The Inhibitor: New College Then and Now: Rick Doblin and the Assault on Campus Culture

Summary: The Inhibitor interviews MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D., about his experience attending New College during the 70s, the role of psychedelics in therapy, and global drug policy. “The Drug War is immoral, corrupt, racist…the trend in America and the trend in the world is against the drug war….and against treating drug problems as criminal justice matters and towards treating them more as health matters,” explains Doblin.

Originally appearing here.

Rick Doblin is perhaps the quintessential New College alum: passionate, successful, highly political, and more low-key than one might expect, trippy. Rick attended New College in the full swing of the 70s (a time many current students now speak of with a folklorish wistfulness) calling New College an “oasis of sanity” from the turbulence of Vietnam, the arms race, and the draft. At New, Rick experimented with psychedelics, explored himself, and began to forge his life around what would become MAPS- the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Accrediting New with shaping his life’s path, personal growth, and “everything [he] does today”, Rick has been at the forefront of establishing legal context for the use of psychedelics and marijuana for medicinal and therapeutic purposes — most notably with soldiers diagnosed with PTSD and survivors of sexual assault.

In the Spring of 1972, Rick decided to take what would become a ten-year hiatus from school after visiting with a New College guidance counselor. The young Doblin was conflicted: his intense psychedelic experiences opened up new intellectual thought and opportunity, but he felt emotionally ill-prepared for such revelations and frankly at a loss. The guidance counselor accepted his decision to further explore LSD and mescaline, even gifting to Doblin a yet-unpublished manuscript of Dr. Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious, based on the LSD research that Dr. Grof conducted at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Grof’s work catalyzed Rick’s own reconciliation of the spiritual, physical, and practical. Rick now considers this exchange the critical turning point in his life, introducing him to “the role of psychedelics research in science and therapy and social evolution”. Soon after, Rick decided to officially drop out of New College to “focus on bringing [himself] into balance emotionally and intellectually — a process [he] felt humanity as a whole also needed”.

During this ten year gap, Doblin worked as a bow-and-arrow wielding security guard for Old Caples after its inhabitants moved out (complaining of ghosts) and continued tripping with his New College friends in a supportive context. Using physical labor as “acts of grounding”, Rick built New College’s first handball court (only to be torn down shortly after his departure for graduate school in 1988), and his own house in Sarasota — designed to be conducive for safe and beautiful psychedelic experiences. By 1982, Rick was ready to return to New College as a student, and having learned enough emotionally and politically, he was excited to “pursue his academic interest in psychedelics inside the institutional setting of New College”. During his first term back, Rick attended a month-long workshop (negotiated in his New College contract) at Esalen Institute in California with the leading psychiatrist at the forefront of transpersonal psychology — none other than a Dr. Stanislav Grof. There, he studied then-legal MDMA and eventually received credit from New College for suing the DEA to block its criminalization. When the lawsuit failed, Rick started MAPS in 1986, later obtaining his New College degree in 1987. His senior thesis was a 25-year follow-up to the Good Friday Experiment, which evaluated psilocybin as a catalyst for mystical experiences. After being rejected by several Clinical Psychology Ph. D. programs (due to his interest in MDMA’s psychotherapeutic potential), Rick changed his focus to politics and the policies blocking psychedelic science, attending the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. Doblin earned his doctorate in public policy in 2001, writing his dissertation on the regulation of the medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana.

Rick’s dearly held belief is that psychedelics can be integrated into the mainstream of Western culture. This past November, for two days, Rick along with MAPS, the Zendo Project, and other pro legalization and medicalization organizations hosted a political protest on the Washington Mall, modeled in part after Palm Court Party. Rick impressed upon me the importance of symbols and their ability to heal. Built in the center of this protest was a Temple of Essence and inside people could write on blackboards, detailing the ways in which the War on Drugs has hurt them and those they love. On the last day of PCP the temple was burned at midnight, revealing a jail cell containing the scrawled hurts of so many. Then the jail cell burned and turned to ash, inciting “cathartic dancing” and celebration. Later, Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the National Anthem from Woodstock was played so loudly, it could be heard from the White House.

I expected to be impressed upon meeting Rick — intimidated even — but he was approachable and brought his elderly parents to the interview. Clad in jeans, a pink button down and crowned with a shock of mussed dark hair, Rick was amiable, down-to-earth, and without ever courting cliche, he exuded a sense of deep personal balance. What I did not expect was how concerned Rick was about the direction our school is taking, how invested he was in our community and student welfare. The conversation almost immediately shifted to the turbulent events that have shaken our community of late — the tragic deaths of campus guest Dylan Besser and first-year student Julien Toomsen-Hall, the arrests of students this semester, the resignation of former dean Tracy Murray, and the hardline President Don O’Shea is taking against drugs.

Naming the drug policy taken up by New’s administration as “illogical and, even worse, ineffective and counterproductive”, Rick believes the administration has become a “model of cowardice” grounded in the legacy of the War on Drugs. He sees O’Shea’s hardline against drugs as destroying the New College community — especially the “sense of allegiance between first year students and upper years”. This revocation of trust between students can be seen in first-year student affidavit against a popular student leader. It’s shocking to Rick, and many other alums, that the War on Drugs is being upheld at New College. “The Drug War is immoral, corrupt, racist…the trend in America and the trend in the world is against the drug war….and against treating drug problems as criminal justice matters and towards treating them more as health matters”, says Doblin. Instead of viewing the tragic deaths of Julien Toomsen-Hall and Dylan Besser as legacies of our community’s drug culture, Rick contends President O’Shea should “look to himself and his policies”.

What position would you like the administration to take on psychedelic use?

