Mapping a New Frontier

Mapping a New Frontier

Published on 24 May, 2007
in the Alternate 101
By Greg M. Schwartz

Swirling, brightly hued psychedelic artwork crawls across the walls of a Star Trek-themed home in San Francisco’s SOMA district. A bartender wearing a distinctly Klingon necklace dispenses beverages to a who’s who of psychedelic research pioneers and advocates. They’ve gathered for “The Final Frontier,” a fundraising party for MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which moved its headquarters last year from Sarasota, Fla., to Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the primary reasons for the move was to have better access to this community of patrons, which the Bay Area has been known for since the 1960s.

“Really, this is the heart of our community,” says MAPS president Rick Doblin, 53, who founded the organization in 1986 and holds a doctorate in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “We thought for membership development, that this would be a good spot.”

Jag Davies, MAPS’ director of communications, says the Final Frontier party in late April raised around $10,000, demonstrating that the Bay Area does indeed have an affinity for the organization’s mission. The group aims to enable the government approval and scientific research necessary to make psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA (aka Ecstasy), psilocybin (“magic” mushrooms) and marijuana available as prescription medicines. The drugs would be used to treat ailments such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hard drug addiction, fear of death associated with cancer and AIDS, chronic physical pains and more.

“MAPS is essentially a non-profit pharmaceutical company, to develop these medicines and bring them to market,” says Davies, who points out that pharmaceutical companies can’t patent naturally occurring substances, which leaves them uninterested in developing research into psychedelics. “Our main priority is the research, getting the drugs approved, and then the educational part of it. Even if the drugs do pass the test and become prescription medicine, the culture really isn’t ready for it.”

Mapping a new course for psychedelic research

The 20-year-old organization has grown from Doblin’s one-man operation into a multi-faceted non-profit. Doblin says he was moved to start his work when he saw that MDMA was going to be criminalized in the ’80s, much like LSD had been in the ’60s.

“I found out about MDMA in ’82 and realized that history was going to re-capitulate itself – this legal psychedelic drug that had this tremendous safety and efficacy record being used underground, had escaped and was being called Ecstasy, and it was inevitable that it was going to be made illegal,” says Doblin. “So starting in early ’84, I started the first non-profit, designed to protect MDMA.”

When the DEA moved against MDMA, Doblin sued. In the DEA’s administrative law judge hearings, the judge’s recommended ruling was to make MDMA available as a prescription medicine. However, the DEA is curiously not required to abide by the recommended rulings of its own judge, and overruled the decision. This disillusioned Doblin, prompting him to chart a new course.

“I had this previous experience seeing that the legal system wasn’t going to protect therapeutic use and was going to lean towards yet more prohibition,” says Doblin. “So MAPS was created as a response to that, as a non-profit pharmaceutical company to try to route through the FDA, rather than force the system to stop through lawsuits or DEA negotiations.”

Doblin says MAPS’ relationship with the FDA is the most important one they have, since FDA approval legalizes the studies that MAPS seeks to fund.

MAPS has four major current projects, the most prominent of which is a $5 million, 5-year strategy to develop MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine as an adjunct to psychotherapy. This includes an MDMA/PTSD study being conducted in Charleston, S.C., that accepts Iraq war veterans as subjects and is the first FDA-approved study of the therapeutic use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Doblin cites the study as one of MAPS’ greatest triumphs, since it took 18 years to obtain that FDA approval. MAPS also helps fund similar studies in Israel and Switzerland and seeks to re-start another in Spain. Each is a phase two pilot study with 12-20 subjects, following up phase one safety studies.

MAPS’ ongoing research indicates that psychedelics can potentially offer a pathway through depressed and obsessive thoughts. The drugs chemically alter how the brain takes in information and can therefore change typical thought patterns, which means subjects can then potentially experience an emotional breakthrough.

The issue is controversial.

Dr. John Krystal, director of the Veteran’s Administration’s PTSD Clinical Neuroscience Center, declined to be interviewed for this story. Dr. Charles Marmar, chief of psychiatry at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in San Francisco, says he would have grave reservations about MDMA treatment and that the Veteran’s Administration has other “successful” therapies for PTSD victims.

