GROWING UP JEWISH in the shadow of the Holocaust, and learning that insanity had affected a whole culture ... I grew up very interested in psychology and the unconscious.” This is how Richard Doblin describes the genesis of his life’s work. Doblin, now of Belmont, came of age at the height of the social tumult of the ’60s. But initially he was unlike many others of his generation: “I was not interested in drugs,” he says. “I thought that drugs were something that made you crazy.” Then, in college, he tried LSD. “It opened up this whole deep emotional world and it struck me as something that worked as a tool for rites of passage for growing up, whereas other traditional things, like my bar mitzvah and my high-school graduation, hadn’t really moved me at those deep levels.”
It wasn’t long before Doblin decided, in 1972, to combine these two inclinations and become a “psychedelic therapist.” Wary of Timothy Leary, the most recognizable face of the American psychedelic movement at the time (“I couldn’t quite trust what he was saying, because he talked about the positive sides but he really didn’t talk about the struggle”), Doblin instead gravitated toward the work of renowned LSD researcher and therapist Stanislav Grof. “What really inspired me was Stan Grof’s merger of science, spirituality, and therapy,” Doblin says. “It wasn’t just philosophy, it was [using psychedelics] to help people feel better and deal with difficult emotions.’“
In college, Doblin studied with Grof at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. It was there, in 1982, that he first came in contact with 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA, or “ecstasy.” MDMA was legal then, and used primarily in therapeutic circles. But its gradual entry into the realm of recreation attracted the attention of the DEA. By 1985 it had been classified as Schedule I (“no currently acceptable medical use”) — legally banned.
In 1986, Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). According to its Web site, the organization has “positioned itself at the center of the conflict between scientific exploration and the politically-driven strategy of the War on Drugs,” and works toward “the cultural reintegration of psychedelics and marijuana through good science.” With nearly 2000 members worldwide, MAPS funds studies of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms”), and ketamine here and abroad. Doblin recently earned his PhD at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a dissertation on the medical use of psychedelics and marijuana.
Rick Doblin runs MAPS from his small, cluttered Belmont home office. The Phoenix stopped by last week to get his thoughts on psychedelics, therapy, and the war on drugs.
Q: Tell me about MAPS.
A: MAPS has two roles. One is a nonprofit psychedelic and medical-marijuana pharmaceutical company. Our goal is to create a legal context for the beneficial use of psychedelics and marijuana, initially in a medical context through the FDA, but then for personal growth, for creativity, for marital therapy. We want to start with people who have diagnosable illnesses and then create a legal context, showing that that is a situation where you can get more benefits than harms. Then we’ll continue to negotiate with the culture about expanding this zone of acceptable uses. In that context, we are a scientific organization that supports research with the FDA and government agencies in other countries. We are also a community of about 1900 people who share this interest. A substantial number of them are doctors and therapists, a lot of them are professionals in other areas. A lot of them are young people.
Q: What sorts of dialogue have you had with the DEA and other federal agencies?
A: The US Sentencing Commission wants to increase penalties on MDMA, so last week I was in Washington presenting testimony with some of the doctors that we work with. I don’t know if we’d call it a dialogue. It was more of a monologue where we talked, they didn’t listen, and they ignored us and they made penalties for MDMA, dose for dose, more severe than for heroin.
The dialogues with political authorities — this most recent one was about criminalizing non-medical use. But I’ve also brought up the idea of medical use. So most of our dialogue is with the FDA or with NIDA [the National Institute on Drug Abuse], which funds massive amounts of research trying to show what’s wrong with MDMA so that they can help justify the criminal penalties. And we feel that NIDA distorts the implications of their research, is excessively fear-mongering, takes the worst case and tries to pretend that that’s the average case. But we have, tragically, no dialogue with the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded most of the psychedelic research in the ’50s and ’60s.
Q: Do you have any MDMA studies planned?
A: We are primarily gearing up, for this last year and a half, to have a major discussion with the FDA about starting research in the United States with the therapeutic use of MDMA. So far, since MDMA was made illegal in 1985, there hasn’t been one single study permitted where MDMA was given to patients. We hope to submit a protocol to the FDA in April for MDMA and the treatment of post-traumatic stress. And we expect that it will be approved after several months of negotiations.
Q: When did you first come into contact with ecstasy?
A: From the time that I decided to be a psychedelic researcher in 1972, I really couldn’t deal with a lot of my psychedelic experiences.... I didn’t have a supportive enough environment, and I wasn’t strong enough emotionally. And so I dropped out of college — I went only for one semester — and I spent 10 years working on myself and getting into the physical world.
