M.A.P.S. Founder Rick Doblin riffs on Burning Man, applied psychedelics, the culture of harm reduction, and America’s 40-year long bad trip
Interview by Seamus Presley and Charles Shaw
From Conscious Choice Magazine – December Issue, 2006
Rick Doblin is the founder (in 1986) and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MAPS . His dissertation (Public Policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) was on “The Regulation of the Medical Use of Psychedelics and Marijuana,” and his master’s thesis (Harvard) focused on the attitudes and experiences of oncologists concerning the medical use of marijuana. His undergraduate thesis (New College of Florida) was a twenty-five year follow-up to the classic Good Friday Experiment, which evaluated the potential of psychedelic drugs to catalyze religious experiences.
One of MAPS most innovative vehicles for their work was Sanctuary, a volunteer treatment and care facility for “psychedelic emergencies” that was built for the 2006 Burning Man festival.
We sat down with Rick in November to discuss Burning Man, applied psychedelics, his vision of a post-prohibition world, and the culture of harm reduction he and his associates are trying to foster.
Conscious Choice: In the simplest sense, why don’t you tell us what your role was in Entheon Village, how you got there, what the whole project means to you, and some of the after-effects of the partnership.
Rick Doblin: To begin, I see Burning Man—and I think many people see it this way—as an attempt to create an alternative future. One in which Burning Man is an effort to bring out into the open. energies that have been suppressed all over the world, energies of sex and drugs, art and creativity, especially where they come in conflict with politics and the status quo, Burning Man is an effort to bring these things out into the open. These energies y are expressed in a way some people may take as inappropriate, but it’s healthy and safe. It’s a way to bring about new social norms. At the same time it’s wrapped in a new spiritual ritual created through the burning of the Man, through portraying the transitory nature of life with, the emphasis on seizing the moment, and realizing that things come and go—that we’re not here forever. All these things that are so inspiring to me and many, many other people, who have this view of the future.
What I recognize, though, is that in this view of the future, this vision of how things could be, there is still a tremendous lack of support for people who are having difficult psychedelic experiences [at Burning Man]. And because of the fact that this alternate vision of the future we call Burning Man is not in the future but rather taking place right now, in the midst of the drug war, makes the drug aspect the greatest vulnerability of Burning Man in the sense of their confrontation with the authorities. The nudity, sexual experiences, things like that are really less controversial and more difficult to legislate against, more difficult to persecute people for than the drug use, and more difficult for the authorities to make money off in the form of fines.
So in terms of a model for the future, when we think about a post-prohibition world, there are still going to be inherently difficult problems people are going to run up against as a result of their psychedelic experience, or even from eating too many pot brownies.
It’s the nature of the psychedelic experience that things emerge from the unconscious, and people can turn it into play, into dance parties, different things. But when the doses get large enough, or when people are open enough to the complexity of emotions, there’s going to be difficult material that comes up. There’s always been this sense of vulnerability at Burning Man, and the anti rave lawsacts and other legislative efforts created by Congress have tried to criminalize harm-reduction methods. Under these laws, if you have a bar or some place where it’s said that drugs are being used, that the owner should have known or did know that drugs were being uses there, even if you don’t know that drugs are bring used there, the police eycan will take your bar and your assets and you can will go to jail. Now, there’s a lot of underage drinking and inappropriate drug use at every baseball and football game in America that goes without arrest or prosecution, so these are selective prosecutions, like crack house laws.
So about seven years ago I started approaching the Burning Man organization. I explained to them that we were involved with psychedelic research, we were working with people who were experts in the management of difficult psychedelic experiences, and that we wanted to volunteer our time there in order to be helpful. And for three years in a row we were rejected because of the idea that if they were to acknowledge in any sort of way that psychedelic drug use was going on there, that made them more vulnerable [to police raids and unwanted interference]. I always felt that when there are problems with drug use at Burning Man, or elsewhere, the people having the problems end up either having a terrible time that could perhaps have long-term negative consequences, or they cause problems for others, of they get sent going to the hospital, or getting busted. Those kinds of negative outcomes are another form of threat to promoters and organizers. We need to show that as a community we can take care of our own.
