Had a nice trip. Wish you could, too.

Had a nice trip. Wish you could, too.

By Billy Cox
Published on Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.
in the Sarasota Herald Tribune


SARASOTA – Unlike graying peers who refuse to acknowledge youthful drug use, Rick Doblin celebrates his. He will tell crowds of strangers about the dizzy days of tripping on acid and getting arrested for swimming naked at his alma mater, New College, in the 1970s.

Dr. Rick Doblin advocates the study of psychedelic drugs to be used as therapeutic treatment ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
He ‘fesses up to dropping out his freshman year in pursuit of truth through psychedelics. He will tell them that the cedar-and-granite Sarasota home he built three decades ago — described by Rolling Stone magazine as a “Frank Lloyd Wright on acid design” — was conceived to enhance the experience. He endorses the aboriginal bonding traditions of parents sharing psychedelic drugs with their children.

To be sure, at 55, the controversial drug reform activist has graduated into the sobering realities of middle age. But with the first wave of baby boomers edging closer to the shadow of America’s average lifespan of 78 years, Doblin is racing the clock to drag a great taboo out of the closet and into the light of mainstream science.

Working within the system, in a shift that would have been unthinkable during the Just Say No era 20 years ago, Doblin and the benefactors to his nonprofit initiative have persuaded the Food and Drug Administration to revoke its ban on testing psychotropic agents for medicinal purposes.

Today, no less than four clinical studies involving Ecstasy, or MDMA, and psilocybin, the mindbending ingredient of “magic mushrooms,” are being monitored by the FDA. Among their potential remedies: helping war veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and easing end-of-life anxieties for the terminally ill.

Girded by a doctorate in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Doblin directs his revolution at home in Boston through a nonprofit group — the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS.

Over the past 10 years, MAPS has received nearly $7 million in private donations from the likes of billionaire and former Progressive Insurance Corp. chairman Peter Lewis to bankroll psychedelic research. Beneficiaries include therapists working with trauma disorders in Israel, Switzerland and the United States. Perhaps MAPS’ most impressive symbolic feat is facilitating Harvard Medical School’s first psychotropic medicinal experiments since LSD guru Timothy Leary was fired for slipping acid to students in the 1960s.

To critics who charge that his hidden agenda is recreational legalization, Doblin counters that psychedelics should be regulated like alcohol.

“You are going to college in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance,” Doblin told a crowded New College auditorium this spring. “You are going to college in the midst of a cultural renaissance.”

Rite of passage

Growing up in a Jewish household in Skokie, Ill., Doblin had a number of relatives who survived the Holocaust. He was disappointed that his first rite of passage — the bar mitzvah — left him feeling untransformed. Progressing through school, Doblin felt his life was out of balance.

“Intellectually, I was overdeveloped, and emotionally, I was underdeveloped,” he says. “For me, individually, I was very much in my head.”

But that all changed during Doblin’s immersion into a “spiritual, existential search” at New College.

He sampled the vogue alternatives of the ’70s, from sensory deprivation tanks to primal scream therapy. But nothing increased his empathy for people, or his environment, the way psychotropic drugs did.

Doblin became convinced that “the antidote to Hitler is the study of the deep psyche” through all available means. But federal funding on research into psychedelics was shut down in 1971 after President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Yet, in the face of those long odds, Ed Barker knew better than to underestimate the ambitions of one of his most unusual students.

When Barker arrived at New College in 1978 from Harvard’s Department of Clinical Psychology, Doblin’s profile as a crusading party animal was legendary. But after becoming Doblin’s faculty advisor, Barker recognized something else. He eventually served as board chairman for MAPS, which Doblin founded in 1986, a year after Ecstasy was outlawed.

“Rick is one of the most motivated students I ever had,” Barker says. “And his life’s goal, very clearly, is to get psychedelics approved for therapeutic medication.”

“He has a good feel for dealing with people; he was more militant when he was younger,” he says. “Now he knows how government works, and his organizational skills are better. And he knows how to make friends with his opponents.”

Doblin’s bridges run from street-level counterculture to the halls of power.

For instance, his emergency-services network for party hounds staggered by intense hallucinogenic trips is a staple of the annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

He has been called by government committees as an expert witness on psychedelic therapy, and has loudly defended a Brazilian-American church’s right to employ a psychoactive tea, ayahuasca, as a religious sacrament. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the church in a unanimous vote in 2006.

But it was MAPS’ consultations with an FDA advisory panel in 1992 that paved the way for the psychedelic studies unfolding today with private funds.

“The idea of going to the FDA and getting psychedelic drugs approved was never seriously pursued by the drug reform movement,” says Dale Gerringer, director of the California/National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “But Rick’s been very savvy about this.”

Doblin’s candor can also put enthusiastic supporters at a distance.

At the Washington office of NORML, where he serves as executive director, Alan St. Pierre describes Doblin as “a true visionary” and “one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.” But as a NORML board member, Doblin is often completely alone in his motions to “inflate the scope” of an organization dedicated to the legalization of pot, says St. Pierre.

