Pot To Be Tested as Remedy For Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

The front page of The San Francisco Chronicle underscores the unprecedented momentum for research into marijuana and psychedelics as treatments for PTSD. The article notes that MAPS’ FDA-approved study of the potential benefits of medical marijuana to treat symptoms of PTSD in 70 U.S. veterans has received approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s 100 percent fantastic,” explains MAPS executive director Rick Doblin. “For 22 years I’ve been trying to study marijuana and make it a medicine. So this is a massive step.”

Originally appearing here.

After three years, a small Santa Cruz nonprofit has won a battle with the federal government to test marijuana on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the organization’s founder says his work is far from done.

Rick Doblin’s ultimate goal is for his Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to become a nonprofit pharmaceutical company, selling marijuana and other currently illegal substances such as MDMA – also known as ecstasy – to pharmacies across the nation. The Food and Drug Administration has already approved two MDMA studies funded by the organization.

And last week the Department of Health and Human Services cleared the way for the University of Arizona to conduct the pot study, which was applauded by both advocates of marijuana and veterans as a signature step in determining the drug’s medical benefits and risks.

“It’s 100 percent fantastic,” said the 60-year-old Doblin, the association’s executive director. “For 22 years I’ve been trying to study marijuana and make it a medicine. So this is a massive step.”

Ever since Doblin was 18 years old and using LSD for recreation, he said he recognized a potential to do something important with hallucinogens, psychoactive drugs and marijuana. After earning a doctorate in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he founded MAPS in 1986 and dedicated his life to researching and educating people about the ways they can benefit from psychedelics and marijuana.

He lives in Boston. But MAPS is located near Santa Cruz’s downtown, in a small, nondescript house wedged between a taqueria and a medical center. There, 10 employees are working toward FDA approval to turn MDMA and pot into legitimate medicines. But that will require many more studies and lots of money.

High-powered donors

So far, the checks have been rolling in. And it’s anything but stoners and hippies writing them. The organization counts as donors a Rockefeller; members of the Pritzker family, one of the wealthiest in America; and John Gilmore, the fifth employee of Sun Microsystems and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The late Ashawna Hailey, a Silicon Valley pioneer, bequeathed the organization $5.5 million. Some have even served on the organization’s board.

“There’s a lot of psychedelic use in the tech world,” Doblin said, adding that the association’s benefactors are not only interested in helping humanity, especially veterans, but also on the cutting edge of innovation. “These are people who see the future. There are definitely those who think there is a stigma to some of these drugs. But it’s shifting from a stigma to something they can be proud of.”

MDMA – listed by the federal government as a schedule 1 substance, meaning it’s considered high-risk for abuse and has no accepted medical applications – is Doblin’s top priority. He is among many doctors and scientists who believe that the synthetic drug could be the best tool to curing post-traumatic stress disorder. MDMA, also known on the street as Molly, is an amphetamine widely known as the illicit drug of choice by the rave community.

Accidental discovery

The drug was invented and patented in 1912 by Merck, a German pharmaceutical company, while it was trying to create a blood stopper. It induces feelings of euphoria and intimacy, and diminishes anxiety. Scientific and anecdotal studies show that it can be effective in getting people with post-traumatic stress disorder to open up during psychotherapy.

“It sort of puts you into a postorgasmic state,” said Brad Burge, the nonprofit’s director of communications and marketing. “Before it was illegal, they used to use it in marriage counseling.”

There are also risks. Some studies have shown that MDMA can damage the brain and that chronic use could actually increase depression and anxiety. Other possible side effects include difficulty concentrating, lack of appetite and dry mouth.

But Doblin said there is enough evidence of positive benefits that the FDA has allowed his organization to fund two phase two clinical studies of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD. One of those double-blind studies is under way in South Carolina and involves 24 veterans, first responders (firefighters and police officers) and former soldiers who were sexually assaulted while serving.

Eager to participate

“We have a waiting list of 500 people for eight remaining slots,” said Virginia Wright, MAPS’ director of development. In addition, the organization has funded two other studies, in Israel and Canada.

Dr. Richard Rockefeller, a donor who chaired the U.S. Advisory Board of Doctors Without Borders until 2010, has been vocal about using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rockefeller, who has seen firsthand the emotional scars war and atrocity can leave on people, told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 2013 that he believes the drug can have dramatic benefits.

“If you can achieve a detailed recall of the trauma in a setting of extreme safety, you can move the traumatic memory out of the amygdala and into the parts of the brain where it should be,” he told the audience. “This process is called reconsolidation. In MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, the patient is safe enough to bring up trauma and do the work.”

To Doblin, the idea that therapists could use the drug to end post-traumatic stress disorder in chronic sufferers is huge – better even than marijuana.

“While we believe that marijuana reduces the symptoms, it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” Doblin said. “But not everyone wants to do MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. It’s hard and painful. Some people just want to smoke pot and have a good night’s sleep without the nightmares.”

Arizona researcher

Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist and internist, will conduct MAPS’ marijuana study with the University of Arizona. It’s the first time the whole plant will be tested in post-traumatic stress disorder research. Seventy veterans, mostly from the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, will smoke or vaporize four varieties of marijuana and a placebo, which will have no THC properties – the ingredient that makes people high – for 12 weeks. The marijuana will be purchased from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has a research farm in Mississippi and is the only federally allowed source.

“There is a mountain of anecdotal evidence to show that marijuana is beneficial to people suffering with PTSD and other anxiety and medical conditions,” Sisley said.

“Twenty-two veterans a day are killing themselves,” she said. “They’re not benefiting from conventional medicine. And while many are using marijuana to help them with this debilitating disorder, they want it to be legitimized. They want data. They want to know what doses to take. They want to be able to discuss this with their doctors. The Obama administration is hearing this, because allowing us to do this study does represent a major shift in policy.”