—all legal and government-approved—looking into the ability of various psychedelics to mitigate psychological problems. MAPS studies usually involve participants ingesting a given substance in a living room-like setting under the supervision of a male/female co-therapist team and working through chronic issues like severe anxiety, PTSD, depression or addiction.

In 2014, a MAPS-backed study in Switzerland revealed that LSD can ease anxiety for patients facing the end of life. It was the first clinical trial to look into LSD for therapeutic use in more than 40 years, and made worldwide headlines for its encouraging results. Their research looking at MDMA for PTSD is on course to enter phase III trials, after which, depending on the results, MDMA could be approved by the FDA and other government agencies as a medication prescribed by doctors for use in session with a therapist. Other current psychedelic research aims to assess the clinical potentials of DMT, ayahuasca, psilocybin, ketamine and mescaline, among other substances. The results of MAPS’ phase I and II clinical trials have been overwhelmingly positive.

Doblin spoke with me on the phone from his home office in Boston, Massachusetts, where he’s lived since 1998 (though he spends a good deal of time at MAPS headquarters in Santa Cruz, Calif.). He said running things “on remote control” gives him much-needed mental space to focus on his unending surge of objectives. We spoke on March 18, just hours before a monumental moment for MAPS: the DEA’s recommendation to approve the Arizona location where the first ever U.S.-based, independent clinical study of marijuana as a potential medicine for PTSD is set to take place. The DEA thumbs-up was the last hurdle keeping the long-blockaded research effort on pause.

Doblin spoke with AlterNet about MAPS’ metamorphosis from an off-the-radar collection of psychedelic activists into the well-respected institution it is today. Referencing a recent show of interest from Stanford and Harvard in hosting upcoming MAPS studies, he joked he was afraid he was losing his edge.

When he founded MAPS, he was a rebellious young college student in training to be a therapist, who threw the ramshackle effort together with a small group of colleagues, because, he said, it was scarier not to try to change the world than it was to try. He had no idea at the time what he was taking on, nor how much his work might begin to shift social consciousness around drugs and health on a global scale. Today he’s a 62-year-old father who has raised three children—two of whom are already out of the nest—and runs a company of 20 employees.

MAPS will celebrate its 30-year anniversary with a banquet dinner fundraiser on April 17 in Oakland, Calif. With this milestone in mind, Doblin reflected on three decades of psychedelic hurdles and quantum leaps.

April M. Short: So you’re about to celebrate 30 years of MAPS. How are you feeling about that?

Rick Doblin: Where did the time go? I’m feeling pretty good about it. I feel like where we’re at right now is a great spot. I’m very optimistic and hopeful and whether we should have been here 20 years ago or whatever, the fact that we’re here at all is so good that I’m not bitter about it.

It’s more just sad actually to think about all of those people with PTSD who have committed suicide and all the suffering that’s taken place that doesn’t really need to take place if we have these drugs. So that’s the hardest part, just to think—it was obvious 30 years ago when I started MAPS that MDMA had incredible therapeutic potential, it’s not like we just discovered it or anything.

AMS: Did you expect MAPS to last 30 years?

RD: Somehow or other, when I started it, I had a much shorter time horizon. I didn’t know how long things would take, but I did know I would stick at it however long it took. I guess I’m not surprised that it’s taken 30 years, culturally.

On the other hand, what has changed for me is that I’ve become a parent. I’ve already got two out of the three kids out of the house and into college. And when you look back and you think about, where’d the time go? I now realize that 20 years isn’t really that long. So, having a 20-year plan or a 30-year plan makes sense.

And then when you think about it, it was just 150 years ago we had the Civil War and people kept slaves; and it was 100 years ago or so that women couldn’t vote. So when you think about cultural change, it takes multiple generations for things to happen—sometimes centuries or thousands of years. I think maybe it was a little bit unrealistic to think that when I started MAPS in ‘86 that by ‘96 we should have MDMA as a medicine. I don’t really begrudge the time or anything like that, it’s more just the unnecessary suffering so many people have gone through when MDMA and psilocybin and other psychedelics—and marijuana— could have been incredibly helpful.

