Two weeks ago, while hearing arguments in the landmark Supreme Court case Ashcroft vs. Raich – which by this spring will decide whether federal agents can arrest medical-marijuana users even in states where such use is legal – Justice Stephen Breyer questioned the logic of having a patchwork of disparate state laws. Instead, he suggested, medical-marijuana proponents would be better off petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reclassify pot as a prescribable drug.
"That seems to be the obvious way to get this done," he said. "Medicine by regulation is better than medicine by referendum."
Would that it were so easy. As it happens, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) late last week effectively blocked the only proposed project that might lead to FDA-approved marijuana, rejecting a petition by Dr. Lyle Craker, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusets at Amherst, to obtain DEA approval to grow pot for FDA-approved research.
"In practical terms, this really does mean that the door is shut to pursuing FDA approval of marijuana as a medicine in any reasonable time frame," says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Currently, all marijuana used for research in the United States comes from a Mississippi farm overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But researchers have complained that the stuff is of poor quality and that the feds are stingy distributing it.
More important, says Mirken, "The NIDA crop is grown for the specific purpose of research. There's absolutely no indication that it could ever be available for prescription sale, should the FDA ever authorize that. The reason that's critical is that the FDA, if they're going to approve something as a prescription drug, needs to know how that drug is going to be manufactured, and needs to review clinical trials on the same product that's going to be sold."
Craker's facility would have offered an alternative source for FDA study and, perhaps, a strain that could someday be prescribed.
The DEA's decision comes grudgingly. Craker first submitted his application in June 2001, and this past July, after more than three years without an answer, Craker and the Belmont-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which would have financed the UMass facility, filed suit, charging the agency with stalling unreasonably.
In a Dec. 10 letter to Craker, the DEA's William J. Walker reasoned that granting approval "would not be consistent with the public interest," since "current marijuana research has not progressed to Phase II of the clinical trials [exploratory research into safety and efficacy, with human subjects] because current research must use smoked marijuana ...."
DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite declined to comment, pointing instead to the text of Walker's letter. But MAPS president Rick Doblin charges the DEA with essentially prejudging a study that has yet to take place.
"They're making this decision, before the research is done, that the research would show that it can't work." Moreover, he says, their claim is simply not true. State-funded Phase II research is indeed taking place right now in California. Also, the feds have stalled approval of MAPS-funded work with vaporizers, an alternative to smoking, for almost a year and a half.
"We knew that they would rather delay, as long as they could, than to explicitly telegraph to everybody that they're not going to permit the research to be done," Doblin says. But now that they have, "we get to argue them on the merits."
The next 30 days will find Craker, possibly in conjunction with MAPS, filing for an administrative-law hearing to appeal the decision once and for all – a process that, all told, could take more than a year.
Mirken, for one, isn't holding his breath. "As long as the DEA appears to have a deep prejudice against the medical use of marijuana, which their letter certainly suggests, the game will always be rigged. They will make you jump through these bureaucratic hoops, but they know what the outcome will be, because they've decided in advance what it's going to be."
Moreover, he says, what this finding means in the near term is that "the only way that [medical marijuana] patients are going to be protected is through changes in state law and changes in federal law. The Supreme Court might help us out some in Ashcroft v. Raich, but nobody's betting the farm on that. And even that would only provide protection to patients in states that have medical-marijuana laws."
Still, there may be a silver lining. "Now, what's going to happen is that this is gonna fuel more effort to pass state laws, even if the Supreme Court says the feds have primacy," says Doblin. Mirken, too, thinks state lawmakers will be compelled to pay more attention to medical marijuana once they "realize what [the DEA] has done. I think a lot of people have taken the view that Justice Breyer expressed in the Supreme Court two weeks ago when he said, 'Why don't you guys just go to the FDA?' With that door shut, legislators should see – and our job is to make sure they understand – that the actions they can take are the only protections available to patients for the foreseeable future."
"We're disappointed, but we're not surprised," says Mirken. "This simply illustrates, very clearly, how deep the official prejudice is against considering that marijuana might be a medicine. In the DEA's letter, they essentially pass judgment on research that hasn't occurred yet, saying that the deleterious effect would be too great. Isn't that for the FDA to judge? But I think in some ways it's probably helpful to the cause to have that naked prejudice out there in black and white. It's clear that there's this whole anti-drug bureaucracy that just has no interest in science."
Al Aronowitz is sitting in a booth at the International House of Pancakes in Elizabeth, N.J., reflecting on lessons learned. He's thinking back on a time in his own life when he smoked an awful lot. Specifically, he's remembering a night, Aug. 28, 1964, in Manhattan's Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue. The night when he introduced his pal Bob Dylan to the Beatles – and introduced the lads from Liverpool to a poorly rolled joint of his own "evil weed." That night, he'd later write, "I was well aware ... that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music."
