Summary: Blaire Magazine examines MAPS scientific research and educational outreach into psychedelics and marijuana for therapeutic use to treat a variety of mental health issues, highlighting current clinical studies MAPS is funding worldwide. The article covers the history and future of MAPS mission to integrate psychedelics and marijuana into the medical field as prescription medicines. “Today, we have allocated over $23 million to research and educational projects in alignment with our mission, all of it donated by individuals and family foundations who want to see psychedelic science re-established as a legitimate field of study,” explains MAPS Director of Communications and Marketing Brad Burge.
Originally appearing here.
‘MAPS is an organization with the mission to make psychedelics a safe and legal tool to assist with therapy for a variety of mental illness’
Thanks Brad for getting involved with us at Blaire Magazine. We’re extremely happy about getting an insight to your wealth of knowledge, as we know that many people aren’t even yet aware of the extended research going into psychedelics, to assist mental and other illnesses. Thank you for sharing the light!
Can you please let us know what MAPS is?
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is a non-profit research and educational organization with the mission to make psychedelics a safe and legal tool to assist with therapy for a variety of mental illness, and to create broader opportunities for psychedelics to be used by people all over the world for beneficial purposes, including spiritual uses, enhancing creativity, and facilitating personal growth. We were founded in 1986 by our current executive director Rick Doblin as a direct response to the criminalization of MDMA. Today, we have allocated over $23 million to research and educational projects in alignment with our mission, all of it donated by individuals and family foundations who want to see psychedelic science re-established as a legitimate field of study.
What sparked the initial interest in researching psychedelics for positive benefits?
Psychedelics have been part of human spiritual ceremonies and cultural practices for all of recorded history, so MAPS can’t claim to have invented that. Interest in exploring psychedelics from a scientific angle probably started centuries ago. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s there was an explosion of scientific research into psychedelics due to the introduction of psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, and (in the late 1970s) MDMA and its chemical cousins into American and European culture. It was only when the global War on Drugs launched in the 1970s that legitimate psychedelic science was forced into the shadows. It has taken decades for the irrational stigma against careful psychedelic research to erode, and for the early results of scientific studies to get the attention of the mainstream press and increasing numbers of donors. The re-emergence of psychedelic science and therapy that we are seeing now is actually a promising old field finally coming to light again.
What is your current project?
Our current main project is completing the research necessary to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legal, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We have completed two small studies with very promising results, and this year we’ll complete four additional studies that will contribute to the existing data. These Phase 2 studies are the last step before we meet with the FDA to plan the larger Phase 3 studies that will be required before the FDA approves the treatment. We are currently expecting that decision to happen in about 2021, provided that we get the donations we need – about $20 million, small change in pharmaceutical development terms – to complete the research.
You guys launched back in 1986. What huge leaps have you achieved since then?
I would say that two main challenges that MAPS has overcome since 1986 have to do with the regulatory system on one hand, and with the mainstream media on the other. When MAPS was founded, officials at the FDA would not even review proposed research into the benefits of psychedelics for therapy that they received; it was either ignored, moved to the bottom of the stack, or accidentally fell in the wastebasket. Since then, internal changes within the FDA combined with more scientifically savvy research protocols have resulted in an easy willingness on the part of the FDA and other regulatory agencies not only to review the research protocols, but also to approve them in an expedient way. Similarly, in 1986, news coverage of psychedelics was overwhelmingly slanted to exaggerate the negative consequences of using psychedelics, and to ridicule or ignore their potential positive benefits. Today, more and more news outlets around the world are making the distinction between the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, and the negative consequences of the War on Drugs including adulterated substances and unsafe settings.
Why are you so passionate about integrating psychedelics and marijuana into the prescription system?
The overreliance on conventional pharmaceuticals, the sheer numbers of people taking prescription drugs on a daily basis, and the tendency of conventional psychotropics to dull or mute our experience are all motivating factors for me as we work to make psychedelics and marijuana a legal part of the medical system. For some people, conventional pharmaceuticals work well, but it’s clear that used in the right ways, by the right people, psychedelics can enhance therapy and even work to get people off of other drugs. These are profoundly important tools for healing and growth that should not be used lightly, and which need to be available for people to benefit from them.