Doblin cites a U.S. Veterans Administration estimate that $4.3 billion was spent on disability payments for vets with PTSD, in 2004 alone; most of the payouts went to vets who served prior to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doblin believes the MDMA psychotherapy studies have the potential to save the country billions of dollars and come to the emotional rescue of numerous shattered lives.

“We’re working with people who have had several attempts already at treatment and have to have failed with pharmacological treatment,” says Doblin. He adds that studies could eventually become more inclusive since the risk profile has changed and there’s been strong evidence of benefits.

“We’re not really thinking of it as a pharmacological treatment,” says Doblin, who points out that MDMA treatment is conducted as an occasional therapy session, unlike Zoloft and Paxil, which need to be taken regularly.

The root of the problem

Another current MAPS project involves the study of LSD and psilocybin (the chemical in “magic” mushrooms) in the treatment of cluster headaches, a severely painful form of headache related to the more common migraine. Cluster headaches are a rare neurological disorder, affecting approximately 0.1 percent of the population, which causes excruciating pain on one side of the head, usually centered around the eye. The pain is often described as stabbing and has been likened to someone plunging a red hot poker into the eye. There is currently no cure and treatment has been described as hit or miss at best.

In 2003, a cluster headache patient advocate approached MAPS with more than 50 case reports detailing a group of people with cluster headaches. The results indicated that the informal use of psilocybin and/or LSD on these subjects helped them break an existing cycle of cluster headaches.

MAPS is now supporting an effort to develop a study of psilocybin and LSD in people with episodic cluster headaches. If approved by the FDA, the research study will take place at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility and research hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Currently, there’s no legal research with LSD in humans taking place in the world, and MAPS hopes that this will be the first study to renew human research with LSD. MAPS is also assisting development of a study to investigate LSD-assisted psychotherapy in Switzerland, for subjects suffering from anxiety associated with advanced-stage cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Another project involves study of ibogaine, an alkaloid that comes from the root bark of a shrub native to West Africa, in the treatment of opia
te addiction. Addict Howard Lotsof observed ibogaine’s effect on his own heroin dependence at age 19 in 1962 and claimed, along with others, that opiate addicts found psychedelic doses of ibogaine could significantly reduce withdrawal symptoms and eliminate substance-related cravings for a period of time. Lotsof started a research lab to investigate further but soon lost the ability to procure and administer the substance due to a government crackdown in 1963. Lotsof continued to work to promote ibogaine through the decades though, which eventually helped bring it to MAPS’ attention.

MAPS is currently in the process of initiating a long-term follow-up study of 20 chemically-dependent individuals treated in the Iboga Therapy House program in Vancouver, British Columbia, where ibogaine can be used legally.

“The part of this story that is the hardest to tell is the lost opportunities. Because we haven’t yet proven that there really are opportunities, so … how do you show where we would be if 40 years ago the clampdown didn’t happen?” says Doblin of America’s criminalization of psychedelics in the ’60s. “The treatment of addiction – the drug war is supposed to address the problem of addiction, and it makes dealing with addiction even worse.”

“The ibogaine helps cut through the withdrawal from opiates and it provides an inspirational experience that can help people reorient their lives,” Doblin says. “But it’s not sufficient yet, so we’re trying to figure it out.”

“The problem is, because ibogaine is illegal in the United States, people go outside to get treated and then they go back home, then they’re not in a place where there’s these aftercare programs… So how effective is ibogaine? Ibogaine clinics are all over the world but there’s not been one single study looking at how well people do. There’s been no outcome study at all.”

Dobson says MAPS will do a study that follows patients from before the treatment through monthly evaluations during the following year.

MAPS is also involved in the contentious legal battle over medical marijuana. The group has supported both medical marijuana research studies and lawsuits involving patients with states’ rights to use medical marijuana seeking relief from federal prosecution, such as California patient Angel Raich who has led the patients’ rights struggle in the federal court system.

MAPS is working to initiate and fund a research program aimed at proving that marijuana is effective for specific medical uses and should become a legal, FDA-approved prescription medicine. To this end, MAPS is supporting Professor Lyle Craker in the Dept. of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in a legal battle seeking DEA permission to establish a production facility to grow research-grade marijuana for FDA-approved research. Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy have already signed on in support of granting the license.