Once upon a time, Aronowitz knew everybody. As a cub reporter, he interviewed Marilyn Monroe. He could phone Frank Sinatra at the Sands. He traveled to San Francisco to study the burgeoning Beat movement with a sociologist's rigor and a hedonist's abandon. The unexpurgated, 10,770-word manuscript of his 1964 article on Beatlemania for the Saturday Evening Post is a masterpiece of long-form reportage, a kaleidoscopic up-close view of a seismic cultural shift. (It sold more copies than any issue since Ben Franklin founded the magazine, in 1728.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his "Pop Scene" column in the New York Post had him rubbing shoulders with the Stones and the Band, and had people whispering his name when he walked into clubs.
But Aronowitz did more than just profile his subjects. He became their friends, and they his. Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in Aronowitz's kitchen. Aronowitz drove Dylan to buy his infamous Triumph motorcycle (the one he crashed in 1966 under still-mysterious circumstances). John Lennon photographed him with and without pants. Miles Davis played him his records over the phone. Johnny Cash once threatened to punch him out. Aronowitz was writing about rock and roll before that vocation became a clichÃ©, but he was less reporter than participant. Art Garfunkel called him "Uncle Al, the man who introduces everybody to everybody."
But things fell apart. In 1972, Aronowitz's wife died of cancer. He lost his column thanks to conflict-of-interest charges made by his editor. (Aronowitz suspects there was a personal vendetta at work.) He had managed middling, money-hemorrhaging rock acts in the 1960s, and it cost him his house. The mid-1970s country music concerts he promoted in New York City were bombs. He was freebasing cocaine, dealing drugs, and descending into something approaching madness. "It all made me crazy," he says. "I was crazy. Really crazy." Suddenly, the man who had built his life around others was all but alone. If he wasn't officially blacklisted from journalism, the effect was the same. No one wanted to know the man who knew everyone. Not New York editors, not Bob Dylan. And to hear him tell it, Aronowitz didn't want to know himself.
But then, in 1995, his daughter introduced him to a still-new phenomenon: the Internet. If magazine and newspaper editors wouldn't take his calls, then fuck them; here was a new way to publish. In his dark and druggy days, he'd put out a scattershot Xeroxed 'zine called the Blacklisted Masterpieces of Al Aronowitz. ("YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FAITH that this book will be recognized as an important literary work and a valuable collector's item to want to pay $100 for it!" trumpeted the 'zine's ad in the Village Voice. "MORE THAN SIX COPIES NOW IN PRINT!") But this was something else: a vast, uncharted expanse that a "compulsive writer" could fill with millions of words, a place where Aronowitz could tell his stories. He cleaned up his act, and got down to it. "The Blacklisted Journalist" was born.
Ten years later, sitting in his dark and detritus-filled apartment, Aronowitz, now 76, still writes almost every day, torrents of words preserving his rock-and-roll memories in cyber-amber. Some would argue the last thing the 1960s need is more documentation, more solipsistic, I-was-there-man reminiscences. But his Web site, and his self-published Bob Dylan and the Beatles: Volume One of the Blacklisted Journalist (AuthorHouse), a chunky paperback tome that collects the best of Aronowitz's writing from then and now, offer riotous and rambling time capsules, comprising detailed vignettes and told in a voice that's direct, disarming, and self-deprecating. It may or may not be true, as the book's promo materials proclaim, that FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO Bob Dylan and the Beatles, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!, but Aronowitz's anecdotes offer an inimitable inside look at the rock era's biggest players. (Next up, look for his "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine," a new book he says is timed to coincide with – and challenge the authenticity of – Kevin Spacey's forthcoming Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea.")
Aronowitz is no longer the bombastic bear of a man who can be seen in photographs hobnobbing with Dylan and Lennon. After years of drug abuse and an open-heart surgery, he seems to have shrunk. Enormous glasses enlarge his sleepy eyes. His posture and bearing are stooped and subdued. Bouts of phlebitis have him walking with a cane, and his voice is sometimes barely audible. But make no mistake: Al Aronowitz still has a voice. He's got stories to tell, and he's sure as hell not going to wait until he's dead to have them told. "My writing has gotta speak for itself," he says. "Too many people have judged me, rather than judge my work. I'm not Picasso. Maybe I'm a prick. I dunno. But this is my love of loves, this is my work. These are stories of the times. I think they're interesting. That's the job of a journalist. To make sense of the story. And express yourself."
I meet Aronowitz and his girlfriend, Ida, at his hulking brick apartment building on the north side of hardscrabble Elizabeth, N.J.. As we make our way slowly downstairs toward the exit, Ida pauses, remembering that she's left her purse in the apartment. A gentleman, Aronowitz trudges back toward the ancient elevator to retrieve it. When he returns, he deadpans like a Borscht Belt comedian: "I couldn't find your bag, so I grabbed one off the first lady I saw."