Why hasn’t it been done sooner?
I would say that the main three reasons that public interest in in the subject is blossoming right now are our culture’s declining faith in conventional antidepressants and anxiety medications and the associated epidemic of reliance on pharmaceutical drugs, together with a declining faith in the War on Drugs. Another reason is that we are now facing an unprecedented international challenge when it comes to treating PTSD (especially resulting from war and sexual assault), which affects millions of people worldwide and for which more effective treatments are urgently needed. Plus, as more research gets completed, and as more of the public and policymakers learn about the research through media and social media, the clearer the case is becoming for increased support for psychedelic and medical marijuana research.
You’re also working with MDMA to assist emotional trauma, can you please explain what this is about?
We are conducting an international series of FDA-regulated studies into whether MDMA can enhance the effectiveness of psychotherapy for people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. Researchers believe that it might work by directly reducing activity in the amygdala, the brain region associated with conditioned fear, which may make it easier for subjects to talk about frightening memories. MDMA also increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and memory recall, which may enhance subjects’ ability to recount their experiences. Finally, MDMA encourages the body to release natural hormones, such as oxytocin, which are associated with feelings of trust and bonding, which may strengthen the relationship betwee
n subject and therapist, thereby helping the subject go deeper than they normally would. The real mechanism is probably a combination of these effects, plus others we don’t yet know about.
In our first completed pilot study (which recently won an award for being the most cited paper in theJournal of Psychopharmacology in 2011) researchers found that 83% of participants no longer qualified for PTSD after receiving just two MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions. These subjects, who were primarily female survivors of sexual assault, had already tried conventional medications and psychotherapy, and had suffered from PTSD for an average of 19 years. Our long-term follow-up of these subjects showed that those results did not disappear after the study ended; rather, the results lasted for as long as we followed the subjects (3.8 years, on average).
Why did the government initially criminalize marijuana and psychedelics?
The criminalization of psychedelics and marijuana was part of the War on Drugs, which started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was designed to criminalize specific groups of people – students, activists, minorities, and others – deemed threatening by elite politicians and industry leaders. The ‘un-discovery of psychedelics,’ which one researcher called it as recounted in Tom Shroder’s excellent new book Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal (available at maps.org/store), was the result of scientific ignorance and political opportunism, all carried out under the legal umbrella of the Controlled Substances Act.
Do you have any involvement in the current, yet slow progress in the legalization of it in America?
Our hope is that through our efforts to conduct the research necessary to develop whole plant marijuana into a prescription medicine for PTSD, we will demonstrate to the satisfaction of the FDA that marijuana has a legitimate medical use. The legalization of marijuana in the U.S. would need to be accompanied by its removal from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. MAPS is not directly involved in efforts to legalize marijuana, but hope that our efforts to open the doors for research will assist those more direct political efforts.
Can you please share an experience where you’ve used your knowledge, implemented it, and seen success?
There have been a lot of stories circulating around the media now that we’ve treated so many subjects in our clinical studies (111 as of right now) and so many have been both willing and excited to speak about their experience. My favorite story, since it exemplifies the potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy not just to heal PTSD but also to encourage people to transform their lives, is that of Tony Macie, a U.S. Army veteran who developed PTSD after serving in Iraq. He enrolled in our study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for U.S. veterans, firefighters, and police officers with PTSD and dropped out of the study after a single low-dose session (we’re exploring the effectiveness of different dosages and he didn’t even receive the full dose). Since he dropped out, we can’t include his data in the final analysis even though he didn’t have PTSD anymore after his treatment, according to his results on the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS). He had been on prescription opiates and was abusing alcohol prior to his experimental session, and afterwards he had no desire to use either. He didn’t even want a second MDMA session, having decided that he no longer needed drugs to get through life. Since then, Tony has become a proactive advocate for psychedelic therapy and medical marijuana research, even traveling to Washington, D.C., to encourage Congressional support for more research. We’ve collected lots more stories like Tony’s in the MAPS Bulletin (maps.org/bulletin) and in our MAPS in the Media archive (maps.org/media).
