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This is your brain on drugs
Rick Doblin thinks pot, ecstasy, and other psychedelics could unlock the human mind ó and he wants to bring them to Harvard, the FDA, and a doctorís office near you
BY MIKE MILIARD

FROM THE OUTSIDE, the only hint about the kind of guy who lives in the modest two-story home on the leafy Belmont side street is the houseís molding, painted orange and vibrant violet, in electric contrast with its dark-gray siding. Inside, upstairs in Rick Doblinís cluttered office, there are more clues. Gentle pink walls are bedecked with psychedelic renderings of frantically blooming trees and exploding kaleidoscopic radii. A window hung with stained glass casts lavender light on a floor strewn with clothes, file folders, and copies of High Times and Grow. A smiling Buddha statue stands on a corner bookshelf stacked with tattered tomes: Plants of the Gods and The Big Book of Buds and Everything I Know I Learned on Acid. On one wall hangs a quote from Thoreau: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." On the opposite wall is an ad for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) that declares, WHAT THEY SAY IS TRUE. MANY PEOPLE WHO SMOKE MARIJUANA MOVE ON TO HARDER THINGS. GRADUATE SCHOOL FOR EXAMPLE. Sure enough, just above it hangs a surprisingly sizable Harvard sheepskin.

Rick Doblin, PhD ó he has a doctorate in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government ó is the founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Since 1986, the membership-based nonprofit, which has offices in Sarasota, Florida, but is run largely from Doblinís home office, has been at the forefront of a movement that contends that drugs like MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin (the hallucinogen found in "magic mushrooms"), and LSD can be used to help treat everything from post-traumatic-stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The group also spends about 15 percent of its time and resources advocating for medical marijuana. As its mission statement avers, the studies designed and funded by MAPS aim to "develop psychedelics and marijuana into FDA-approved prescription medicines, and to educate the public honestly about the risks and benefits of these drugs."

After almost two decades, Doblinís work seems finally to be bringing about some substantial results. Most momentously, in February the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) granted South Carolina psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer a Schedule I license (a dispensation to obtain and possess an otherwise-prohibited drug) for MDMA so he can use it to treat post-traumatic-stress disorder in victims of violent assault. Itís the first legal use of the drug since ecstasy was criminalized, in 1985. The study, currently under way, is funded by MAPS; its protocol was developed by Doblin and Mithoefer in conjunction with other scientists.

On the medical-marijuana front, Doblin and MAPS ó along with Lyle Craker, a professor in the University of Massachusetts at Amherstís department of plants and soil sciences, and Valerie Corral, co-founder of the Wo/Menís Alliance for Medical Marijuana ó filed a lawsuit in July against the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Institutes of Health. They are accusing the government of having a monopoly on the production of medical marijuana and stalling unreasonably on UMassís application to grow the stuff.

Meanwhile, MAPS, in conjunction with Dr. John Halpern of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center at Harvard Medical Schoolís McLean Hospital, in Belmont, has asked McLeanís institutional review board for permission to conduct a study that would use MDMA to help late-stage-cancer patients deal with their fears of death. If approved, the study would face the review board of the Lahey Clinic (where the studyís subjects would come from) and then be brought before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the DEA. If it clears all those hurdles, the study could start by late 2005, making it the first psychedelic research at Harvard since the days of Timothy Leary 40 years ago.

If the results of these studies are promising, and if various government agencies are willing to receive their findings in a non-politicized way, itís conceivable that, sometime in the coming years, MDMA could become an FDA-approved prescription medicine. If so, MAPSís identity could change fundamentally, morphing from a research-and-advocacy organization to something resembling a pharmaceutical company.

Of course, not everyone agrees with MAPS. These are illegal drugs, after all, and thereís intense disagreement about the extent of their harmfulness. But although Doblin ó with his shock of unkempt hair, his animated demeanor, his fondness for dancing and therapy at trippy gatherings like Burning Man and Earthdance ó may seem less than serious to some, thereís no question that he takes the potential therapeutic value of psychedelics and marijuana very seriously. And his years of funding studies and working the system may just be changing the way psychedelics and marijuana are perceived and used.

At first, drugs were anathema to Rick Doblin. Indeed, most still are. "I still have never had a cup of coffee, Iíve never had a cigarette, Iíve never had a Coca-Cola. Iíve never had a beer. I donít drink alcohol," he says. "I felt that drugs were a dangerous escape and there was no need for it." But when he first tried LSD in the early 1970s, something clicked. "Freud said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. And I think psychedelics are even more so."

Doblin was familiar, of course, with the psychedelic studies of Timothy Leary, but he was wary of the sunny gloss Leary put on "turning on, tuning in, dropping out." Doblin suspected that psychedelics could be used in a real and substantial therapeutic way. But he knew that theyíd need to be used carefully, deliberately, and honestly. And he realized that struggle, a concerted effort to recognize and exorcise the bugaboos embedded in oneís subconscious, would be an integral part of the experience.

Doblinís first experiences with LSD led him to drop out of his undergrad studies at New College of Florida, not long after heíd started there. "I took 10 years off to kind of integrate and figure out how I could study what I want to study in the system," he says. "Then I went back to New College as a freshman in 1982, and within four days of starting school, I was out in Esalen [Institute, in Big Sur, California] studying with Stan Grof," a pioneer researcher in psychedelics and the unconscious.

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Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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