At IHOP, Aronowitz sits across from me in a red Rutgers cap and bright blue cowboy shirt and starts at the beginning. Born in 1928, he grew up the son of an Orthodox butcher in Bordentown and Roosevelt Park, N.J. "A lot of anti-Semitism," he says. "I remember when the marshal came to repossess my father's [delivery] truck. My mother was beating on his chest, screaming, 'Don't take the truck away!' I was two or three years old." He went to Rutgers and majored in journalism. "A total waste of time," he says. "I learned more working on the college paper than I ever did in journalism class." When he got out, in 1950, the Phi Beta Kappa grad landed a job as editor of the Daily Times in Lakewood, N.J. Then he moved on to the Newark Evening News, and finally across the river to the New York Post.
At first, he manned the Post's night desk, "rewriting the New York Times for the morning edition." But before long, he was doing feature pieces. One of his first big assignments had him on a plane to San Francisco to profile the Beat poets. Aronowitz says Post editor Paul Sann wanted a hatchet job on this bunch of "dumb-fuck pansies posing as poets." Instead, as he would time and again with other subjects, Aronowitz fell hard for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, awed by their libertine lifestyle, their burning fervor. His 12-part series that ran in 1960 fell just this side of hagiography.
Aronowitz says it was Kerouac's "On the Road" in particular that "changed my life in many ways. It was about real people. I wanna know these people. I had visions of being a journalist so I could get to know them! Which is what I did. I befriended them, and got to know them very well." It was also during his time with the Beats that Aronowitz first smoked dope. Not long after, the Saturday Evening Post enlisted him to write a long profile of a young folkie phenomenon who was drawing fawning crowds to Greenwich Village clubs. The moment he met Bob Dylan, Aronowitz was starstruck. "I felt honored," he writes in "Bob Dylan and the Beatles," "to hang out with this mumbling 22-year-old kid, skinny as a scarecrow and wound up as a telephone cord."
"I was supposed to write a piece on Paul Newman, but I lost interest," he recalls. "I never finished the piece because Dylan stole my interest. It got to the point where I was so hung up on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, side A, that I never got around to turning the record over and listening to side B. For months." The two struck up a relationship, and before long were friends. Aronowitz says Dylan penned "Mr. Tambourine Man" after listening to Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" over and over in his kitchen. ("All night long! I wanted to go to sleep!") He hung out in Woodstock with Dylan and his wife, Sara. Aronowitz even claims credit for persuading the folk hero to go electric. "Dylan was a folkie purist," he says with a grumble. "I hate purists. Purists are like fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is what's wrong with the world. People who refuse to budge an inch, no matter what! These red states. These Muslim maniacs. These Jewish fanatics. I said, 'Bob! Today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk classics!' That was my argument. And I was right. I know I was right."
If meeting Bob Dylan changed his life, Aronowitz says his role in helping Dylan meet the Beatles changed the course of American popular culture. Aronowitz was there at JFK in February 1964, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, when the Fab Four disembarked from their Pan-Am DC-8 to screaming, teary throngs. He knew right away what a cataclysmic moment it was. "As soon as I met the Beatles, man. The whole press corps were there, ready to shoot them down, with their poison pens pointed. But they got off the plane, and they immediately charmed the shit out of everybody."
The Beatles, of course, were swarmed by press, but Aronowitz had special access, afforded him by the fast friendship he struck up with their road manager, Neil Aspinall. (In one priceless detail in a Saturday Evening Post article full of them, Aronowitz spots Aspinall "expertly and flawlessly" forging the Beatles' signatures on programs meant for the queen.) So it was that this pop journalist was able to spirit Dylan into the Hotel Delmonico for a high summit meeting of the U.S.'s and the U.K.'s leading lights.
At first, Aronowitz recalls, the encounter was "very awkward, very demure. Nobody wanted to step on anybody's ego." So they tried to loosen up. Dylan wanted cheap red wine. The Beatles swilled their whisky and Coke, their pep pills in plastic bags on the nightstand. "They offered us pills, and we offered the Beatnik line," Aronowitz says. " 'Ah, pills are chemicals, man! You don't wanna put those in your body! Marijuana comes from the ground! It's natural!' " Still, the Liverpudlians were skeptical. Ringo was the guinea pig. Remembers Aronowitz in the book: " 'You try it,' John said."
"Soon, Ringo got the giggles," he writes. "In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing. ... We kept laughing at each other's laughter until every one of us had been laughed at."
In his cluttered apartment, Aronowitz reclines on an unmade bed with mismatched sheets, his wizened, stubbly face bathed eerily in the half-light of a single bulb. "It was all a big laugh," he says wearily, with a weak smile. "John's code word for getting stoned was 'Let's have a larf.' Then, later he called it 'Let's Al Aronowitz!' " He chuckles. "But reporters like to say it was Dylan who turned 'em on. I was the invisible man."