In 1982, at age 28, I went back to college as a freshman, to an experimental liberal-arts college in Florida that permitted off-campus study. My very first semester I spent a month at Esalen in Big Sur, studying with Stan Grof. And that’s when I learned about MDMA, in 1982. And it was still legal.
Q: Was it being used only in therapeutic circles at this point, or was it being used recreationally too?
A: Initially it was only in therapeutic circles, and around 1980 or so, some of the people who got it in therapeutic circles saw that this was a tremendous money-making opportunity. And they approached it in a different light. The drug’s code name in the therapeutic world was “Adam” and then, when it changed to ecstasy, that’s when it was used in more public settings or for recreational uses, and that’s what attracted the attention of the DEA. So in 1984, the DEA moved to try to criminalize MDMA.
By that time I was in school trying to study psychedelics, and I felt this was an incredible opportunity to [bring] some group [up] from the underground and to speak in a public setting without the fear of going to jail, because MDMA was still legal. So I started a nonprofit called the Earth Metabolic Design Lab, and we sued the DEA to have these administrative-law-judge hearings. And when I walked into the — oh wait [after much noisy searching, produces photo of himself standing in front of DEA offices] — this is me in 1984, right before I walked in to file the request for the administrative-law-judge hearing. And what became clear was that even though we had some strong support, and even though the judge said it should be Schedule III, meaning that doctors should still be able to use it, the head of the DEA said, “Forget it, we’re putting it on Schedule I. Nobody can have it.”
So then I recognized that the main way we were going to make progress was through the FDA. As a medicine. Everything but that channel was completely blocked. So that’s when I started MAPS, in 1986, in my mind as a nonprofit psychedelic-pharmaceutical company to try to develop MDMA through the FDA. And we funded studies of the dog and the rat, 28-day toxicity studies that are FDA-required before you do human studies.
Q: How many times have you done ecstasy? How recently?
A: I hardly ever do it now. I very rarely have time for it. But it’s the kind of thing that, I think, will be something that I will use, rarely, for the rest of my life. Over the last 19 years, I’ve done it a total of about 90 times.
Q: What has it done for you?
A: It’s made me more accepting of myself, more able to express my emotions, a better listener to other people. It’s helped me deal with loneliness.... I did a series of explorations with people in the religious traditions: monks and rabbis who were willing to use MDMA in small doses to help them meditate. And one time I spent one night by myself using MDMA and thinking what must it be like to live as a monk — without a woman, without human nurturance, but to try to get nurturance from the universe. I felt like for a few hours that I was able to understand that. And that helped me tremendously to be more comfortable to be alone.
Q: Have you ever had any major problems with the government or with law enforcement?
A: I’d say that the major problem in my life where the government directly intruded, was with my grandmother, back in 1986. She had unipolar depression: she didn’t have mania, she just was down. She’d had electroshock therapy earlier in her life and it had helped her. But her depression returned. She had electroshock therapy again, but this time it didn’t help. Her psychiatrists gave her every drug they could think of — didn’t help her. So I went to my family. My father’s a doctor, my brother’s a doctor, and I said, “Let’s give her MDMA. It might help her.” Because underneath this depression was this incredible anxiety and fear. She didn’t want to see her friends, she didn’t want to leave the room, she didn’t want to go outside, and so I thought maybe it would help her.... Maybe somehow it would reset her clock the same way that electroshock therapy does. And my parents said that I could give it to her, but only if I got government permission. And we were never able to do it. And she ended up not getting better, and stopping eating, and dying from the depression. And the government’s rationale was that they had to save her from neurotoxicity.
Q: How does a therapeutic session work? How is it set up?
A: You don’t take somebody who doesn’t want to work on their issues, because that’s a recipe for panic and for disaster. You need a willing subject who says, “I realize I have a problem and I want to work on it.” And that may take weeks or months of therapy. You develop a therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patient. You teach them about what’s likely to happen.
The session starts in the morning usually. People are rested, and they lie down. It’s an internalized session, often with eye shades so people are focusing on their internal material. You have music that supports them, but the music generally doesn’t have words so that you don’t key people into other associations or other imagery. And then you just really support them as material emerges. And if it’s ketamine, it’s a two-hour experience. If it’s MDMA, it’s a four-hour experience. If it’s LSD, it’s an eight-hour experience.