After three years of trying I was finally put in contact with some Burning Man Rangers who recognized that there are a lot of people that who come to the medical tent, not because they have medical problems, but because they have emotional problems. So they created this facility that they called “Sanctuary” in order to provide a place for people to cool out. They had a few Rangers, whothat were providingdoing this service, but they had to spend their own money on it, it was understaffed and they were not supported by the Burning Man organization. But it was a good place for people to come and they welcomed the offer of more professional help and staffing. So four years ago I went with about five people, our core team, and we [unofficially] volunteered at Sanctuary. It turned out to be very, very needed, and also very satisfying for everybody concerned from that point. Each year since we have expanded the team and were able to serve more and more people.
I recognized that here were opportunities for MAPS to bring together different researchers from different teams and have them work together, and by doing so learn about each other’s working styles. At the same time that was happening, they would be able to offer critical comments, helpful comments, and constructive criticism to each other. In terms of the training of psychedelic therapists—having them volunteer and work together where you have a flow of people with difficult trips—this is not something you can actually get permission for, so [the experience] proved very, very valuable. It was good for the Burning Man organization, it was good for MAPS, and it was also very, very satisfying.
The first time we went to volunteer we just camped with each other in a certain area. Then we started camping with other people’s villages, and in 2005 we really started to do our own village with Matt Atwood and Liz Campanella and others from Chicago who were part of this larger “snowflake village.” But having us all together participating in the lecture series and having a community kitchen was very satisfying. At the same time, we also got more and more people who wanted to volunteer both because they want
ed to get involved with MAPS and psychedelic research, and they wanted to have something to give. A big theme at Burning Man is gift culture and our folks wanted to have something to give, so they gave their time and their compassion. As a result, we had a substantial number of volunteers who worked with our core team to assist the Rangers to deliver psychedelic emergency services. And as a result of that we were able to help more people, get more people trained and to try to reduce the problems of people coming to Burning Man and having negative outcomes. We helped some people who would have otherwise been taken away by the police.
CC: What sort of long-term effects do you think your efforts with “Sanctuary,” and with Entheon Village, will have on Burning Man or Burning Man culture in the future?
RD: I think that that’s still unclear, because there still is this sense that drugs are their [primary] vulnerability. They welcome and appreciate what we do but there is this reluctance to support it in an official way. So far MAPS buys the tickets for our core team, we pay for everybody’s transportation, there’s no support in any way from the Burning Man organization for what we do. And we’re a non-profit, it’s not like we’re making money off of this. We see [our participation] as educational advertising: we’re a non-profit organization proving this principle about how life could work in a post-prohibition world, because many people look to Burning Man as the epitome of these kinds of [cultural] festivals, and what happens at Burning Man people will want to adopt elsewhere.
For example there’s the Boom Festival that happens in Portugal every 2 years with about 15,000 to 20,000 people for about a week, the organizers of Boom were able to come to Burning Man last year, and they asked us to help this year at their festival, so we helped to coordinate did psychedelic emergency services with Boom as well. Because MAPS is now doing research around the world, particularly in Switzerland, and now we hadve an MDMA psychotherapy research projects in Spain, we were able to bring an international team to the Boom festival.
What we do in our therapeutic practice is different than your sort of normal, talk-down services. We have four guiding principles: first, you create a safe place.
The second principle is “sitting” not “guiding,” meaning that you support people in their process, you don’t have to be so knowledgeable that you know what they need to do, where they need to go. You’re not directive; you’re sitting with them and making interventions and comments of support following the lead of the person. They’re their own guide, but they stumble and you help them in this process. You’re not telling them where the path is, their unconscious knows that.
The third principle is “talk through not talk down” so it has that therapeutic model of helping people go into the problem rather than turn away from it.
The fourth and final principle is that “difficult” is not the same as “bad.”