Have you had any negative results or episodes in testing out psychedelics with mental illness?
Not everyone who has received MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in our studies has recovered from PTSD. Some people receive smaller reductions in their symptoms, some require more than two sessions, some don’t improve at all, and occasionally someone gets slightly worse. One reason we are conducting so many Phase 2 trials (ultimately six) is to discover how we can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of the treatment, and learn for whom the treatment tends to work, and for whom it is contraindicated. As of our last count, around 1,000 people have received pure MDMA in approved scientific studies, and there has been only one case of what researchers call an expected Serious Adverse Event (SAE) which is a negative reaction attributed to the experimental drug and which was one of the possible negative effects listed in the study protocol. In that one case, the study medical monitor sent the subject to the hospital due to concerns about an elevated heart rate, but the subject was released from the hospital that same day and needed no additional care. There have been no unexpected SAEs.
How do you deal with any backlash received from the public?
So far, we haven’t seen that backlash. It just hasn’t happened. There are perhaps one or two remaining critics who still insist that MDMA is addictive after a few doses (it isn’t), that MDMA causes brain damage (it doesn’t), that marijuana causes cancer (it fights it), that LSD makes people jump out of windows (it doesn’t), and so on, but these are people with personal or professional investments in the status quo; Richard Nixon died a long time ago and the old generation is fading. By and large, people who learn about psychedelic research through the media or at professional conferences like the American Psychiatric Association have been supportive of our work, and eager to find a way to help, whether through making donations, or volunteering, or simply talking to their friends and family about it. I think one reason for this broad support that we’re seeing for psychedelic science and therapy is because we are carefully acknowledging both the risks and the benefits of psychedelics, rather than claiming that they will instantly heal the world (they won’t) or that everybody needs to take them (many shouldn’t).
How do you express what you do to make people understand the world of psychedelics?
There is not one world of psychedelics. Psychedelics are chemical tools, each different with its own capacity to change awareness in a specific way and each with a different set of risks, that have many uses across the scientific, artistic, spiritual, and cognitive domains. So rather than telling people what psychedelics are, or what they mean, or what the new psychedelic culture will look like, I try to find out what is important to people and how psychedelic science might or might not be interesting to them. Plus, thanks to the research that MAPS, the Heffter Research Organization, and others are conducting now, every week we are learning something new about the real risks and benefits of psychedelics, without the Drug War hype and hysteria. That makes it easy to start conversations with new people in new areas, and to expand public support for our work.
Do you think that hippies have given psychedelics a bad name? If not, why are drugs so controlled by the government?
I think that both psychedelics and hippies were given a bad name. There were also a few outspoken proponents of psychedelics in the 1960s who didn’t have the patience necessary to transform the stigma against them. I respect and share their enthusiasm, but I also think we need to work with the system rather than against it if we’re going to make progress on any significant social issue.
How far away do you think the government is from allowing psyched
elics to be used for medicinal purposes?
We currently estimate that the FDA will approve MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD around 2021. Once that happens, the door will open for additional research and the approval of additional conditions for which psychedelic therapy may provide relief.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is helping create the interpersonal and organizational connections that are strengthening the field of psychedelic science, therapy, and advocacy. It’s thrilling for me to give students interested in psychedelics hope by introducing them to the field, to spread the word about new and important research, and to try to find a way to say ‘yes’ to every single person who asks how they can help. I see my own work educating the public about psychedelics as helping creating safe spaces (online and in person) for us to develop healthier, more compassionate relationships with each other and ourselves.
Any last words for Blaire Magazine?
We need a lot of help spreading the word about our work (maps.org), and raising the funds necessary to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legal, FDA-approved treatment for PTSD by 2021. If readers are interested in getting connected with the fast-growing psychedelic science and therapy community, they should up for our Email Newsletter (maps.org/newsletter), which I send out every month with research updates, media, and more. We’re also all over the social media universe, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more (maps.org/contact). You can also write to me directly at email@example.com—I love to answer questions. Thank you for your excellent questions and for the chance to share my excitement for MAPS’ work.