“ New College should be a voice for abolition, a voice for ending the Drug War. I think the crackdown that administration is doing is weird; the Drug War is losing favor in the world and even in the mainstream. What we see is the New College administration, in desperation, falling back on this failed ideology [of the Drug War] that’s produced horrible consequences in America. I think they should, to whatever extent, resist this horrible policy and promote harm reduction…the New College chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) should be free to totally implement harm reduction methods, instead of the administratio
n supporting these busts and getting the police involved in these fear-based solutions. They should take a stand. They should be against the Drug War. Even though they are a part of the state, they have more leverage than they realize. They are the honors college of the Florida state school system. ”

On November 23rd, President O’Shea sent an email to New College students, faculty, and staff addressing, if implicitly, the arrest of Carl Romer on November 18th. Equating the dealing of illegal substances to “put[ting] the community at risk”, President O’Shea disregarded concerns that students, unable to access substances from trusted on-campus sources, will turn to the streets for untested products. President O’Shea stated this logic was “completely flawed” because New College students are “too smart” for that sort of behavior. President O’Shea implied the “highest levels of excellence” and drug use are necessarily in conflict. Rick Doblin is the embodied counter argument to President O’Shea’s claim that academic prowess and drug use can’t coexist. Doblin would, in fact, argue drug use contributed to his academic success. In Rick’s mind the ideal New College student combines the three A’s of success: academics, athletics, and of course, acid. Why, he asked me, if psychedelics have a legitimate role in psychotherapy and in spirituality, why not in academics? Rick told me two key factors in his young life were instrumental in his pursual of a Masters and Ph. D. from Harvard: “the academic rigour of New College and his psychedelic experiences as a student”.

Have you seen President O’Shea’s recent email to students?

“ Yes, [Don O’Shea]’s got this fundamental misconception that excellence and drugs don’t go together, that somehow or another drug use degrades one’s intelligence…The idea that psychedelics and drugs are not compatible with excellence is a complete misunderstanding of the role of freedom of thought. I see Donal O’Shea as being someone who doesn’t appreciate what it really means to be excellent. The excellence of Don O’Shea fit[s] into existing structures, the excellence he is talking about is not real excellence…just go along with the prejudices of the day and don’t make noise and don’t challenge things. The excellence of Donal O’Shea is the excellence of convention.”

After speaking with Rick, I realized what many would consider to be a crackdown on drugs is actually an attack on New College — our culture and its history, grounded in many ways to the use of psychedelics and marijuana. For those New College students who choose to experiment with psychedelics-and let it be known not all of us do- the use of psychedelics can contribute to students’ deep interest in understanding themselves, each other, our state, and more broadly still, the state of our state. During Rick’s time at New College, he recalls a commitment to intellectual and emotional inquiry as the norm — and in many cases psychedelics was a tool of choice. Indeed, based on his experiences as a student of psychedelics, Rick developed his Theory of Social Change. Psychedelics, well-used, can elicit the feeling of connection, or rather the awareness of this already-existing connection, to the human family. When this feeling of one-ness is politicized, Rick asserts, the increased capacity for tolerance and solidarity allows for social change and social justice work to manifest and spread.

Many students are attracted to New College because its culture serves as a hotbed for scholarly pursuit, innovation, and the exact kind of social change Rick values. New College has created space for young people to celebrate and acknowledge difference, challenge normative beliefs, identify and critique systems of power, and more simply, create life-long friends as we collectively begin to define ourselves as individuals and members of society. The use of psychedelics and marijuana has been integrated into New College culture since its conception in the 60s when psychedelics were still legal; it’s an aspect of our self-identity and a method by which some students choose to expand their worldview and approach the academic, emotional, and personal. Demonizing marijuana and psychedelics is a threat to our community. Simultaneously targeting those students who choose to partake is an affront to New College’s founding ideals.

During Rick’s tenure as a student, he recalled an alliance of sorts between the faculty, administration, campus police, and students. The administration protected students. The police “acted as a barrier” between the raging War on Drugs and a set of bright, motivated, and daring young people. His New College gave power to the students — the power to learn what they needed to learn in a “new and complicated world” and have a safe space to explore. Rick said his New College was the opposite of President O’Shea’s: “O’Shea’s become the enforcer of the drug laws and the voice of the old mainstream”. The administration during Rick’s initial tenure as a student acknowledged that “sex and drugs were out in the open with the nudist colony at the pool and the use of drugs — and neither was suppressed”.

Rick stressed to me that students have more power than we realize. He called the alums our “natural allies” and said our access to the Board of Trustees, which sets the administration’s policy who in turn control the policies of the police, as a mostly-untapped resource. “The social context is shifting around Don O’Shea”, Rick told me, “the Drug War is ending with bipartisan support”. Students can capitalize on the changing attitudes surrounding marijuana and psychedelics with media attention, sources like the Sarasota Herald-Tribune can “question the approach taken by the Administration”. Time is one of the most important tools students can wield in their struggles with the administration, Rick continued, since students can create multiple situations in which the administration has to respond, taking up their limited time and making it difficult for them to address their other work. Through protests, media attention, and close contact with a vast network of concerned alumni, students can mount more pressure on the administration and forge middle ground proposals to protect students and our community. Getting back to Rick’s Theory of Social Change, more use of psychedelics could (ironically) provide the impetus for the kind of collective action our community needs.

New College is still a special place — to me, to my friends, and always to Rick. But recent events must prompt a great deal of self-reflection and critical inquiry. Where is New College headed? What kind of community do we want to be? New College can be a place of formation. Our community has the capacity to educate the whole person — emotionally, spiritually, and academically — if its students are allowed to grow unthreatened.