Still, Aronowitz was always keenly aware of the momentousness of the larf-fest he engineered. "I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I'd arranged," he writes. "I hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I'll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn't the whole world benefited? Look at all the beautiful music we have as a result! The Beatles' magic was in their sound. Bob's magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles' words got grittier, and Bob invented folk-rock."
But regrets? He's had a few. "If I had one stinking iota of junk-bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged," he writes. "But I guess I wasn't enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with which I had to deal. So now, I'm just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories for free on the Internet because I don't want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo."
Aronowitz admits that he idolized these megawatt luminaries, Dylan especially. Perhaps too much. "The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate," he calls him in his book. "I adored Dylan too much to see him through critical eyes. I was too impressed with his hipness and too humbled by his artistry." Dylan could have "charmed the bracelets from the tails of rattlesnakes. I found him to be one of the most beguiling men I've ever known. ... To be with Bob was always magical. Every word out of his mouth impressed me as a gem. ... The universe I'd see in Bob's eyes never stopped jolting me."
He's also honest enough to recognize that these starry-eyed musings might as well be the study-hall notebook scribblings of a seventh-grader. But he doesn't disown them. Dylan might sometimes have been a cold and abusive person, but Aronowitz was willing to subject himself to his barbs just to be in his presence. "I liked being friends, I liked hanging out with Dylan," he tells me. "I mean, my God! I was just crazy enough to think he was the new messiah! We all had that feeling about Dylan. We really revered him."
But as his own life began to unravel, more and more friends started to fall by the wayside. He doesn't discount his own failings as a contributing factor. "Bob is another one of those old friends who have written me off," he writes. "I don't blame him. I got to be pretty much of a wreck. I can also look back at myself being something of an asshole. But then, assholism seems to be a chronic condition with me. As hard as I try to cure myself, there's hardly a day goes by without me remembering an occasion as recently as the day before when I was an asshole again."
Aronowitz was also starting to question the life he was leading, this go-go go-between, surrounded by supernova rock stars more than a decade his junior. "My wife was dying, and I didn't want to stay up till four o'clock in the morning getting high and then come in the morning to write a column, then come home and do the shopping, and everything I had to do to raise a family," he says. "My wife was dying, and I had three young kids, and I'm hanging out with the Stones."
He wouldn't be for much longer. It wasn't until just before he was unceremoniously stripped of his column and his life started to disintegrate that Aronowitz even began to intuit that his own personality, brio and writing chops were making him a semi-celebrity in New York City. "I'm unaware of all this," he says, still incredulous. "I'm unaware how big a star this column is making me. They call me a living legend! I walk into a club" – he whispers behind a cupped hand – "Al Aronowitz is here!" Oblivious to his own renown, he was happy instead to surround himself with the glow of stars. "I worshipped these people. I recognized them as immortals, as giants, as icons." He was building his personality around others, measuring his self-worth by the caliber of those who kept him around. But "I liked that position," he says. "It gave me some self-esteem. Which I was terribly lacking. It never occurred to me that I was worth anything."
Back at Aronowitz's apartment, you'd hardly guess that the guy who lives here used to hobnob with rock-and-roll royalty. The place is a mess. "I never won any housekeeping awards. I never tried for any either," he says unapologetically. The shades are drawn; the only light comes from a single wan bulb and a blue-glowing old computer. He putters around this cramped and cluttered labyrinth of ancient filing cabinets, stacked to the ceiling with books and files and papers from decades of journalism. Tall shelves are crammed with vinyl albums, old reel-to-reels of interviews, and studio masters of the bands he used to manage. He's covered them over with wide sheets of tattered newspaper, because "people kept stealing my records." Tabletops are covered with stuff: plastic bags, cassette tapes, orange prescription bottles, browning bananas, a canister of Ovaltine, a box of matzo. A transistor radio sits on the bathroom floor. Above one of the shelves hangs a large color photograph of Aronowitz, a cigarette between his fingers, his face fringed with Brillo-pad hair and stretched with a wide-mouthed grin. "Yeah," he says flatly, looking away. "That's when I was smoking cocaine."
On his desk, half-obscured, is a CD of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," the singer's T-shirt emblazoned with the same motorcycle Aronowitz helped him buy. Propped against a shelf on the floor next to his chair is a vinyl record of the same album. A screensaver rolls slowly across his monitor, orange letters on black background: FUCK ... SHIT ... PISS ... CORRUPTION.
Discovering the Internet was "the thing that made me sane," Aronowitz says. Becoming a cyber journalist offered the chance for a fresh start, "allowed me to make an end run around the blacklist," to free himself of editors' restrictions and revisions. Aronowitz hates editors. Not only has nearly every one he's ever known been a know-it-all, corrupt, or both, but he suspects one once may have cuckolded him. And they make him curb his word count.
