Rick Doblin is one of the most seminal and influential figures in the psychedelic field. As the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Doblin has been at the forefront of psychedelic research and advocacy since the 80s. However, he decided to dedicate his life to psychedelic and marijuana research in the 70s because Doblin felt that the world could benefit from these medicines.
In the 80s, Doblin tried to stop the DEA from turning MDMA into a Schedule I drug. As a result, he founded MAPS in 1986 in order to educate the public, fund psychedelic and marijuana research so that the FDA and regulatory bodies would officially approve psychedelics and plant medicines as viable medicines. Quite simply, without Doblin and MAPS, we would not be here though we still have a long way to go. Because of Doblin and MAPS, MDMA is in Phase III clinical trials for FDA-approval as a prescription medication for PTSD. In the psychedelic community, there are few people that have made as big of an impact as Rick Doblin in bringing these medicines aboveground and into the hands of those that need them most.
Jackee Stang sat down with Rick Doblin to talk about how MAPS was founded, psychedelic research, and what we need to do in order to ensure the success of the movement.
Meet Rick at Meet Delic
The psychedelic renegade will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at Meet Delic. For 35 years, Rick has been working to create measurable change within the field of psychedelic science. Don’t miss it!
RS + Rick Doblin Interview
Jackee Stang: Let’s go back to the beginning. MAPS has been around for 32 years, right? Tell us a little bit about how it all started.
Rick Doblin: MAPS was started in 86. However, in 1972, I decided to focus my life’s work on psychedelic and marijuana research because at 18, I was freaked out by three things that had happened in the world.
The first was the Holocaust. Being from a Jewish family, it made me want to study the mind out of a necessity for survival. Then, being a young boy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was thinking about how the whole world could blow up because of this insanity, this demonizing of others. Finally, there was the Vietnam War. I was a draft resister in Vietnam. At first, the Nazis are out to get me, then the Russians, and now it’s my own country? So, in 72, I decided to focus on bringing back psychedelic research because of the mystical experience, and sense of connection that I thought people needed to have. Then we’d realize that we’re all connected, and we would neither objectify nor demonize others nor trash the planet.
At that point, I had no knowledge of MDMA but had taken a bunch of the classic psychedelics. I also knew that I was having a difficult time dealing with my LSD experiences. I needed grounding, so I dropped out of New College in Florida and built houses for 10 years. In 1982, I finally felt emotionally and intellectually ready to start focusing on psychedelics. I went back to New College.
At that time, Stan Grof, the world’s expert in LSD, was offering a month-long workshop in Big Sur, and I decided to go. While I was there, a woman named Debbie Harlow told me about “Adam,” which was the code name for MDMA.
JS: I haven’t heard that one.
RD: Adam was the name for the therapeutic use of MDMA. From the middle of the seventies to around 1984, half a million doses were used under the name Adam. When Debbie brought it up in 1982, it had just started being sold as ecstasy in recreational settings. MDMA initially didn’t interest me all that much. I saw a bunch of people sitting around in a circle talking to each other under MDMA. How strong can it be if they’re sitting around talking to each other? I thought.
I was stupid enough to underestimate it but smart enough to buy some. So, I took some home and did it with my girlfriend. We were shocked at how profound it was. Once I understood what it did from the inside out, I realized that I was learning about MDMA before the backlash. Ronald Reagan’s started his escalation of the drug war in 1980. It was clear there was going to be a backlash against MDMA.
In the summer of 1984, DEA moved to criminalize MDMA. In order to do that, they have to put a notice in the Federal Register. If anybody wanted to object, they had 30 days to do so. I went to Washington and filed for a DEA administrative law judge hearing. We were granted that.
We were winning in the court, which caused the DEA to flip out, so they criminalized MDMA. The judge agreed with us that MDMA should be Schedule III. It should be available as a medicine. But people were using an illegal drug and having a great time doing it in public. That was a thumb in the eye of the drug warriors. The problem was that all these people were using ecstasy without problems.
JS: They had no control over it.
RD: The only way to bring it back was through the FDA, through science. I created MAPS in 86 as a nonprofit pharmaceutical company focused on psychedelics and marijuana. The other thing that I didn’t realize at the time was that no drug had ever been made into medicine by a nonprofit. 13 years later, the Rockefeller’s, Buffets, Pritzkers, and other open-minded billionaire families got the abortion pill RU-46 approved as a medicine. That validated the whole concept of nonprofit drug development.