AMS: You told me at the 2013 Psychedelics Science Conference in Oakland that you initially founded MAPS in response to the DEA’s announcement that it planned to designate MDMA as a Schedule I drug. This was in 1984. It meant the restriction of its availability and indicated it had high abuse potential with no accepted medical use. 

At the time you had been using MDMA to aid in therapy. Can you talk a bit about that time in your life?

What was really frustrating was to win the DEA administrative judge lawsuit and have the judge say MDMA should be available as a therapeutic medicine, even though it should be criminalized for recreational use—and then to see the DEA reject that recommendation. T
hat was the frustrating part that really led to starting MAPS: to realize that there was no way politically. We had been completely blocked, and the only way was gonna be to try to use the science to make it through.

… I had started out as—I was a draft resister for Vietnam—and I was an LSD user, so my identification was as this counter-culture drug-using criminal. So that’s kind of who I thought of myself as, who I was. I just kind of accepted that. I learned about LSD by taking it in the ‘70s. And, well, I’ll tell you: waking up to LSD and the therapeutic uses was early in ‘72, just as it was being shut down. So, I always felt like I was kind of slow to the party, I didn’t know what was going on until it was all smashed.

And then, when I learned about MDMA in 1982, it was this incredible situation because it was still legal, but it was already being sold as Ecstasy. So, it was clear that there was gonna be a crackdown. I felt like, here was my opportunity. Now I’ve learned about it beforehand and I can see what’s coming, and everybody else that’s involved in this therapeutic community can too. And so I said, OK, let’s get organized. Let’s fight this.

AMS: How did you do that?

RD: Well, that’s where I started blending a little bit more, from being this counter-culture drug-using criminal. A friend of mine had this nonprofit, Earth Metabolic Design Labs, that he wasn’t using, and it was written in such a way that it could justify supporting MDMA, and that’s where I started seeing, wow, the “system” has some some pretty progressive elements that give you the ability to fight the system. And you can give people tax reductions to help you fight the system. I thought, This is pretty amazing.

This was sort of like my coming out from the underground and onto the surface. It was a really exciting time. For instance, when I went to the DEA—well, let’s back up. The Huichol Indians, who use peyote [in ceremony], have this tradition of doing yarn art. They also make these bags, sort of peyote carrying bags. I had this yarn peyote bag, and I used that as my briefcase. When I was finally going to go to the DEA to file the petition in Washington demanding the hearing about MDMA’s therapeutic use, I carried the petition in my Huichol peyote bag. It was a good contrast. I knocked on the door of the DEA and went in, and that was this sort of crossing line between being underground, and hidden in a way, and also surfacing.

AMS: And you’ve kept surfacing ever since?

RD: Right—well, that felt good. The big worry that I’d had was: culture’s going crazy and scapegoating, the way we still do with drugs, and the way Donald Trump is doing now. The same way Hitler did—the way people scapegoat others for problems. I always felt like I was scared of doing nothing. I felt doing nothing could yield insanity, and nuclear arms race, and nuclear warfare and genocide. So it was that sort of crossing into the DEA office and handing in that petition that actually made me feel safer, and not less safe. That was a feeling that really surprised me. I thought, “They don’t have any idea who I am, and that’s been good, and here it is I’m walking in the door and handing them all these papers and they’ve got my name on them.”

But that made me feel safer.

So, I think that’s been my main experience over the past 30 years: Trying to argue for psychedelic research, for marijuana research, for ending the drug war, and sort of the deeper aspect of it—which is this global spirituality. Psychedelics can help people have these unitive mystical experiences, and how those have political implications in the direction of peace and tolerance and understanding. Once I started doing that I just kept feeling safer, and safer, and safer, rather than more and more at risk. I think that’s what’s helped me do this for 30 years.

AMS: And that fear of losing anonymity and maybe putting oneself at risk is maybe what often keeps people from becoming activists, or involved in whatever cause they deeply believe in.

RD: I think so. I think the way to say it for me is that it was a bigger fear, the bigger fear of doing nothing. You know, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the Cuban missile crisis; and with the arms race with the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War—just doing nothing was the bigger fear.  