He thinks back on a conversation he had with Frank Sinatra in the mid 1960s, when Aronowitz was still with the Post. "I called him. He was at the Sands, getting drunk. He picked up the phone. 'Al, I got $7 million. I don't need the New York Post. What do I wanna talk to you for? I don't need you. I don't trust the editors.' Now I understand. I don't trust editors either. They make me look like an asshole. My whole career! All editors are arrogant. Every editor thinks they can do it better than you wrote it. They're all full of shit. Dummies. If they could write, they'd be writers."
"Bob Dylan and the Beatles" and "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine" are just volumes one and three in Aronowitz's self-published "Blacklisted Journalist" paperbacks. (Volume two was penned by poet/firebrand Amiri Baraka, who's been friends with Aronowitz since the Beat days, back when he was still LeRoi Jones.) Two more books are forthcoming. One, "Mick and Miles," remembers when Aronowitz introduced Jagger to Davis. The other, "For Adults Only," features risquÃ© pieces from six writers who pen guest columns on the "Blacklisted Journalist" Web site. Distribution for that one might pose a problem, however. "Some hick salesman in Indiana said it was pornographic. His mind is in the 18th century."
On Aronowitz's computer screen are two documents, works in progress, with just a few sentences and fragments at the top of each blank page. He's got plenty more stories to tell. Sure, he's no longer surrounded by A-list stars. He sits at home and writes, watches "The Price Is Right" and the Red Sox. ("I'm anti-Yankee. I don't reward arrogance, and that's all they have going for them.") He goes to the movies. He really liked "Ray." "I didn't see any difference between the Ray [Charles] I knew and the Ray on the screen."
One wonders if he misses the people he was once so close to. He used to be a confidant to Bob Dylan; has he ever thought of making an effort to get back in touch with the guy? Aronowitz just stares at me, bemused. "Why do I wanna?" He laughs mirthlessly. "What am I gonna ask him? He kicked me out!" He stares at me again, long and disconcertingly. "If he wants to be friends again, it's fine with me."
If not, Aronowitz is happy to keep telling tales. "Some writers say, 'I gotta challenge the reader!' I don't believe in challenging the reader," he says. "I believe in putting my arm around 'em and telling 'em a story."
Sitting in the gloaming of his tiny apartment, Aronowitz seems glad to have someone to tell his own story to. As I leave, he grabs a copy of his Bobby Darin book from a box full of them, and inscribes it with a shaky, old-man scrawl. "For a good LISTENER! – Al Aronowitz." With his Web site and his books, the rock-writing pioneer is doing for himself what he once relied on others, the stars he surrounded himself with, to do for him: ensuring he'll be remembered. "I was collecting giants," he says. "I was collecting immortal souls." Then, after a long pause, "I thought some of their immortality might fall on me."
"Growing up Jewish in the shadow of the Holocaust, and learning that insanity had affected a whole culture ... I grew up very interested in psychology and the unconscious." This is how Richard Doblin describes the genesis of his life's work.
Doblin came of age at the height of the social tumult of the '60s. But initially he was unlike many others of his generation: "I was not interested in drugs," he says. "I thought that drugs were something that made you crazy." Then, in college, he tried LSD. "It opened up this whole deep emotional world and it struck me as something that worked as a tool for rites of passage for growing up, whereas other traditional things, like my bar mitzvah and my high-school graduation, hadn't really moved me at those deep levels."
It wasn't long before Doblin decided, in 1972, to combine these two inclinations and become a "psychedelic therapist." Wary of Timothy Leary, the most recognizable face of the American psychedelic movement at the time ("I couldn't quite trust what he was saying, because he talked about the positive sides but he really didn't talk about the struggle"), Doblin instead gravitated toward the work of renowned LSD researcher and therapist Stanislav Grof.
"What really inspired me was Stan Grof's merger of science, spirituality, and therapy," Doblin says. "It wasn't just philosophy, it was [using psychedelics] to help people feel better and deal with difficult emotions.'"
In college, Doblin studied with Grof at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. It was there, in 1982, that he first came in contact with 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA, or "ecstasy." MDMA was legal then, and used primarily in therapeutic circles. But its gradual entry into the realm of recreation attracted the attention of the DEA. By 1985 it had been classified as Schedule I ("no currently acceptable medical use") -- legally banned.
In 1986, Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). According to its Web site, the organization has "positioned itself at the center of the conflict between scientific exploration and the politically-driven strategy of the War on Drugs," and works toward "the cultural reintegration of psychedelics and marijuana through good science." With nearly 2000 members worldwide, MAPS funds studies of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin (found in "magic mushrooms"), and ketamine here and abroad.