“I can’t take the visions he proposes and walk over to a congressional office with them,” he says. “I will be laid to waste in those places.”

Noting that NORML advocates an adults-only policy on marijuana use, St. Pierre says, “Rick stands alone with his children’s access positions. There’s almost no real support for that anywhere.”

Doblin, who has children aged 13, 12 and 9, counters with an Alcohol Beverage Control report indicating that 33 states outside of Florida allow minors to consume alcohol with the approval of parents or guardians.

“The hysteria about kids and drugs is what drives the drug war today,” Doblin says. “In the 1960s, it was all about a cultural rebellion, but today it’s all about fear.

“It’s amazing to me, the number of people who smoke marijuana and hide it from their kids because it’s illegal. Education is the real key, it’s essential. This should be a decision of the parents, not the government. Prohibition denies parents the opportunity to have an honest conversation with their kids about making responsible choices.”

Pilot study

For now, all eyes are on MAPS-sponsored testing of Ecstasy as a potential cure for post-traumatic stress disorder.

MDMA, a molecule that fuses the introspective properties of mescaline to the stimulant effects of methamphetamine, was originally investigated by the U.S. military in the 1950s as a mind-control weapon. It was outlawed in the 1980s following its role in rave-club deaths, which often involved a com
bination of dehydration, alcohol and other drugs.

Ecstasy was approved for study by the FDA in 2000, but a series of ultimately unfounded concerns postponed the trials for four years. Obtaining a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency was also a cumbersome exercise that cost nearly $1 million.

Today, Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a Charleston, S.C., psychiatrist, is completing an Ecstasy pilot study involving 21 patients, including two Iraq war veterans. Doblin says the subjects are responding “several hundred times better” than with popular antidepressants Zoloft and Paxil. Mithoefer’s early assessments, published in a book of essays called “Psychedelic Medicine: Social, Clinical, and Legal Perspectives,” appear to bear him out.

Mithoefer noted “decreased fear and anxiety, increased openness, trust and interpersonal closeness,” and “improved therapeutic alliance” among his patients, along with an ability to revisit past traumas “with new insight, calm objectivity and compassionate self-acceptance.”

The ramifications could be broad. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 8 million Americans suffer from some form of acute stress. Additionally, a recent RAND study indicates as many as 300,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are coping with major depression or stress disorders.

Those numbers pale, however, against the tidal wave of 76 million baby boomers about to crash into their mortal years. MAPS has developed protocols for that demographic as well.

Terminal patients on rigorous pain-management schedules, Doblin says, require increased dosages of numbing opiates as they develop higher tolerance levels.

“These people become very sleepy, they’re almost not present, and it doesn’t completely eliminate the pain,” he says. “But the combination of MDMA and opiates brings people back to alertness and then opens up their access to their emotions, and reduces pain.”

Virtually impossible hurdles

The FDA has a no-comment policy on ongoing trials, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse declined to discuss psychedelic medicine.

Former NIDA acting director Glen Hanson acknowledges the “therapeutic potential” of Ecstasy. “But will it present a clinical value that significantly exceeds what we already have out there? I don’t think MDMA is unique or that it will produce a magic bullet.”

A pharmacologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Hanson says Ecstasy will have to clear virtually impossible hurdles to make it to the market. Even if studies continue to produce positive results, Hanson says it will take a major sales job to persuade litigation-wary pharmaceutical companies to invest in a product stigmatized by a history of abuse.

“His pockets aren’t deep enough,” Hanson says. “Ten million dollars ain’t gonna do it. He’ll need hundreds of millions of dollars, even if he’s allowed to keep going.”

Doblin disputes those figures, saying reams of pre-existing MDMA data will shorten the approval process. But even converts to his message, such as New College students Alexa Anderson and David Banks, have a fatalistic outlook on the bureaucracy response.

“I think people are ready for a new conversation about the therapeutic value of psychedelics,” says Anderson, 22. “I’m not sure our government is.”

Banks, 21, thinks Doblin’s celebrated drug exploits, coupled with his roots at what is regarded as a “hippie school,” may create potentially insurmountable “cultural baggage.”

“To go from here to there, really, requires a politically powerful medical professional and the mass media to get on top of it and stay on top of it,” Banks says. “I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

But NORML’s St. Pierre says the exuberant Doblin has already begun to move the bar.

“Rick is Pan,” St. Pierre says. “He’s Pan with the fife. And I’ve got to admit, I’m not immune to that at all.”

This story appeared in print on page A1

Back to MAPS Homepage

The Herald Tribune from Sarasota, Florida, home to MAPS President Rick Doblin’s Alma Mater New College, featured an article on Doblin, and MAPS’ MDMA/PTSD research. Former acting director of NIDA Glen Hanson tries to detract the possibility of MDMA ever being approved as a prescription medicine, but Doblin counters that pre-existing MDMA data will expedite the process of approval by the FDA. NORML’s executive director Alan St. Pierre likens Doblin to a mythical deity, “Rick is Pan,” St. Pierre says. “He’s Pan with the fife. And I’ve got to admit, I’m not immune to that at all.”