A lot of times when I would be stopped by the DEA or FDA or review boards and they would be blocking everything we were doing, and I’d get super frustrated, I would think, God, my life is so easy compared to the concentration camps, or compared to being in Vietnam or compared to being black in America. Those things all just made me feel like, how hard is it really, for me? That just made it easier to keep going.

AMS: So three decades later, MAPS has a lot cooking. What would you say are your biggest successes?

RD: Well, it was in the last week. The biggest success is coming to the conclusion of the Phase II [MDMA]-PTSD pilot studies, and negotiating with regulatory authorities about moving to Phase III. Because [Phase III trials] are where it really starts to be a conversation about making these things into legal prescription medicines. So, that’s the biggest success.

Also just in the last week, what’s been fantastic is that I’ve had conversations with researchers at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and a meeting’s going to be taking place at Stanford, about whether they would be Phase III sites for MDMA-PTSD research. So, there’s an interest. I don’t know if any of these negotiations will result in studies at those locations. But I’ve told several friends of mine I’m worried I’m going to get too mainstream and lose my edge. We’re in danger of becoming too mainstream, is what’s happening now. [laughs] I’m willing to let it be even more dangerous— for that mainstreaming to accelerate. It is good to see.

We’ve had discussions with Tom Insel who was the head of NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health). The last time the NIMH funded psychedelic psychotherapy research was in 1966. (They’ve done a little bit recently with ketamine for the treatment of refractory depression.)

So, I see these cultural turning points. The other big thing for us is that since 1992 I’ve been trying to do marijuana research. And, just today in Phoenix, Arizona the DEA is inspecting the site for our marijuana PTSD study. That’s gonna be in about an hour, so as we’re talking, almost. 

And, there’s the fact that we got our first government grant in 30 years from the State of Colorado, this $2.1 million grant for the marijuana study.

AMS: That’s pretty big.

RD: Yeah. We’re still trying to end the government monopoly on marijuana. Now, of course they don’t’ have a monopoly on marijuana. They have a monopoly on DEA-licensed marijuana that can be used in FDA studies, and that feels like it’s coming—there’s a good chance before Obama leaves office, that we will have ended the NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) monopoly. And they’ve had that since 1968.

The fact that we’re about to start the study is the result of over 20 years of effort, just on marijuana.

AMS: Right. And people think MAPS, they think psychedelics, but studying cannabis has been a focus of yours for quite a while.

RD: The reason that I’m so focused on the marijuana project when my main interest is in the psychedelics is that it’s trying to win the princip
le, in a way, of science over politics.

I’m always worried about the backlash and where it might come from. As long as we’re doing all this research with psychedelics, that’s really positive and promising. But if politics is blocking research with marijuana, I worry there could be this potential backlash. If we can overcome that resistance, and we’ve just about done it, then that reinforces the idea of science over politics and protects the gains we’ve made with psychedelics.

The other thing that’s really exciting about 30 years is that within the last week, again, we’ve had discussions with teams who are thinking about doing MDMA-PTSD Phase III studies with us in Brazil, Columbia and Australia. The globalization, the internationalization of psychedelic research has been particularly gratifying because if there is a backlash in any one country, there are other countries.

It seems increasingly like the big backlash is not gonna happen. We’ve learned the lessons of the ‘60s. We’re not saying these are miracle drugs. We’re not trying to exaggerate the benefits and minimize the risks. And we’re not saying that if you take these drugs you’re gonna tear down the foundations of society.

There are so many people that have been influenced by psychedelics that are mainstream—one of the main ones being Steve Jobs—that it doesn’t carry that same kind of revolutionary flavor anymore. It’s moved from revolution to evolution.