What we’re able to say now is that we’ve not got a penny from the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the National Institute on Mental Health, or any major healthcare foundation. The therapeutic use of MDMA is going to be a gift to the world from the psychedelic and cryptocurrency community.
JS: The money you’re raising now, for the most part, is going towards your stage three MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study, correct?
RD: We think it will cost 26.7 million. That’s an awful lot of money, and it’s all donated. It’s helping us make MDMA a medicine through the FDA and create a system to generate more income. We’re trying to model a new approach to mental health, which is a combination of psychedelics and psychotherapy, and a new model for selling drugs that do have abuse potential. We’re going to sell them within a for-profit benefit corp., but the nonprofit owns the benefit corp. That means that the benefit corp. makes money, and we’ll use it to fund more research. It’s a virtuous circle.
JS: It’s pretty ironic how the legalization of cannabis is getting in its own way, in a sense. When I speak to people outside of the industry, they have assumptions that the legalization of cannabis means it’s easier to do business around it. It’s made it more difficult in a lot of ways. I’m hoping that the work that you and MAPS are doing with MDMA and other psychedelics will allow them to bypass all of the bureaucracy that cannabis has experienced.
RD: Even as more states start to legalize marijuana, patients still have to buy it themselves. It’s not covered by insurance. If we can take this through the FDA, the main benefit will be that insurance will cover it. Also, even though a majority of American voters are now in favor of the legalization of cannabis, there are still big sections of the population that aren’t. If we can get FDA approval for PTSD, that’s going to change even more people’s minds. It will also eliminate the last regulatory obstacle to doing research with psychedelics or marijuana.
JS: Let’s talk about other psychedelics for a minute. Besides LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT, what else is out there right now?
RD: We should do more research ibogaine, which comes from the iboga plant from Gabon in Western Africa. It has been used in religious services for centuries and has a remarkable property that helps reset the brain in terms of addiction dependence. It also brings repressed things to the surface, so it has been used in the treatment of opioid addiction in clinics all over the world. The United States is one of the few countries in the world where iboga is illegal. It’s legal in Canada, Mexico, England, and throughout Europe.
JS: Of course, it’s illegal. We need to keep selling those opiates.
RD: It was made illegal in the 60s. There is absolutely no recreational use of ibogaine. It’s a hell of an experience, one of the hardest psychedelic experiences I’ve ever had in my whole life.
RD: Ibogaine is guttural. It syncs deeply with your core and is psychedelic. It takes away people’s ability to walk. Usually, you got to take it and lie down for a long period of time.
JS: Ketamine’s like that too.
RD: A full dose ketamine is like that as well. Ketamine was the main battlefield anesthetic in Vietnam. People would carry ketamine preloaded syringes in case they got shot. All they’d have to do is inject it into a muscle, and it would take them out of their body. Ketamine is considered the most important discovery over the last 40 years in the treatment of depression. Ketamine is a rapidly acting antidepressant. What’s important about iboga is that we have a massive crisis. Last year, more people died of drug abuse than in the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam Wars combined.
RD: A lot of those were from opioids. Strategically, we’ve focused so much on MDMA, but we also did two studies with ibogaine clinics, one in New Zealand and one in Mexico. We measured people’s “addiction severity index,” or the severity of their addiction when they got to the clinics and every month for a year after their treatment. We published it in the American Journal of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. That was very encouraging.
If we had a rational National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), they would be funding Ibogaine research. Instead, five years ago they gave a 6.5 million dollar grant to a for-profit company to study a drug called MC-18, which is the non-psychedelic version of ibogaine. That company hasn’t done a single study with people that have an opioid addiction or any addiction. The owner told me that it was nondilutive financing. That means you get money, and you don’t have to give any shares. So NIDA gave a for-profit company 6.5 million to develop non-psychedelic ibogaine so that they could say they were doing something about it. They did nothing about it.
Besides Ibogaine, LSD research is also important for us because it is the quintessential symbol of the 60s. If we can overcome the prejudice against LSD, then that will symbolically contribute to the psychedelic renaissance. Lastly, from a cultural perspective, there is a history–the CIA mind-control research–to heal from. It was horrific what they did to people. It’s about going to where the worst stuff was done and try to do healing work there.
