Rick Doblin, Activist and MAPS Founder, Part 1

June 8, 2022

Nue Life

Nue Life

Part 1: The Evolution of Psychedelics in Science & Culture

Rick Doblin, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a touchstone for psychedelic and cannabis research since 1986.

MAPS’ efforts toward making MDMA-assisted psychotherapy an approved treatment for PTSD have been enormously influential.

For this two-part series, we sat down with Rick to learn from his 35+ years in the alternative therapy treatment and psychedelics space. Our conversation covers:

  • The evolving cultural discussion around psychedelics
  • The importance of MAPS’ policy advocacy alongside the science
  • Why more and more individuals are flocking to non-traditional mental health treatments

How has the culture around drug use evolved across 35+ years?

I can give you two great examples that capture just how much the culture has shifted.

Science Magazine, 2002–2021

Science is easily one of the most reputable scientific journals in the world. Twenty years ago, they published an article saying MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly) could hurt dopamine levels and cause Parkinson’s.

It was linked to an editorial by a Science editor, saying MDMA use was akin to playing Russian roulette with your brain and you could wreck it with just one dose.

This was massive war-on-drugs propaganda based on very faulty primate studies.

  • A bunch of primates was killed in the referenced studies. We’d also previously carried out primate studies where no animals were harmed.
  • They administered MDMA via subcutaneous injection, which is not the typical way humans are administered MDMA (orally and in pill or capsule form).
  • After autopsying one of the animals they killed, they discovered that they’d accidentally administered methamphetamine to the test subjects, not MDMA.

We challenged them on everything. So they attempted to replicate the results but failed. It was an immense scandal for Science and a peak of the MDMA neurotoxicity scares.

Just a few months ago, they published a list of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs in 2021 across the globe. One of them was MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD treatment.

Over a roughly 20-year period, Science went from demonizing MDMA to applauding MAPS’ Phase 3 study that was published in Nature Medicine with outstanding results.

The Drug Enforcement Agency, 1984–2022

Another little anecdote: In 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began moving to criminalize MDMA. The nonprofit I started before MAPS organized to challenge those efforts.

We managed to get a few local hearings on the books. The person the DEA sent to attend said hearings was a man named Frank Sapienza. He acknowledged we totally took them by surprise.

All they knew about Ecstasy was its reputation as a party drug — not its long-standing use as a therapeutic drug or that therapists would step up to defend it.

In the end, the DEA still criminalized both recreational and therapeutic usage in 1985. We won our hearing in 1986, but they continued ignoring the recommendations.

Fast forward to a few months ago, a New York Times reporter was writing a book about MDMA and wondering if she could interview any DEA folks from the ’80s who’d criminalized it.

I look up Frank to see if he’s still around — and not only is he alive, he’s consulting pharma companies on drug schedules. So I reached out on LinkedIn after not speaking for 35 years.

“Hey, would you help MAPS turn MDMA into a medicine and figure out scheduling?” To my surprise, he responded the next day to say he was open to working with us.

How does MAPS’ policy work enter the equation?

In the grand scheme of things, we are nearing the end of 50 years of structural backlash against the psychedelic ’60s, which wiped out nearly all psychedelics research for decades.

Today, hope outweighs fear around psychedelics, both in medicine and drug policy reform. Folks are disillusioned about the purpose and efficacy of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, etc.

So much research was suppressed so they could push those fearful narratives, but a lot of people now consider it all to have been a mistake.

I mean, cannabis has been legalized in Canada and various U.S. states. None of these systems are falling apart. In fact, they’re reaping the tax gains.

So, at MAPS, we believe this momentum has been building for half a century. Perhaps mainstream society is ready for a reintroduction to psychedelics.

With that, we hopefully can go all the way to turn it into a standardized medicine and eventually decriminalize and legalize usage.

Why are more people seeking out alternative treatments?

One pertinent logistical factor is that many standard drugs for treating depression, anxiety, etc. have exceeded their patent life and gone generic.

As such, the pharma industry has far less of a financial motivation to block anything we’re doing in the way of alternative treatment options.

Aside from this, the last two years of a global pandemic have made it apparent that there’s more mental suffering, illness, and crisis than ever before, all over the world. We see:

  • Pandemic- and death-induced mental and emotional suffering
  • Severe anxieties around global warming and the environmental crisis
  • An addiction crisis, with 100,000+ deaths due to opioid overdoses in 2021

As you factor in political crises in the U.S. plus international crises like the invasion of Ukraine, individuals and policymakers realize there is dire need for new approaches to mental health.

Otherwise, people in crisis simply shut down and cope by getting taken in by authoritarian leadership promising solutions or climate change deniers saying everything’s okay.

All in all, these factors have led to an openness to new solutions, like exploring psychedelic treatments. I also think it’s important to remember this solution didn’t begin in the ’60s.

Psychedelics and related alternative treatments have been around for thousands of years across the globe. They are part of a shared human history.

Instead of rejecting it the way we have for 50 years, we’re finally opening back up to it.

Read part two of our conversation here

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