It’s part of cultural growth and change, but it’s not like “tear down the system.” I think that’s a big, big change in these 30 years. The thought that psychedelics can be mainstreamed into culture. It’s not “turn on, tune in and drop out,” it’s “turn on, tune in and take over.”  [laughter]

AMS: It seems pretty clear this sort of paradigm shifts in the kinds of strides MAPS and drug policy in general are taking is a sign of the times. Things are changing, however slowly. A lot of the war on drugs demonization and stigma is melting away. We see this especially with pot, but also psychedelics. That said, psychedelics and marijuana both remain federally illegal here as well as in most parts of the world—

RD: Right, and Canada, our neighbors to the north, are getting ready to legalize marijuana. And in Mexico, our neighbors to the south, they’re decriminalizing drugs. There was just a big conference on ibogaine in Mexico. With the Mexican cartels and all the violence, the negative consequences of drug prohibition are more apparent.

There was just this [meeting in Vienna of The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to prepare for the UNGASS meeting].

MAPS had a representative there. Even in these international circles, there’s more of an openness to moving towards public health and harm reduction, rather than criminal justice. I think we’re really piosed as a global society to integrate psychedelics. The U.S. is kind of lagging behind.

My perspective is that mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalists. Where we see this rise of fundamentalism in a lot of places in the world, it’s like a desperate reaction against modernity, and science and globalization. It’s increasingly difficult for people to say, My way’s the only way.

If you even look at ISIS and the way that they’re trying to destroy all of the historical sites that are from other cultural contexts, it’s just this incredibly misguided and desperate attempt. So, how do we break out of that? It’s with this understanding of this global spirituality and global mysticism that we’re all in it together.

We can have different languages for it. Everybody uses words, but it’s all the same even though it’s different languages. And I think we’ll get to that point with religion. We all are similarly trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s the meaning and how do we implement a code of conduct? And we can have all these different languages from different religions, but we’re all basically doing the same thing, communicating about the same kinds of issues. It’s not like “English is better than German is better than French is better than Spanish.” They’re just different ways that grew up in different parts of the world to describe the same things.

AMS: What is MAPS’ biggest challenge right now?

RD: The major challenge is that we have to make MDMA into a medicine. On the one hand, there’s the financial challenge. We estimate right now it will cost around $24 million. We already have half of that pledged or in hand, and I think we can raise the rest of it. So, even though it’s a major challenge, funding is not really the crucial issue. I think our major challenge is, how do we train therapists to work with MDMA?

There are a fair number of people, not that many, that are underground credentialed and above ground credentialed. Now, we’re reaching out to people that have the aboveground credentials but don’t have the underground credentials.

AMS: Underground meaning they’ve worked with people using psychedelics?

RD: Right. So, how do we train people who are traditional psychotherapists, working with PTSD who have never done psychedelics. How do we train them to work with psychedelics? And, even people who are experienced with psychedelics, it’s one thing to take them yourself, it’s another to try to really help somebody else. To do phase III [of the MDMA trails] we’re probably gonna have to train 50-75 therapists. So, how do we do that?

The other big challenge is preparing the public. Doing public education for what’s coming so that it doesn’t seem so scary.

One of the things we’ve noticed about other social justice movements like gay rights and gay marriage, is that what really contributed to the progress was the coming out of people saying that they were gay. Everybody maybe knew somebody that was gay and thought they were pretty good, but they didn’t know they were gay, so it didn’t really change people’s attitudes much. But, when people started coming out that started really changing. What we’re trying to figure out is how do we encourage this coming out about people with psychedelic experiences when it’s a crime, and it’s something that people are worried about?

So that’s where our big challenge is. How do we facilitate this coming out process we saw so effective with gay rights and gay marriage? Our Global Psychedelic Dinners are part of that. The idea is they provide this forum for people to feel comfortable in safe surroundings to share with their friends what psychedelics have meant to them, and then maybe be able to broaden it out to their parents or siblings or relatives.

There was a major entrepreneur, incredibly successful in technology, one of the most successful people in the world. And psychedelics have been very important to him in his life. He made a donation to us. I was saying to him, what would it take for you to say that in public? He said, Well, if you could get a list of 1,000 people that have some sort of a reputation for one thing or another, I would come out in a group of 1,000 people.

And, I was like, Hm, would you come out in a group of 100 people? [laughter]

So I think that the other part of it is changing the cultural attitudes to really facilitate this coming out process.  That’s why public education is so important.

