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This is your brain on drugs (continued)

It was during his time in Big Sur that Doblin first heard of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), a drug that helps create feelings of empathy, connectedness, and goodwill by increasing the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain. At that time it was not yet illegal, and was in use primarily in psychiatric and therapeutic circles. He tried it with his girlfriend when he got back east in 1982.

"The first experience was marvelous," he remembers. "It was just such an eye opener. A heart opener. The core of it, I remember, was having this wonderful exchange with my girlfriend, and feeling like it was us speaking. It wasnít the drug speaking. The drug was liberating, was helping us be in touch with our deeper feelings. It was helping us experience our deeper, better selves. Our clearer selves. And it wasnít an artificial experience. It was so subtle of a shift. I was expecting the drama of LSD or psilocybin. But it was a subtle shift of emotional openness. It was astonishing to me how subtle, yet how profound. It just felt like a way of being that I wanted to learn from."

Doblin finished his second stint at New College in 1987 with a degree in psychology. The preceding several years had seen ecstasy creeping out of scientific circles and gaining popularity as a recreational drug ó and drawing the attention of the feds. As an undergrad, Doblin founded a nonprofit group called the Earth Metabolic Design Lab, under whose auspices he lobbied the DEA to classify MDMA as a Schedule III drug (allowing it to be studied by doctors), rather than banishing it to total prohibition under Schedule I status (high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and unsafe for use under medical supervision) along with drugs like marijuana and heroin.

He failed. And he knew then that seeing MDMA used therapeutically and legally would require a new course of action. The drugís blanket illegality meant that the only way to employ it in legitimate scientific inquiry was to get it approved as a medicine by the FDA. But working through the bureaucratic labyrinth to make that happen would be a daunting ó and expensive ó task. Thus MAPS was born in 1986, the first step in Doblinís perhaps quixotic quest to someday establish a "nonprofit psychedelic-pharmaceutical company."

But, while he possessed the empathy and the psychological insight to help others with these drugs, Doblin lacked the instinct needed to navigate the regulatory and political maze. "Thatís where I had this epiphany while I was smoking pot," he says. "I have this pattern of wanting too much too soon. But since what I wanted was the research, and the research was blocked by the politics, then maybe I should study the politics."

As Doblin went "straight," so to speak, he also saw a parallel between his personal and scientific goals. "I always had thought of myself as counterculture. The fact that I could make that shift, to being part of the establishment, [meant] that therefore psychedelics could maybe move from this repressed position to somehow integrated into society." So he enrolled at Harvard. "I just thrived once I got to the Kennedy School and started working on policy. It was just a tremendous opportunity for me ó and it really has led to much of the opportunities that Iíve been able to create since then."

I FIRST interviewed Rick Doblin for the Phoenix almost four years ago. (See "Long, Strange Trip," News and Features, April 6, 2001.) Now, as we walk around Belmontís quiet afternoon streets, heís keyed up about a new and "very exciting" moment in MAPSís history. The group has achieved a "substantially" higher profile since we talked last, he says. Membership is at about 1450 nationwide, and there are plans soon to bolster that with direct mailings to about 10,000 psychiatrists. Last year marked the first time in the groupís history that it exceeded $1 million in revenues ó coming either in smaller donations from individual members or large sums from simpatico benefactors.

A lot more cash is needed. If MAPSís dreams of FDA-approved medicines ever comes to fruition, Doblin estimates it will take $5 million to $7 million to see MDMA or medical marijuana developed into prescription drugs. But heís keeping tabs on a potentially lucrative revenue stream from a free-thinking, very wealthy segment of the population: young technology execs. In August, Doblin was at Burning Man Festival, in Nevadaís Black Rock Desert, where he helped with "psychedelic-emergency work," talking people through bad trips. Among the 30,000 or so neo-tribal alkali-flat revelers was libertarian philanthropist and MAPS contributor John Gilmore, whoís pledged to give away $10 million over 10 years to drug-law-reform causes. "And right next to him camping," Doblin says, "were the founders of Google."

Doblinís peers, and his track record thus far, suggest that MAPS is a worthwhile cause. "Heís very bright and incredibly dedicated to making this medicine available to help people," says George Greer, co-founder of New Mexicoís Heffter Research Institute, which, like MAPS, seeks to subject psychedelics to rigorous scientific study. "He has incredible persistence. The fact that finally thereís a therapy study happening with MDMA, after being a controlled drug for almost 20 years, I think itís Rickís persistence, along with Michael Mithoeferís, thatís led to that. Hopefully it will continue."

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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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