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Interview: Rick Doblin

By Jaime McCutcheon | 5.07.07

Rick Doblin is the founder and president of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. He earned his Ph.D. in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and his dissertation was titled, The Regulation of the Medical Use of Psychedelics and Marijuana. He currently lives in Boston with his wife and three young children.

Jaime McCutcheon: Hi Rick, Can you start by giving us a brief history of MAPS and your involvement in the organization?

Rick Doblin: MAPS was started in 1986, however, prior to this I had learned about MDMA in 1982. It had been used in psychotherapy since the late 1970s and it was an incredible discovery to me of a legal psychedelic drug that was being used in that context. It was another chance to see how psychedelics could be used and work with people who otherwise wouldn’t work with an illegal drug.

JM: But then it was made illegal?

RD: Well, myself and others recognized that it would eventually be made illegal – by 1982 there were already people selling it as ecstasy and it was clear that there was going to be this confrontation with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). So in 1984, Debbie Harlow, Alise Agar, and myself formed a non-profit organization that was designed to generate information about MDMA, prepare to do research, and anticipate that once the DEA tried to criminalize MDMA we would be ready to challenge them in court.

JM: And then the DEA made their move?

RD: Yes, sure enough in July 1984 the DEA announced their intention to criminalize MDMA, so we rallied the supporters and I went to Washington to file a formal document saying we wanted the DEA’s effort to criminalize MDMA challenged and we wanted to preserve the therapeutic use.

JM: So what happened next?

RD: There were several years of hearings but, due to the preliminary work, we had a great list of witnesses and some safety studies had already been conducted. We were able to persuade the administrative law judge that MDMA wasn’t so dangerous that it should be criminalized completely.

JM: Great!

RD: Well, it turns out that the administrative law judge only makes recommendations to the DEA and the DEA decided to reject the recommendations. It seemed pretty queer that even though we had won on substance we were going to lose on process.

JM: And that’s when you started MAPS?

RD: Yes, in 1986 I realized that the only way to bring back therapeutic use of MDMA in a legal context was to do FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved research. The intention was to be a non-profit pharmaceutical company designed to develop MDMA, other psychedelics and marijuana into prescription medicines.

JM: Do you think the public should be involved and informed about the work that you’re doing at MAPS or is this likely to lead to sensationalism and a misrepresentation of your position?

RD: I think it’s essential to have the public involved all the way through and that’s the approach MAPS has been taking. I know it’s very different to the classic scientific approach where the media doesn’t even hear about the work until the papers are published and the data are out there. What’s different is that most scientists are competing for grant money so they don’t want other people to know what they’re doing until they’ve published it. Their interests are in keeping everything secret and in waiting to be the first to publish.

JM: So you’re generally very open with the media as well then?

RD: I feel that it’s necessary for MAPS to speak to pretty much any media who are interested in talking to us. With non-profit drug development, which is what MAPS is doing, there’s a massive amount of propaganda and misinformation put out by the government to try to justify the drug war. We have such a difficult time getting our message out there compared to the enormous sums put into the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the other national drug policy programs.

JM: So does MAPS take a stand on the drug war?

RD: I feel it’s important to speak out against the drug war even though MAPS is not a lobby organization trying to change drug laws – we’re trying to work within the FDA regulations. Still, I feel it’s essential for my own personal integrity to speak out against the drug war. We’re trying to welcome as members both people and patients who are interested in psychedelic psychotherapy, and also people who feel that there are ways to bring to the fore scientific data that contradict government propaganda.

JM: With substances like these there is obviously a lot of non-medical, recreational usage as well. What is MAPS position with regard to issues such as drug education? Can you inform non-medical users and retain scientific credibility?

RD: I think the key issue for us is scientific credibility and for that I just need to constantly fall back on methodology. Our strength is methodological design and the monitoring of studies. We carry out the studies with direction from experts who work for the pharmaceutical industry. We had a recent situation in which a fella who had recently retired from the FDA contacted me about volunteering at MAPS to help us through the FDA system because he really feels that helping people with terminal illness anxiety – something he saw we were doing – was something he wanted to help with. So our strength is the methodological design, the meticulous way in which we conduct the studies and also the series of experts we’re getting. I think our scientific credibility should be evaluated on the basis of that, and because we’re doing so great on that aspect I’m willing to take some other risks.

JM: You mean in terms of education and information for non-medical users? What different forms do these take?

RD: We’ve tried to minimize the casualties that take place through irresponsible use, which are used to fuel media stories, so we’ve instituted certain policies. One is that we do psychedelic emergency work at Burning Man Festival and other events where we offer a psychotherapeutic approach to people who have inadvertently got into a difficult situation with psychedelics. Not only do we do this direct emergency work, we’re also a sponsor for Erowid which is the most popular website for information on psychedelics - 45-50,000 unique visitors per day come to learn in a non-biased, accurate manner as much as they want to about psychedelics. Finally, what we’ve also started having are these parties combining education and celebration which are also fundraisers – there was one in San Francisco recently. There are talks from scientific researchers, therapists and policy activists as well as an all-night party. That is where the two spectrums come together and researchers doing government-approved studies get to educate people using in non-medical ways.