I should probably talk about the Zendo Project. [A harm reduction effort in which MAPS trains volunteers at festivals to
help care for people having bad trips. See the AlterNet article, “How to Learn to Help People on Psychedelic Trips.”]

Zendo’s part of this looking around at where the backlash is likely to come from. In the past it’s come from the political connotations. That’s no longer really at the top of people’s minds. I think what’s really driving the drug war now is parents’ fears about their children.

A lot of times it’s young people going to festivals and taking drugs that, they don’t even know what they are, in unfamiliar surroundings that are not very supportive, and having these panic reactions or fears come up. And then they end up going to the authorities for help and then they get tranquilized or then they get arrested. So, that’s where I see the main tragedies are happening that could link towards creating negative publicity and backlash.

The Zendo Project has two functions. One is to try to show that in a post-prohibition world where people, particularly young people, are using these drugs at festivals, many times for spiritual purposes—for the sense of communion and group identification—when they do that, if there’s this safety net around them, many times if they can get support and reassurance they can actually learn and grow from the experience. That’s really important.

The other part of this is to think about training therapists. It’s also a way—for therapists that volunteer with us at Zendo around the world and want to start working on phase III trials with us— it’s a fantastic opportunity for them to have experiences in a group setting working with people taking drugs. It’s a tremendous situation for training therapists, for therapists to get feedback from each other and work with people who happen to be on psychedelics, in an unofficial capacity. It’s also building this model of how we could have a post-prohibition world and the risks are just vastly reduced.

It’s one of my proudest accomplishments, the Zendo project. It was also something we had a lot of debate about whether we should do—whether being involved with illegal use would somehow or other make regulators less likely to work with us.

AMS: Has it?

RD: It hasn’t turned out that way. In fact, it’s turned out the opposite because they see we’re trying to be responsible.

AMS: In 2013, when I first interviewed you I was 24. You told me that the best piece of advice you could lend a young person starting out was basically to play the long game—plant seeds now that could come to fruition 10, 20, even 30 years down the line.

What things are you seeing play out now that you laid the groundwork for in the early days?

RD: Well, the relationships with FDA that we’ve been building since actually the mid-‘80s. We have benefited greatly from the advice of—we have two consultants who used to work inside the FDA division of psychiatry products, including the head of it, and the head of toxicology. They’ve since left and now one of them is retired and one of them is consulting for Big Pharma. But they’ve agreed to consult with us, because they saw that we’re trying to do things the right way.

We also have our first DEA consultant, a senior retired DEA guy. Sadly, the reason is because his son enlisted in the military, went to Iraq and is 50% disabled by PTSD, and he uses marijuana to help deal with PTSD.

So, we’ve in our study we just finished with veterans, for political reasons what I wanted to do was to say, It’s for veterans, firefighters and police officers, just to sort of make the point that this is for first responders. I didn’t think we’d ever get any firefighters or police officers, but we did. We got twenty-two veterans, three firefighters and one police officer. Building those bridges to the police is just incredible.

The other thing coming to fruition is we’ve started this MAPS public benefit corporation, so that’s gonna be the vehicle we use to sell MDMA once it’s approved as a medicine. That’s pretty exciting, because when you hear about capitalism and the goal of maximizing profits, that has caused an enormous amount of progress, but also an enormous amount of suffering. And environmental destruction, and exploitation and all sorts of short-term thinking. The benefit corporation has been created as an antidote to capitalism. It’s where you maximize social benefits rather than profits.  The public benefit, there are no investors. The only investor is MAPS, the nonprofit.

With the public benefit corporation, the vision that maybe we’ve planted the seeds for is this idea of a sustainable nonprofit and because we’re one of the rare nonprofits that is actually about ending up with a product for sale, which is a prescription drug. Now, even though it’s’ gonna go generic, it won’t go generic right away. So, there’s a possibility that if MAPS is the organization that makes MDMA into a medicine for PTSD before anyone else, than we’ll have what’s called data exclusivity and we can sell it for more, not that much more, but a bit more than it cost us, and then with that extra money we can fund more research.