Doblin recently earned his PhD at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government with a dissertation on the medical use of psychedelics and marijuana. We talked with him last week to get his thoughts on psychedelics, therapy, and the war on drugs.
Q: Tell me about MAPS.
A: MAPS has two roles. One is a nonprofit psychedelic and medical-marijuana pharmaceutical company. Our goal is to create a legal context for the beneficial use of psychedelics and marijuana, initially in a medical context through the FDA, but then for personal growth, for creativity, for marital therapy. We want to start with people who have diagnosable illnesses and then create a legal context, showing that that is a situation where you can get more benefits than harms. Then we'll continue to negotiate with the culture about expanding this zone of acceptable uses. In that context, we are a scientific organization that supports research with the FDA and government agencies in other countries. We are also a community of about 1900 people who share this interest. A substantial number of them are doctors and therapists, a lot of them are professionals in other areas. A lot of them are young people.
Q: What sorts of dialogue have you had with the DEA and other federal agencies?
A: The US Sentencing Commission wants to increase penalties on MDMA, so last week I was in Washington presenting testimony with some of the doctors that we work with. I don't know if we'd call it a dialogue. It was more of a monologue where we talked, they didn't listen, and they ignored us and they made penalties for MDMA, dose for dose, more severe than for heroin.
The dialogues with political authorities -- this most recent one was about criminalizing non-medical use. But I've also brought up the idea of medical use. So most of our dialogue is with the FDA or with NIDA [the National Institute on Drug Abuse], which funds massive amounts of research trying to show what's wrong with MDMA so that they can help justify the criminal penalties. And we feel that NIDA distorts the implications of their research, is excessively fear-mongering, takes the worst case and tries to pretend that that's the average case. But we have, tragically, no dialogue with the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded most of the psychedelic research in the '50s and '60s.
Q: Do you have any MDMA studies planned?
A: We are primarily gearing up, for this last year and a half, to have a major discussion with the FDA about starting research in the United States with the therapeutic use of MDMA. So far, since MDMA was made illegal in 1985, there hasn't been one single study permitted where MDMA was given to patients. We hope to submit a protocol to the FDA in April for MDMA and the treatment of post-traumatic stress. And we expect that it will be approved after several months of negotiations.
Q: When did you first come into contact with ecstasy?
A: From the time that I decided to be a psychedelic researcher in 1972, I really couldn't deal with a lot of my psychedelic experiences.... I didn't have a supportive enough environment, and I wasn't strong enough emotionally. And so I dropped out of college -- I went only for one semester -- and I spent 10 years working on myself and getting into the physical world.
In 1982, at age 28, I went back to college as a freshman, to an experimental liberal-arts college in Florida that permitted off-campus study. My very first semester I spent a month at Esalen in Big Sur, studying with Stan Grof. And that's when I learned about MDMA, in 1982. And it was still legal.
Q: Was it being used only in therapeutic circles at this point, or was it being used recreationally too?
A: Initially it was only in therapeutic circles, and around 1980 or so, some of the people who got it in therapeutic circles saw that this was a tremendous money-making opportunity. And they approached it in a different light. The drug's code name in the therapeutic world was "Adam" and then, when it changed to ecstasy, that's when it was used in more public settings or for recreational uses, and that's what attracted the attention of the DEA. So in 1984, the DEA moved to try to criminalize MDMA.
By that time I was in school trying to study psychedelics, and I felt this was an incredible opportunity to [bring] some group [up] from the underground and to speak in a public setting without the fear of going to jail, because MDMA was still legal. So I started a nonprofit called the Earth Metabolic Design Lab, and we sued the DEA to have these administrative-law-judge hearings. And when I walked into the -- oh wait [after much noisy searching, produces photo of himself standing in front of DEA offices] -- this is me in 1984, right before I walked in to file the request for the administrative-law-judge hearing. And what became clear was that even though we had some strong support, and even though the judge said it should be Schedule III, meaning that doctors should still be able to use it, the head of the DEA said, "Forget it, we're putting it on Schedule I. Nobody can have it."
So then I recognized that the main way we were going to make progress was through the FDA. As a medicine. Everything but that channel was completely blocked. So that's when I started MAPS, in 1986, in my mind as a nonprofit psychedelic-pharmaceutical company to try to develop MDMA through the FDA. And we funded studies of the dog and the rat, 28-day toxicity studies that are FDA-required before you do human studies.
Q: How many times have you done ecstasy? How recently?
A: I hardly ever do it now. I very rarely have time for it. But it's the kind of thing that, I think, will be something that I will use, rarely, for the rest of my life. Over the last 19 years, I've done it a total of about 90 times.
Q: What has it done for you?