At present, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a monopoly on the supply of marijuana that can be used in research and only makes it available to projects it approves. Doblin says MAPS needs its own independent source of supply since NIDA’s lengthy review process can derail any drug development plan. NIDA has refused to supply marijuana to two MAPS-sponsored protocols that the FDA has already approved.

“We’re going to try to get coordinated grassroots efforts started all over the country, but particularly in medical marijuana states,” Doblin says.

A Leary for a less naive age?

MAPS found their current headquarters in the woodsy enclave of Ben Lomond after three months of combing through Craigslist, when membership and sales manager Sarah Hufford found a listing titled, “Magical Sanctuary by a Babbling Brook.” The property has a house and a separate office space, plus a gazebo by the brook. Four full time and two part time employees work at the headquarters.

Doblin is only an occasional visitor, though, as he and his wife and three children have lived in Boston since 1998. His presence in early May saw a busy office atmosphere with Doblin fielding numerous phone calls in the effort to run with the momentum from the Final Frontier fundraiser. Doblin’s energy and enthusiasm belies his 53 years and his down-to-earth demeanor makes him seem more like one of your old friends from college than the president of a non-profit pharmaceutical company.

MAPS had an operating budget of over a million dollars in FY 2005-06 and was just over $130,000 in the black last year. But Doblin says MAPS is roughly $140,000 short on commitments to fund MAPS’ operational expenses for FY 2006-07.

In an April article about MAPS’ work, Time magazine referred to Doblin as a “[Tim] Leary for a less naive age,” noting how “Doblin has painstakingly worked with intensely skeptical federal authorities to win necessary permissions … the antithesis of Leary’s approach.” Doblin says he has mixed feelings about Leary and his legacy as a psychedelic guru.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a Leary model. One of the things I have done though is I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Timothy Leary, and from his activities and he’s inspired me,” says Doblin. “But he’s also terribly disillusioned me.”

Doblin is the person who did the follow up studies to Leary’s two-part Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early ’60s: in the “Good Friday” study on experimental mysticism, Leary took 20 divinity students into a church on Good Friday to try psilocybin. In an experiment at Concord Prison, psilocybin was tested on prisoners to see if it could enhance their rehabilitation. Doblin says the results of those follow-up studies are among several factors that taint Leary’s legacy.

“I was able to track these people down 25 years later [from the Good Friday experiment] and the people that got the psilocybin all felt that they had had a genuine mystical experience. The people who got the placebo, some of them hardly even remembered the experiment … But what I discovered is that one person in the experiment had flipped out and they’d given him thorazine, and that they’d covered it up. So while the conclusions were affirmed by the follow-up study, I discovered that they’d under reported and covered up some of the risks. And that was sort of a symptom of Leary’s general approach, was [being] the cheerleader for drugs without the proper cautions about the dangers.”

After publishing an article on the Good Friday follow-up, Doblin was contacted by someone who worked in the prison system as a researcher. The person told Doblin the prison system had saved the files on the Concord prisoners and asked if Doblin would like to do a follow up study. Doblin eagerly agreed.

“The Concord Prison experiment was one of the best experiments about the therapeutic value of psychedelics, because you can [objectively] tell whether people go back to jail or not after they’re released,” says Doblin, noting that the study had reported itself as tremendously successful. “So I thought this is going to be great, I’ll bring attention to this tremendously successful study and stimulate research into psychedelics.”

But Doblin was in for an unpleasant surprise.

“What it turned out is that Leary had fudged the data, that it was not a successful study, that he had engaged in his own counter-propaganda to the negative propaganda, and that the study, when you actually looked at it in a proper way, had no effect,” Doblin says.

Doblin says Leary’s study lacked aftercare and follow-up, a critical element of psychedelic treatments.

“Leary actually realized this, and they recognized that you need the aftercare. You can have this great breakthrough, but then what? You need to support it afterward.”

Doblin says Leary had created a halfway house for prisoners post-treatment, but he was then expelled from Harvard, and the aftercare plan disintegrated.

“That’s one of the main lessons of the ’60s,” Doblin says. “There was so much of a focus on the experience a
s opposed to integrating the experience, what you bring back. It was like, one dose, miracle cure, now you’re enlightened … when it just takes way more.”