You started out by asking, am I surprised MAPS lasted 30 years? Well, what I have not really accomplished yet is making it so MAPS is obviously gonna survive without me. I think that, probably right now if I were to be hit by a bus the board of directors would pick somebody very qualified and it would be fine. But so much of what I do is fundraising, and it’s based on multi-year relationships that have been sustained over decades sometimes. But if we can build this, if we can actually get MDMA approved and then have it more widely used, then this idea of this engine of income will sustain MAPS.

We’ve talked about whether we should do this for marijuana as well. Now, I don’t know if you saw, last week there was an article in the New York Times [March 14] and it was about GW Pharmaceuticals, which is this British company making marijuana extracts.

They have a drug called Epidiolex, which is CBD for epilepsy, childhood. They reported their results, and they were really good, and their stock went up 25% in one day. The last paragraph in the article, I’ll read it:

“Analysts expect Epidiolex to cost $2,500 to $5,000 a month, which would be more expensive than some of the medical marijuana products, which cost from about $100 to more than $1,000 per month. However, Epidiolex might be covered by insurance, unlike the other products.”

That has now led us to think—and I’ve been thinking, of course, about this for a long time—if MAPS could make the marijuana plant in bud form into a medicine, it will be incredibly cheap. And, the Israelis are making marijuana, they’re able to grow high-potency trimmed buds for .50c a gram, $14 an ounce. So what we’re thinking is, it’s another public benefit if there’s a marijuana bud available through the FDA as a prescription medicine covered by insurance. Some people will still want to go with Epidiolex, let’s say, and pay $2,500-5,000 a month, or have their insurance companies do that. But if the same thing is available for $30 a month in bud form with high CBD marijuana that’s smoked or vaporized, insurance companies are gonna like it, people are gonna like it.

So that’s sort of the thing I’m still trying to talk about. The MAPS board of directors is worried I’m too ambitious… But that’s what I’m starting to imagine, because we’re about to start our cannabis study.

AMS: From what I&rsq
uo;ve seen the challenge with plant-form marijuana becoming a prescription or FDA-approved medicine, is the dosages being variable. Do you think that’ll be a problem?

RD: No, I don’t think that’s a problem because what we have is what’s called patient self-titration…. When you smoke marijuana or vaporize marijuana you get the signal pretty quickly of how high you are, which is way different than edibles. With smoked or vaporized marijuana, people can self-titrate the dose, so that it’s not like one pill, one size fits all. That is an advantage. When you look at antidepressants—the SSRIs—it’s not like one dose for everybody. People try it out and you customize the dose to the person. It’s not always clear what [the dose is] based on. It’s not always genetics or prior psychological history. Different people respond differently to drugs, and you need to adjust the drugs for the person.

So, you can have a standardized supply of marijuana, but you won’t know exactly, when somebody smokes it, how much they’ll get per dose. I do think we’d have to have a standardized supply, which you can get from genetically cloned plants. Then, to determine how much people actually use, it’s okay to say we’re gonna rely on patient self-titration. That’s the best way to do it. There are metered dose inhalers that give you an exact measured amount, aerosol sprays for different cannabinoids, and also vaporizers that are pretty standardized in how much they release in every inhalation—but i don’t think that’s gonna be necessary. I think the argument is gonna be, let’s permit patient self-titration, and that’s good enough. That’s even better, than good enough. I mean, that’s the way everything should be dosed.

AMS: What seeds are you planting now? What’s ahead for MAPS in the longer long run?

RD: Well, this is actually something just in the last few days: we’re trying to branch out to ibogaine and ayahuasca research in terms of clinical studies. We’re getting ready to publish papers on our ibogaine observational studies from the clinics in Mexico and New Zealand, but the issue is we’re just watching what these clinics do, and reporting on the results. That’s different from a controlled clinical trial. I just learned that in the last few days… that now there is a source of ibogaine that could be acceptable to the FDA. We’ve also been talking about doing ayahuasca research though the FDA.