A: It's made me more accepting of myself, more able to express my emotions, a better listener to other people. It's helped me deal with loneliness.... I did a series of explorations with people in the religious traditions: monks and rabbis who were willing to use MDMA in small doses to help them meditate. And one time I spent one night by myself using MDMA and thinking what must it be like to live as a monk - -- without a woman, without human nurturance, but to try to get nurturance from the universe. I felt like for a few hours that I was able to understand that. And that helped me tremendously to be more comfortable to be alone.
Q: Have you ever had any major problems with the government or with law enforcement?
A: I'd say that the major problem in my life where the government directly intruded, was with my grandmother, back in 1986. She had unipolar depression: she didn't have mania, she just was down. She'd had electroshock therapy earlier in her life and it had helped her. But her depression returned. She had electroshock therapy again, but this time it didn't help. Her psychiatrists gave her every drug they could think of -- didn't help her.
So I went to my family. My father's a doctor, my brother's a doctor, and I said, "Let's give her MDMA. It might help her." Because underneath this depression was this incredible anxiety and fear. She didn't want to see her friends, she didn't want to leave the room, she didn't want to go outside, and so I thought maybe it would help her.... Maybe somehow it would reset her clock the same way that electroshock therapy does. And my parents said that I could give it to her, but only if I got government permission. And we were never able to do it. And she ended up not getting better, and stopping eating, and dying from the depression. And the government's rationale was that they had to save her from neurotoxicity.
Q: How does a therapeutic session work? How is it set up?
A: You don't take somebody who doesn't want to work on their issues, because that's a recipe for panic and for disaster. You need a willing subject who says, "I realize I have a problem and I want to work on it." And that may take weeks or months of therapy. You develop a therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patient. You teach them about what's likely to happen.
The session starts in the morning usually. People are rested, and they lie down. It's an internalized session, often with eye shades so people are focusing on their internal material. You have music that supports them, but the music generally doesn't have words so that you don't key people into other associations or other imagery. And then you just really support them as material emerges. And if it's ketamine, it's a two-hour experience. If it's MDMA, it's a four-hour experience. If it's LSD, it's an eight-hour experience.
Q: So do you ask them questions? Let them talk it out themselves?
A: Well, a lot of it is nonverbal. You check in every now and then and you also guide them back to things that they're still dodging, or you ask them to share with you what's happening, but there's a certain respect for the wisdom of the unconscious. That things will come up that they are working on or need to work on.... It's not like you have an agenda, y'know: at two hours you have to cry and say you're horrible and you've hurt everybody. It's not like a specific sequence. But the idea is that they've then had this very powerful experience that is the emergence of things that they've suppressed.
Then you let them rest, you probably spend the night in the same place, they don't have to move, and you turn it into a several-day experience. The next day you come to them and they often will do drawings to try to express in art what happened. There's this process of integration the next day where you go over it, you talk about it.... And then you support that by meetings every week for several months or so after, so that really it's an inspirational experience.
The mistake of the '60s, of the psychedelic era, was [to think] that the experience itself was what you need and that will do all the work. But you really have to just get inspired from it and then you have do the work yourself and then move in little steps. Maybe after a couple months you'll do another session. And then maybe after another couple months you'll do another session. But there's lot of heavy emphasis on the preparation and the integration. And then, also, you try to join people in groups so they can support each other and help each other. That's the general approach.
Q: I know you're doing a study in Spain. How has it been going?
A: It's the first scientific study of MDMA ever approved. It's going slowly [chuckles]. Slowly, slowly. We have really just very preliminary results. It looks promising, but the way the study is designed in Spain, we have to start at low doses. So we start at 50 milligrams. And then a group of women -- it's women survivors of sexual assault with PTSD [post-traumatic-stress disorder] who've failed with one other treatment. And so we have to give a group of women 50 milligrams and another group 75 and another group 100, then another group 125, and then the final group gets 150. And we think the real therapeutic dose is starting at 100. So we're a long way from really being able to get at that level, but preliminarily we're going to show safety.
Q: How do these doses work? How does it relate to what a typical kid would take at a party?
A: One pill is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 milligrams. And some pills are as much as 125 milligrams. We've found that after you get one pill, it takes about 45 minutes or so for people to really get into the experience, they plateau from like one hour to three hours, and then they start to come down. But at around two and a half, if you take half the dose that you originally took, it extends the plateau. So that's how the underground therapeutic use of MDMA is done. Somewhere like 125 milligrams first, then after two and a half hours something like 60 milligrams. And that will give you a therapeutic window of about four hours.
Q: Are you completely convinced that ecstasy isn't dangerous?
A: I'd say that I'm completely convinced that ecstasy is dangerous. The government likes to say, "The proponents of MDMA say that it's completely harmless. But it's not! Here are the risks ... " And therefore it's got to be illegal because we've got some risks. So what we're trying to say is that it's not so simple. We never said that [there are no dangers]. Nothing is completely risk-free. But the relative risk of MDMA, compared to heroin or cocaine or other drugs, is much, much lower.