A psychedelic re-awakening?

Doblin feels that the lessons of the past and the advances of the present are moving society toward a psychedelic Renaissance.

“What went wrong in the ’60s and ’70s is that society and researchers got into this culture-versus-counterculture conflict,” Doblin says. “We’re trying to heal this divide. The wave that we’re at now, this phase, has followed decades of suppression.”

Doblin says the culmination of this renewal will come when LSD psychotherapy research is legal again, which he hopes will be approved this year for a Swiss study on end-of-life anxiety and the American study on cluster headaches. Doblin says it’s hard to say which drug has the most potential but that LSD is a forerunner.

“It seems to me that society is much better prepared now than they were in the ’60s to integrate psychedelics,” Doblin says. “There’s more of an awareness of the appreciation of meditation, of yoga. So, as a culture, we are more grounded.”

Doblin also describes society today as “more dire.”

“We have global warming, we have nuclear proliferation going on again. And the one-world consciousness, the fact that we’re all in it together is so much more apparent to people now than before.”

Doblin believes that the psychedelic experience can be a key factor in assisting the rise of the more global consciousness by providing experiences that allow people to break through the current paradigmatic way of thinking.

“The challenge in a psychedelic experience, not MDMA but with other psychedelics, is that it takes apart your ego,” says Doblin. “The way to think about it is like the Copernican revolution, where the Earth was the center of the universe and now it’s really we’re just part of a bigger thing. So the Earth has not gone away, but it’s the death of the Earth-centric universe. So it [psychedelics] is the death of the ego-centric universe and that’s what’s apparent and I think that’s what people are wanting, a sense of wholeness and connection.”

Doblin believes there should be psychedelic clinics in every city in the world so that individuals on a mass scale can have the opportunity to make the psychic transformation from ego-centric to “participating in something bigger.”

On the edge of the Final Frontier

This type of thinking was abundantly on display at the Final Frontier gathering, where the speakers demonstrated themselves to be a group of committed activists dedicated to assisting MAPS’ healing mission and aiding mankind’s spiritual development. Speakers included LSD research pioneers such as Ralph Metzner and Stan and Christina Grof, cultural critic/historian Erik Davis, author David J. Brown, medical marijuana patient Angel Raich, Berkeley neuroscientist Matt Baggott and Doblin himself. The speeches were a mix of hope for the future and lamentations for the casualties of the American government’s War on Drugs.

Metzner, who worked as a graduate student with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) on the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the ’60s, wrote the book Maps of Consciousness in 1971 from which Doblin took the MAPS organization’s name. Metzner likened the drug war to “an incredible injustice… the wasting of hundreds of thousands of potentially productive lives.”

Stan Grof, a pioneer in the fields of transpersonal psychology and psychedelic psychotherapy said of LSD, “I don’t think there’s any other substance that holds so much promise.”

Raich gave an update on her increasingly frustrating legal battle for the rights of patients in states with medical marijuana laws to be free from federal prosecution and urged people to call on their congressmen to pass the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, a bill co-sponsored by U.S. House members Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that would prohibit the federal government from enforcing federal marijuana laws on medical marijuana patients abiding by state law.

“I have lost complete faith in the justice system,” said Raich whose latest appeal was denied. She suffers from a variety of ailments that marijuana helps alleviate, including a life threatening wasting syndrome and an inoperable brain tumor. She is also allergic to most pharmaceutical medicines.

Doblin capped off the proceedings with a number of anecdotes about his research over the years, including the tale of how he once applied for a job with the CIA to do a study on the national security implications of legalizing drugs. But he said the CIA only wanted him to work as a psychological profiler of world leaders.

“They’re so terrified of what happens when psychedelics go right,” said Doblin. “We’re not out to destroy or replace the system, we’re out to renew the system.”

Learn more about MAPS at

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San Jose’s weekly magazine Alternate 101 (circulation 27,000) published a thorough cover story about MAPS, “Mapping a New Frontier.” The writer, Greg Schwartz, visited the MAPS Love Creek office and paints a relatively comprehensive picture of MAPS’ current projects and overall mission.