JM: What lessons can be learned about the way the research went in the 1960s and 1970s?

RD: What went wrong primarily from the integration of psychedelics into society was that society and the researchers got into this culture vs. counter-culture conflict and there was rejection of society. At the moment we’re trying to heal that divide and so we don’t see ourselves as weaving some private utopia and going off on our own. Going to the government and getting mainstream credentials is all part of this move towards the centre. These substances can be integrated into society; they don’t inherently have this antisocial, chaotic effect. They’re part of a vibrant and creative society that is renewing itself.

JM: So how do you decide which research projects to get involved with at MAPS?

RD: Well, MAPS, through its membership and website is like an antenna into the world, we’re both broadcasting and receiving and some of the most important projects don’t come from MAPS staff or scientists but from people who have made independent discoveries...

JM: Such as the cluster headache project?

RD: Exactly. The situation with cluster headaches is that it was nothing we had planned to study but it turns out that in the age of the internet a few, or maybe one person, found that after taking mushrooms his cycle of cluster headaches didn’t come at the normal time. He speculated that maybe it was the mushrooms, other people started trying it and before you know it a bunch of people were saying it worked for them.

JM: How did they get in touch with you?

RD: Well, they finally learned about our work, contacted me and said “Look, we don’t want to be criminals but we’re suffering from a really painful disease.” People commit suicide sometimes it’s so painful. The fortunate thing is that one of the people with cluster headaches is married to a high-up Microsoft employee and they ended up donating $50,000.

JM: What stage is the project at now?

RD: Well, Andrew Sewell is working on morning glory seeds which some take because they’re easier to find than LSD and he’s also surveying people who use LSD and psilocybin to treat their cluster headaches for a case report study. John Halpern is working together with us to design protocols for actual clinical studies with LSD and psilocybin to take place at Harvard Medical School.

JM: So, with Harvard’s history and Timothy Leary’s memory still present has it been difficult to get research started there again?

RD: The aspect of this which makes it a little easier for Harvard to get back into psychedelic research is that there are some people for whom doses below which you would call psychedelic seem to work. The process is not psychedelic psychotherapy but a pharmacological effect of the drugs.

JM: This is very different to the work with PTSD then?

RD: Yes, with PTSD the situations are reversed and we’re not thinking about it as a pharmacological treatment. The approved drugs for PTSD are supposed to be taken every day to correct a biological imbalance but they don’t have too much of a therapeutic effect in terms of the outcome measures, i.e. reducing the symptoms of PTSD.

JM: And the studies using MDMA with PTSD look promising?

RD: In our studies we are working with people who have had several attempts already at the approved treatments and pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches have both failed. We’ve already got really strong evidence of the benefits in the US study – 15 out of 20 have already been treated – and we’re getting tremendous results.

JM: And do you think PTSD is an important problem for society now?

RD: Well, there are all sorts of different causes of PTSD but right now there’s a flood of people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, vets who have PTSD. In 2004, the Veteran’s Association spent $4.3 billion on PTSD disability payments to about 216,000 vets, mostly from Vietnam, a few from Afghanistan and almost none from Iraq. The government is trying to make sure that as few as possible get classified as disabled with PTSD or else they’ll be stuck with an enormous funding problem.

JM: And what about the other foreign studies you’re involved with?

RD: We’re getting results from Switzerland and we also have another study in Israel which is to deal with war and terrorism-related PTSD.

JM: Albert Hofmann must be delighted that his discovery, or related drugs, may now be used to reverse the impact of these negative situations.

RD: Yes, Albert is tremendous and we’re racing now because we have a project in Switzerland to study LSD in people with anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses. We’re trying our best to get that started and fully approved as it will be the first LSD psychotherapy study in about 35 years. We’re giving frequent reports to Albert – he’s now 101 – and we’re just hoping that he gets to see with his own eyes the renewal of LSD psychotherapy research. I feel the first phase of the psychedelic renaissance will be achieved once we have LSD psychotherapy research started.

JM: And what about the subsequent stages?

RD: Well, the big leap forward is going to be in two to three years once we look at all the data from the phase II pilot studies and ask does it make sense to invest $5-7m in studies that have 500 to 700 subjects. These would be the final phase III studies designed to get data for submission to the FDA and European medical agencies for safety and efficacy.

JM: Which of the projects do you think will be leading the way at that point?

RD: Probably the MDMA for PTSD looks the most promising. I feel we’re likely to get fairly good work from giving MDMA and psilocybin to dying patients but it’s more difficult to translate these existential concerns about dying into traditional medicine. We’re still dealing with the regulatory framework that says drugs must treat traditional illnesses. There’s not room for existential life issues such as fear of death and it’s not clear to me yet that we’ve got the measures that are both standardized and accepted by the FDA. That’s more of a scientific methodological challenge to do that kind of research to the satisfaction of skeptical regulatory agencies.