WHEN PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS finally become legal in the United States and elsewhere around the world, the lion's share of the credit will go to Rick Doblin. Since founding the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986, Doblin has argued forcefully for the benefits of frequently demonized substances such as MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, and ibogaine in helping people cope with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other debilitating problems. For decades, Doblin and MAPS have been pushing not just for social and cultural acceptance but also for legal and medical legitimacy.
MAPS is currently sponsoring Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for PTSD.
Within the next few years, if all goes well, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to approve MDMA--a.k.a. Ecstasy, which the federal government banned in 1985 as a dangerous party drug--for use by prescription as a psychotherapeutic catalyst. Further down the line, psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, which the FDA has recognized as a "breakthrough therapy" for depression, could undergo a similar legal transformation.
The rehabilitation of these once-vilified substances is a remarkable development that signals growing recognition of their life-enhancing uses and perhaps growing tolerance of people who choose to explore that potential. During a late-February ride from Manhattan to the John F. Kennedy International Airport, Reason Editor at Large Nick Gillespie talked with Doblin about his role in this psychedelic renaissance and the experiences that drew him to the movement.
"I'm very much a child of the Cold War," Doblin says, recalling how he was taught to "duck and cover" at school during the Cuban missile crisis. His fear of nuclear Armageddon, ecological catastrophe, and genocide was the initial impetus for his vision of "mass mental health" facilitated by psychedelics, which he believes can have a unifying effect when used properly.
Although MAPS is doing everything by the book in seeking approval of MDMA as a prescription drug, Doblin's vision goes beyond such doctor-approved uses. He aspires to a world in which people can use psychedelics responsibly without permission from physicians or priests. "Psychedelics are tools," Doblin says. "They're not good or bad in and of themselves. It's how they are used. It's the relationship you have with them."
Reason: Many people are attracted to psychedelics because they're fun. The approach that MAPS has taken, by contrast, suggests that psychedelics should not be taken lightly. Talk about the contrast between using psychedelics recreationally and using them by prescription as an FDA-approved medicine.
Doblin: I think that people should have the fundamental human right to change their consciousness. When we talk about the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, underlying all of that is freedom of thought. Psychedelics are a good example of the freedom of thought that we should have.
At the same time, when people take these things for recreational purposes and they're only looking for positive experiences, that can be dangerous if difficult material comes up. If you suppress it, you could end up worse off.
So there's an aspect of it that's work. One of our big statements is that difficult is not the same as bad. A lot of times, when people approach this as a recreational experience and stuff that's difficult comes up, they think, "Oh, it's a bad trip." But it is also an opportunity. So medicalization is a strategy for achieving broader access and mass mental health.
When you talk about medicalization, are you saying we need to maintain the current power structure, dominated by big pharmaceutical companies and doctors who serve as the high priests, telling us what to do and how to think? Or do you have in mind a broader concept of mental health or well-being?
Our core approach is that we are not the guides. We don't know where people need to go. People are their own guides. One of the concerns I have about traditional medicine, psychiatry, and psychotherapy, is that even in certain shamanistic settings, the healers are the ones who do it to the person. The power is in their hands. They're like surgeons; you don't do your own surgery. But when we're talking about mental surgery, we're trying to empower people to heal themselves.
To give you a sense of how much progress we're making, one of our donors, Bo Shao of the Evolve Foundation, said that when we had the psychedelic revolution in America, his parents in China were...