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The Enormous Promise of Psychedelics for Sustaining Health, Happiness and Sanity

Inside this year's conference for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Photo Credit: MAPS


A researcher in a suit and tie strolls past with a graduate student in rainbow leggings and a red bandana. They’re discussing smoking addiction cessation research using the drug psilocybin--the active hallucinogen isolated from the fungus Psilocybe mexicana, or "magic mushrooms.” It is the conclusion of the Psychedelic Science Conference dinner on April 20 and the pair filters with a crowd of hundreds through the exit doors of the grand ballroom in Oakland’s Marriott Hotel.

Lagging behind are Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and a gaggle of dinner attendees who hover around Doblin in hopes that they might share a few words with the man of the hour. MAPS is the non-profit research and educational organization behind the conference, and works to develop psychedelics and marijuana into legal prescription drugs.

It’s nearing midnight when the crowd finally dissipates and Doblin can be sequestered for an interview. As he speaks it becomes clear that this unprecedented conference, which brought more than 1,800 ticket-holding attendees, is the result of a labor of love into which Doblin has poured more than 20 years of his life.

“MAPS was founded based on adjusting to a major failure,” Doblin says. The year was 1982, and many psychiatrists, marriage counselors and therapists were using the not-yet-illegal substance to enhance the therapeutic process. In light of its increasing popularity, Doblin and fellow psychedelic therapists anticipated that the Drug Enforcement Administration would move to criminalize MDMA.

“I knew that there was going to be a crackdown because it was already being sold both as a therapeutic drug, and also some people were selling it as ecstasy,” he says. Ecstasy is the name given to the recreational street drug that comes in a pill-form cocktail that usually includes MDMA.

Doblin and fellow therapists formed a non-profit group called Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories (EMDL) to bolster awareness of the therapeutic use of MDMA.

The DEA had announced its intention to designate MDMA as a Schedule I substance in 1984. This categorization meant overt restriction and regulation of the drug's availability, and indicated that it had high abuse potential and held no accepted medical use. EMDL organized the scientific and medical communities to petition the DEA for a scheduling hearing in which the group argued that MDMA belonged in the Schedule III category, which would permit the continuation of MDMA’s use in psychotherapy. The decision to place MDMA in Schedule I was reached following appeals in 1988 after the DEA overruled a DEA administrative law judge's recommendation that it be placed in Schedule III.

“Once the DEA rejected that recommendation, we won in the appeals court, and then we lost, so MAPS was founded as a different kind of response, and a long-term one,” Doblin says.

Today, in addition to other psychedelics and cannabis, MAPS continues to study the healing potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy on psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.

The small Santa Cruz-based organization is undertaking a 10-year, $15 million plan to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine, and is currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. For-profit pharmaceutical companies are so far uninterested in developing MDMA into a medicine because the patent for the drug has expired, and because it is only administered a limited number of times, unlike most medications for mental illnesses, which are often taken daily for years.

Doblin says this year MAPS Psychedelic Science Conference ran more smoothly than ever.

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