JS: Speaking of healing work, I’m interested in your take on the popularization of journey trips. For example, somebody who’s somewhat experienced in administering a certain kind of psychedelic has people over their Malibu abode, and strangers take psychedelics together. They’ll mix psychedelics. They’ll use something like MDMA, or maybe mix ayahuasca with psilocybin. I’ve also heard horror stories of gurus and teachers abusing their power. What are your thoughts on that helping change the stigma of psychedelics in society?
RD: There are abuses, and we need to minimize those. That’s why drug policy reform is so important. We’re trying to give psychedelics as medicines under the direct supervision of therapists. I also think people should be free to try these substances without having to go to a doctor or church. There are thousands of people who have been positively influenced by those “personal growth settings” even though they aren’t taken in the same religious context. These are legitimate options for people, to create their own rituals and groups that they feel safe in. There’s a lot of people that don’t have a diagnosable psychiatric illness, but still have loads issues to work through.
JS: I don’t know one person who couldn’t benefit from the use of psychedelics in dealing with their traumas. Then, they might actually see some of their physical ailments subside.
RD: You bring up something really important. The mind/body connection is truer than we realize. By working on your inner mental processes, that can have remarkable effects on your physical sufferings. In particular, MDMA seems to open up the mind/body connection. A lot of times, we repress the traumas, but they are stored in the body. One of the leading experts in PTSD, Bessel van der Kolk, wrote a book about PTSD. It’s called The Body Keeps the Score.
Things come up in the body first, like pain. If you sit with them, and then they turn into stories. When you resolve the stories, the pain goes away.
JS: We’re not taught about the mind/body connection. It’s uncanny how powerful a plant-based medicine, psychedelics notably, can be in helping us understand that connection. That’s why I think the work that you’re doing along with MAPS is so important. There aren’t that many organizations doing the work that you’re doing, right?
RD: We’re practical in the sense that we’re about making these drugs medicines. More and more people are seeing the value of that. Over time, I think we’ll see remarkable growth in psychedelic societies in different cities and towns all across the world.
JS: What do you mean by that?
RD: People who are willing to come out of the shadows and publicly identify as being interested in this area. If we look at the social change movements over the past 50 years, two of the most successful are gay rights and gay marriage. Coming out is what did it. We need a similar coming out for psychedelics and marijuana.
JS: I think the fear people have with psychedelics is coming out and going to jail for it–right?
RD: There is a lot of worries and anxieties, but that’s the path that we need to follow in order to fully change cultural attitudes. I’m really excited to do this podcast with you because we need public education. If we can educate the public, the political gains we’ve made will be supported. We’re anticipating for the FDA to approve MDMA as prescription medicine in 2021. We’ve got a lot of public education to do between now and then to prepare people for it.
JS: I’m particularly interested in the marketing of psychedelic societies and psychedelic use recreationally, medicinally, or something in the middle. There’s still a pocket where the great marketing minds of the world could come together and create branding around it. There’s already some that exist such as Alex Grey and Burning Man. I’m interested in the potential for mainstream marketing so that people would feel less afraid of the idea.
RD: That’s coming about. One of our funders was very concerned about where the backlash might come from. This funder decided that $1 million of his donations would be spent on the public opinion, polling, and public education. They did a lot of work for the Obama White House. We’ve had focus groups where people talked about psychedelics. There is that effort to understand, in a sophisticated way, what the public attitudes are; what words frighten or reassure them. Also, people that do pharmaceutical company marketing have volunteered their time to help MAPS come up with a brand name for MDMA. We are working on that.
JS: Can you share that?
RD: We don’t have it yet. I’ll tell you one that we’re not going to use but was pretty good: inner sense.
JS: Inner sense? That’s great.
RD: There are efforts to use sophisticated marketing. This is the first time in 50 years that we’ve had a chance to reintegrate psychedelics and marijuana legally into our culture. We have to do it in a way that doesn’t trigger another backlash that sets us back another 50 years. I don’t think the world can handle that. I believe that we’re approaching a super-serious environmental crisis, extremists fundamentalists are going nuts, and authoritarian states are rising all over the world. Marketing wisdom is especially crucial because we’re at a point where the culture needs us to succeed.