Interview: Keeping the psychedelic dream alive

Interview: Keeping the psychedelic dream alive

27 August 2008
From New Scientist Print Edition.
Arran Frood

Turn on, tune in, drop out, was the mantra of the 60s guru Timothy Leary, who ran experiments on using LSD at Harvard. Millions of America’s youth listened – including the teenage Rick Doblin. But Leary’s work ran into serious criticism, the US banned psychedelics and research into them became career death. Doblin, however, “kept the faith” and is among those backing new, headline-grabbing work with psychedelics. Arran Frood caught up with him recently

How did you get into all this?

When I was 17 years old, two things happened. The first was reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was into literature, not drugs, so when a friend said Kesey wrote part of it on LSD, I thought: “This is incredible!” The second was taking LSD for first time. I felt it really touched part of my psyche that my bar mitzvah hadn’t. As a Jew, I was educated about the holocaust and grew up with this sense that I had to study the psyche, and that social insanity was a direct threat to me – I was preset to look at this stuff. I did psychedelics, went deep down into my psyche and thought: “This might be a tool.” I knew as soon as I dropped out that I couldn’t handle the emotions the psychedelics brought up.

I thought I was intellectually overdeveloped and emotionally underdeveloped; I needed to drop out to work on what was more important. I awoke to psychedelics’ value just as the law was shutting them down. It was very painful – like having something snatched away.

What made you decide to drop back in, and how did you manage it?

Moving back in had always been my goal – to promote social change and activism. But I was a draft resister, so I figured I’d never get a licence for any above-board career. What career wouldn’t require licensing? Being an underground psychedelic therapist was it. But when Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, he pardoned the draft resisters – and that let me think I could rejoin society.

After studying psychology and writing a PhD at Harvard on regulating psychedelics research, I set up the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to develop the therapeutic use of the then-legal ecstasy [MDMA]. We were also trying to anticipate the banning of MDMA, since we knew from history that there would be a central crackdown. The only way to get MDMA back into some sort of legal context, or even develop it as a prescription medicine, was to work through the Food and Drug Administration, so we set up MAPS as a small non-profit pharmaceutical company.

Does MAPS lobby for drug laws to change?

No, we’re not asking for them to be changed because the laws don’t really need to change – we just need the regulations to be followed. The problem is that there’s a market failure: certain drugs like MDMA, LSD and marijuana have substantial medical uses, but are not patentable. So pharmaceutical companies have no financial incentive to develop them. Plus these psychedelics will compete against their own products. MAPS has to be non-profit because it relies on donations – and both donors and MAPS get tax breaks on donations if we are non-profit. We have to raise money from sources that don’t usually fund drug research. The abortion drug RU486 was developed this way, so we had a model of non-profit drug development.

How are you doing with attracting backers?

We’ve conducted a preliminary data analysis of our study into MDMA and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study is being done by Michael and Ann Mithoefer using full double-blind and placebo-controlled techniques. The researchers expect to publish within the year.

The results are remarkable, especially since all the participants had failed to benefit from antidepressant medicines or psychotherapy. This initial study is so strong it has motivated us to change our strategy and not wait for our other studies on psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) and end-of-life anxiety to serve as a comparison before going to investors. The PTSD results are so good we’re going full speed to turn MDMA into a prescription medicine. The study will have cost about $1 million, but when people see the results they’ll realise it was worth it.

You had two Iraq war veterans in the MDMA/PTSD study. Do you hope you’ll be able to treat more?

We will. Lots of people with PTSD are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan so the problem is substantial. Because we have pilot data, we’ve been able to get in touch with the chief psychiatrist at the US Veterans Association. Until recently, the VA has been resisting our approach, largely because a lot of people who have PTSD become alcoholics or drug abusers, so the VA is worried that our study might be seen as encouraging it. But we argue that it’s not the drug alone, it’s MDMA plus psychotherapy. The appropriate use of drugs is the antidote to drug abuse, rather than no use of drugs.

What else can psychedelic drugs do?

There is a rise in religious fundamentalism at a time when that world view is more and more difficult to sustain. In the era of the internet and satellite TV, it’s difficult for people to say: “We have a patent on the truth. It’s our way, or hell.” The fundamentalists are scared that psychedelics might delegitimise their particular religion, but I think psychedelics can reinvigorate religion and make people appreciate their traditions. Global spirituality is not inherently anti-religion. The challenge is to come to terms with the fact that psychedelics have thousands of years of use in a religious context.

You won a big court case against the US Drug Enforcement Agency. What happened?

The DEA was refusing to issue a licence to Lyle Craker, professor of plant, soil and insect sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to set up a MAPS-sponsored medical marijuana facility. However, the DEA judge just issues recommendations to the DEA and the DEA has to make a final ruling. The ruling was in favour of granting the licence in 2007 but the DEA is stalling.

How did you feel when DEA lawyers likened you to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar?

It made me feel like the government is really insane. It helped me see even more clearly the fear, the paranoia and the pathology of how the DEA looks at things – and at me. It made me more aware of how delicate our work is. The DEA has become as cruel and insensitive as these rapacious drug dealers who just try to make money and don’t care about the people doing the drugs. It also made me feel we’re on the right track, that the DEA is not responsive to our arguments about why it’s bad that the government monopolises marijuana for research because it can dictate the marijuana research agenda by refusing to supply the stuff to research that may show marijuana has health benefits.

“Our drug enforcement agency is as cruel as the rapacious drug dealers”

What would an Obama administration do?

There’s a very good chance, but it’s not a certainty, that a Democratic administration would say: “We’re not ready to legalise or decriminalise drugs, but we are ready to let the science go forward.”

Senator Edward Kennedy has been crucial in Barack Obama’s career, and Kennedy and Senator John Kerry wrote to the DEA saying Craker should get his licence. They won’t do it because they’re in favour of medical marijuana, they’ll do it because they want to show that science comes before politics. That’s the hope.

There is a lot of illegal, underground psychedelic therapy going on. What do you think about that?

It’s very important work and it gets us back to the drug war, which is a fundamental affront to human rights. Those courageous enough to go on working with psychedelics because they think it will benefit patients
– and are willing to go to prison – have my great admiration.

How do your wife and kids react to your work?

My wife was a lobbyist for the Quakers. She says she developed an appreciation for lost causes early because the Quakers never won a thing. And no matter what, you are a parent, so your kids are going to think you’re not cool. I think they are bored by it and will be slow to use drugs if they ever do. The problem is some parents think their kids will get ideas from my kids that came from me. The mother of one of my son’s friends did think about breaking up their friendship. My wife persuaded her you can’t protect your kids from ideas.

The New Scientist, a preeminent science weekly, printed a compelling interview with MAPS president Rick Doblin. Journalist Arran Frood noted that Doblin “kept the faith” in spite of bureaucratic obstacles to psychedelic research.