Taking MDMA in a rave, dancing all night and not resting and not drinking fluids, can lead to overheating, and people can die from it. But MDMA taken in a clinical setting, where people are taking it lying down, with their eyes closed, for an inner experience, where they occasionally will drink some fluids -- nobody has ever died from overheating in a clinical study. So the context really has a lot to do with the risk.
Q: What about the charges that it affects serotonin levels, that it could permanently affect mood?
A: First of all, I believe that's vastly over-exaggerated.... I've known hundreds of people over the last 19 years that have been doing MDMA. I've known thousands of people. And I don't see it, in terms of this cognitive decline.
There's a couple things that we need to ask. First off, are there serotonin changes? And then secondly, do they matter? Now let's just look at dopamine and Parkinson's disease. You can have major declines in dopamine, and you have to have declines in the neighborhood of 90 percent before you get Parkinson's. Now, MDMA affects serotonin. Serotonin doesn't decline that much with age. One study I looked at said two and a half to four percent per decade.
So the time-bomb theory -- this is NIDA's favorite, because when you look at ecstasy users, most of them seem fine -- the time-bomb theory says that even though there may be minor changes now, when people age, this generation of young people, when they get to be 40 or 50, after 20 years of aging they're going to start manifesting problems. But that really requires serotonin to decline with age substantially, which it really doesn't. The other question is, does this really happen at human dose levels?
Q: Where does MAPS's money come from?
A: Donors and MAPS members. But I'd say that the main money actually came from this one guy who I met a month before he died of cancer in the '70s. He was interested in spirituality and believed in the value of psychedelics ... it was one of those things where the stars align and everything just works out right. We had a mutual friend, he was getting ready to die, figuring out where to put his money. I spent three days with him, and he died three days later and left half a million dollars.
Q: How does the widespread use of ecstasy as a club drug, and the popular perception of it as such, affect your work?
A: It makes it extremely difficult. Once a drug is criminalized for its non-medical use, then subsequent pressure is placed to criminalize its medical use. NIDA's message is: one drug, serious danger, be careful, don't ever try it. So the rave movement and the non-medical use has made it much more difficult. The underground therapeutic use of MDMA was going fine until it emerged from those confines into recreational use, and that's what attracted the DEA.
Q: Can you say a few words about the cover story that ran in the New York Times Magazine on January 21? It mentioned a couple of MAPS-sponsored studies, and quoted someone as saying, "[Batman] ... spends his life fixing the problems of the world. I've started to think that a real Batman of today would become a psychiatrist who dispenses ecstasy."
A: That piece was attacked by Senator Graham, I think, in the Senate hearing where they spent three hours talking about ecstasy. The article was a remarkable success. It was an unusual bleeding through of the wall of propaganda in that it was a balanced article about someone who took ecstasy 15 years ago and is reflecting on it in a positive light. That's what was attacked. He said he had a good experience with it, but we know that these drugs are dangerous and people are harmed by them!
The view of the Senate was: no matter what he said about his experience, he was wrong. It's like, "You don't know what happened to you. We have to go to some scientist to tell you that you're more seriously damaged than you realized." [It's also significant that] he had the experience 15 years ago, so if there were these long-term medical problems he hasn't seen them. We're still not at a point where we can have honest discussions. I thought that was a very courageous piece.
Q: What are your visions for the future? What would you like to see happen? What do you think will happen?
A: What I would like to see happen is that as a society we understand that we are an anomaly. That most cultures have integrated altered states and psychedelics in some fashion or another. I hope that people will slowly start to be educated more and more about the medical use of marijuana and the fact that they have been, in large part, lied to by the government about the dangers of MDMA.
At the same time, we will start to create beneficial uses of psychedelics. The two areas we're working on are post-traumatic stress and terminal cancer and end-stage AIDS -- helping people to deal with dying.
So what we're saying is that this drug is not just for your raver kids. This drug is for everybody. This is not just for the baby boomers, but it's for their parents who are now at the end of their lives and are scared of dying and are scared of pain and that we can help them. That we, meaning the psychedelic community that's learned how to work with these substances, have something to offer that our current medications don't offer. So we have to show that this is something that can be normalized, that can be integrated into society in a beneficial way.
And then we also have to have a little bit of a different understanding about risk. The head of NIDA has said that people can die from MDMA, therefore there's no such thing as the recreational use of MDMA. But people die from high-school football, people die from skiing, people die from scuba diving, mountain climbing. Dale Earnhardt died from race-car driving. We have to do our very best to do harm reduction and prevent all deaths from MDMA or any other drug. And yet we also have to say that as a society that we can't prevent all risks.
Visit the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies at www.maps.org.