That’s the framework we work in at Sanctuary and we assist the Black Rock Rangers in doing so. We don’t provide this on our own, we’re under the supervision of the Rangers, working under the Rangers and that’s really important for them to emphasize, that there’s not some independent MAPS project going on there.
One other thing. We recognized last year that camping together and providing this lecture series and this community kitchen was sufficient to get us a place on the Esplanade. So this year we expanded 5 times from last year, and what we decided to do was have our own village, Entheon Village, and at the same time offer to the community the product of psychedelic experiences so that we had science and culture in the form of a lecture series. We had art in the form of a big dome for Alex Grey and 2 yurts for other artists, and we had spirituality in the form of a Zen meditation center built by Zen meditators from Switzerland.
Over twenty years ago I started trying to understand the connection between psychedelics and spirituality. When MDMA was still legal, we distributed it to various people who were involved in religious professions, Catholic priests, orthodox Rabbis, leaders of the Zen communities around the world. And we got the sense that psychedelics really can be integrated into those systems. That they’re not fundamentally opposed to the system, fundamentally a different path, that when you do in fact have a psychedelic inspirational experience, grounded in other techniques, it can be very, very helpful. So what we were trying to show and believe that we did show is that spirituality and psychedelics can go well together.
The leader of the Zen community in Switzerland also decided to come to Burning Man with a group of people from to join with us in Entheon Village, and bring a “Zendo”—a Zen meditation center that they built. 2006 was also MAPS’s 20th anniversary, so we decided that we would celebrate our 20th anniversary at Burning Man because that was MAPS in action. Building community, providing Sanctuary, psychedelic emergency services, and through the researchers and lecture series, explaining about all that we were doing with psychedelic research around the world and with drug policy. It turned out to be a massive undertaking, if notone of the biggest camps at Burning Man this year. We had an enormous number of people coming through for Alex Grey’s art. The last night, the main party at Burning Man on Sunday was at our tent with tremendous bands and music and all the art cars were parked right outside. I missed the whole party because I was working at Sanctuary but I heard incredibly great things about it.
CC: How many people do you think you saw in Sanctuary this year?
CC: And out of a population of 40,000, that’s not bad…?
RD: Well, here’s the issue. We’ve heard many stories of people who’ve had difficult trips that didn’t know Sanctuary was even there. That’s because the BM organization tried to keep it quiet, again, because of this fear of vulnerability as a result of these Anti-Rave Acts. Other like-minded organizations [like DanceSafeBoom] have responded in different ways, acknowledging drug use and taking appropriate action to minimize harm, but the legal climate is not as harsh in Portugal as it is in the US. And in a way what we’re saying is that we do more than minimize harm, we actually promote benefits. People come to us in the midst of emotional crisis, and are given a safe and supportive setting and sympathetic listeners who can actually help people resolve some longstanding issues.
We had one person in particular who had a difficult LSD trip 40 yrs ago during which he had heard the voice of God telling him that he was such a flawed person that the main way he could show his devotion to God would be to commit suicide. And he tried, and fortunately pulled back at the last minute. And so this person had psychotherapy, he was married, this was 40 yrs ago, and we helped him to deal with that experience in a way that when it was over, he said it was the breakthrough he had been waiting for all of these decades. Now, I’ve also found in a way, as a metaphor, that our society is suffering from a bad acid trip from 40 yrs ago and that we are trying to help integrate that and move forward. I felt that working with this one particular person, working with his bad acid trip from 40 yrs ago, was also working to try to develop a model of how life can be in a post-prohibition world.
At the same time we were also extremely worried because here we are, Entheon Village, and we’re basically announcing that we’re “about drugs.” And there’s always undercover agents and police, so there’s always conflict at BM between the organizatio
n and the police because a lot of people get tickets for drug use at BM; they’ve got people with nightscopes undercover and all sorts of ways to try to really bust people, a way to make money. The police see All these people are come who they think are super wealthy and they come in all these big RVs and the police are thinking, “how do we make money off of this?” We were worried, on the one hand, because we felt like we might have a sticker on our back that said “bust me, bust me” because we were so clear about our reason for being there.being focused in different ways on psychedelics.