Those are the horizons in the future. More plant-based medicines that we standardize, or isolate their active ingredients, then try to do research. But I have to be careful not to keep starting more and more stuff, and getting to the point where there’s so much happening I, or MAPS staff can’t keep up with it. We now have 20 people, which is kind of astonishing to me—but we have a million and a half payroll, so there’s a lot of fundraising that needs to be done. Other seeds that have been planted are this move to Phase III [MDMA clinical trials], and the confrontation with the regulators on our hopes and dreams. We’ll find out what they think about Phase III both in the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere around the world.

AMS: That’s huge.

RD: Yeah. And I’d say we still need to do some work with the RAVE Act [Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy] and psychedelic harm reduction. Actually, I’ll tell you a funny story about that. So, Natalie Ginsberg, [policy and advocacy manager] on our staff, met with some of Vice President Biden’s staff. Biden is the one that passed the RAVE Act in 2003 when he was a senator. So she went to speak with his staff and they didn’t even know the RAVE Act was blocking psychedelic harm reduction all over the world, with its ripple effect out of America.

So now, maybe we can get some kind of progress out of Biden’s office about how he didn’t really need to have the RAVE Act block harm reduction. But, as Natalie was leaving the office, one of the people she talked to said, “Do you think there are any jobs for me at MAPS?”

AMS: Could you talk a bit about what people can expect at the dinner? I understand it’s a fundraiser to support MAPS’ $400,000 purchase of 1 kilogram of MDMA for Phase 3 clinical trials to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legal prescription treatment for PTSD.

RD: Yeah, and the irony there is that back in 1985 I had a kilogram of MDMA made by Dave Nichols, and that’s the MDMA we’re still using today. That MDMA cost us $4000. And not only that, but Dave had extra better yield than he anticipated so they got about a kilogram and half. We still have 960 grams, and it’s still among the world’s purest MDMA. But, it’s not GMP (good manufacturing practices) meaning that there’s not enough paperwork documenting it. So what we’re doing now is having MDMA that’s not gonna be any purer than Dave’s MDMA, but it’ll have all the pedigree.

And of the kilogram, we need about half of it for phase III MDMA-PTSD research. The other half is gonna liberate MDMA research all over the world, because it’s now of the medical grade that will be accepted by any regulatory agency, anywhere.

AMS: Who’s making the MDMA?

RD: It’s a company in England, Shasun. They are also making the psilocybin for Heffter [Heffter Research Institute is a nonprofit that sponsors a number of psilocybin studies.] They’re up near Newcastle in Northern England and they’re just this enormous firm, massive factory and they make tons of other stuff. They gave us the sense they really cared about what we were doing.

I kept saying, Why are you doing this? I mean, this is so great, but all we want is a kilogram, Heffter is getting less of a kilogram, we don’t need more for another five years, and Heffter isn’t going to need psilocybin for another five years, so why are you doing this?

They said, You never know what’s gonna get big.

AMS: To stick with a project for 30 years is a big deal on its own. Not many people can say they’ve done that. Your project has come up against some unique and continual hurdles. Why did you keep going with it?

RD: When I started on this, it didn’t really matter if MAPS ever worked. I knew eventually it would—maybe it would be 100 years or whatever, but psychedelics have value. They’ve been used for several thousands of years, and our culture was making a terrible mistake with prohibition and mass incarceration. So it didn’t really matter if it ever worked. I felt like this was a way to make a contribution. To just say, there’s some value here with psychedelics and we should be looking at it.

But what’s interesting is that there’s been gradual openings over these years and now it feels like we’re in this cultural cusp where it could very well become integrated into western culture. It’s not the mainstreaming of psychedelics into western culture, but it’s the re-mainstreaming of psychedelics. The last time it was fully done in a way was through the Eleusinian mysteries, and the heart of the Greek culture. They were 2000 year old mystery ceremonies wiped out around 396 by the catholic church because they were a competition. They had a psychedelic component. Really, we’re talking about a 1600-year cycle.

But Pythagoras and Aristotle and all these people had participated in the Eleusinian mysteries, so what we’re talking about is reintroducing psychedelics into western culture, but they were there from the beginning. So, that also keeps me going. I
t’s not like we’re trying to do something that’s never been done before.