But what actually happened was what we had hoped would happen,. There were no special efforts to get any one of us, even though we were so prominent, because we showed them that what we’re about isn’t “the drugs,” it’s about the product of the drugs in terms of art,earth, science and spirituality. So I felt that we were protected, those of us whothat were living at Entheon Village, we were protected by putting forward the lecture tent, the art domes and yurts and the Zendo. And that’s actually the way it turned out, we hit this delicate line and it just managed to work out great.
So it was this triumph of trying to be fully ourselves in society, out in the open, while also trying to make a contribution. Now what I felt afterwards was just this enormously satisfying feeling and tremendous sense of relief. We had a community meeting at the very end and we had everybody comment and we talked about whether there were any busts, whether anybody had those kinds of legal problems. Of our entire group there was only one person who got a ticket for marijuana and they were camped in an RV on the perimeter. Some [Federal] Bureau of Land Management people walked by, claimed that they smelled pot in the RV, and said “we’re going to do a search”. The owner said no, and they said “we’re going to come back with the drug dogs,” which they did. The dogs smelled pot, the person brought out a little bag of pot, they said “alright here’s your $500 fine, have a good day, we’re leaving”. They didn’t try to search or try to do anything more than that; once they got their ability to give the $500 ticket they were done. And that was our only encounter with police authorities.
There were rumors of somebody being undercover there and we tracked that person down and it turns out it was mistaken identity, it was just somebody being stupid so there was no one undercover, at least as far as we knew. If they were there, they didn’t do anything. So I think in this sense, similar to gay rights and people coming out, that really what we need in terms of drug policy and drugs is to have people say “look what I’ve accomplished and I’ve been inspired by my psychedelics or by marijuana” to help people realize that drug users are everybody, throughout all aspects of society, and that what people have basically been told about drugs is mostly exaggerated and that we’d be better off making what we call “drugs” legal and make the more dangerous alcohol and tobacco illegal. But of courseWell, it wouldn’t do any good to make alcohol and tobacco illegal either because making them so would just make problems worse and people should have the freedom to make their own choices about what drugs to use, and then live with the consequences, within a society that helps people with problems rather than criminalizes them. I felt that what Entheon Village represented to me was this demonstration both of a post-prohibition world where we could take care of people with difficult problems and turn a lot of them into benefits, and also where we had have a tremendous celebration of MAPS’ 20th anniversary. This team from Chicago was able to pull together something that was at the limits of our imagination and the limits of our capabilities.
MAPS is a membership-based, IRS-approved 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization. MAPS’s assists scientists with designing, funding, obtaining approval for and reporting on studies into the risks and benefits of MDMA, psychedelic drugs and marijuana.
MAPS’ mission is to sponsor scientific research designed to develop psychedelics and marijuana into FDA-approved prescription medicines, and to educate the public honestly about the risks and benefits of these drugs.
Rick Doblin has also studied with Stan Grof, M.D., and was in the first group to become certified as holotropic breathwork practitioners. His professional goal is to help develop legal contexts for the beneficial uses of psychedelics and marijuana, primarily as prescription medicines but also for personal growth for otherwise “healthy” people, and to also become a legally licensed psychedelic therapist. He currently resides in Boston with his wife and three young children.
The Chicago-based magazine Conscious Choice published a series of articles this week about MAPS, psychedelic therapy, and Entheon Village, the Burning Man theme camp that hosted MAPS’ 20th anniversary gathering last summer.
~”Psychedelic Therapy: MAPS Founder Rick Doblin riffs on Burning Man, applied psychedelics, the culture of harm reduction, and America’s 40-year long bad trip” is a thoughtful interview with MAPS President Rick Doblin, Ph.D.
~”Chicago’s Entheon Village reinvents counterculture with art, community, and activism” discusses MAPS’ 20th Anniversary celebration at this year’s Burning Man Festival.
~”Strangers in the White Tent: Or, how Burning Man totally flipped my wig” is a well-written account from long-time MAPS member Dan Simborg.